RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Some of the world’s largest mining companies have withdrawn requests to study and mine minerals on indigenous lands in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, denying President Jair Bolsonaro ) efforts to legalize mining activities in these areas.
Raul Jungmann, president of the Brazilian Mining Association (Ibram), which represents about 130 companies, said an internal investigation into its members was conducted earlier this year. For the first time in decades, no company is currently conducting research or mining applications for gold, tin, nickel, iron and other ores in indigenous areas, he said. Neither the investigation nor its results have been previously reported.
The association’s members, which account for 85 percent of Brazil’s legally produced ore, include mining giant Rio Tinto, Anglo American and Vale. The Associated Press contacted the three companies. Rio Tinto confirmed it withdrew its research concession application in 2019. Anglo American did the same in March 2021. Vale last year withdrew its application for research and mining concessions.
“Ibram’s position is that it is not possible to apply for a mining and research authorization on indigenous lands unless there is a constitutional provision,” Jungmann said by phone.
According to a study by consultant geologist Tadeu Veiga, who also teaches at the National University of Brasilia, about two-thirds of the applications were made to the federal mining agency before the government officially designated it as an indigenous territory.
The collective retreat comes as Bolsonaro insists that indigenous territories contain mineral resources vital to the prosperity of the country and indigenous peoples. Brazil’s constitution states that mining on indigenous lands can only take place with informed consent and compliance with laws governing the activity. More than three decades later, such legislation has still not been ratified.
Bolsonaro, a fringe lawmaker, was pushing to change that even before he became president. During his 2018 presidential campaign, he suggested that deposits of the element niobium, the metal found under indigenous lands, could transform Brazil into a mining powerhouse, but the proposal ran aground after he took office.
Niobium resources available as steel alloys are sufficient to meet the world’s projected demand, according to the U.S. Geological Survey
Bolsonaro met SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk in Brazil on Friday and suggested niobium to make batteries, but then said Musk had shown no interest. “Right now, it’s not on their radar. They think they have to wait a little longer to invest in this space,” he said.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that nearly 14 percent of Brazil’s land is in indigenous territories, a disproportionate amount, and that foreign governments are advocating indigenous rights and environmental protection as a strategy to eventually develop their own mineral wealth.
“The interest in the Amazon has nothing to do with the Indians or the damn trees. It’s ore,” he told a group of prospectors in the capital Brasilia in 2019.
Most recently, in March, he pressed Congress for an emergency vote on a bill drafted and submitted by his Mining and Justice Department in 2020 to finally regulate the mining of indigenous lands. The emergency vote was necessary, he said, because the war in Ukraine threatened a critical supply of potash fertilizers from Russia to Brazil’s vast farmland.
With the law, “in two or three years, our agribusiness will no longer be dependent on imported potash,” Bolsonaro said. “Agribusiness is the engine of our economy.”
However, experts were quick to note that most potash deposits in the Brazilian Amazon are not located in indigenous areas, according to a study by the Federal University of Minas Gerais based on official data.
Critics argue that the main purpose of the bill is to provide legal protection for thousands of prospectors. The event has mushroomed in recent years, with its members holding several meetings with representatives of prospectors, as the Bolsonaro government has repeatedly pledged regulation.
Prospectors’ locations often expand over time, causing massive damage, destroying river banks, polluting waterways with mercury and disrupting the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. By contrast, industrial-scale mining in the Amazon has left deep scars in the forest, but is largely confined to areas of deposits such as Carajas, the world’s largest open-pit iron mine operated by Vale.
Thousands of indigenous people and their allies, led by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, protested in front of Congress in March as Bolsonaro’s parliamentary base tried to speed up progress on the bill. They soon found an unlikely ally: the mining association Ibram, which has kept a low profile in the past.
In a statement issued a few days later, Ibram said Bolsonaro’s bill “doesn’t fit its intended purpose”, adding that Brazilian society, especially indigenous peoples, needed to regulate mining in indigenous territories. Widely debated, respecting their constitutional rights, and ratified by the Brazilian Congress. “
Jungmann said his association made the unusual announcement first because it followed two mining accidents in Minas Gerais state in 2015 and 2019 that killed hundreds and polluted waterways. Decisions become more open and transparent.
The appointment of Jungmann, a high-profile politician who has served as a minister in two centre-right governments, reflects the shift.
Another reason, Jungmann said, is the growing pressure at home and abroad to adopt more socially friendly practices.
“We are not against mining on indigenous lands,” he said. “However, we consider the bill to be inadequate because it does not comply with ILO resolution 169, which requires free, prior and informed consent. Second, it does not close the loophole for illegal mining. Third, we Want a project that protects the environment, especially the rainforest.”
“Exploration kills and destroys communities and is a police matter, not an economic one,” he added.
On Thursday, ecologist Philip Fearnside and five other scientists published a letter in the journal Science warning that the Ukrainian war was “an excuse to destroy the Amazon”, Bolsona said. Luo’s proposal was again rejected internationally.
Indigenous lands are essential for maintaining the ecological benefits provided by the Brazilian Amazon forest, they write. “These lands protect forests better than federal protected areas.” If the law is passed, the letter calls on mineral importers to “follow up a possible boycott to make it clear that Brazil’s irresponsible actions will have consequences.”
To Bolsonaro’s chagrin, lawmakers have so far refused to put the proposed mining law to a vote. Jungman said he has met with the president in both chambers of Congress to explain the industry’s objections and with the president’s chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira.
In a speech to farmers on April 25, Bolsonaro rejected criticism from Ibram and the indigenous movement, claiming that mineral exploration on indigenous lands should only take place with the approval of affected tribes.
In an email, the Ministry of Mines said mining regulations in indigenous areas were long overdue. It said the lack of regulation would bring chaos and environmental damage.
The withdrawal of Ibram affiliates from indigenous territories does not mean that they or others will stop mining the Amazon, or that conflicts with indigenous peoples are a thing of the past.
Canada-based Belo Sun Mining Corp is trying to develop the largest open-pit gold mine in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Nearby Aboriginal communities claim they were not consulted. Another Canadian company, Brazil Potash Corp, is fighting in court to implement a $2.2 billion project near the territory of the Mulla people, which they fear will affect their land.
Neither company is affiliated with Ibram, which declined to comment on the cases.
The database of the federal mining regulator known as the ANM still reflects active applications from many large mining companies in indigenous areas. Indigenous groups say that means big mining companies are still interested in their land.
In an emailed response, the regulator said withdrawal requests go through a clearing process before the application is officially invalidated. Sometimes this can take years. ANM declined to provide application-specific details. Ibram’s Jungmann said the agency needed to overcome its technical problems.
“Mining companies are increasingly focused on social and environmental governance principles. Both shareholders and society need it,” said Veiga, who has extensive experience advising such companies at Amazon as well as nonprofits. “And they (mining companies) never felt they were being considered for Bolsonaro’s bill, which was interpreted as an attempt to legalize illegal mining.”
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