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This is the second of a series of four blog-posts, written for Christian Aid and LAB by distinguished journalists João Peres and Moriti Neto
2. Conservation: double standards
The lands sought by quilombolas and the mining company, Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN) belong to the federal government, which means they are ‘public’, but not entirely so. In 1979, president João Figueiredo, the last president of the dictatorship, signed a decree creating the Rio Trombetas Biological Reserve. From a legal standpoint, this is the type of territory with the most environmentally restrictive management regime, not permitting any human activity. Within the area, while exploitation of bauxite is not allowed, some of the rules imposed on the quilombolas prevented them from continuing extractive activities essential to their culture.
Life had more freedom before the beginning of the reserve. Then we were forced to live with that new rule. They saved the community from one situation only to drop us into another. It was a difficult time for those who live here. — Francisco Hugo de Souza, President of the Cooperative of Quilombolas of Oriximiná.
Rio Trombetas Biological Reserve
Rio Trombetas Biological Reserve (Portuguese: Reserva Biológica do Rio Trombetas) is a federally-administered biological reserve in the municipality of Oriximiná, Pará, Brazil. It covers a large area of Amazon biome including rainforest, wetlands and water.History
The reserve, which covers 407,754 hectares (1,007,580 acres), was created on 21 September 1979. It is managed by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. The objective is to fully preserve the biota and other natural attributes of the reserve without human interference except for recovery of degraded ecosystems and actions to preserve the natural balance, biological diversity and natural ecological processes. A specific objective is to ensure survival of the Arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa) and other turtles, and to preserve a sample of the Amazon ecosystem. It adjoins the Trombetas State Forest to the north, the Faro State Forest to the east and the Saracá-Taquera National Forest to the south.Status
The Biological Reserve is a “strict nature reserve” under IUCN protected area category Ia. Since 2002 management of the Rio Trombetas Biological Reserve and the Saracá-Taquera National Forest, which is adjacent to the south, has been combined. The conservation unit is supported by the Amazon Region Protected Areas Program. Protected species include giant anteater (myrmecophaga tridactyla), giant armadillo (priodontes maximus), giant otter (pteronura brasiliensis) and Amazonian manatee (trichechus inunguis).
Porto Trombetas was born as the largest “development” project in the Amazon in the 1970s. The military encouraged not only the formation of a company for the extraction of bauxite, but also the creation of two plants for aluminum processing.
They also underwrote the construction of a megaproject in another municipality of Pará, in this case, the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam. This project depended on the violation of a whole string of social and environmental principles, since the smelting of the metal requires a huge amount of energy – 15 megawatts per ton, equivalent to eight years of the average consumption of a Brazilian family.
Ten years after the creation of the reserve, when the quilombolas had organized to claim title to the land, a new decree came. A National Forest (Flona) was created with 441 thousand hectares, seven times the area of the city of Madrid. This forest is exactly in the area where MRN had verified the existence of large reserves of bauxite and obtained a concession for exploration.
The entire ore extraction area is concentrated in this forest, which is identified as a key source of Brazil’s extractable bauxite. A study published in 2011 by the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) shows that Brazil holds 7% of the world’s ore reserves, the majority of them concentrated in Oriximiná.
It was also in 1989 that a scandal involving MRN came to light. The pollution of the Batata lake is considered the biggest industrial disaster in the history of the Amazon. The company is estimated to have dumped 15 million tons of tailings there over a decade.
Today, the mining company guarantees that the damage has been reversed and that they take great care of the environment, a claim disputed by local residents who still cannot use water from the lake.
What the mining company says:
“In 1979, we began our operations, the method of containment of tailings was a delicate decision to be taken. At the time, there were two possible alternatives for disposing of tailings: the construction of a conventional dam or dispose of the tailings into one of the lakes in the region. Because the topography of the area is virtually flat, the construction of the dam was not considered because it would flood a large area of forest. Thus, between 1979 and 1989, no other technology available and being in compliance with environmental laws at the time, the tailings were disposed of into the Batata Lake, which affected approximately 30% of its surface.
“Despite being clay material only, which is a non-toxic element, the tailings created an area of high turbidity in the water column and led to the suppression of part of the vegetation in the lake, generating impact on the the food chain in that area…
“Currently, the Batata Lake shows clear signs of recovery. It contains over 50 species of fish, out of which 17 are associated with the permanently flooded forest, and it has more than 65 hectares of replanted area. In 1991, during the flood in the silted up area of Batata Lake (Caranã), 19 species were recorded, out of which only five were associated with the permanently flooded forest.
“As important as advances in research and the consequent recovery of the lake has been the formal registration and availability of results in scientific publications which we support. We do not measure efforts to do so because we believe it is essential to share successful experiences.” —from MRN’s company website, (highlighting added by LAB)
Locals complain that they have been the victims of violence by state authorities under both environmental management regimes, Biological Reserve and National Forest. This tense relationship has not diminished over the years, especially with the federal institutes that work on environmental preservation.
The mining company outsourced control of the local population to these institutes. It is a very deliberate strategy –Luiz Jardim de Moraes Wanderley, geographer and professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro
Although the population of Oriximiná has quadrupled since the beginning of bauxite exploration, this increase has occurred mainly in urban areas. The mining environment remained largely unchanged due to the creation of reserves.
In this way, MRN guaranteed its dominion over the Trombetas River region, despite the evident contradiction, given that the Flona was supposed to provide ‘protection’ against the extractive activities of traditional communities such as the quilombolas.
If we go and take a fish inside the reserve area, the government comes and slaps a fine on us. If we go there and fell a tree, there’s a whole bureaucratic procedure. And yet they turn a blind eye to the mining. –Ari Carlos Printes, coordinator of local association Mãe Domingas
Enter the loggers
What was already a bad situation for the local population became even more complicated after the federal government decided to make private concessions for logging, basically facilitating timber extraction from the national forest at the turn of the decade. Currently, 130,000 hectares, just under a third of the total area, belong to companies that can extract timber, oils, seeds and resins.
On the other side of the forest, the residents of lake Sapucuá are affected by problems similar to those of the quilombolas. They are called “ribeirinhos”, because they live near the banks of rivers and lakes and their main activity is small-scale fishing. Like the quilombola neighbours, they suffer all the obstacles placed in the way of people with little or no income.
The communities are stuck here, without being able to use the wood of the reserve. The mining company is contaminating our water. Our resources are almost zero–José Domingos Rabelo, 53, president of the Sapucuá Lake Community Association.
Thus, there is a great contradiction in the dispute in Oriximiná. On the one hand, mining is proceeding aggressively, with minimal concern on the part of public agencies for social and environmental issues. On the other hand, the quilombolas, who live in the forest and cultivate habits of responsible management of the area, are the victims of intense government oversight.
João Peres is a journalist graduated at the University of São Paulo. He is the author of ‘Corumbiara, caso enterrado’, a book about the massacre that occurred in 1995 in the Brazilian Amazon and was nominated finalist of Prêmio Jabuti, the most relevant literature prize in the country. He is also a former editor of web pages and radios and a reporter specialized on human rights themes. He has covered elections and crisis in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia.
Moriti Neto is a journalist and an academic professor. He has been editor and reporter in relevant magazines and web pages, being awarded important prizes for works that have exposed human rights violations and abuse of economic power. As a professor, he coordinated a lab journal uncovering problems related to potable water management in São Paulo, receiving wide appraisal.