Brazil Wants More Research on Amazon Gold Mine Before Canadian Company Proceeds

Brazilian government urges more studies on how Belo Sun Mining Corporation’s Volta Grande venture will affect the environment and indigenous peoples.

The Brazilian government wants to see more research on a massive gold-mining project near the Amazon River before the Canadian firm behind it goes ahead with developments.

Brazil's Federal Public Ministry has asked state authorities to obtain more information on how the Belo Sun Mining Corporation's Volta Grande venture, one of the largest gold mining projects near the Amazon, will affect the ecologically sensitive area and the indigenous people living there. It also wants details on any effects the project will have on the nearby Belo Monte dam, the third largest hydroelectric project in the world.

The Amazon River basin is one of the most precious ecosystems in the world. Deforestation and development in the area is a cause of global concern.

The Volta Grande is 60 kilometres southwest of the city of Altamira in the northern Para state. Belo Sun controls the mining and exploration rights covering 1,305 sq. km. The Toronto-based firm says it has already invested $100 million on exploration, purchases and improving the area by building a school.

Attorneys for the federal ministry argue the company should not get the licence it needs to proceed until FUNAI, a government body that safeguards the interests of indigenous people, puts forward terms of reference for studies on how mining will affect those living there. They also want broader public hearings, according to a statement released by the ministry last week.

And they want FUNAI to approve it all before the licence is granted, the statement said.

The Volta Grande is being constructed near the controversial Belo Monte dam, which diverts part of the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, into an artificial canal. The Brazilian government says the dam is needed to feed Brazil's growing energy needs but the Belo Monte has been the subject of decades of protests and legal challenges.

International environmental groups fear the combined effects of the dam and the mine on the area, and are applauding the steps Brazil is taking.

However, Belo Sun CEO Mark Eaton told the Star that the company has already submitted its social and environmental impact reports to the state government and they were accepted. Public hearings have already taken place and the company has followed all the proper protocols and procedures, Eaton said.

"The (federal ministry) has requested more consultation and studies to show we won't have an impact on water levels or on indigenous communities — basically that everyone is doing their jobs," Eaton said. "But nowhere did they say we shouldn't have our operations permitted or get our licences."

Permits are issued at the state level but the federal government agencies act as watchdogs, providing a further safeguard to the public interest. Eaton said the requirements his company has been asked to fulfil are not out of the ordinary.

"We have good support in the local community. We are doing everything we can to the highest standard. This is a poor area of Brazil, they would welcome the development," he said.

The project will not have an impact on the Xingu River, he said. "It is up on a hill, away from there," Eaton said. He dismisses claims by "bloggers" and environmental organizations that the river was being dammed so the mine could proceed as "ridiculous noise."

"It is one of those frustrating things. You feel like you are fighting against ghosts with blog posts," he said.

Eaton said he does not believe the ministry requests will delay Belo Sun. "But I hesitate to say that."

Environmentalist groups International Rivers and Amazon Watch praised Brazil for demanding more evaluations and putting the brakes on a project they say will "heap further tragedy" on the communities near the Belo Monte dam. Amazon Watch is a non-profit agency based in California and International Rivers operates on five continents, trying to protect threatened bodies of water.

"The public ministry is a constitutional watchdog authority within the Brazilian federal government. They have discovered the environmental assessment is completely lacking information. It has to be evaluated beside the dam," Amazon Watch's Christian Poirier said from Paris.

"If it moves into the hands of the federal agency, it will definitely slow down the licensing process. This is everything that Belo Sun does not want. They want to stay in the hands of the state agency for quick approval."

The Arara and Juruna Indians, whose ancestral homeland is along the Xingu, will be affected by all of the construction, he said.

"The authorities say they need to monitor the impact of Belo Monte for six years," he said. "During that time, we can't see another megaproject in the area. It just isn't fathomable."

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