An exclusive survey reveals an explosion in requests since 2019 and lists the potential beneficiaries with the most requests for authorization to mine on indigenous lands

Jair Bolsonaro’s intention to open up Indigenous Territories in Brazil for the exploitation of mineral and water resources has been made public in numerous occasions.

One of the justifications he has given is that he believes indigenous territories should be exploited to boost the economy, going against Brazil’s Federal Constitution of 1988 and the indigenous peoples’ wills. Today, the existence of such territories, protected by law, is considered to play a major role in preserving the Amazon rainforest.

In February, Bolsonaro took a step forward in his plan, proposing a bill that would allow commercial mining in indigenous territories, the “PL 191/2020”. The bill has been challenged by indigenous groups, environmental organizations, and opinion polls.

In a speech, Bolsonaro defined regulating mining inside indigenous reservations as “a dream” of his and said that “indigenous people are just as brazilian as we all are” and therefore have the same “needs” as the rest of the people.

But who are the potential beneficiaries of mining on indigenous lands after all?

A recently conducted survey of data from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and the National Mining Agency (ANM) conducted by Agência Pública has revealed not only the names of individuals and companies requesting authorization to mine on indigenous territories, but that there’s also been an increase in mining surveys in these areas in 2019, reversing the trend of previous years.

Private individuals and companies are required to request authorization through the National Mining Agency before they are permitted to engage in exploration of mineral or any other subsoil resources in Brazil. The process begins with a request for authorization to survey for the substance, and from there can go through several stages until the final one in which a permit is issued for exploration or mining. The whole process demarcates an area of land on which mining activities are intended to take place.

The survey conducted by Agência Pública took into account all of the proposals involving indigenous areas at different stages of the demarcation process. Indigenous lands may have been demarcated to include areas of existing mining proposals, but the proposals have not been revoked as a result. The information examined by Agência Pública presents two scenarios: applications to mine on indigenous lands submitted between 2011 and 2020, and those registered during the first year of the Bolsonaro government (2019-2020).

Requests for authorization to mine on indigenous lands in the Amazon

The data indicate that applications to mine on indigenous lands in the Amazon have increased by 91% percent since Bolsonaro took office. This has been the first time since 2013 that such requests have increased.

Among the potential beneficiaries of the President’s legislation are prominent political figures from the Amazon, small prospecting cooperatives that include partners accused of environmental crimes, a global mining giant, and even an artist from São Paulo.

An artist leads in the number of applications submitted in 2019, followed closely by mining giant Anglo American

The champion of applications for mineral exploration on indigenous lands during the first year of the Bolsonaro administration is architect and artist Sami Hassan Akl. The artist submitted seven requests for diamond exploration on indigenous lands in 2019 alone. He is a partner of the company Bogari & Akl Comércio Importação e Exportação Ltda., headquartered in São Paulo, which is geared toward the art market.

Another to stand out in the survey – in both time frames examined – is the multinational mining giant Anglo American, headquartered in London. One of its subsidiaries, Anglo American Nickel Brazil (Anglo American Níquel do Brasil), the largest nickel producer in the country, submitted six requests for mineral exploration on indigenous lands in 2019, and 46 over the course of the decade.

The Anglo group also faces lawsuits related to environmental violations in Brazil. The company’s iron ore branch is the target of legal action taken by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the state of Minas Gerais related to the rupture of a slurry pipeline in the town of Santo Antônio do Gama. The Public Prosecutor of Minas Gerais is requesting the court charge the company a fine 400 million BRL for the damages incurred by the communities impacted by the rupture of the Minas-Rio Slurry Pipeline. At the federal level, the Prosecutor’s Office has requested the suspension of permits that have already been issued to Anglo American.

Upon request for comment, Anglo American stated that it had “presented its defense during the legal proceedings and didn’t comment on the content of such proceedings.” Regarding the mining applications submitted by the company, the representative stated that they were “based on the available geologic information,” that “authorization for such mining exploration activities are the discretion of the relevant authorities,” and that the company “only carries out mineral exploration in duly authorized areas.” The company also added in a note that it has “conducted a review of its portfolio and rescinded all requests for areas that include indigenous lands that have been submitted up to 2015. Current applications for mineral exploration in areas that border indigenous lands may include segments of these territories. In such cases, it falls upon the National Mining Agency to ensure that limits of areas authorized for mining fall outside of indigenous lands or reservations.”

The people most affected by mining over the last decade

The majority of the applications to mine on indigenous lands submitted during the first year of the Bolsonaro administration have been for territories in the state of Pará. The Kayapó Indigenous Territory has been facing the most requests. This is followed by the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory of the Munduruku people, also in Pará.

Sawré is precisely the indigenous territory most affected by mining over the last decade: more than 14% of all mining licensing applications that touch on indigenous areas in the Amazon affect this territory. This percentage amounts to 97 applications, mostly for deposits of gold, copper, diamonds, and, to a lesser extent, cassiterite and gravel.

Following Pará, Mato Grosso and Roraima are the next states for which requests to mine on indigenous land have been submitted during the first year of the Bolsonaro administration.

Increase in mineral survey and mining proposals in the Amazon

The National Mining Agency has registered mining applications—and granted mining permits—even on demarcated indigenous lands, that is, which have already gone through all of the stages of land regularization with the federal government, including presidential sanction. One of the territories potentially affected by issued mining permits is that of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people in the state of Rondônia, whose territory was officially demarcated in 2006. Nine different indigenous peoples live on this territory, including several isolated groups.

