- Brazil Iron’s mining operations in Bahia state have silted up springs and spread toxic dust across coffee and sugarcane fields belonging to traditional communities.
- The coffee beans grown in Piatã municipality have won prestigious international awards, while the cachaça sugarcane liquor made in neighboring Abaíra municipality has earned a designation of origin seal because of its exceptional quality.
- But now both coffee growing and cachaça making — sources of cultural and economic importance in the region — are under threat from the contamination of fields and water sources.
- Brazil Iron’s activities in the region were shut down in April because of a string of violations; a monitoring committee that the company subsequently set up, composed of community representatives, is a token gesture that won’t allow them to voice their complaints, residents say.
Walk up to the cross on the highest peak in the Santana mountains near the city of Piatã in the Brazilian state of Bahia, and you’ll actually be able to look down at the low clouds surrounding the city in the foothills below. But since 2019, the clouds haven’t been brought on just by the chilly climate of Bahia’s highest municipality, which sits on the Chapada Diamantina plateau. Today, the haze is also composed of clouds of dust, hovering in the air as a result of blasting at the Mocó iron ore mine.
“In the beginning, the noise from trucks and the dust were what most bothered us,” says Gemilson Bebiano, a resident of the quilombo, or Afro-Brazilian settlement, of Bocaina on the outskirts of Piatã.
“We’d look up to the hills and it looked like it was raining,” adds Bebiano, who works as a distiller of cachaça, the traditional Brazilian sugarcane liquor. “It looked just like drizzle coming down.”
The mine is operated by Brazil Iron, a subsidiary of U.K.-based holding company Brazil Iron Trading Limited. The company has gone by several different names since acquiring mining rights in the Chapada Diamantina in 2011, but has always been engaged in prospecting and mining in the region, mostly in the municipalities of Piatã, Abaíra and Jussiape.
Brazil Iron’s mineral activities have silted up and polluted the source of the Bebedouro River, which is the main supply of freshwater for the Bocaina quilombo. Also at risk are at least two other springs in Abaíra, where exploration activities for future mining is currently underway. The company’s growing presence has become a concern to coffee and cachaça producers in the region because of the impacts that it brings.
A coffee town where coffee farmers don’t come first
Valdeci Souza Silva, who has lived in Bocaina for 60 years, saw her parents grow coffee and make cachaça their whole lives. She and her husband have done the same, but have since 2017 been afraid to take their product to the market in town to sell. That was the year Valdeci’s husband, Sebastião, was hit by a mining truck and had to be hospitalized for 10 days in the Bahia state capital, Salvador.
“We had no help, but thank God he came home alright,” Valdeci says. Standing in her backyard looking at the hills in the distance, she says she can estimate how much mining is going on by the iron ore dust that surrounds her house. “It’s not normal red dust. This dust is black. The more they are working there, the more dust we get here. During the dry season, the combination of ore dust and hot sun smothers the coffee trees. They can’t bear any fruit.”
After a sigh and a pause to take a sip of coffee, Valdeci goes on: “We know we don’t own what’s under the ground. But what’s on top, where they have to dig down, people own it. Pretty soon, they’ll take everything and we’ll have to leave because it’s impossible to live here. Where there’s ore, they knock down the houses and continue with their mining.”
Walking around Bocaina, we meet other people who tell of cracks developing in the walls of their homes because by the blasting at the mine, and of troubles they have both breathing and sleeping because of the constant activity at Brazil Iron.
Piatã is known internationally for the high-quality coffee produced here. Its beans are always present at the Cup of Excellence — Pulped Naturals, the international annual prize spotlighting the world’s best coffee harvests. Piatã beans placed first in 2009, 2014 and 2015.
But it hasn’t always been like this. For many years, fast harvest turnaround and volume were prioritized over quality. Leading brands drove the market during those years, which was the era of commodity coffee. But in the first decade of this century, Piatã decided to invest in production of specialty coffees, which can sell for as much as 2,500 reais ($480) a bag, much higher than the non-specialty varieties that sold for an average of 1,200 reais ($230) a bag in 2021.
