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 aluminum- is marketed in Brazil, the United States, Canada, Europe, China and South America.

Extraction of bauxite | April 2016 | © Carlos Penteado

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.

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.

Deforestation caused by mining – 1984 to 2016

Only visible on desktop | Source: Timelapse – Google Earth

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.

The quilombolas and the riparians point out one of the main socio-environmental consequences of 40 years of bauxite: changes in watercourses.  Local communities report  restriction of access to drinking water, the emergence of new diseases (affecting mainly children and women) and the reduction of fish stock.

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.

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 26 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.

Only 4 of the 26 dams of Mineração Rio do Norte have an emergency plan for incidents. The plans indicate that a failure in dams could lead to loss of human life, impacts on drinking water supply and on the practice of fishing and navigation.

Mineração Rio do Norte Mining Dams | © Carlos Penteado

Mining dams are structures that need to be constantly monitored. In Brazil, between 2001 and 2018, there were 08 accidents with mining dams, causing a total of 27 deaths. In November 2015, Samarco’s mining dam collapse that killed 19 people, destroyed the village of Bento Rodrigues and affected a total of 679 kilometers of rivers. On 25 January 2019, the catastrophic failure of a tailings storage facility at Vale’s Corrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, is a human and environmental tragedy. When the dam collapsed, shortly after noon, 11.7 million cubic meters of mining waste surged through the mine site towards the local town and countryside below, resulting in over five miles of destruction. As of 9 September 2019, 248 people are confirmed dead, and 22 are missing.

The tailings dams of Mineração Rio do Norte concern the residents of Boa Vista, Boa Nova and Saracá communities. The Boa Nova and Saracá riverine communities are located downstream of the tailings disposal system installed in the interior of Saracá-Taquera National Forest, which already has 23 dams. Quilombo Boa Vista is 430 meters away from two other sediment containment and water clarification dams located on the banks of the Trombetas River. Quilombolas and riverine residents resent the lack of transparency and dialogue on the part of the company and the governing bodies.

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