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The Amazon: Mura indigenous community demands say over potash mine

If mining projects are to go ahead, full, informed, prior consultation is essential.


  • In 2013, Potássio do Brasil, a subsidiary of the Canadian merchant bank, Forbes & Manhattan, began drilling exploratory wells for a giant potassium mine — a highly profitable venture that would allow transport of potash along the Amazon and Madeira rivers. Potash is a vital fertilizer for Brazil’s rapidly growing soy agribusiness industry.
  • One big problem: the company was reportedly drilling inside the Jauary Indigenous Reserve and directly adjacent to other indigenous reserves and communities. Indigenous people said that the ancestral lands being drilled, though sometimes not demarcated as being within their reserves, were vital for hunting and other livelihoods.
  • The mine was licensed in 2015. However, legal irregularities resulted in the project stalling. Finally, a court settlement was reached in which the Mura communities would be given the legal right of consultation — a democratic process of self-determination guaranteed under international law rarely practiced in the remote Brazilian Amazon.
  • How the Mura will vote — and whether that vote will be respected by municipal, state and federal governments; agribusiness; a transnational mining giant; and international investors — remains to be seen. However, analysts agree that the result could have far reaching consequences for rural traditional settlements across the Amazon.
  • Mongabay sent a reporting team to Brazil’s Amazonas state in 2019 to cover an ongoing conflict between indigenous people and a company that wants to put a gigantic potash mine within and next to their Amazon reserves. This is the second of a two-part story. Part 1 can be found here. The original article on Mongabay can be read here.
Tuxaua (chief) Aldinelson Pavão stands beside an exploratory well drilled by Potássio do Brasil. Image by Thais Borges.

AUTAZES, Amazonas state, Brazil — We travelled first by canoe through flooded forest, then afoot, scrambling to keep up with the tuxaua (chief) of Urucurituba village. Aldinélson Moraes Pavão set a brisk pace along a narrow path through thick vegetation, passing clearings for small-scale cattle ranching. In the distance we saw dense tropical forest, where, Pavão told us, the Mura indigenous people hunt.

Then we reached the exploratory wells, deep vertical shafts dug into the earth by a mining company, Potássio do Brasil, on property that the Mura claim as ancestral lands, but which the firm contends is common land held by the government. The wells had been securely sealed, covered with concrete plates, and clearly identified as property of Potássio do Brasil.

The Mura’s discovery of the drilling, first made in 2013, sparked years of conflict which continue to reverberate today between indigenous communities, Potássio do Brasil, the Brazilian government, and the municipality of Autazes, which straddles the Madeira and Amazon Rivers 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.

Most of the Mura were outraged at the company’s attempt to occupy the land. “I am 47 years old,” Pavão told Mongabay. “I was born here and brought up here. My parents and grandparents too. So I won’t be told by Potássio, that comes from outside, that this land isn’t ours. It is our land and they are the invaders.” The indigenous people say that they have another reason to be angry: they claim the firm drilled other wells inside the Jauary Indigenous Reserve, in an area occupied by a sacred burial ground.

“When the [other] indigenous leaders realized what was going on,” people from surrounding communities rushed to aid the Mura, remembered Gilmara Lelis, the tuxaua from Sampaio village. “We are all one people. If they interfere with one village, they’re interfering with all of us.”

The drilling only stopped when the indigenous people threatened to set fire to the company’s machinery.

The conflict that has consumed Autazes for the past six years isn’t only local, it’s international: Potássio do Brasil is a subsidiary of the giant Canadian conglomerate, Forbes & Manhattan (F&M), a leading private merchant bank with a global focus on the resource, agriculture, technology and telecommunications sectors.

The firm says their mining claim is not on indigenous land. Rather, the rich lode of potash ore — invaluable as fertilizer to Brazilian soy plantations — is located about ten kilometers (6.4 miles) from the Paracuhuba Indigenous Reserve, and eight kilometers (4.2 miles) from the Jauary Indigenous Reserve, both of which have been demarcated and recognized by the Brazilian government. The mining claim also lies near two other indigenous communities, neither as yet demarcated: Urucurituba village, ten kilometers (6.4 miles) away, and, closest of all, Soares village, just two kilometers (1.4 miles) from the mine site.

The company argues that the land where they want to put the potash mine, being non-demarcated, is open for their use. Guilherme Jácome, Project Development Director at Potássio do Brasil, told Mongabay: “All of the mine and the area where potash ore will be extracted lies outside indigenous land.”

However, Carlos Marés, former president of FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, and one of the nation’s leading authorities on indigenous rights, has a different understanding.

He points out that the 1988 Brazilian Constitution enshrines the principle of the original right of indigenous people, providing them with an inalienable right to ancestral lands. He explains that, if any lands are permanently inhabited by indigenous groups, and are necessary for their physical and cultural survival, then they are indigenous.

“Indigenous land is indigenous, whether or not it has been demarcated, which is after all only an administrative act of marking out the limits,” Marés concluded.

