- In 1985, mining giant Vale opened a railroad that cuts through the Mãe Maria Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon.
- Since being built, the railroad has driven away game, cut off access to important water bodies and disrupted the Indigenous peoples’ way of life by introducing compensation money paid by Vale into the daily life of the villages.
- Now, the mining giant has secured permission to build a second railroad track.
- Indigenous leaders say that not only will the railroad extension cause greater environmental damage, but also that the company reached the agreement by using “divide and conquer” tactics over the years and by applying other maneuvers they consider unethical.
PARÁ, Brazil — Deep inside the hills of Parauapebas, a medium-sized city in the Amazonian state of Pará, lies Vale’s Brazilian Serra Sul mining project. Iridescent pools of blue and green alongside gaping red holes only hint at the wealth that lies beneath. The mining project, known commonly by its abbreviation S11D, is the largest iron ore project in the world.
It produces 90 million metric tons of the critical mineral used to make steel, the foundation for everything from bridges to skyscrapers, and is in high demand in industrializing nations like China. Alongside iron ore, copper, manganese, nickel and gold deposits are also found here, guaranteeing Vale’s position among the five largest mining companies in the world. In recent years, Vale continually broke records for profits: 95.9 billion reais ($19.5 billion) in 2022 and 121 billion reais ($24.7 billion) in 2021.
But the success of the project hinges on one crucial component: a train line that runs 892 kilometers (554 miles) from Parauapebas to the Port of Itaqui in São Luís, Maranhão, where it is then loaded into large ships destined for China and Europe.
Constructed in 1985, the Carajás Railroad has come under heavy criticism from Indigenous groups, Quilombolas, and other communities that live along the length of the 892 km (554 miles) track. Several people have died crossing the train lines, where kilometers of rail cars screech 35 times a day alongside countless animals whose corpses dot the railway line. The constant rumble has destabilized houses and cracked walls and foundations, and locals have come into violent conflicts with Vale-contracted security guards.
One of the most vocal sources of criticism against the railroad has come from the Gavião Indigenous people who live in the Mãe Maria Indigenous Territory, a 62,000-hectare (153,205-acre) square of green surrounded by farms and cattle pasture just outside of Marabá, the largest city in southeast Pará. An 18-km (11.2-mi) line cuts straight through the southern part of the territory, cutting off access to their most important waterbody, the Tocantins River, causing a laundry list of environmental and social hazards.
“Our rivers, our territory, our lush environment, our flora is not as it was before because of the ore dust,” Kátia Silene, the chief of Akrãtikatêjê village, told Mongabay when we visited her village in January this year. “Because of the fuel that goes down our river, our fish are contaminated.”
For more than three decades, the railroad track has degraded the southern part of their territory, the Gavião people claim. In addition, the way in which Vale has introduced payments and compensation to the almost two dozen villages in the territory has created internal divisions and frayed the social fabric of the Gavião, according to Silene.
“More than 30 years ago [Vale] dropped this bomb in our midst, which is capitalism, and changed our way of life, changed our food, changed the way we dress. That’s how I see Vale. It is a destroyer of lives.”
For the Indigenous people of the Mãe Maria Indigenous Territory, the permanent threat of trains running uninterrupted inside their territory is about to get worse. In 2020, Vale received board approval for a long-sought expansion of the S11D iron ore mine and, with it, the expansion of the Carajas Railroad from one track to two. The duplication had been almost a decade in the making and, for just as long, several key chiefs in the Mãe Maria Indigenous Territory had resisted, arguing that the cumulative impacts from the expansion would further wreck their environment, cause harm to animals and people and pollute their villages and water bodies.
But, by December 2022, all the chiefs had given in.
Based on interviews with legal and historical experts as well as the chiefs who resisted Vale’s negotiations, our investigation shines a light on the methods used by Vale to secure permission to duplicate the railway. The Indigenous leaders claim Vale used duplicitous and unethical strategies, disrespected the right of Indigenous people to withhold their consent, and took advantage of the necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic to undercut an almost decades-long resistance to the railroad expansion.
