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Anglo American seeking to mine on indigenous lands in Brazil’s Amazon

  • Anglo American, one of the biggest mining companies in the world, and its two Brazilian subsidiaries have submitted nearly 300 applications to dig for gold and other minerals inside indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon, records seen by Mongabay show.
  • The most recent applications, dating from 2017 to 2019, target the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve, home to the Munduruku people, who have taken the initiative to start demarcate their territory in a bid to stave off invaders.
  • But such efforts may prove in vain as the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro pushes for legislation that would allow mining in indigenous lands.
  • Also at stake is the Renca national reserve, a massive protected area that Bolsonaro has indicated he wants reduced or stripped of its status in order to allow mining.

Mining giant Anglo American has plans to dig for copper, gold, nickel and manganese on indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon, records obtained by Mongabay show.

Anglo American, with headquarters in the U.K. and South Africa, has submitted applications alongside two of its Brazilian subsidiaries, Itamaracá and Tanagra, according to the records. This makes it harder for the applications registered with the National Mining Agency (ANM) to be directly linked to Anglo American.

The three companies submitted a combined 296 applications since the 1990s for research and availability on indigenous reserves (IRs), although about a third have since been withdrawn. They cover land in the states of Roraima, Amapá, Rondônia and in particular Pará, including areas that are home to isolated indigenous peoples such as the Yanomami in Roraima and the Kayapó and Tucumaque in Pará.

Almost all of the applications date from the 1990s, when authorities first began entertaining the idea of allowing mining on indigenous lands. The author of a bill to that effect proposed at the time was Romero Jucá, a former senator, minister and ex-president of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).

A new bill, recently forwarded by President Jair Bolsonaro to Congress, revives that push to allow mineral exploration on indigenous reserves and eliminate the veto power of indigenous peoples.

Munduruku people fix a sign during the process of self-demarcation of the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve, one of the many areas eyed for exploration by Anglo American. Image by Bárbara Dias/CIMI.

Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve in Pará is the subject of a 2019 application

The most recent applications filed by Anglo American are for copper exploration inside the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve, home to the Munduruku people, in the state of Pará. It submitted five applications from 2017 to 2019, indicating it was hopeful of the kind of deregulation now being proposed by the Bolsonaro administration.

The process of demarcating, or formalizing, the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve, located on the banks of the Tapajós River near the city of Itaituba, has been stuck in limbo since 2016. The same is true for hundreds of other indigenous lands in Brazil, where efforts at official recognition have stalled due to political pressure and lobbying from agribusiness.

In the case of Sawré, the Munduruku people of the Middle and Upper Tapajós regions began the process of self-demarcating the indigenous reservation, armed with GPS devices and aid from local leaders. At the same time, they have also had to defending the area from invaders such as loggers and prospectors. In 2016 they finally managed to publish a detailed report showing the borders of the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve, the first step in the demarcation process.

Besides prospecting, illegal logging and the interest of multinationals like Anglo American, the indigenous reserve also faces threats from the São Luís do Tapajós hydroelectric dam, whose construction is currently suspended, but which if completed would flood part of the indigenous land.

Asked about why it is seeking to mine copper inside the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve and its view of Bolsonaro’s Bill 191/2020, Anglo American declined to respond to Mongabay.

Mongabay sent a list of 10 detailed questions to Anglo American regarding the nearly 300 petitions on indigenous reserves that company has filed along with its subsidiaries, and the concerns they have raised.

In a note, Anglo American said only that it has “filed applications for mineral research in the Amazon based on available geological data. The responsible authorities will decide whether or not to grant us the authorization to conduct mineral research. Anglo American only conducts mineral research in properly authorized areas.”

It did not say whether its shareholders around the world were aware of its applications to mine in the Amazon, including on indigenous lands.

The Pariri Indigenous Association, which represents the Munduruku of the Middle Tapajós region, has consistently opposed mining in indigenous territories. “We will continue to demonstrate against any legal authorization of mining on indigenous lands and for the immediate removal of prospectors from our lands,” it said in a statement. “We will not accept any more destruction. Our rivers are polluted with mercury. Our fish are dying. We are retaking control of our territory. We have our own government which should be respected by everyone. We will not give up this fight until our problems have been solved.”