Specialty coffees require special care, beginning with proper natural fertilization of the soil all the way through delivery to the final consumer, says Aneilson Souza Santos. “Specialty coffee cherries must be picked ripe off the bush, sun-dried on the terrace with removal every half hour, stored carefully, processed with selection of beans, and, finally, roasted and ground,” he says.
The way small farmers grow coffee reflects their way of living — in balance with nature and with respect for nature’s cycles. “I am the son of coffee farmers, born under a coffee tree,” Santos says. At one point in his life he left to live in São Paulo, but came back home to work his family’s land and went on to create his own brand of coffee, Café Aroma da Chapada. Today, he cultivates more than 20,000 coffee trees on his farm.
Today, more than 60 local coffee farmers have formed a cooperative, called Coopiatã, which supplies a number of local brands. The co-op reported production of 2,500 bags of coffee in 2021. Farmers say the real number is much higher because not all coffee is sold through the cooperative.
Co-op member Lucinéia de Oliveira makes a point of involving her entire family in the coffee production. Her children help pick the cherries when they come home from school. “We are a close family that wants to create a success story together,” she says. She also has a vegetable garden in her backyard so her family can eat pesticide-free fresh produce.
“The chemicals don’t just stay inside the farms where they are used. They will affect many people in the surrounding area,” Oliveira says. “It’s just like mining: it will harm the coffee, the people and the water. I am against them mining here. I take care of nature in our town, the springs and everything that surrounds us.
Mining could ruin it all. And our children deserve a healthy future free of chemicals, as natural as possible.
Springwater to make cachaça is contaminated
The town of Abaíra is known in Brazil for its cachaça. So much so that the municipality, which neighbors Piatã, was awarded a designation of origin seal because of the exceptional quality of the liquor produced in local stills. This quality has for years been due to the region’s ideal climatic and soil conditions — the so-called terroir.
But the freshwater springs used to make Abaíra cachaça, and which also supply water to hundreds of local families, are now at risk of being contaminated because of field studies commissioned by Brazil Iron and being carried out by a third party, GeoAgro, in the rural São José area of the municipality.
“We have about 14 springs in the region, within a 15-kilometer [9-mile] radius,” says José Gomes Novais, a cachaça distiller for more than 50 years. “The Fernandes spring supplies 40% of the water consumed in the municipality and by 71 families in the villages of São José, Ponte and Várzea Grande. The second spring, Samambaia, supplies water to Brejo, which is home to more than 200 families.”
Novais says it’s the water that “makes the cachaça so good, because it comes out of the ground that way. Mother Nature gave us this water and no one has the right to take it away.”
The exploration activity underway in the São José region involves drilling cores and using oil near the springs, which risks contamination of the groundwater. “All it has to do is rain and the water will be contaminated by the oil they leave around here,” Novais says, adding he’s worried about imminent contamination of the Fernandes spring by oil. If the region is identified as a prime site for mining, the damage could be even greater. “If our groundwater is contaminated, the [cachaça] mills in the region will have to shut down. And if they are shut down, what will happen? The whole region will lose its income.”
According to the local cachaça distillers’ cooperative, Coopama, there are more than 800 stills in the region, which produce a combined 3 million liters (793,000 gallons) of the liquor every year, valued at 10 million reais ($1.9 million) to the local economy.
“If mining starts up near the springs in Fernandes, or Samambaia or Coqueiros, it will be chaos for the people who live here,” says Coopama president Evaristo Carneiro says. Besides the cachaça production, Carneiro says the water is important for human and animal consumption, and for use in local farming.
Novais says he’s concerned that what happened in Bocaina will repeat in São José. In the former, the community’s main water well has become contaminated and silted up because of the nearby iron mine. High levels of heavy metals like lead and manganese have been found in the water, according to a study by researchers Ricardo Fraga Pereira and Caren Souza from Bahia Federal University on the quality of the groundwater in the communities of Bocaina and Mocó. Not only is Brazil Iron’s dust killing the coffee trees, but the water that the people living there have to drink is also being affected by the mining.