In a statement to Mongabay, Vale denied any wrongdoing and said it has a long relationship with the Indigenous community.
Compensating for the damage
Even though it is less than 40 km (25 mi) away, the lush green forests of the Mãe Maria stand in stark contrast to the urban center of Marabá, the headquarters of steel and mining companies, right in the middle of the so-called Arc of Deforestation, where countless Brazilian flags on farms and in shops represent the strong support that former President Jair Bolsonaro has in the region.
Ratified in 1986, the Mãe Maria Indigenous Territory is home to around 1,000 Indigenous Gavião Akrãtikatêjê, Gavião Kyikatejê and Gavião Parkatêjê peoples. Cutting through the otherwise towering Amazon canopy are two pencil-thin lines: the BR-222 highway and the Carajás Railroad, which transports Vale’s mining products through the southern part of the Mãe Maria Indigenous Territory. Together with the Eletronorte power lines, these three projects were excluded from the boundaries when the territory was created in the ‘80s.
Many of the rights enjoyed today by Indigenous people hadn’t been formalized, such as the rights enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 Constitution or the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which Brazil ratified into law in the 2000s. Still, in 1986 the Gavião people managed to negotiate compensation for damages from the railroad. The agreement, signed with Vale, had no timeline and provided monthly payments for support for health, education, productive activities, reserve surveillance, administration and culture, with one team per village.
But the compensation and the introduction of large sums of money have been a double-edged sword.
“Today, the Gavião people are no longer what they used to be,” Zeca Gavião, 55 years old, chief of the Gavião Kyikatêjê village, told Mongabay while sitting on bleachers on a pleasant afternoon in the Amazon, after coaching the Gavião Kyikatejê Football Club, a professional soccer team made up largely of Indigenous players.
“Vale has addicted my people in such a way that it took them a long time to understand what was happening,” said Zeca, who has commanded the village for many years and lives with his wife and eight children in the IT. Until very recently, he was one of just a few dissenting voices within the Mãe Maria IT against the agreement proposed by Vale for the expansion of the railroad. Within the Gavião community, Vale’s attempts to compensate for damages caused by the railroad have sown dissent, Zeca said, fracturing a once-cohesive community into almost two dozen villages and pitting them against each other.
While tensions with Vale always existed, especially over the timing of payments, Zeca said the real problems began in 2012 when Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, first granted a license for Vale to expand its mining project into the Carajás National Forest as well as duplicating the railroad. But there was a catch: Vale had to get consent from the chiefs of all the then 19 villages to duplicate the railroad inside Mãe Maria Territory.
In December 2013, one of the Parkatêjê villages denounced the clandestine entry of machines and workers linked to Vale in the territory performing earthworks and in 2015, Vale rescinded the first agreement, interrupting the monthly payments, causing a crisis within the Indigenous communities.
In place of the old agreement, a new, time-bound settlement for 10 years called a Basic Environmental Plan (PBA) was created. On paper, the PBA should be decided with the communities, but Zeca highlighted that the Indigenous communities lost autonomy and power with the new agreement. Vale gained the right to evaluate results, and the agreement was now at risk of not being renewed a decade later.
Zeca told us that he visited other Indigenous villages that created a PBA and observed that the new agreement stripped them of any guarantee for the future, making them dependent on cash from the company when negotiating a new deal. “I went to research in order to strengthen my argument against Vale, and I saw that it’s not good, it’s not safe for the community. I know that my people will expand and grow, but they won’t have the support they had,” Zeca said.
Vale has also withdrawn support for high-complexity health procedures, which aren’t covered by the specialized Indigenous health care offered by the Ministry of Health, focused on primary attention. In recent years, under Bolsonaro’s administration, Zeca also complained that federal administration bodies have sided with Vale.
“The [original] agreement guaranteed certain things for us and over time it has been cut, cut, cut. My people didn’t understand. I was fighting alone,” he said. “We didn’t have any support from Funai and IBAMA in the Bolsonaro government. When negotiating with Vale, Funai didn’t speak for us but for Vale. It was difficult. We were at our own mercy,” he said.
