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Bauxite mining in Pará poisons Quilombola people

  • Since Brazil’s military dictatorship, the town of Barcarena, in Pará state, has been home to an industrial complex that comprises several mining companies — the largest of which is Norway-based Norsk Hydro.
  • However, the area is Quilombola territory, and documents and archaeological research confirm the ancient presence of traditional communities.
  • In addition to the struggle for land, the Quilombola have also been suffering from contamination of water, soil and air by heavy metals dumped by mining companies.
  • Laboratory analyses found high levels of lead and nickel in residents’ hair, and they report symptoms ranging from itching and sores all over their bodies to cases of cancer.

Barcarena – a traditional Quilombola territory in Pará – saw little of the development promised when the industrial complex was established with several mining enterprises — especially Imerys and Albras Alunorte, a Norwegian company currently known as Norsk Hydro.

This was in 1979, when the federal government — then a military dictatorship — created the Barcarena Development Company (CODEBAR), in charge of implementing the industrial complex. Soon, the territory underwent changes so companies could operate according to the demands of a market driven by a government that was in a hurry to turn the Amazon into an asset that would only benefit mining companies and their projects — which were harmful to the environment and life.

Environmental accidents have been happening for years in Barcarena, and highly toxic bauxite tailings were dumped into the Murucupi and Pará rivers in 2009, 2014 and 2018. The latest episode led to a Parliamentary Inquire Committee that eventually made several recommendations to the Federal Prosecution Service, in addition to charges of environmental crimes. Despite evidence provided by scholars and the population affected, Norsk Hydro has categorically denied any involvement.

Industrial facilities of mining company Norsk Hydro in Barcarena. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.

Before the creation of CODEBAR, the area where the municipality is located used to be Quilombola territory. The oldest document confirming land tenure dates from 1986. It says that the Pará Land Institute holds the rights over the land through acquirer Manoel Joaquim dos Santos, a predecessor of the main Quilombola leaders who now struggle for the right to exist in the territory.

One of them is Valter Bubuia, who is now the leader of the Gibrié do São Lourenço Quilombo. According to him, invasion by mining companies was possible only because CODEBAR did not have a land policy for the area. “At that time, it was hard to move forward with negotiations. Those who had documents got the land, but those who didn’t were done,” he tells Mongabay.

The 1986 document, considered as a collective land title, is now their weapon to recover the lands expropriated by CODEBAR at the time. “They won’t let us have the titles because then they wouldn’t be able to sell the land or negotiate it in the future,” says Bubuia. “There are more than 300 families struggling to exist.”

Valter Bubuia, leader of the Gibrié do São Lourenço Quilombo. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.

Leaders point out complicity by the local government

Roberto Cravo, known as Chip, is one of the main Quilombola leaders in Barcarena. He says his people face problems that go beyond contamination by mining companies. He tells Mongabay there is a consortium including the municipal government and mining companies, which dates back to the beginning of Barcarena’s growth process and is led by CODEBAR, which completely ignored the existence of Quilombola territories.

According to him, the first invasion happened in the district of Vila dos Cabanos, where facilities were built to accommodate mining companies’ top staff, who had exclusive access to the village. Even the schools began to be attended only by the children of the companies’ employees. The problem, Chip points out, is that these lands historically belonged to the Quilombola — including the area where the 14th Military (State) Police Battalion is now located.

“If you do archaeological research in these areas where the Battalion and the Cabanos Club are located, you’ll will find artifacts that prove our previous presence in this area,” says Chip. According to him, the Barcarena municipal government acted in bad faith at the time, for it was aware of the process of land mapping and demarcation being carried out by INCRA (Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) in favor of the Quilombola communities.

“When INCRA finished their work, the city built a wall around the area that had been set for titling, which made it impossible for us to access it,” Chip explains. “They built it in record time and put a sign there that says it was a preservation area owned by the municipality of Barcarena. The city invaded the land that INCRA had guaranteed was ours.”

Roberto Chip, in front of the map he uses to show his territory, which he says was stolen by the city of Barcarena. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.

The latest arbitrary decision by the Barcarena municipal government was the attempt by the company Águas de São Francisco to vacate an area where a sewage treatment unit operated in Quilombola territory. The company even demolished a few houses, evicting families from the place at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its deadliest. But Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin ruled in favor of the families, saying it was an area over which neither the city nor the water and sanitation company were able to prove ownership.

“This is a major defeat for the city, which took an aggressive stance toward those families and even lied on TV and social media, saying that locals wanted the land to sell it,” says Chip. “People lived there, and their houses were demolished with their furniture inside, without a court order or anything. With no proof of ownership.”

Wall around the area after demarcation by INCRA. There is no document proving the legality of the city of Barcarena’s action or granting it ownership over the land. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.

Contaminated rivers, head sores

In 2018, Damiana Oliveira dos Santos noticed a hairless spot on her daughter Rebeca’s head, when she was only 4 years old. The girl’s curly hair was falling out and had been replaced by sores. She and her husband took their daughter to the hospital in the state capital Belém. Damiana had been feeling nauseous, and she fainted right after they arrived. Her blood pressure was altered. At the hospital, she discovered that the girl’s head was also full of rashes.

