A transnational Goliath faces off with the ribeirinhos

The story began nine years earlier in 2000, when Alcoa took over Reynolds Metals, gaining the mining rights to one of the world’s largest bauxite reserves totaling 700 million tons, located on the Amazon River’s south bank at Juruti.

At first, it seemed the company would be sympathetic to the needs and requests of local communities. In 2002 Alcoa published a “sustainability report” to guide its future actions. It stated:

Partnerships are critical for us; we know that sustainability can’t be achieved by any organization in isolation. We continue to engage with and involve supporters and opponents within communities where we have a presence and jointly refine our ability to work together to achieve balance among economic, social, and environmental outcomes.

Alcoa, a leading global producer of bauxite, alumina and aluminium, had recently faced charges of environmental negligence in the U.S., and paid out millions of dollars in compensation for impacts caused by its activities.

“In this context, a sustainable project in the interior of Amazônia could become a fantastic showcase for disseminating a [positive] image of a company concerned with the environment and the wellbeing of the population,” explains Lindomar de Souza, a researcher who has studied community resistance to the Alcoca mine.

According to Souza, the company believed that starting on the right foot with remote Amazon traditional communities could help the company grow its consumer market, mainly in Europe and the U.S., where socio-environmental concerns were growing stronger at the time.

Alcoa’s Juruti Sustainable Project, with its promise of jobs, urban improvements and environmentally responsible behavior, was at first popular with many local inhabitants.

“The mining company arrived with two very pretty words: ‘development’ and ‘progress.’ About 90% of the people in the municipality, the state government and the federal government were very enthusiastic, but we knew straightaway that this kind of development wasn’t for us,” remembers Pereira.

The ore-rich area Alcoa planned to mine lay about 27 miles from the seat of the municipality, on the banks of the Juruti Velho Lake. It was occupied by dozens of communities, like Juriti Velho, inhabited by descendants of Munduruku and Muirapinima Indians, who’d been living there for centuries and had intermarried with other traditional people who arrived later. Today, local residents all think of themselves as ribeirinhos (riverine settlers). These were the people Pereira was destined to represent.

In 2004, four years after Alcoa’s arrival, Pereira became president of the Association of Communities in the Juruti Velho Region (ACORJUVE). The organization’s sole purpose: organize the people to oppose the mine.

But the people in ACORJUVE were a tiny minority then. The first public meeting addressing the mine in 2005, before the company broke ground, attracted 5,000 residents, with only the 200 or so from Juruti Velho opposed to the mine.

“The mining company promised 5,000 direct and indirect jobs for Juruti people, and I said that these jobs would only be ours if the bauxite was dug out with a shovel and carried away in paniers [baskets], because this was the kind of thing we could do,” Pereira remembers.

At first, the 44 communities united in ACORJUVE wanted to stop the mine outright. “We had seen the [negative] social and environmental impacts of mining in Oriximiná [a neighbouring municipality where the big company, Mineração Rio do Norte, had been mining bauxite since 1979]. And when, invited by Alcoa, I visited their sustainable projects in São Luís in Maranhão [state], and in Poços de Caldas in Minas Gerais [state], I saw the shantytowns around the mine,” he recalls.

Gleice Coelho, a mother of five children and a teacher in Juruti Velho, explains further: “We weren’t against progress, as the [company] alleged, but we wanted to guarantee our way of life, and that of our children and future generations.”

‘Theirs by right’: Resistance and political awareness

Since the 1970s, well before Alcoa’s arrival, the ribeirinhos, encouraged by the Catholic nuns, had mobilized to defend their territory against illegal logging as described in Lindomar de Souza’s doctoral thesis.

One local woman told him about an act of resistance in 1999: “We gathered in boats and canoes and slept on the beach, waiting for barges laden with tons of [illegally harvested] rosewood on their way to Parintins port in Amazonas state. As soon as they arrived, we jumped onto the barges and forced the pilot and the laborers to unload the timber.”

That bold action was coordinated by nuns of the Franciscan Sisters of Maristella. One of them, Sister Brunhilde, played a key role then, increasing the political awareness of the ribeirinhos.

Born in 1940 in the German city of Würzburg, Brunhilde witnessed the horrors of the Second World War, including very heavy British bombing, and the war’s aftermath — all particularly appalling where she lived. “About 95% of the city was destroyed,” she told the Museu da Pessoa, a virtual archive of personal testimonies in Rio de Janeiro.

From a very young age, Brunhilde knew she wanted to be a nun and work abroad. After two years training in Recife in northeast Brazil, where she was introduced to the revolutionary ideas of educator, Paulo Freire, she arrived in Juruti Velho in 1969.

There she developed a literacy project, based on Freire’s teachings and held regular community discussion groups. “She was the person who encouraged us to learn about our [community land] rights and defend them,” recalls Coelho.

Sister Brunhilde was seriously ill when the Mongabay team visited Juruti Velho in February 2020, and died a short time later. But her legend and legacy lives on.