The Federal Public Ministry was called in as an intervening party. Attorney Luís Eduardo Araújo, who works in Marabá, told Mongabay that Vale added an automatic readjustment trigger of 20% to the PBA of each village once they accepted the expansion deal.
“The MPF has always said that it was not in good taste to mix two separate issues,” Araújo said. “One thing is the standard agreement and another is expansion. Vale said no and put this trigger in place.”
The majority of village chiefs consented to the expansion but for eight years, a handful of key chiefs held out on agreeing to the expansion. “Vale wants to give us money to deforest a huge strip alongside the existing railroad so it can increase its profits,” Chief Cuia, who was one of the last chiefs to give his permission for the expansion, told Mongabay when we visited the Indigenous land, back in January. “But how can you put a price on those trees, on all the animals that will die crossing the railway tracks or flee from the noise? There is no price for that.”
For almost half a decade, the resistance to the expansion was fierce. But a combination of a deadly virus and a conservative government tipped the scales.
‘Divide and conquer’
In 2020, as COVID swept through the world, the Inter-American Commission on Human rights issued an urgent recommendation that states: “Refrain from introducing legislation and/or moving forward to carry out production and/or extractive projects in the territories of indigenous peoples during the period the pandemic may last, given the impossibility of conducting prior informed and free consent processes (due to the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) that social distancing measures be adopted) provided for in ILO Convention 169 and other pertinent international and national instruments.”
Just months later, the conservative Bolsonaro administration pushed through an early renewal of the federal concession of the Carajás Railroad, granting Vale the right to use the track until 2057. The mining company will pay 11.8 billion reais ($2.4 billion) in concession fees to the federal government in the agreement, which also involves other railroads owned by Vale. Vale received board approval for a long-sought expansion of the S11D iron ore mine that same year.
To transport this massive increase in production, the mining company also needed to expand the Carajás Railroad. Without the expansion, it would be impossible for Vale to achieve the record profits of recent years and its continuous export operation.
Vale’s shareholders and investors have a large stake in the railroad expansion. One of the main funders of the original Carajás Project was the World Bank. Today, large American investors have significant participation in Vale, such as the Capital Group, with more than 14% of the shares and BlackRock, the largest investment fund in the world, which has 5.7% of shareholding control of Vale. The Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, a historical partner of the mining company in several businesses, has 6.3% of the shares.
From 2016-21, Vale also received more than $35 billion in loans and investments from various global financial groups, including Vanguard, Crédit Agricóle, Commerzbank, Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and others, according to the “Complicity in Destruction IV” report, by Amazon Watch and Mining Observatory.
All these institutions will benefit directly and indirectly from the duplication. But Vale still had to obtain consent from the 22 chiefs in the territory to reach its profits.
According to the chiefs and researchers interviewed for this piece, Vale took advantage of divisions among the Gavião people to sidestep proper consultation and achieve its goals during the economic turmoil of the pandemic. But, researchers argue, those very divisions were sown intentionally decades before.
“The mining company learned in the ‘80s and ‘90s that it was not possible to seek consensus among the Indigenous people, because then they would become too strong,” Giliad Silva, a researcher at the Federal University of Southern and Southeastern Pará who has followed the conflict for several years, told Mongabay by phone. “That’s why it started to assign employees to what they call community relations.”
Since the ‘90s, Silva said that Vale has encouraged the division of the Indigenous people into more villages and more families to make it easier to negotiate piecemeal and to put pressure on smaller villages. COVID amplified that pressure.
“In the pandemic, some [communities] were in a very difficult situation without the compensation transfer from Vale, and the added fear and pressure from the mining company. Vale fought to unify the processes,” Silva said.
Everywhere in Brazil, Indigenous people were much more affected by the pandemic than the general population, suffering from lack of state support, isolation, and high COVID-19 rates among other factors.
In these unfavorable conditions, Zeca Gavião ended up accepting the terms proposed by Vale, against his will, at the end of 2022.