In 2013, for example, the Ariquemes Small-Scale Miners Cooperative (Cooperativa Mineradora dos Garimpeiros de Ariquemes or COOMINGA) obtained a small-scale gold mining permit for an area that includes part of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Territory. The cooperative is now the third-largest producer of tin in the country, according to the National Mining Agency’s 2018 Annual Mining Report. In 2016, the Rondônia Tin Cooperative (Cooperativa Estanífera de Rondônia) acquired a mining permit to mine cassiterite in an area that included segments of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory. Cassiterite is the main form of tin ore used to produce metal alloys. The largest open-air cassiterite mine in the world is located in Ariquemes, Rondônia.

In the last ten years, the National Mining Agency has registered 656 mining proposals that include segments of indigenous territories. In addition to land belonging to the Munduruku, in Pará, the mining applications submitted during this decade have mostly included the territories of the Kaxuyana and Kayapó peoples, both in Pará, and the Yanomami people in Roraima and Amazonas.

A former governor and a deputy governor of the state of Amazonas have six pending applications to mine on indigenous lands

Two political figures from the state of Amazonas are among the partners of the company with the third most applications to mine on indigenous territories submitted during the first year of the Bolsonaro administration.

SMD Recursos Naturais Ltda., based in São Paulo, includes former-governor of the state of Amazonas Armando Mendes and his former finance secretary, Samuel Assayang Hanan, among its partners. Hanan has a long history of connections to mining: among other professional positions, he was president of Paranapanema S.A., a copper-mining giant in Brazil; worked in the copper extraction sector of British Petroleum; was industrial and commercial director of the Brazilian Tin Company (Companhia Estanífera do Brasil or CESBRA); and was a member of the Department of Mines and Energy’s High Council on Mines.

The applications submitted by SMD are for tin surveys in areas that include part of the Yanomami’s territory in Roraima, and the Waimiri-Atroari territory that extends between this state and Amazonas.

As governor, Amazonino favored others interested in mining exploration on indigenous lands. In 2017, the then governor renewed Environmental Operations Permits for the Amazon Small-Scale Mining Cooperative (COOGAM) – another company that appears in the survey – and issued a gold exploration permit to the same organization.

The permits were issued before the conclusion of a study conducted by the Amazonas State Council on the Environment (CEMAAM) regarding mercury runoff in the Madeira River. They were suspended in full by a federal court days after they were issued. Upon suspending the permits, judge Maria Elisa Andrade pointed to a series of breaches of the environmental requirements for issuing such permits, which “could put the integrity of the Madeira River, as well as human health, biodiversity, and the Amazonian ecosystem at risk”.

Cooperatives with an interest in indigenous lands have partners charged with environmental crimes

The COOGAM, mention above, also holds third place among the entities who submitted applications to mine on indigenous lands in the analyzed period (2011-2020). The cooperative is composed of over a hundred small-scale miners, operates in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, and Pará. This cooperative has submitted 26 applications to mine on nine indigenous territories in the Legal Amazon (an administrative region that includes nine states and extends slightly beyond the Amazon Rain Forest).

Besides the formal requests submitted to the National Mining Agency, several people connected to the organization face charges in federal court of engaging in illegal mining on indigenous lands. This includes the current president of the cooperative, who has been brought up on charges by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office of forming a criminal organization, theft of public resources, illegal environmental contamination, and the extraction of mineral resources without legal authorization. The founder of COOGAM faces similar charges in federal court.

The Marupá Mining Workers Cooperative (COOPERMINGAMA), which submitted four applications to mine on indigenous territories in 2019, is another entity with partners implicated in alleged environmental crimes. One of the cooperative’s 12 partners was investigated for involvement in fraud related to the acquisition of forest carbon credits. Another partner is the defendant in two federal court cases for engaging in unauthorized small-scale mining along the Jamanxim River, in Pará, and for illegal gold extraction from the Juami-Japurá Ecological Station, in Amazonas.

“Snow White” processes

“Normally, when mining activities encroach on indigenous lands, they have been suspended. It is a curious bureaucratic phenomenon: the requests are not rejected, but also not authorized. They remain what we call ‘Snow White processes,’ laying in wait for prince charming’s kiss. The National Mining Agency sometimes upholds permits in this situation, in cases of permits granted before the demarcation of indigenous territories or before the Constitution of 1988. These permits are being challenged in court,” explained founding partner of the NGO Instituto Socioambiental, Márcio Santilli.

According to the National Mining Agency’s response to challenges from the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Pará, the agency does not consider the absence of relevant legal regulations to exclude the possibility of leaving such mining applications pending. On the other hand, a federal court in Amazonas ruled in August 2019 that the National Mining Agency must revoke all pending applications for mineral exploration or mining on indigenous territories in the state.

“We don’t know if the agency will also revoke applications for other states, but these pending applications are irregular. The Federal Supreme Court has already ruled that the rights of indigenous people should prevail whether the land they have permanently occupied has been officially demarcated or not. That is to say that any permit for extraction or development activities on indigenous lands, including mining, should be cancelled or revoked. The National Mining Agency plays dead, in part to avoid being challenged in court by the beneficiaries of such permits,” claimed Santilli.

Neither the National Mining Agency nor FUNAI have responded to Agência Pública’s request for comment as of the time of publication.

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This report is part of Agência Pública’s ongoing series “Amazônia Sem Lei” (Lawless Amazon), an investigation into violence related to land regularization and demarcation, as well as agrarian reform in the Legal Amazon. The special series also covers conflicts in the Cerrado, a tropical savanna ecoregion that is Brazil’s second-largest biome.

Translation: Melissa Harkin, Thomas Martinell, Todd Harkin – Harkin Translations.

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