She believed that over the years the mentality of the riberinhos shifted. In her interview with the Museu da Pessoa, Sister Brunhilde held that “The people understood that rights didn’t mean being given presents, being given anything, but feeling confident about demanding what was theirs by right.”

Children in the ribeirinho village of Muirapinima. Image by Thaís Borges.

A change of strategy

It seemed ACORJUVE faced near-impossible odds of success, given its lack of support in the town of Juruti along with the power of the government.

In 2006, Alcoa was authorized to press ahead with the mine and start work at the site. That’s when the desperate association decided it had no option but to stop trying to halt the mine and to negotiate with the transnational firm. ACORJUVE told the company it would give the mine the go-head on three conditions: that Alcoa pay the community rent for occupying its land, pay compensation for losses and damage, and give locals a share each year in the mine’s net profits.

By then, ACORJUVE was dealing from a stronger position, having gained legal recognition in principle of the community’s territorial rights. In 2005, the government’s land reform agency, INCRA, had created the Juriti Velho Agroextractivist Settlement — a designation that guaranteed the traditional communities the right to occupy the land they were living on and not to be evicted.

But, and this was crucial for Alcoa, there was a catch: the INCRA designation didn’t give local families a land title, which gave the company legal maneuvering room.

Pereira was outraged: “The mining company said it couldn’t pay us because we didn’t own the land. We didn’t have the right bit of paper!”

Alcoa’s general manager in Juruti, Gênesis Costa (right), is an enthusiast of the company’s social and environmental practices: “Alcoa is going to replant five trees for each one that was felled!” he says. Image by Thaís Borges.

Alcoa’s Costa gives this alternative explanation: The company “could only [legally] give resources to official, publicly recognized bodies and, at the time, the Juruti Velho region hadn’t got this kind of recognition from INCRA.”

ACORJUVE put pressure on INCRA to sort things out but got nowhere. In late 2008, “Someone from the Public Ministry told us that Alcoa had got its operational license [the last authorization it needed before mining] and there was nothing we could do to stop it,” says Pereira.

“It was a sad day for us but also a turning point,” he remembers.

At a packed public meeting the association decided on a final desperate strategy: occupy Alcoa’s base in Juruti.

And so it was that in January 2009, community activists occupied the road into the company’s regional headquarters and railway. “We managed to bring together [all kinds of different people there] — Catholics, Evangelicals, petistas [supporters of the PT, the then governing Workers’ Party], politicians from other parties, and so on,” recalls Pereira.

Still, many people judged the action as rash: “Even our brothers [supporters] said we were mad, that the company was too powerful, and the police would kill us,” said Pereira.

There were threats of retaliation. Sister Nilma, who worked at a public health post, told how she was threatened with firing if she joined the community movement. She took her place on the picket line anyway.

With the state capital a 3-day journey away by boat from Juruti Velho, it seemed the desperate action would garner little attention.

The persistent and collective work of ants: A metaphor for the activism and organization of Juruti Velho riverside communities, which resulted in their achieving land rights in the face of ALOA’s vast economic power. Image by Thaís Borges.

An unprecedented victory

“We set up our tents and resisted for nine days and nine nights,” remembers Coelho. The protesters grew scared when the police attacked, but spirits stayed high.

“People wrote poems, put on plays, made up songs about our struggle. This gave us strength to put up with the rain and the hunger,” recalls Sister Nilma.

Just as ACORJUVE had hoped, this resistance worked far more effectively than the years of patient attempts at negotiation.

Eventually, Franklin Feder, Alcoa’s Regional CEO for Latin America & the Caribbean, arrived on the scene. “He asked us bluntly how much money we wanted to allow mining on our land,” remembers Pereira. The activists told him money alone wouldn’t solve their problems — that their basic demand was for official recognition of their community land rights.

Victory came as a sudden total surprise. For the first time ever, on 30 August 2009, seven months after the occupation, and two weeks before Alcoa’s mine was opened, INCRA issued a collective land title to a traditional ribeirinho community.

In a contract signed with the government agency, ACORJUVE won surface land rights for more than 100,000 hectares (386 square miles), which allowed it to demand compensation from Alcoa for the mine being opened in its subsoil. The association then ceded Alcoa the mining rights to 18,000 hectares (69 square miles), in exchange for payment of a kind of royalty, equivalent to 1.5% of the mine’s net profits.

Teacher Gleice Coelho was one of the leaders in the struggle against the mining company: “Our history needs to be told to encourage other traditional peoples of the Amazon to fight against expropriation.” Image by Thaís Borges.

Alcoa also granted the association’s other demands: The public ministry mediated negotiations between Alcoa and ACORJUVE, and together the opponents reached agreement on an assessment of community losses suffered. “We made a fabulous evaluation, identifying harm in the soil and the creeks, and losses in timber and non-timber products,” recalls Prosecutor Lilian Braga.

That agreement had repercussions far beyond Juruti and across the Brazilian Amazon, according to Lindomar de Souza, and was the culmination “of an age-old struggle of traditional communities in Amazônia to combat the corporativist [private] interests of large corporations and state sectors.”