A map showing the overlap and proximity of indigenous reserves and potash mining claims. Image by Mauricio Torres.

A flawed licensing process

Before it drilled the exploratory wells in 2013, Potássio do Brasil registered requests for prospecting rights and received authorization from the National Department of Mining Research (DNPM), the government regulatory body then in charge of mining activities.

The company plans to open two wells, each seven or eight meters (23 to 26 feet) across and an underground mine about 800 meters (2,600 feet) deep. It will need to build a potash plant, a port on the Madeira River, and a 130 kilometer (81 mile) transmission line to link the company into the national grid.

The mining will produce large quantities of potentially damaging salt. Although the company says measures will be taken to prevent the salt leaching into the ground, aquifers, and rivers, the Mura are concerned that contamination could occur regardless, given the heavy rainfall, extensive annual flooding and heat that occurs each year — especially because the region is located in a floodplain.

The company has carried out an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), as required by the licensing process. The EIS projected a “very high” number of impacts: putting pressure on public health and public services, changing the landscape, and creating an alteration in the reference points in the Indians’ social and cultural world. Clearly, such massive effects would be felt not only at the mine site, but for many miles around and inside reserves, while also disrupting indigenous activities and scaring off game.

To comply with the legal requirement that it present the EIS results, the company held two public hearings, one in Autazes and the other in Urucurituba, but according to the Catholic Church’s Missionary Council (CIMI), few indigenous people attended. Pavão speculated as to why: “At the public hearing they only spoke about what was going to be good for the community. They said nothing about the negative impacts.”

Maria José, a teacher in one of the communities, did attend. She remembers that in the beginning the company’s positive spin evoked “potash fever” in the villages, with young people enthused by the possibility of mining company jobs. “We spoke calmly to them, talking, showing videos, telling them what would happen in the future,” she recalled. “We managed to bring down the fever in the villages, but in the [larger] towns it has been more difficult.”

Governor José Melo grants Potássio do Brasil an environmental license in July 2015. Image by Tabajara Moreno / SECOM.

Licensing irregularities stall project

The potash mine is an ambitious undertaking, with the EIS describing it as “exceptionally large” and “with great potential for pollution.” As a result, in accordance with the 2011 Complementary Law 140, the Amazonas Institute for Environmental Protection (IPAAM), a state agency which certifies small mining projects, should have handed the project over to IBAMA, the federal government’s environmental agency.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, IPAAM issued a prospecting license to Potássio do Brasil in 2015. It did so, even though FUNAI had not yet analyzed the impacts on indigenous communities, an obligatory step in the process. Remarkably, the license that was approved included the Jauary territory, an already demarcated indigenous reserve, which is illegal.

Still, with all the needed approvals in place, it seemed Potássio do Brasil would soon get its project underway. Construction of the mining complex was slated for 2016.

But that was not to be.

The Public Federal Ministry, a group of independent public prosecutors, asked the courts to cancel the license, arguing that the permits were issued in an irregular manner, and to assure that “a full, prior and informed consultation” was held with indigenous communities, as required under International Labour Organization Convention 169, which Brazil has signed.

Prosecutor Fernando Soave. Image by Thais Borges.

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At pre-trial negotiations, Potássio do Brasil agreed to the license cancelation. It also agreed to fund the consultation. And to carry out that plan, it deposited R$350,000 (US$87,500) in an account held by the Amazon Pact Institute, an NGO based in southern Amazonas state.

The inclusion of the Jauary reserve in the EIS proved particularly objectionable. A prosecutor involved in the case, Fernando Soave, declared: “Mining cannot occur on fully established indigenous reserves. That is not in dispute. The consultation we are holding is over whether or not mining should be permitted on land outside the reserves, where nevertheless it will have an impact on indigenous land.”

Later, Potássio do Brasil excluded the Jauary reserve from the mine area. Which is why the company can say today that it has no plan to mine on indigenous land. But the indigenous communities suspect that if the project goes ahead the company will move onto disputed territory they regard as indigenous but which the company does not; especially Soares village, which the Indians claim is their territory but which hasn’t been demarcated and probably won’t be in the near future, as President Jair Bolsonaro has declared that he will not demarcate a single centimeter during his administration.

The current status of Soares was not confirmed for this story by either the MPF or Potássio do Brasil.

A house in Urucurituba village. Local indigenous people worry how the potash mine will impact their lives and livelihoods. Image by Thais Borges.

The consultation begins

The consultation as agreed upon by all parties will include all of the Mura villages in the municipalities of Autazes and Careiro da Várzea, as well as all traditional riverine communities that will be affected by the mine and its operation.

Before conducting the consultation, the Mura first had to agree to the form they wished it to take. “Potássio do Brasil wanted a consultation without a protocol [an official procedure with rules] to be carried out at a public hearing,” said prosecutor Soave. “But the Indians decided that they wanted an [officially stipulated] protocol.”