“I was left alone and they used that as an argument, that only I was going to fight for the covenant. I was forced to accept. It was not an agreement. An agreement is when you say, ‘Look, I have this condition, I don’t agree, but I want it.’ Vale said, ‘I have this possibility of helping you, if you don’t want it, you can go to court,’” he said. “Then they came up with that big number. It’s a lot of money, they accepted and I accepted and Vale won by sheer fatigue.”
Chief Silene agrees. “Vale is not nice, Vale is not our friend, Vale is not good,” she said. Bags of Brazil nuts were stacked in a pile in a communal storage unit, and she served us fish harvested from a man-made pond in the village. She has been encouraging her village to invest in sustainable agriculture and develop products that will allow them to flourish even when the money from Vale stops flowing.
“Vale is an iron dragon that, when it goes away, will leave only a graveyard. It ended the life of the Gavião and Xikrin people and created a crack in the middle of the Indigenous society. No money will ever cure what Vale brought,” she said. “They gave us a pittance.”
This isn’t the first time large infrastructure projects have disrupted the Gavião’s way of life. Silene’s village was forced to move to the Mãe Maria Territory in the early 1980s after the construction of the Tucuruí hydroelectric plant, when Electronorte energy company flooded her village to make a dam and displaced more than 30,000 people. They were relocated to a part of the Mãe Maria Territory, a section of abandoned pastures that they carefully cultivated and turned again into forests. Today their village lies just miles away from Electronorte’s power lines that cut through the Mãe Maria Indigenous Territory.
The large development projects were all constructed during the military dictatorship (from 1964-85), during which reports such as the National Truth Commission have shown massive violations of Indigenous rights to favor large enterprises. The proximity to the urban center of Marabá, less than 30 minutes away by car, also poses a security threat.
Indigenous watchmen guard the gated entrances of each village. Outsiders are allowed in only after guards check if visitors have an invitation from the leaders. When payments from Vale are expected, robberies and kidnappings increase drastically, several chiefs told us.
Silene was one of the last remaining chiefs to accept Vale’s offer. “We have held back a lot, delaying from 2011 until 2023,” she said. Silene said the lack of support wore her down. “There was never a court that said, ‘No, the Indigenous people won, you can’t expand, you can’t do it.’ So we fight for ourselves now, because there is no justice, just our hunger.”
Ultimately, the energy needed to resist Vale became too much for the few villages still holding out. “The Indigenous people of the Amazon want to plan their future 20, 30, 50 years from now. They want to discuss agendas such as the “Bem Viver/Buen Vivir” [an Indigenous concept of lifestyle that is very prevalent in Latin America]. But in recent years this has not advanced. They end up being prevented from thinking about the agendas they consider important,” said Silva, who runs a research group that works on these issues with the Gavião.
Vale says it respects Indigenous autonomy
While the first railroad agreement was created when Indigenous people’s rights were not enshrined in law, agreements about the current expansion are a different story. Today, prior consultation is mandatory, as are the environmental impact studies and the consent from the Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, and the licensing process from IBAMA.
Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is the gold standard for any infrastructure or extractive project that affects Indigenous peoples or local communities. But a critical component is the right of Indigenous peoples and local communities to withhold consent. According to the Accountability Framework Initiative, a coalition that helps companies create supply chains in light of environmental and human rights, “Not all FPIC processes lead to consent and it is the right of the affected IP/LC [Indigenous peoples and local communities] to withhold consent. If this is the outcome, then the company needs to accept that the specified activity cannot proceed as planned.”
When asked for comments, Vale said it followed all current regulations and had a long relationship with the Indigenous community and respected its autonomy. The company also informed that the expansion had already begun and should be completed in 2024.
Vale sent the following note:
Zeca’s battle may have been lost, but he said his fight is not over.
“I haven’t stopped, I’m going to fight again. My fight is for the Constitution, which says Indigenous land is nonnegotiable,” he said. “But Vale sees that the land is theirs. I want this to be reviewed; that the area of the railroad belongs to the Indigenous land.”
This story was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu.
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