Eye on the Amazon

Judge Revokes Mining License in Brazilian Amazon

Open pit gold mines, like the massive Yanacocha mine in Peru (pictured here), bring grave social and environmental impacts to traditional peoples, whose rights are frequently ignored. Photo credit: First Peoples Worldwide

"Excavating 37.8 million tons of minerals just 10 kilometers from two indigenous territories without conducting studies on environment impacts on affected communities is illegal and immoral. And Brazil’s judicial system has determined that it is not possible!"Leticia Leite (ISA)

Long besieged communities along the "Big Bend" of the Xingu River in Brazil's Amazon can breathe easier after a groundbreaking judgment last week that revoked the license to drill from Canadian mining company Belo Sun. Citing Belo Sun's failure to assess the impacts of its planned mega-mine on nearby indigenous communities, a federal judge rescinded the company's environmental and provisional licenses, putting the brakes on yet another Amazon extractive industry tragedy.

"The approval of an environmental license without the required prior analysis of the indigenous component entails a serious violation of environmental law and the rights of indigenous people," stated Judge Claudio Henrique Fonseca de Pina in his decision to annul the license. "When adding this to the fact that these indigenous lands are also in the direct area of influence of the Belo Monte dam, [the licensing process] requires even more caution in order to assess the project's scale of impacts on indigenous communities."

Belo Sun's investors reacted immediately to the news of this major setback, with stock shares plunging nearly 10% on the Toronto stock exchange.

This rare instance of justice being served to an unscrupulous and predatory company like Belo Sun is the fruit of brave and determined actions by Brazil's Federal Prosecutors Office of the State of Pará (MPF-PA). A federal agency and constitutional watchdog, the MPF-PA has worked tirelessly on behalf of threatened Xinguano communities, filing dozens of lawsuits against the Belo Monte dam as well as Belo Sun's reckless plans to mine gold from an area already suffering under the mega-dam's crushing impacts.

"This is a step forward – we are no longer enduring the same situation," said Leticia Leite of the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian NGO that helped launch the Belo Sun No!" campaign last year. "Excavating 37.8 million [metric] tons of minerals just 10 kilometers from two indigenous territories without conducting studies on [the project's] environment impacts on affected communities is illegal and immoral. And Brazil's judicial system has determined that it is not possible!"

Belo Sun contends that it simply needs to complete a study detailing the impacts of its mining operations on local indigenous groups to include in its environmental impact assessment (EIA). Claiming that this hurdle will take a mere five months and be sanctioned by Brazil's indigenous agency FUNAI, the company appears resigned to finally acknowledge that the Arará and Juruna peoples of the Big Bend – as well as indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation – are indeed stakeholders in the decision to build Brazil's largest gold mine directly adjacent to their lands.

While Belo Sun's calm assurances may please some rattled investors, the complexity of the impact study they are obliged to carry out will undoubtedly prolong its unrealistic five-month timetable. Indeed, some analysts are already pushing the company's timeline for gold production from 2016 to 2020. The new impact study will also need to demonstrate that the proposed mine's impacts on indigenous peoples will be superficial, in light of the destruction these communities are already suffering under Belo Monte. Under these circumstances the company finally must face the scrutiny it has long avoided.

With the tacit support and rubber stamp of the state environmental agency SEMA-Pará, Belo Sun was given carte blanche to sidestep its obligation to consider those people its mine threatens to poison with the industrial doses of cyanide needed to extract gold from tons of excavated dirt and rock. Seemingly in direct contradiction to its environmental agenda, SEMA claims that including an indigenous study in the EIA would needlessly "penalize the company and restrict the socio-economic development that the project proposes."

In the climate of impunity the reigns in the Western Brazilian Amazon, who can blame Belo Sun for trying to get away with such murder?

Last week's groundbreaking legal decision is a promising chapter in the somber story of rapacious Amazonian profiteering at the expense of human rights and the environment. Following in the ruinous footsteps of Brazil's Belo Monte dam, Belo Sun aims to heap insult atop injury, while turning a tidy profit. The stakes are exceedingly high: with projected yields of 50 tons of gold over 12 years, arguments in favor of social justice and environmental sanity may only go so far.

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