Even the economic slowdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stemmed the tide of mining requests. More than 38,000 Indigenous people have been infected since the start of the health emergency, with 867 dead, according to the Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples (APIB). Yet throughout 2020, 145 mining applications have been recorded — the highest number in 24 years.

The lands of the Kayapó people in the state of Pará are the most affected, targeted by more than a third of applications this year.

Interest in mining on Indigenous territories has grown under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. In the two years before he took office at the start of 2019, the number of such mining requests averaged 50 per year; since then, the annual average has spiked to 117.

Bolsonaro, a former military officer, has not only encouraged this unconstitutional form of mining, but has been explicitly disparaging of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples in general, saying this past January that “Indians are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” Those remarks prompted Indigenous leaders to formally denounce the president for racism.

But the Bolsonaro administration’s push to open up Indigenous territories for mining hasn’t been limited to rhetoric. In February, the government presented legislation to Congress, Bill 191/2020, that would permit such activity. Joênia Wapichana, Brazil’s only Indigenous member of Congress, pushed back against the bill, pointing out that what it proposes is unconstitutional and threatens native peoples.

“Bill 191 practically attempts to rewrite article 176 of the Constitution — this is absurd!” she said. “It tries to restrict the exclusive and indefinite territorial use [by Indigenous peoples], guaranteed by the Constitution as a fundamental right. An approval of the bill would mean further environmental crimes and degradation that put the lives of Indigenous peoples at risk.”

For its “Mined Amazon” investigation, InfoAmazonia overlaid the location data of mining requests filed with the ANM with georeferenced data of the boundaries of Indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon. It also launched the @amazonia_minada account on Twitter, which tracks ANM processes in real time, tweeting when a new mining request is filed within any protected area of the Amazon.

Politics stoking mining interest

The Bolsonaro administration’s submission to Congress of Bill 191 triggered a surge in mining requests to the ANM. Interest has also been fueled by other developments regarding the integrity of Indigenous territories. These include a Supreme Court ruling in June that affects the demarcation of these lands, and public lobbying by both Vice President Hamilton Mourão and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles for mining in protected areas.

Similar spikes in mining requests in the past have also coincided with debates within Congress about mining inside protected areas. The highest number of requests received by the ANM in a single year was 731. That occurred in 1996, when a senator, Romero Jucá, presented a bill to legalize mining in Indigenous territories. While the Senate passed the bill, the House did not.

In 2008, when 116 applications were filed with the ANM, the third-highest annual total to date, a congressional special committee made a recommendation indicating it approved of Jucá’s bill. The recommendation was published in mid-2008; nearly two-thirds of the mining requests submitted that year were filed in the second half of the year. This bill is still pending before the House, having been updated most recently in 2019.

At the end of September this year, the Bolsonaro administration published a Mining and Development Program that identifies the objective of “promoting the regulation of mining on Indigenous land.” Wapichana, the Indigenous congresswoman, presented a draft legislative decree countering this plan.

In exceptional cases, defined as those of national interest, the 1988 Constitution requires Congress to authorize each individual application for mining on Indigenous lands, guaranteeing a democratic process rather than a bureaucratic one. But the analysis by InfoAmazonia shows this hasn’t dampened interest in these areas. Of the current 3,285 active cases on file with the ANM, 2,440, or more than three-quarters, were filed after the Constitution was adopted.

“The Constitution is quite clear when it comes to the possibility of Congress approving mining on Indigenous lands in cases of exception, which has to be in the national interest,” said Tiago Moreira dos Santos, an anthropologist with the protected areas program at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA). “But what the current government tries is to make this process the rule. This causes an increase in requests for mining on these lands and is yet another threat to these peoples already suffering under high levels of deforestation, fires and invasions. And this year they still have to face COVID-19.”

Mining applications represent a real threat to protected areas, especially in Brazil’s nine Amazonian states, where 98% of the country’s officially recognized Indigenous territories are located. It’s largely thanks to these territories that the forest there remains standing. But this may change if Bolsonaro’s plans go ahead.

Researchers at the Remote Sensing Center of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) have estimated the change could mean the devastation of an area the size of Venezuela, as well as an economic hit of $5 billion a year from the loss of ecosystem services provided by the forest — especially in terms of greenhouse gas sequestration, whose undermining would contribute to climate change.

‘Bringing confusion and unrest’

By maintaining mining applications for Indigenous territories on file, instead of outright rejecting them, the ANM is granting them a semblance of legitimacy, according to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office. A federal judge, Felipe Gontijo Lopes, echoed this in a ruling this past August in which he cancelled formal mining attempts on Indigenous lands in the Santarém region of Pará state, home to the highest number of mining applications submitted this year.

“These requests for mining research and mining itself, even if not granted, bring confusion and unrest to indigenous people, since they ‘assume’ legality of exploitation,” he wrote. “By not rejecting them, the ANM fuels undue expectations of preference, thus undermining the state’s duty to protect Indigenous communities, especially their territories.”

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office says the mining agency shouldn’t even be considering these requests in the first place — a position reflected in similar court rulings across the states of Amazonas, Roraima, Amapá and, more recently, Rondônia.

In its response to the findings from the InfoAmazonia investigation, the ANM said there are no restrictions on the mining applications that may be filed. It also said applications on Indigenous lands do not progress. “Anyone can request, but if irregularities are identified, requests will be declined,” the agency said in a statement.

But the investigation belies this, unearthing official records that show more than 80 such applications were processed, with the agency approving study permits or even exploration activity.

Funai, the Indigenous affairs agency, emphasized in a statement that any kind of mining activity on Indigenous lands is illegal. But it also said Bill 191, which would legal such activity, “should be thoroughly discussed in Congress, so that the final text addresses the needs of all segments involved.”

Banner image of federal authorities raiding an illegal gold mine in the Kayapó Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian state of Pará. Image by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.

Article translated by Claudia Horn. 

This article is part of Mined Amazon, a special project of InfoAmazonia supported by the Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund and the Pulitzer Center.

Article published by Xavier Bartaburu
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