- Data obtained via the Access to Information Act reveals that Vale has 236 applications registered with the National Mining Agency for mineral exploration in Brazil’s Amazon Basin. Many of them are applications for research, the first step to obtaining authorization for mineral exploration.
- Of the total applications, 214 are on indigenous territory, including some of the largest in Brazil, such as Trombetas/Mapuera and Munduruku reservations. The Constitution prohibits mining in such areas without sanction by Congress and after hearing from the affected communities — something Vale has not done.
- More than 90% of the requests filed are for gold mining, but there are other minerals on the list too, including nickel, tin, lead, copper, manganese, diamonds, beryllium, silver, and platinum.
- Reached for response, Vale said it had only 76 “active” applications, but declined to provide details. The company has also requested that its mining application information be sealed, effectively keeping some of these processes out of the public eye.
Everything about Vale is huge: It’s the largest mining company in Brazil and the second-largest in the world; it operates the largest iron ore mine on the planet in Carajás, in the state of Pará. And now the company has plans for mineral exploration in several indigenous territories in the Amazon.
Data obtained via the Access to Information Act reveals that Vale has 236 applications filed with the National Mining Agency to prospect mainly for gold in the Legal Amazon, the nine Brazilian states in the Amazon Basin. Many of them are applications for research, the first step to seeking authorization for exploration.
The company’s plans comprise 214 applications in 13 different indigenous territories. As established by Article 231 of the Constitution, mining in such areas can only occur if first sanctioned by Congress and after hearing from the affected communities.
The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, however, has a proposal prepared to authorize mineral exploration on indigenous territories, which is expected to be sent to Congress any day now, as confirmed by the minister of mines and energy, Bento Albuquerque.
Rodrigo Maia, the president of the Congress, has declared he would shelve mining proposals on indigenous territory. But the pressure to do otherwise is intense and longstanding, embodied by an administration that is openly anti-indigenous, whose president has declared he has “prospecting in [his] blood,” and which lobbies in favor of large corporate mining interests. The Ministry of Mines and Energy declined to respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.
Eye on the gold
Among the 236 requests filed by Vale, those that most stand out are for the Trombetas/Mapuera Indigenous Reserve, located between the states of Roraima, Amazonas and Pará, with 68 applications; the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve, located in Pará, with 52 applications; the Xicrin of the Catete River Indigenous Reserve (Pará) with 37; Kayabi (Pará) with 35; and Mengraknoti/Baú (Mato Grosso/Pará) with 26.
More than 90% of the requests refer to the solicitation and authorization for research and the application and concession for mining to prospect for gold. But there are other minerals on the list too, including nickel, tin, lead, copper, manganese, diamonds, beryllium, silver, and platinum.
In an interview, Edinho Souza, vice coordinator of the Indigenous Council of Roraima, said he was not aware of Vale’s interest in the Trombetas Indigenous Reserve, but that the indigenous peoples’ position to deny any mineral exploration is categorical.
“In terms of the indigenous movement, we have no interest in mining on indigenous lands. For us, this is a foretold tragedy. It will directly affect our lives with an extremely large environmental impact. We view this as a total disaster. There isn’t the slightest interest in even discussing the idea of regulation,” he said.
Souza also pushed back against Vale’s record and recalled that the Bolsonaro administration often sought to co-opt indigenous individuals who do not hold positions of representation within indigenous communities.
“We’re aware of Vale’s track record and that of the administration itself with this caucus giving carte blanche to a company that is criminal, considering what happened in Mariana and Brumadinho,” he said. “With this incentive from the government, we’re now seeing a growing wave of violence, of raids, of prospectors who believe they can prospect in any part of the state. Sometimes Bolsonaro even uses an indigenous relative of his to claim that we’re in favor of the prospecting.
“Remember: this is not the position of the indigenous peoples as a movement.” Souza added.
In a press conference in Brasília, attended by 50 indigenous Munduruku leaders, Maria Leusa Munduruku also contested the political use of some indigenous individuals and mining in indigenous territories.
“We’re against mining and every sort of enterprising in our territory. The government occasionally uses an indigenous person, saying that they represent our people. This is not true. The government picks false leaders. We do not accept this sort of thing nor will we ever accept it,” she said.
The Munduruku people have also said they are aware of Vale’s mining applications that target their territory in the Tapajós in Pará, and that in a meeting with representatives from the Federal Public Ministry, they requested the cancellation of these applications.
Brazilians oppose mining on indigenous territory
On Nov. 28 last year, the Federal Public Ministry announced it had filed eight actions with urgent requests for the Federal Court to cancel mining processes targeting 48 indigenous territories in Pará. It also requested that the National Mining Agency dismiss all current processes in these areas and any others that should come before the legal requirements for the authorization of the activity are fulfilled.
There is precedent for such a move. In September, the Federal Court granted a preliminary injunction from the Federal Public Ministry of the state of Amazonas and canceled 1,072 applications (or 96% of the total) related to research or mining concessions on indigenous territory in Amazonas.
A 2019 Datafolha survey showed that 86% of Brazilians oppose mining on indigenous territory. The level of disapproval is at least 80% among respondents of all geographic regions, education levels, ages and income brackets.
When contacted by Mongabay, Vale said the number of applications it has filed was different from the amount reported by the National Mining Agency. According to the company, it has 76 “active” applications. When asked to provide details on these 76 applications, Vale declined to comment.
In a written statement, it said: “Vale reports that it currently has 76 ‘active’ mining processes in the National Mining Agency’s system of processes whose areas interfere entirely or partially with indigenous lands. The company clarifies, nonetheless, that ‘active’ status refers exclusively to the situation of these processes with the agency and does not mean that any research or mining activities are taking place in these areas.