“We had to shave off our hair. The whole community cried when they saw that our daughter and I were bald,” she tells Mongabay at her home, less than two miles from Hydro’s industrial complex. “We went to get our test results, but nobody would tell us what those numbers meant. Now we know it.”

What they now know — and studies prove — is that everything in Barcarena — people, soil, air, water and fish — shows signs of contamination. The origin most likely is the chemical waste dumped by mining companies in the local rivers. Aluminum, lead and nickel are some of the metals present in medical reports from institutes such as Evandro Chagas and labs such as the Laboratory of Analytical and Environmental Chemistry (LAQUANAM) at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).

Symptoms of contamination include itching, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, intestinal pain, recurrent episodes of forgetfulness, body sores, thin brittle skin and several cases of cancer. Norsk Hydro denies these cases are related to its operation.

Damiana Oliveira dos Santos holding a photo of herself and Rebeca, both with their heads shaved. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.
Damiana’s daughter Rebeca, now 8 years old, sitting on a dead muruci tree, formerly used by the family as a source of income. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.

Professor Simone de Fátima Pinheiro Pereira, a chemist and head of LAQUANAM, has conducted research in the mining area for more than 40 years and has closely monitored the environmental crimes committed in Barcarena for 15 years. In 2012, at the request of the Federal Prosecution Service, it analyzed the water used for consumption in the region. The results were appalling.

“I analyzed the water in 26 communities, and 24 of them were contaminated by lead,” she tells Mongabay. “Water, fish, plants, river sediment: Everything I collected for analysis was contaminated. I also analyzed community residents’ hair and found levels 27 times above our control,” she says, comparing samples with people outside the area covered by the study.

Pereira reports that the two companies causing the worst impacts on that region are Hydro and Imerys. Until recently, the former used to own the DRS1 area, a bauxite waste deposit installed near Quilombola communities. The dam has been decommissioned but millions of tons of toxic red mud are still there. When it rains, the mud overflows and goes into the surrounding rivers — Murucupi and Pará — carrying metals such as chromium, lead and nickel — all of which are carcinogenic if people are exposed to them for a long time.

“I went to Hydro to collect red mud for analysis at the request of the Federal Prosecution Service, but they won’t let me disclose the results,” Pereira says. “Even with an order from the prosecution service, they threatened me with a lawsuit if I analyzed the samples. I collected them, but I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Hydro is all over the world and a lawsuit is nothing for them.”

Rebeca’s father and Damiana’s husband, Jorge Luiz Nunes da Silva, shows cashews growing, still on the tree. Only insects feed on the fruit from the family’s small farm. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.
The muruci fruit are also born dead in Barcarena. Before the soil was poisoned, it used to yield an average of 500 reais (US$ 96) per week. It is no longer good even for family consumption. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.

Threatened leaders, illness and eviction

“My husband was supposed to be here with me. He was my life. I saw my husband lose one foot and end up in a wheelchair because of this unchecked development,” says Maria do Socorro Costa da Silva. Known as Socorro do Burajuba, she is one of the most important leaders in Barcarena.

She shows the reports from the Evandro Chagas Institute and UFPA that found high levels of heavy metals in her hair, and she tells what happened to her husband, whose diabetes worsened with the contamination: “He started scratching his eyes, saying that he couldn’t see well. In 2008, he started losing weight, but we didn’t suspect anything. In 2009, there was another overflow of mud, but we continued using the water until people from the university came to carry out tests on us. Between 2012 and 2015, we had official confirmation that the water was contaminated. This struggle has been going on for 10 years. He couldn’t take it. He’s gone.”

Socorro herself scratches her body a lot while talking to the reporters. She shows her thin skin, full of red spots, and says that part of Barcarena’s population is like her now. But she has never stopped fighting. She took the Quilombola claims beyond the borders of Pará and Brazil by filing a collective lawsuit on behalf of 40,000 people affected by aluminum production. The case was accepted in the Netherlands, where the Court of Rotterdam will hear it and decide on its merits.

Socorro do Burajuba. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.
Medical report showing high levels of heavy metals in Socorro do Burajuba’s hair sample. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.

Mongabay contacted Norsk Hydro about the lawsuit and the company replied, “The case filed in the Netherlands is related to local issues, which are already being discussed in Brazilian courts. The case is just a derivative of the same accusations against Brazilian entities. Hydro will present its defense in accordance with the procedures defined by the Court.”

Hydro added that it “strongly denies the allegations made by the plaintiffs. The company is committed to being a good neighbor, acting responsibly, and putting health, environment and safety first wherever it operates. Alunorte’s and Albras’ activities in the region are duly licensed, and operations are monitored and audited by the authorities.”

Mongabay has also sent questions to the Barcarena municipal government but has not received a response as of this writing.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Feb. 9, 2023.

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