Challenges brought by mining industry in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais

Cachoeira de Santo Antonio (Caeté) - Robson de Oliveira

The Brazilian mineral production has increased 550%, in the last decade. Its participation in the country´s PIB (Internal Brute Product) increased 156%. In the year 2000, its participation was only 1,6% in our PIB, getting to 4,1% in 2011. Beside all that, the profit of mining industry has helped significantly to diminish the deficit of the country´s commercial balance. These data explain the Brazilian government policy of intensification of mining extraction, making this economy sector  strategic for the country with billionaire investiments. The national plan of roads and ports, partly delivered to private initiative, should facilitate the flowing off of our natural, mineral, water, energy and agricultural products to the ports from where they will be exported to supply the world market. This is what is called the primary-exporter economy model. Our economy is founded in the exploration of raw material basically to exportation. Only to give an example: the Anglo American mining company is building between the municipality of Conceição do Mato Dentro, in Minas Gerais, and Porto do Açu, in the north of Rio State, the world largest mineral transport channel  (mineroduto) with an extension of 525 km, passing through 32 municipalities of the two states. The investiment only in this project is calculated in US$ 3,6 billion.  A so high investiment is justified only if it promises high profit. One of the problems of this primary-exporter economy model is that we cannot predict its future when the natural reserves on which it depends are extinguished.

Another big problem brought by mining industrial activities is the damage caused to environment and also to the local population affected by these huge extracting projects. Dozens of families are forced to sell their family properties to leave space for the mining roads for prices stipulated by the mining companies, usually below market prices, and some of them were not even compensated by the company in cases of bankruptcy. Community and family small enterprises of agriculture, settlements of landless people, indians and quilombolas (lands of descendants of former slaves) are all removed for the exploration of the subsoil wealthy. The rural proprietaries, associated with other groups in the Brazilian parliament, have pressed for more license to explore minerals in the Indians and quilombolas lands already demarcated by the Brazilian Constitution of 1988. The enormous ambition of the mining companies stimulated even the invasion of the virtual archives of the State department of Mines and Energy by Canada and its anglosaxon allies in search of the Brazilian reserves mining map.

What is really behind all this issue? The Brazilian government is elaborating the New Mining Code. It may revise the way we use our rich and huge natural patrimony, one of the world´s largest and richest, in favour of our own people and its needs. The problem is serious  as we are dealing with non-renewable and limited resources despite the size of the country. The mining activities demand a lot of water to wash the minerals as well as huge amounts of energy. They do not use dry technology as they do in some cases which would be much less harmful to springs of drinking water. Thus, it is the same water used to supply the big cities around Belo Horizonte where most of the mining companies are established. There are already several cases in south of Minas Gerais where the ground waters have been contaminated by chemical products used by the mining companies with an increasing number of people with cancer, skin and lung diseases.  Serra do Gandarela and Serra do Caraça, to give an example, are the last untouchable reserve of high quality water which is responsible for supplying cities around the capital of Minas such as Nova Lima, Rio Acima and several others. This area is now being disputed by Vale do Rio Doce company that alone has 28 open pit iron mines in the state and wants to explore the heart of the iron quadrangle of Minas. Thus, mining activities are highly harmful to water resources as they destroy irreversibly the aquifers, reduce the water sheets and degrade seriously the environment, contaminating the water channels with radioactive and toxic products.  Some mines like Sapecado, in Itabirito, have dried up due to mining activity around it. Cities like Itabira (109.783 inhabitants) and Congonhas (48.519 inhabitants) suffer already from water shortage problems due to mining activities. The process of mining removes layers of rock (canga, ferruginous geo system), responsible for replenishment of the water basins which are then exploded and discarded as waste material besides the fact that it destroys biodiversity and causes permanent and irreversible loss of natural areas that are fountains of mineral waters.

 Mineração na Serra da Piedade (Caeté/Sabará) by Alice Okawara
Mineração na Serra da Piedade (Caeté/Sabará) by Alice Okawara

Some strategies are now discussed by NGOs, Social movements of civil society worried with the future of this and future generations. First of all, the mineral reserves were formed during millions of years and are not renewable. Once explored to exhaustion, there will not be a second harvest. The next generations will be seriously affected if we exhaust the majority of our natural resources. Second, our natural patrimony is a good that belongs to all Brazilian people and not to the government and as such it cannot be privatized. The state is nothing else than its guardian. That means that the whole population must be consulted about the conditions of its exploration. The government cannot decide it only with the mining companies as has often happened. Everything must be submitted to an ample process of democratic decision making. Third, it is urgent to determine the allowed levels of extraction. In the state of Pará, a huge iron ore mine, in Carajás, supposed to be explored for 400 years is about to extinguish its reserve in few years due to the intensification of exploration with the constant improvement of extraction technology. It is necessary to impose limits on the levels of exploration! Fourth, the largest part of the mineral industry was privatized or delivered to foreign private companies or to the ones where the national participation is minor. We demand transparency and a strict public control over mining extraction with public consultation about the concessions for research and exploration. A public access must be guaranteed to the contracts signed between government and companies, with a clear and previous determination of the allowed levels of productivity with a subsequent accompaniment of the socio-environmental impacts and also a strict state supervision of accomplishment of legal requirements in the work relations which have become abusive and exploiting in many cases.  Fifth, the ecologists defend an economic and ecological division of the national territory, with a clear and rational determination of zones where mining activities will be allowed and zones where it will be prohibited such as heads of rivers, springs, agriculture lands, forest reserves, Indians and quilombolas lands, etc. Sixth, we are very much worried about politicians from parliament or even from the executive power, participating actively in the elaboration of the New Mining Code who had their electoral campaigns paid by the mining companies and now defend their interests. It is urgent to publish their names and to watch their political performances as some of them may favour their personal interests in detriment of their own country and people.

Mineiros used to say about its own history as Minas produced half the world´s gold in the eighteenth century: our gold left cathedrals in Portugal, made bank owners millionaires in London and we stayed only with the big holes of the mines. Has history changed since then? Many people doubt…

                                                                                                                  By Ozanan Carrara, SVD, JPIC Coordinator