On the morning of the annual Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, in February 2017, a group of samba dancers stood solemnly in front of a massive parade float depicting five venomous snakes, their forked tongues protruding from the back of a bearded man with bloodshot eyes.
The gruesome display was a publicity stunt — a symbol of agribusiness invading the eastern edge of the Amazon rainforest, said the dancers in a press conference that morning. To the delegation of Indigenous leaders in attendance, the monster allegorized several industrial projects recently encroaching on their territories.
For some, it represented the Belo Monte, a massive government-owned hydroelectric dam that flooded the shores of the lower Xingu River, a tributary to the Amazon River. For one delegate, the leader of the Juruna tribe, the monster represented a more recent perceived threat to the communities living near those shorelines — a Canadian mining company by the name of Belo Sun.
“We can’t accept Belo Sun in our region, not in Brazil,” tribe leader Bel Juruna told the thousands of carnival-goers in attendance that day. “We demand that this company leave us alone on our lands, that the government respects us and respects our nature.”
For years, the Toronto-based firm has sought licence to build Brazil’s largest open-pit gold mine, called the Volta Grande, on the southern shore of a 500-km curve in the Xingu. But the Juruna and critics alike have said that the mine would spell disaster for the surrounding ecosystem and Indigenous communities if it’s approved by the Brazilian government.
In particular, activists opposed to mining in the Amazon have long expressed concern over the Volta Grande’s expected use of toxic chemicals like cyanide for gold processing — a common concern among protestors of large-scale mining developments — and say it’s too soon to build in a region where the impacts of the Belo Monte dam, a project approximately 20 km away, have yet to be fully realized. According to court rulings, the company has repeatedly failed to adequately consult the surrounding Indigenous communities on the proposal, leading a federal judge to condemn the company’s actions as “a serious violation of environmental legislation and Indigenous rights” in 2013.
Opposition to the building of the mine in the Xingu region continues at a time when Indigenous communities in the Amazon are growing increasingly susceptible to the effects of rampant development and deforestation that have surged under Brazil’s right-wing government led by President Jair Bolsonaro.
Belo Sun began field research on the Volta Grande mining territory, stretching across the lush outback and rolling hills of the State of Para, in 2008. The company received its first regulatory licence in 2010. The current mining area occupied by the company is over 1,600 square kilometres — more than twice the size of Toronto.
For Belo Sun, a company with a market capitalization of $212 million, the Volta Grande is a business-defining project. If approved, the mine would allow for the extraction of hundreds of millions of tons of gold from the land’s volcanic greenstone rock over the span of 17 years. The company anticipates an average gold production of 205,000 ounces per year, which, at current gold prices, is valued at more than $303 million (U.S.) annually. They estimate construction would cost roughly $298 million (U.S.) to complete.
But the project was temporarily halted by federal courts in Brazil twice after lawsuits were launched by prosecutors and regional government agencies responsible for Indigenous and environmental affairs. In 2013, the mine was put on hold on the grounds that the company had failed to study the impact of the mine on local Indigenous populations. In 2017, not long after the parade in Rio, its installation licence was suspended when a judge ruled that further investigation was warranted into allegations of illegal purchases of land and dispossession of the populations living on those lands by preventing them from hunting and fishing, according to court documents.
In total, federal and regional prosecutors have filed six lawsuits against Belo Sun since the company received its first licence.
To move ahead with construction, Belo Sun now needs approval from a federal court after completing a federally mandated Indigenous Study, which the company said will be finished by the end of the year.
Christian Poirier, a spokesperson for Amazon Watch, said the rulings demonstrate why the Volta Grande shouldn’t be completed.
“There are many little communities that exist in these areas, and the imposition of massive projects like (the Volta Grande) will hurt them,” he told the Star. “A mine of this scale in a country that has such horrible safety standards in terms of its mining regulations would be absolutely catastrophic, especially in an ecosystem so damaged already.”