The resistance of the ribeirinhos became an inspiration for others. Just one example: When Alcoa arrived in the neighboring municipality of Santarém, families living in the Agroextractivist Settlement of Lago Grande organized to demand their collective land rights. They turned down the company’s offer of support for schools and local associations and demanded to be consulted, as is their right, according to the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which Brazil has signed.

Living and mining in Juruti today

More than ten years on, Alcoa has reformed its corporate image and ways, earning an enviable collection of sustainability certificates along with a reputation for dialogue with local communities.

In 2019, the company extracted seven million tons of bauxite from its Capiranga mine in Juruti Velho. Over 80% of that tonnage went to its smelter in São Luís do Maranhão, where it was transformed into alumina. Currently, Alcoa’s Juruti operation employs 2,056 employees, of whom 81% were born in Pará state, though only 39% come from Juruti itself.

Importantly, at least a third of the municipality’s urban population seems happy with the “positive agenda” implemented by the mining company. “We’ve invested R$73 million (US$14 million) in Juruti in installations like the hospital, which seems set to become an [example] for the region,” explains Alcoa’s Costa.

Since October 2009, Alcoa has paid out RS$60 million (US$12 million) to ACORJUVE — its share in the mine’s annual net profits. “Half of this is invested in collective projects and the other half is divided every three months between the 2,882 families affiliated with the association,” Pereira told Mongabay.

But there remains one outstanding issue: According to Pereira, Alcoa has yet to pay R$20 million (US$4 million) in compensation for losses, fulfilling the last of the association’s demands. To resolve the issue, the Public Ministry recommends the creation of a new foundation, operated jointly by Alcoa and ACORJUVE, that will receive the money and administer it. Alcoa says it’s ready to make the payment and is just waiting for the creation of the foundation.

But Pereira is not happy with this arrangement and resists it. He believes shared administration with Alcoa will weaken ACORJUVE’s autonomy.

That’s one reason why many of his old comrades are dissatisfied with the way ACORJUVE is now run. “Resources that should be used to carry out long-term development projects for the community are being squandered on short-term, one-off pay-outs,” explains Coelho. She and the Catholic nuns think that the creation of a foundation now would ensure that the money is used in beneficial long-term community projects.

Lessons from the 2009 occupation

Coelho remembers with fond emotion the past days of struggle. For her, the fight with Alcoa echoes the 1835 Cabanagem — the first insurgency organized by Indigenous people and Afro Brazilians (then slaves) in Grão Pará state, as the region was called under Portuguese rule.

“We tapped into the cabano that exists inside all of us!” she declared of the struggle led by ACORJUVE. “We still have this warrior blood inherited from our ancestors, this desire to defend our Amazonian way of life.”

But Coelho also recognizes that yesterday’s victories are deeply threatened by today’s changed and challenging political landscape. “We benefited [then] from the fact that all three levels of government — municipal, state and federal — were in the hands of the Workers’ Party, the PT,” she explains. That “created a political context in which there was space for negotiation.”

Today, under the Jair Bolsonaro administration, this spirit of government compromise is missing, say the activists. The president, for example, continues to lobby hard for a law that will open conserved lands and Indigenous territories to mining — without consultation or negotiation.

Accompanied by Coelho, the Mongabay team at the end of its stay, walked along the white sand beaches in Juruti Velho to catch the boat back to Juruti town. On the way, Coelho spotted an older resident pushing a tricycle loaded with full plastic bags and commented: “One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is that man, who used to earn his living by collecting Brazil nuts in the forest — putting them into a basket he’d woven from lianas — [but now] walking the streets of Juruti Velho and picking up empty beer cans and stuffing them into a plastic bag. All to earn a bit of money.

“It’s a sad irony,” she added, “but the cans are made from the very metal that the company digs out from under the land that used to be covered with Brazil nut trees.”

Changing livelihoods: A man gathers aluminum cans and other refuse, in a community where he once harvested rainforest products. Image by Thaís Borges. Image by Thaís Borges.

Still, even though it couldn’t stop the mine, ACORJUVE is seen today by many as having won its David and Goliath struggle with Alcoa: ribeirinho families remained on their land and they gained significant financial compensation.

Likewise, since August 2009, communities across the Brazilian Amazon, following Juruti’s example, have conducted desperate land rights and environmental campaigns — with varying levels of success and failure — against the giants of the mining industry and of agribusiness, and with the backers of mega-infrastructure projects, including new roads, railways, dams and transmission lines.

But in Juruti, the ribeirinhos’ traditional way of life and the rainforest they depended upon did not win. The turbulent winds of change brought by Alcoa in 2000 changed those ancestral communities beyond recognition. Today, big Amazon projects, even those carried out with a degree of social and environmental responsibility, continue to transform forever the life of the Amazon’s people.

Maria Luiza Camargo contributed to this article.

Banner image: A young ribeirinho boy enjoys a moment of happiness. Image by Thaís Borges.

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