The Canadian mining company, Belo Sun, experienced a setback in its plans to open a massive gold mine in the Xingu river: it lost authorization to meet with Indigenous communities during the pandemic due to a pressure campaign by Indigenous leaders and human rights organizations.
Groups began mobilizing after a white paper was published on February 10, 2021, by the Brazilian National Indigenous Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio – FUNAI). It provided details on “health protocols” so that Belo Sun could hold in-person and virtual meetings to present and validate its Environmental Impact Study (EIA) to Indigenous residents from the Indigenous Lands in Pará state.
After the publication of the paper, FUNAI authorized in-person meetings between Belo Sun and the Indigenous peoples that would be impacted by their proposed project. Amazon Watch, together with a coalition of organizations, released a statement opposing this decision, as it was made during one of the most dangerous moments of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil. Indigenous peoples remain one of the most impacted and vulnerable groups. To date, the country has recorded more than 266,000 deaths and 11 million cases and about 994 Indigenous Brazilians have died since the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, according to the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), Brazil’s largest Indigenous association.
The coalition’s statement followed a strong recommendation by Brazil’s Federal Public Defender’s Office (DPU) that urged FUNAI not to authorize or participate in in-person meetings while the COVID-19 crisis still poses a threat to the Indigenous peoples of the region. Altamira – the city including the Indigenous lands where some of these in-person meetings would be held – has recorded 19,100 cases so far. Moreover, the regional hospital occupancy rate has exceeded 90%.
By Wednesday, March 17, FUNAI had withdrawn its decision and vetoed any encounters between members of the company and the Indigenous peoples of Volta Grande do Xingu. Although a full halt to all activities would be the most appropriate step to take, Belo Sun remains more concerned with speeding up the process for the approval of its environmental license than with the lives of Indigenous peoples. A face-to-face meeting with Indigenous peoples from different communities in the city of Altamira could have had catastrophic consequences for their health and further burdened the health system.
Volta Grande do Xingu, one of the most biodiverse places in the world, has already been grappling with the negative impacts of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant. The project is also rife with several technical issues, as recent expert reports and researchers attest that the project is not viable from a socio-environmental perspective and raised concerns about its impacts on Indigenous communities. In this context, Brazilian authorities should guarantee the protection of Indigenous peoples and address the serious technical shortcomings of the project. When they authorized in-person meetings, both FUNAI and the Brazilian government made it clear what side they are on: that of the big mining companies.
Belo Sun plans on becoming the largest open-pit gold miner in Brazil by running roughshod over the rights of communities in Volta Grande do Xingu. In addition to the Juruna (Yudjá) and Arara Indigenous peoples, the region is home to other Indigenous groups and several riverside communities. Contrary to the company’s claims, these communities have not yet been properly consulted on a project that could irreversibly change their lives and their traditional lands.
With our partners in Brazil and Canada, such as Mining Watch, Rede Xingu+, Movimento Xingu Vivo para Sempre, Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), International Rivers, Above Ground, and the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), Amazon Watch has been resisting and advocating to have the voices of impacted communities heard while continuing to highlight the impacts of yet another destructive mining project.
Belo Sun is hardly the first extractive company to put its profit margin over the lives of Indigenous peoples, but through swift organizing across our coalition of allied NGOs and Indigenous partners, we have secured an important victory. This is but one stop along this campaign’s road to resist Belo Sun’s ambitions to permanently alter the Xingu region through open-pit mining. It is important that we maintain the pressure to assure that the rights of the Indigenous peoples that would be impacted by Belo Sun’s project are upheld. This includes amplifying their calls against the project and campaigning until their decision is respected.