Local leaders in Barcarena, Pará are in fear for their lives, following the murder on Monday 12 March of one of their leaders, 47 year-old Paulo Sérgio Almeida Nascimento. This was the second murder of a community leader in three months. Fernando Pereira was murdered on 22 December 2017.
“It’s as though we are the prey and they are the hunters”, warns Bosco Oliveira Martins Júnior, from CANQUIAMA, the Association of Caboclos, Indigenous and Quilombolas of Amazonia.
Locals at Barcarena protest at the gates of the Hydro Alunorte site, 2 March 2018. Video: RBATV
CANQUIAMA link the killings and ongoing persecution and threats to which they are all subject, to denunciations and legal action they have brought against the giant aluminium mining company Hydro Alunorte, part-owned by the Norwegian government. “We were already receiving threats,” Bosco says, “but they increased 100-fold after we lodged the complaint”. “Will I be the next one to die, tomorrow, because I spoke out?” asked CANQUIAMA president, Maria do Socorro.
The association had entered an application for police protection in January this year, after a message distributed on WhatsApp offered a reward of R$40,000 (about £8,800) for information on the whereabouts of Bosco Oliveira Martins. The application was turned down by Jeannot Jansen, Pará state Secretary for Public Security and Civil Defence. Ismael Moraes, lawyer for the association, then demanded that the investigation (of the murders) and legal protection be handed over to federal agencies, because “it’s impossible to have any confidence in the state authorities… all the actions of the Pará state officers are aimed at covering up the crimes of Hydro Alunorte and allowing them to continue their irregular practices.”
For its part, Hydro Alunorte has firmly rejected any link to the deaths of the two men, which, it says, are a matter for the police.
Brazil’s largest aluminium mine
Hydro Alunorte is owned by Norsk Hydro, a bauxite and aluminium mining and refining company majority owned by the Norwegian government. The mine sprawls across the municipality of Barcarena, in north-eastern Pará, near the mouth of the River Amazon and not far from Belém. It is an area of low-lying land and multiple river channels and islands. The mine is the largest aluminium refining plant in the world.
The refining process generates massive amounts of tailings, which are stored in huge ponds or lagoons. Comparisons are made between these, and their potential for collapse and pollution with the tailings dam at the Fundão mine in Minas Gerais, which collapsed in 2015, killing 19 people, destroying the community of Bento Rodrigues and polluting the valley of the Rio Doce 500 miles downstream to the Atlantic Ocean.
However, at Hydro Alunorte, the danger is not in the collapse of a dam high up a valley, but in the flooding of shallow, extensive lagoons extending across a vast area of low-lying land. Rainwater, river and possible flooding from the sea are the dangers here.
Video taken by a drone shows the vast tailings lagoon at Hydro Alunorte and points at which it overflowed on 16-17 February 2018. Locals noticed that the water of the Bom Futuro stream, a tributary of the Pará river, were cloudy and unfit for drinking. It was raining heavily. But one thing was certain: there had been an overflow from the tailings dam from the bauxite refinery, involving caustic soda from the plant. Video: Amazônia Real.
Major storms in February caused a tailings lagoon to overflow, polluting surrounding countryside used by local communities. The tailings contain caustic soda and various metals which are toxic if they contaminate drinking water. The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) ordered the closure of one of the ponds, DRS02, when it was discovered that it lacked an environmental operating permit.
Report of Evandro Chagas Institute with details of the toxic content of discharges affecting water supplies of the community. Video: EC Institute
Suspicions of locals increased further when the Evandro Chagas Institute of the Ministry of Health announced the discovery of a secret pipeline, illegally discharging mine effluent into springs at the head of the River Muripi.
After initial denial that there had been any breach in the tailings lagoon, the company announced that it was taking immediate measures to supply drinking water to the communities of Vila Noa and Bom Futuro, with the help of Civil Defence.
This is by no means the first infringement alleged against Hydro Alunorte which has yet to pay fines levied against in in 2009, according to BBC Brazil.
An article by Max Nathanson, published by Mongabay, and re-published by LAB, describes the environmental setting and history of the mine in greater detail.
This article is based in part on the article by Rute Pina, published on 12 March 2017 by Brasildefato.