Peter Tagliamonte, the Canadian CEO of Belo Sun, disagrees. He said the project will maintain rigorous safety standards and will be beneficial to bringing economic development and employment to the area.
“Preservation of the environment is important to all of us and it was a very important consideration as we designed the Volta Grande Project,” Tagliamonte wrote to the Star in a statement. He said the project won’t take from or discharge water into the Xingu River, but rather will accumulate rainwater and “utilize evaporation.”
He said the mining operation will create 800 direct jobs and 2,400 indirect jobs related to the project. The mine will pay a 1.5 per cent royalty on all gold production to the Brazilian government, over half of which will go directly to the local municipality of Senador José Porfirio, where the mine is located, and in total, Tagliamonte estimates that the mine will pay $800 million (in Brazilian currency) in taxes over its lifespan.
While U.S.-based mining companies are known to settle in Toronto’s financial district, Belo Sun is largely a Canadian operation. The firm’s executives are composed of former engineers and corporate lawyers from groups such as SNC-Lavalin and CIBC. Tagliamonte, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School, previously served as president and CEO of Sulliden Gold Corp. and Central Sun Mining before taking the helm of Belo Sun in 2014.
In light of the rulings, Tagliamonte said that the company is working on consulting with Indigenous communities by hosting town hall meetings and providing an opportunity for residents to visit already-operating mines to better understand its impact on the environment and surrounding area.
“The Indigenous Studies that are currently underway investigate all possible impacts on the Indigenous Communities,” Tagliamonte said. “Our studies have shown minimal negative impacts on the communities and importantly, many positive impacts.”
But Poirier counters the mine will nevertheless have a “polemic” effect on the surrounding area. “Imagine the sound of dynamite and major artillery not far from where you live, around the clock. That’s what the people living there will experience,” he said. “The impact of these projects, and the impacts of heavy metals used to extract gold, are a death-knell for the communities.”
The company and the Indigenous groups have long disputed the distance between their land and the mine. The Juruna and Arara peoples say their territories are located 9.5 km and 13.7 km from the mine, respectively, while the company maintains that the closest Indigenous territory is 11 km from the mine, notably outside the 10-km area of impact established by Brazilian law.
A precedent-setting ruling delivered by a Brazilian appeals court in December 2017 ordered that the company must also study the impact of the mine on Indigenous communities based on a “consultation protocol” established by the Juruna themselves. The protocol requests that consultation meetings are held in the Juruna community and that all decisions be reached by consensus.
The Star was unable to reach the Juruna by the time of publication.
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Helena Palmquist, a spokesperson for the Federal Prosecutions Office in the State of Para, which filed two lawsuits against the company, said similar projects, such as the government-owned Belo Monte dam, appeared to have significant consequences on the same communities affected by Belo Sun when it was completed in 2017. A report issued by the federal prosecutors office in the State of Para recently found that the dam caused an array of fish species, hunted and sold by local fisheries, to die abruptly.
Palmquist argued that the mine’s use of toxic chemicals like cyanide could be harmful to the surrounding environment and ecosystem, pointing to a feasibility report issued by Belo Sun itself in 2015 which acknowledged “the potential for localized impacts to the groundwater in the vicinity of artisanal mining operations due to cyanide, mercury and heavy metals usage.”
In October, the Federal Prosecutions Office recommended that the regional government of Para suspend all licensing for the Volta Grande, drawing comparisons to other industrial projects located near Indigenous communities in the Amazon.
“The recommendation recalls that, 300 km from the Samarco dam, the Krenak Indigenous people spent years without access to drinking water after the structure rupture occurred in November 2015,” it reads (originally in Portuguese). “At 600 km from the accident, the Tupinamba Indigenous people were impacted by mud that crossed the entire Doce River basin.”
The State of Para has yet to respond to the prosecutors’ recommendation.
Palmquist has also raised concerns over Belo Sun’s decision to recruit engineers from the same engineering firm that attested to the stability of the Mariana tailings dam before it collapsed in 2015, leaving 19 people dead and hundreds of homes in nearby villages destroyed.
