Before Jair Bolsonaro took office as Brazil’s president in 2019, Canadian investment bank Forbes & Manhattan was facing problems with its business activities in the Brazilian Amazon. The situation began to change, however, as the group grew closer to members of Bolsonaro’s administration with ties to the Brazilian Armed Forces. F&M enjoyed direct access to the country’s vice president, Hamilton Mourão, in a series of exclusive meetings in Brasília, according to a tranche of documents obtained by Agência Pública.
In the course of the meetings with senior government officials, Cláudio Barroso Magno Filho, a retired brigadier general in the Brazilian Army, lobbied in the interests of F&M and the mining companies in which it had invested. Barroso Magno has worked in consultancy and sales of equipment to the Brazilian Armed Forces and other contractors since becoming a military reservist in the 2000s, and has lobbied on behalf of F&M in Brazil since 2019.
F&M has been trying to secure environmental licenses for two of its mining interests, Belo Sun and Brazil Potash (Potássio do Brasil), for more than 10 years. Belo Sun and Brazil Potash’s respective activities in the states of Amazonas and Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon, are a threat to rural settlements, Indigenous groups and ribeirinhos, or traditional riverside communities, according t activists.
Belo Sun’s activities are more widely known, and the group shares a number of leading executives with F&M.
Deal made for Belo Sun’s mining project
Belo Sun intends to dig the biggest open-cast gold mine in the world in Volta Grande do Xingu, located in Pará, more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the state capital Belém. If Belo Sun is successful in carrying out its plans, it would see the construction of a tailings dam larger than the one that collapsed in the Mariana dam disaster in 2015, one of the biggest environmental disasters in Brazil’s history.
“On the government’s side, there is pressure to give the go-ahead for the Volta Grande project,” said Elisângela Côrtes, a public defender who coordinates the regional Center for Human Rights in Altamira, Pará, and is working on the Volta Grande case. “In our view [however], the project is unviable, both from a social standpoint and from an environmental standpoint,” she said.
According to documents obtained by Agência Pública’s reporters, the F&M-affiliated mining company’s plans progressed as Barroso Magno’s involvement in negotiations developed. The government’s official agenda shows he has been present in meetings between Belo Sun and the Bolsonaro government since 2019.
In September of that year, acting on behalf of Belo Sun, he met with leading officials from the Department for Geology and Mining from the Ministry of Mines and Energy. Another meeting took place with government officials in May 2021, with Barroso Magno again participating on behalf of the Canadian company.
Although he has been named by the Brazilian government as a consultant for the mining company, Barroso Magno does not feature among the listed directors or managers of Belo Sun, or indeed in any other role on the company’s website.
The most recent meeting between Barroso Magno and federal government officials took place shortly before an agreement was reached on Nov. 25, 2021, between Belo Sun and the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), the federal authority responsible for the administration of public lands in Brazil. The agreement would allow the company to open a gold mine in Pará on land that was originally meant for agrarian reform projects.
Acting as part of the delegation representing Belo Sun, Barroso Magno met with the top INCRA officials. The next day, a contract was “signed between the President of INCRA and the company Belo Sun Mineração Ltd.” that granted “the use of an area measuring 2,428 hectares, 1,439 hectares of which overlaps with the Ressaca Settlement Project, and 989 hectares of which overlaps with the area of Gleba Ituna, located in the municipality of Senador José Porfírio, in the state of Pará.” The stated purpose of this deal was for “mining activities.” Despite legal concerns raised about the deal, it was later confirmed in the Brazilian government’s official gazette.
Speaking to Agência Pública, Barroso Magno said he had only worked on behalf of Brazil Potash, the other mining company linked to Forbes & Manhattan. “I’m not aware of any other project” belonging to the Canadian group, he said.
However, one of the materials obtained by Agência Pública’s reporters credits Cláudio Barroso Magno Filho as the Canadian group’s “vice president of government relations” in Brazil. “I am not a lobbyist who can open certain doors for people, rather I’m about developing projects: I was contracted, in a sense, because of my management experience.” Barroso Magno said.
