Within the Brazilian Amazon, in the municipality of Oriximiná, mining activity threatens local communities, forests and waterways. Brazil’s largest bauxite mining company, Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN), is located there and has among its shareholders large companies such as the Anglo-Australians Rio Tinto and South32, North American Alcoa, Norwegian Hydro and Brazilian Vale. Bauxite – the raw material used in the production of aluminium – is marketed in Brazil, the United States, Canada, Europe, China and South America.

Deforestation caused by mining – 1984 to 2016

Only visible on desktop | Source: Timelapse – Google Earth

The MRM concessions are located within the Saracá-Taquera National Forest. The Saracá-Taquera National Forest is among the conservation units in the Legal Amazon region with the largest proportion of mining area. The management plan of that unit establishes a “mining zone” that stretches over 142,095.47 hectares, which corresponds to 33% of the size of the National Forest.

Mining requires total deforestation of forests and excavation of the soil by more than eight meters. The activity destroys ecosystems that for years have guaranteed the life of the local population, among them, the quilombolas, a people constituted by the descendants of the black slaves who arrived in the region in the 19th century escaping from slavery.

The deforestation produced by the miner has direct impacts on the local population, but also impacts the entire planet by destroying a portion of the Amazon rainforest and contributing to global warming. Deforestation accounts for about 40% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is the sixth country that most emits greenhouse gases.

Extraction of bauxite | April 2016 | © Carlos Penteado

Life that depends on the threatened forest

In Oriximiná there are about 10,000 quilombolas living in small rural communities distributed over eight collective territories that add up to 9,831 km2 of forests, still very preserved. Black people arrived in this region in the 19th century fleeing slavery. There, they founded autonomous communities known as quilombos, where they remained even after the abolition of slavery.

Agricultural activities, subsistence fishing and hunting, and extractivism of forest products such as Brazil nuts, guarantee the survival of the quilombolas who live in collective territories. The forest is fundamental to secure the life of this population, and the commercialisation of a series of non-timber forest products is its main source of income. Besides fish, the rivers guarantee water for consumption, bath, and washing of clothes, since there is no water supply system.

Since 2013, one of the Quilombola territories has been mined with the permission of the Brazilian government, but without free, prior and informed consent of the quilombolas, without a plan to mitigate the impacts for this population or agreement on compensation for damages. The situation can be aggravated as Mineração Rio do Norte plans to expand its extraction covering other quilombola areas. On April, 2017 the company  applied for the environmental license for this planned expansion to start in 2021. In reaction, quilombola leaders sent a letter to the Minister of the Environment demanding that environmental licensing be suspended immediately and that remain paralysed until the titling of their lands as guaranteed by the Constitution. The letter also requires National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) to expedite the completion of the process of regularisation of their territories, which started more than 10 years ago.

Risks of mining dams

Mining demands the construction of dams to store its tailings. The material removed from the subsoil is beneficiated in order to separate bauxite from other minerals. Bauxite is traded and the rest (the mining waste) is deposited in huge dams that will remain forever in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

Mineração Rio do Norte is the fourth largest mining company in Brazil in terms of number of dams. There are 24 dams already built and 9 planned, all in Oriximiná. They are structures that can be up to 20 meters high, that is, taller than a 5-storey building.

Mineração Rio do Norte Mining Dams | © Carlos Penteado

Mining dams are structures that need to be constantly monitored. In Brazil, between 2001 and 2016, there were 10 accidents with mining dams, causing a total of 27 deaths. The most well-known is the Samarco’s mining dam collapse that killed 19 people, destroyed the village of Bento Rodrigues and affected a total of 679 kilometres of rivers in November 2015. Despite the disasters in Brazil and in different countries, little has been done in the search of technological alternatives for tailings storage.

In Oriximiná, only 2 of the 24 dams of Mineração Rio do Norte have an emergency plan for incidents. Brazilian legislation does not require such a plan for other dams. Thus, the dam that is only to 400 meters away from the Quilombo Boa Vista does not count with an emergency plan and the residents did not receive any training for emergencies.

Even in the case of the two dams that have an emergency plan, the local population is not taken into consideration. The emergency plan does not assess the impacts of a possible burst on “ribeirinhos” (riverside communities) located 18 kilometres downstream from these dams, nor does it establish measures to prepare such a population for a disaster.

The dam (shown in this photo as a yellow/brownish lagoon) is only 400 metres away from the Quilombo Boa Vista | © Carlos Penteado