Reports issued by Belo Sun show that it hired the company, called VOGBR Recursos Hidricos e Geotecnica, to consult on the design of tailings dams and waste dumps (VOGBR also had other responsibilities). In 2016, one of the engineers at VOGBR who provided consultation for Belo Sun was arrested and charged with issuing a false environmental report for the Mariana dam project and providing a misleading statement about the dam’s sustainability following its collapse. (The case is ongoing, and none of the allegations have been proven.)
“This kind of preparation is unacceptable,” said Palmquist. “The people who live close to where the mine is have little reason to believe that there won’t be problems if these are the people they’re consulting.”
But Belo Sun has said the concern is “misleading,” arguing that the Volta Grande tailing dam will be safer because it will use a “downstream design” rather than an “upstream design,” the latter of which was used for the Mariana dam. Groups like MiningWatch have reported that downstream designs are more “inherently safe” than upstream designs.
Tagliamonte said that the company has undertaken several measures to help ensure the mine won’t experience a disaster, including the use of an Independent Tailing Review Board to review the design of the facility. He said the mine will incorporate “rigorous” maintenance, monitoring and emergency response procedures that include daily inspections.
“The facts are that VOGBR was / is a well-respected Mining and Civil Engineering firm in Brazil,” Tagliamonte wrote in a statement, adding that the mine is located on land which has been used for artisanal mining and agriculture in the past.
Jamie Kneen, spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada, said an upstream design could mitigate the risk of disaster, but “the river system and its economy and ecosystems are already going to be devastated by the dam regardless.”
“More importantly, (the tailings dam) will not affect the disruption that is already underway, in terms of deforestation, road-building, and the influx of people from outside that these projects create,” he said.
Tagliamonte countered that the Volta Grande project will offer “significant benefits in protecting the surrounding environment” by offering programs such as the implementation of “green areas” to plant natural tree species and nurseries where seeds harvested in surrounding forests can be grown into saplings.
Despite the legal hurdles the company has faced, some worry that the election of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and his far-right government will make it easier for projects like the Volta Grande to receive approval. Since taking office in January 2019, development in the rainforest has increased significantly while deforestation has surged by more than 80 per cent over the previous year, according to the Brazilian government’s former head of space research.
While Poirier said the Brazilian judicial system still retains autonomy regardless of the political will of the federal government, he believes recent legal decisions could be good news for Belo Sun.
In July, the company received a favourable ruling from the federal court of appeals, ordering that SEMAS (the State Environmental Agency for the Government of Para) retain responsibility for the environmental permitting of the mine. Poirer worries that the decision might allow oversight of the mine to fall to a state agency with significantly fewer resources, which could be more susceptible to private lobbying than a larger federal agency with increased funding, like IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources).
“The decision is in line with the Bolsonaro government’s aggressive and disastrous efforts to open up the Amazon and Indigenous lands to mining,” said Poirier. “Highly problematic projects like the Volta Grande mine will undoubtedly receive preferential treatment by his government.”
A previous ruling by a lower court had ruled that IBAMA should have jurisdiction over the project’s licensing, given the enormity of the project’s potential impacts and the likelihood of those impacts crossing state lines. The lower court’s ruling would have required Belo Sun to conduct a new, costlier Environmental Impact Assessment.
In order for construction on the mine to proceed, Belo Sun must now complete an Indigenous Study and receive approval from the State of Para. Palmquist notes that, should the company receive permission to build, it could still take a few years for work to begin.
Legal obstacles have made life especially difficult for the company, now nearing a decade since they received their first licence, she said. Stocks fell and shareholders retreated following the suspension of the company’s construction licence and additional public scrutiny in April 2017, and Agnico Eagle Mines, which once held the plurality of Belo Sun’s shares at 19 per cent, has since reduced its share to five per cent.
“It’s not clear what will happen when the courts have a say in the matter,” she said. “But even with some legal victories, Indigenous people fighting the mine cannot sit comfortably and relax if this company really wants to build here.”