“Lastly, Vale emphasizes that we strictly adhere to the legislation that governs the use of mineral resources in the country and, therefore, does nor conduct research or mining activity of any nature on indigenous lands.”
Vale requested secrecy regarding their operations
Vale is indeed unable to undertake any mining and research activities on indigenous territory because this practice is not yet sanctioned in Brazil. But it is not just the high probability that this scenario will change at any given moment that could open a window for Vale and other companies to proceed with their plans.
Data obtained by Mongabay reveals that Vale requested that the NMA seal mining information in April of 2019 in three of their applications, two referring to nickel in the Xikrin Indigenous Reserve on the Catete River and one concerning tin in the Apyterewa Indigenous Reserve. This is one resource that mining companies can employ based on an NMA resolution from 2019.
The agency told Mongabay: “In view of NMA Resolution No. 1 from 2019, companies may request that the mining process be sealed, but this does not mean that the request to seal was analyzed and granted by the NMA, only that the company made this request.”
In other words, Vale has officially taken action to prevent information on these processes from being made public.
The case of the Apyterewa Indigenous Reserve is especially striking. The territory, spanning 773,000 hectares (almost 2 million acres) near Carajás and within the Belo Monte Dam’s area of influence, has for some time suffered from deforestation, illicit activities, and the region’s lack of oversight. In 2018 and 2019, Apyterewa was the second most deforested indigenous reserve in Brazil.
Data from the NMA documents moves by Vale to mine for silver in the Apyterewa Indigenous Reserve in 2019. First, “RESEARCH AUTHORIZATION/REPORT PARTIAL RESEARCH PRESENTED ON 03/26/2019”. Then, “RESEARCH AUTHORIZATION/PAYMENT OF ANNUAL TAX PER HECTARE EFFECTED ON 07/31/2019.”
In its response, the NMA said this “means that the company registered the partial research report, but the NMA will not comment on this Report, bearing in mind that it is a process for mining on indigenous land and we will not analyze such a document in consideration of its nature.”
In practice, these processes have advanced.
It is also telling that dozens of Vale’s requests contain the information that the area was unblocked by court order on Sept. 19, 2018. The NMA communicated in writing that this clearly does not constitute an authorization of mineral exploration, because this is not possible at the moment, but that some unblocking measure had taken place.
Meanwhile, Vale said that “there is no practical implication for Vale, insofar as the information on blocking/unblocking is in no way related to any possible interventions in indigenous territories and does not authorize or disallow any research or mining activity to be executed in such areas.”
In short, the dispute continues.
It is also glaring that 214 of Vale’s 237 applications targeting indigenous territories (one is located in Bahia state, outside the Amazon Basin, unlike the other 236) were filed in 1995, 1996 and 1997, specifically in the years immediately preceding the privatization of the company. Vale was formally privatized in May of 1997. Officially, Vale has been mining for gold in the same region of Carajás for decades.
Again questioned about their actions registered by the NMA, the company reported that “the 76 active processes comprise the total volume reported by the NMA, whose list reflects both ‘Active’ processes as well as ‘Inactive’ ones. ‘Inactive’ titles are understood as those that were previously renounced, withdrawn and transferred to other title holders, and those which the agency has yet to register.”
Increased pressure in Brasília
“I receive them and I shelve them. I receive them and I shelve them. We can’t use the argument that illegal mining is taking place to authorize it,” Rodrigo Maia, the president of the lower house of Congress, said of the Bolsonaro administration’s plans to allow mining on indigenous territory. “We’re going to stop illegal mining, illegal prospecting. To hinder illicit acts. First, the government fulfills its oversight role, to hinder the illegal deforestation, the prospecting. After this, we’re going to debate the conditions in which we can move forward.”
Still, the record shows that Bolsonaro’s government has been at work since it came to power a year ago to formulate the plans, speed up internal procedures, override the stipulation of prior consultation with indigenous peoples as required by the Constitution, and get the plans approved.
Bento Albuquerque, the minister of mines, dedicated his first few weeks in office meeting with mining companies and lobbyists. In March, he focused on literally selling the possibility of prospecting on indigenous territory at the mining industry’s biggest event, held in Canada. The government has been pushing the issue so strongly that, for the first time, Brazil even acted as a sponsor at the event, effectively a negotiating table open to the world’s biggest miners.
Given this relentless pressuer, it appears unlikely that Maia will keep his word. And even if he does, there is no guarantee the government will stop maneuvering to bring its plans to fruition.
While the practical and legal issues play out in Brasília, indigenous peoples are already experiencing the impacts of illegal prospecting firsthand. In a recent interview, Ailton Krenak, one of the most important indigenous leaders in the history of Brazil, offered a definitive analysis of the situation:
“Regardless of the regulation of that principle included in the Constitution, the fact is that the Amazon is being plundered, invaded and destroyed and that these corrupt governments are lobbying all over the world to bring in multinational corporations to occupy the Amazon. This is the issue.
“The dispute that we have today is not limited to a procedure to regulate any constitutional precept. While they pretend that they are respecting the legal issue, prospecting and the invasion of indigenous territories is a fact. Congress can keep on debating for another 10 years, by the time the discussion’s over, all the indigenous reserves will have been invaded. This is the real issue. In this fantasy island that is Brasília, where everything is make-believe, there’s nothing going on.
“When this irresponsible man [Bolsonaro] makes one of his irresponsible statements, he lets loose some 10,000, 30,000 prospectors in an indigenous territory. He’s leading an army of zombies that go wherever he sends them. People who don’t know how to read what’s in the Constitution.”