Anthropologist Bruno Caporrino advised the indigenous communities in the shaping of the protocol. A central task, he said, was to get the Indians to understand their rights as citizens. “The underlying theme in all the discussions was to differentiate public policies from favors, to get [indigenous people] to grasp that they had the right to have rights.”

According to Caporrino, the state has never had a strong presence in Amazonia, so it has been the rural elites who have handed out rudimentary public services. With the state still absent in rural areas, it’s hard to change that mentality, he explained: “There comes a point, after having a third child die from malaria, that an Indian begs a company to at least build a health post in the village.”

Anthropologist Bruno Caporrino. Image by Thais Borges.

In the early days, Potássio do Brasil tried to win over indigenous people by offering old-style, paternalistic favors. According to a report drawn up by the MPF in support of a formal protocol, the company offered various deals and percs, promising to build schools and to give money to leaders, in exchange for project support.

However, indigenous leaders rejected the company’s approach and began carefully, in consultation with their communities, to draw up the kind of protocol they wanted. First the people had to decide who among them had the right to vote. After long discussion, they determined that Indians living in towns would be excluded and only those living in villages — and thus the ones to be directly affected — would be authorized to vote. Polling, they determined, would take place at formal meetings with minutes.

The affected area would be divided into six regions with three voting cycles. At each level of voting, the Indians would attempt to reach a consensus, but, if after three rounds of balloting, consensus didn’t emerge, then the Indians would accept a majority vote.

But — and this is crucial — they agreed that project approval must gain the support of at least 75 percent of voters. “They decided against a simple majority because they feared that, with [as much as] 49 percent of the population unhappy, the community would be riven in two,” explained Caporrino.

“Agreeing on the protocol was in itself a victory,” said Pavão, who noted that the democratic process hammered out by all can be used not just once, but again and again in future on other divisive issues.

In July of 2019, the indigenous communities handed over their approved protocol to the Federal Justice in Amazonas State. The consultation is now underway.

Francisco, the tuxaua of Taquara village. Image by Mauricio Torres.

Democracy at work

Francisco, the tuxaua of Taquara village, urged that the indigenous communities finally get their hands on the facts: “The protocol is going to force both the government and the company to talk about what is good and what is bad about the project. The good part is that it will bring jobs. The bad part is the impact it will have on the environment and on our people, because a lot of outsiders will be coming in, who can bring in illness and prostitution.”

No one knows exactly how long the consultation process might take. “It could be decided in the first cycle or take five months or even 15 months. But it will certainly be done within a year and half,” Caporrino predicted. And no one knows what their communities will decide.

But Potássio do Brasil’s Jácome is confident: “We believe that, once they know the project and the plans and programs that have been drawn up for the Indians, the Mura people in Autazes and Careiro da Várzea will accept the project.” And, even if they turn it down, he believes there is a way forward. “If the Mura people don’t agree, we are open to finding out why and adapting the project, so that we can find a solution that is viable for everyone: the company, the community and the government.”

Tuxaua (chief) Yuaka Mura, also known as José Claudio Mura, a coordinator for the Mura Indigenous Culture. Image by Mauricio Torres.

Some indigenous leaders say, however, that they will never be convinced. One indigenous chief, commonly known by his Brazilian name, José Claudio Mura, but who prefers his indigenous name, Yuaka Mura, remains adamantly opposed. Yuaka Mura, a coordinator for the Mura Indigenous Culture, a militant indigenous movement, declared emphatically: “We don’t want mining on our land. We have seen the cost of mining in other parts of Brazil. It doesn’t have a future.”

Caporrino explains that the people have three voting options: “Yes, No, or Yes if….” That third option would mean that the Mura want the mine to go ahead, but only after certain conditions are met. For instance, the people could demand that all of their ancestral land be demarcated.

One nagging doubt hangs over the process: will the result of the indigenous consultation be binding or can authorities simply ignore it?

The jurist Carlos Marés noted that the idea behind the consultation is to reach a mutually acceptable settlement. “If the State decides to push ahead [with the mine] without indigenous agreement, it will have to use an iron fist.”

This is the first time that the Mura have been properly consulted about their future and it is a landmark in their attempt to halt the takeover of their land by outsiders. But, even if in the end they vote “no,” the people may still face a fierce struggle in getting the powerful forces supporting the potash mine to accept their final decision — going up against a juggernaut of municipal, state and federal governments; agribusiness; a transnational corporate giant; and international capital investors.

How the Mura vote — and what happens after that vote — in this remote Amazonian municipality could have far-reaching consequences well beyond the making of a potash mine. What happens here could set a legal precedent for indigenous and traditional communities across Brazil as they face intensifying development pressures, and help rural peoples gain some control over the many unprecedented challenges to their way of life.-

Map showing demarcated indigenous lands and non-demarcated ancestral lands claimed by indigenous peoples, as well as potash exploratory wells and the Potássio do Brasil mine. Image by Mauricio Torres.

Banner image caption: A child preparing fish in a Mura community. Image by Mauricio Torres.