At a historic meeting of indigenous leaders in January, the Munduruku accused Bolsonaro of genocide.

“We have come to denounce the President of the Republic of Brazil, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, for committing and encouraging genocide, ethnocide and ecocide,” they said. “We are here to say that this president is killing us at increasing rates, depriving us of our rights as written in the Federal Constitution of 1988. Bolsonaro is fostering our deaths through mining, prospectors (who hire gunmen to kill us) hydroelectric dams, railroads (Ferrogrão) and the leasing of Indigenous Lands.”

Munduruku people expel invaders from the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Reserve. Image courtesy of the Munduruku people.

Applications withdrawn; land still vulnerable

The records seen by Mongabay show that, in 2015, Anglo American and its subsidiaries Tanagra and Itamaracá withdrew 111 applications to explore for gold, nickel and copper on various indigenous lands. Most of those applications were for areas inside the Trincheira Bacajá Indigenous Reserve in Pará and the Igarapé Lourdes and Sete de Setembro indigenous reserves in Rondônia.

But those areas remain available for future prospecting, under National Mining Agency rules; the same company can file a new application if it wants. “All interested parties can participate in the Availability process, even the company that has withdrawn the application, which will then participate in the Availability process on equal footing with all other applicants,” the NMA said in response to a question from Mongabay.

Anglo American confirmed to Mongabay its withdrawal of the applications in question, but did not confirm whether it intends to once again bid for the same areas.

“The company conducted a reassessment of its portfolio and withdrew all applications for areas of research on indigenous lands by 2015. Current applications for research that happen to border on indigenous lands can present blocks with interferences in these territories. In these cases, it is up to the National Mining Agency (ANM) to correctly demarcate the blocks outside of the indigenous areas or reserves,” Anglo American said.

Three applications by Itamaracá to mine for gold in indigenous reserves in Rondônia were blocked in 2018 following a public civil action. The areas under concern were in the Sete de Setembro and Zoró Indigenous Reserve and the 10-kilometer buffer zone of the Roosevelt Indigenous Reserve, home to the Cinta Larga people. In blocking the bids, the Federal Public Ministry said uncertaintly caused by the mining agency “has driven speculation on the indigenous lands of the Cinta Larga people and contributed to the perpetuation of violence against the community.” It said the conflict was “a result of the consequences of mining in these areas with the inevitable degradation of the environment and this has had devastating effects on the indigenous populations, including the siltation and contamination of rivers and streams with mercury, the transmission of diseases like tuberculosis, influenza and leprosy and the change of the community’s traditional habits.”

Map showing the mining requests in Renca. Image by ISA.

Massive Renca reserve up for grabs

Tanagra and Itamaracá submitted 27 applications to explore for gold inside the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), a vast protected area that straddles the states of Pará and Amapá, and one of the best-preserved regions in the Amazon. All the applications refer to the Rio Paru D’Este Indigenous Reserve, part of the protected area.

The petitions were blocked in 2017 after the area was opened to exploration by then-President Michel Temer, who was forced to backtrack after a major international backlash against the measure.

Since it was established in 1984, near the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the Switzerland-sized Renca has been targeted by the mining industry. Bolsonaro, a known admirer of the dictatorship’s attitude and actions toward indigenous peoples and the Amazon, has declared on numerous occasions that he intends to open up Renca to exploration.

The reserve, spanning 46,450 square kilometers (18,000 square miles), has five protected areas, two of which are indigenous reserves and three fully protected conservation units. Studies by the WWF show that around 30% of Renca can be mined for minerals including gold, iron, phosphate, titanium, manganese, niobium, phosphorus and tantalum. Mining companies may soon get the chance to do so if Bolsonaro’s bill is passed and Renca’s status as a national reserve is rescinded or its protected area reduced.

Banner image of an iron ore mine run by Anglo American in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Image courtesy of Anglo American.


This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on March 20, 2020.

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