Catarina Silva, a native of Bocaina, had many plans for her land: earlier generations of her family grew coffee and vegetables, but Silva was investing in a fish pond and had taken out a bank loan to get her fish farming business up and running. When Brazil Iron intensified its mining activity in the region in 2018, she saw her dream melt away. The dust clouds smothered the coffee, corn and vegetable fields, making it impossible to harvest them, and the contaminated mud running down the hillside mixed with tailings every time it rained ended up silting up the small pond where she’d planned to raise her fish.
“I cried, because I knew it was a sign of more to come,” Silva says. “Without vegetables, I had to keep fewer chickens. Because of that, we didn’t have as much chicken or eggs to eat. There was no way to develop a project we’d dreamt so much of like fish farming, coffee, fruits and organic grains, which we were planning to use to bring the family financial independence.” Silva also had to sell the few head of cattle she had to pay back the bank loans she had taken out for the fish farm.
Like Catarina Silva, more than 150 families in the region have been affected by the heavy metal contamination and silting in the spring at the head of the Bebedouro River, whose name translates into “drinking fountain.” Maria Helena Carvalho, who lives in Bocaina, says the river got its name because it never dried up, and that it supplied water to many families throughout the dry season when other springs would run dry.
“But that’s all over now,” Carvalho says. “No one can drink from it anymore, no one can cook with it, no one can use it for anything. Everything [we] planted to eat is contaminated. Now the people have lost their money, lost their jobs and the water is there, and useless. There’s water, but it can’t be used.”
Brazil Iron has submitted 25 applications for mineral prospecting with the National Mining Agency (ANM), all of them in the Chapada Diamantina region. It has been approved to extract up to 600,000 metric tons of iron ore per year during its prospecting phase.
Activities at the Mocó mine were interrupted on April 26 by the Bahia State Environmental and Water Resources Institute (INEMA), which cited a number of violations including killing vegetation, failure to comply with rules, and implantation and execution of unauthorized activities and structures. The company is estimating daily losses of 200,000 reais (nearly $39,000) due to the shutdown and is trying to get activities up and running as soon as possible.
Following INEMA’s temporary shutdown, Brazil Iron decided to create an “undertaking accompaniment commission,” or CAE in Portuguese, a group composed of community representatives and organizations to monitor the impacts of the mining activity together with the company.
But the Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining (MAM), which is critical of Brazil Iron’s operations, says the outreach to community groups is just a token gesture.
“Nothing more than a requirement made by INEMA after the company’s activities were interrupted, creation of the CAE was required of them and the company only did it to get around the shutdown and be able to start up again and generate impacts without the slightest respect for the community,” MAM said in a statement on its website.
The CAE was created on May 18 in a meeting at the Bocaina Municipal School. The company presented models for gardening and sustainable development, including a project for growing vegetables inside used tires. According to the company, the vegetables will be donated to the Piatã retirement home. When asked about the contamination of local springs and possible concrete actions for remediation, the topic was avoided.
“Every time we addressed an issue, the company tried to shut us up by saying that it was not the space for that type of question because it wasn’t a public hearing,” says a member of the community group SOS Bocaina and Mocó, who asked not to be identified.
After a few awkward minutes, the meeting was called to a close and the CAE was officially created.
When they realized they would not be heard, nor their questions answered, the neighborhood associations of Bocaina, Sítio dos Pereiras, Mutuca, Carrapicho and Capão decided not to be a part of the CAE. The Rio de Contas Basin Committee and the Coopama have still not confirmed if they will participate.
When contacted by Mongabay, Brazil Iron responded that it preferred not to make a statement to us.
Banner image: A home in the village of Mocó with the Brazil Iron mine in the background. Image by Rodrigo Wanderley.