INCRA has said the concession to Belo Sun for the use of the land “represents around 3.5% [of the total area] of the rural settlement,” and that “the area remains unaffected” — that is, the land has still not been handed over to Belo Sun. It added that, “in the event of it being necessary to relocate [the settlement’s] inhabitants, this will be discussed with the State [of Pará’s] environmental agency as part of the process of environmental licensing.”
Face to face with Brazil’s vice president
“The Army is like a big family, since we partake in so many things together,” Barroso Magno told Agência Pública. “However, despite being a contemporary of General Mourão, we are not friends.”
In February 2019, just the second month of the Bolsonaro administration, Barroso Magno made an official visit to Vice President Mourão. Although the agenda for the meeting remains unknown, it was followed up in June 2019 by the first exclusive meeting between Vice President Mourão and F&M chairman and founder Stan Bharti, in which Barroso Magno participated.
From that point on, Barroso Magno continued to hold meetings with government officials, sometimes acting as an adviser and sometimes as a consultant on behalf of F&M and its mining enterprises. During the same period, F&M’s relationship with the Brazilian government grew closer.
An official video from the company published to YouTube on Nov. 4, 2019, shows chairman Bharti giving a walkabout tour of F&M’s Toronto offices, in which he points out a poster of an award from Brazil: “This is an interesting poster. We have a company called Potássio do Brasil, in Brazil, it’s called Brazil Potash — and it’s a private company, we’re developing it and it should go into production soon.”
One week later, in the middle of a meeting at a summit of the BRICS countries in Brasília, Bharti and Tao Yang — president of Chinese state-owned construction giant CITIC, which is a partner in Brazil Potash — discussed the company’s plans with Vice President Mourão, as detailed in the event’s official agenda.
Between 2020 and 2021, exclusive meetings between Bolsonaro administration officials and representatives from F&M took place on at least seven occasions. During the same period, the Brazilian government published the Pro-Strategic Minerals Policy, which “supports the granting of environmental licenses” to both of the F&M-linked mining companies in the Amazon region.
One of the documents shows that, in 2020, Brazil Potash was already anticipating that the Brazilian government would classify its project as “strategic.”
The document includes a slide presentation with photos of the signing of contracts between Brazil Potash and the Bolsonaro administration, at which both Bharti and Mourão are present. “Brazil Potash is considered to be of ‘national importance’ by the ‘federal government,’” the document states. The office for the Vice Presidency of the Republic of Brazil did not respond to a request for comment from Agência Pública by the time this article was published.
Pro-Strategic Minerals Policy
Through the Pro-Strategic Minerals Policy, announced in March 2021, the Bolsonaro administration seeks to “prioritize government efforts” for projects that fall within the remit of this new directive. Projects by the Canadian companies Belo Sun and Brazil Potash are at the forefront of those under consideration.
In practice, the new policy allows the Brazilian government to act “in the necessary way in order to minimize risks and resolve conflicts that could occur” in the projects. This includes “supporting the granting of environmental licenses” for approved companies — as in the case of the mining companies linked to F&M.
The Pro-Strategic Minerals Policy is being implemented by a committee, which does not feature any representatives from the Environment Ministry or its agencies, or from other official bodies usually involved in the granting of environmental licenses for mining projects. The inclusion of the mining companies linked to F&M took place without consulting the Federal Public Defender’s Office or the Federal Public Ministry, both of which have cases pending in the federal courts against Belo Sun’s and Brazil Potash’s projects.
The Ministry for Mines and Energy issued a statement in response to Agência Pública’s request for comment, in which it said that “the environmental bodies remain wholly responsible for conducting and deciding upon the processes of environmental licensing for qualifying projects that are part of the Pro-Strategic Minerals Policy.” Regarding the decision not to consult the Federal Public Defender’s Office and the Federal Public Ministry, the statement said the approval of projects that are part of the Pro-Strategic Minerals Policy “do not require coordination with the aforementioned bodies.”