Special Coverage

Threatened Countryside: the geraizeiros facing a Chinese mining megaproject

The traditionalist gerazeira population from northern Minas Gerais, fights to preserve their land since the 70’s

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
81 year old Adelina Xavier de Moraes, has lived on the land since she was born and never intends to leave - Vanessa Nicolav

Between heaven and earth, life takes its course, according to the geraizeiros, who are traditionalist populations living in the highlands of northern Minas Gerais, a state in southeastern Brazil. In the Gerais region, God is present in every living moment: in the harvest of medicinal herbs that respects the phases of the moon; the plowing of the land during the first hour of daylight; in arranging the seeds among the plowed land according to the seasons; in the long-awaited harvest and collecting the food that was grown. On the streets, however, the devil gained ground, as Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa jokes in his book Grande Sertão: Veredas, as he passed by the Gerais region. And the devil, for Adelina Xavier de Moraes, means the increasing problems arising from mining.

The community where Dona Adelina lives is one of those that are threatened with extinction due to the construction of a mining mega project by Sul Americana de Metais S / A (SAM), controlled by the Chinese investment company Honbridge Holdings, based in the Cayman Islands and headquartered in Hong Kong.

“I can see that they are throwing me out of my house, and I don't want to go. I'm fine at home. I eat whenever I want, I drink what I want, I have my friends over. What is no good around here is the ore”, she says.

Involuntary removal of the population, with the consequent disruption of territorial and social ties; changing the traditional way of life of communities; health and safety problems; destruction of the native Cerrado highlands and water sources, these are some of the problems that come with the arrival of the mining project. This is the warning coming from social movements that work together with the geraizeros.

At the age of 81, Dona Adelina spent her entire life on that land, one of 73 communities in the traditional breeding territory of Vale das Cancelas, in northern Minas Gerais, divided between the municipalities of Grão Mogol, Padre Carvalho and Josenópolis.

The climate is semi-arid, but not with cracked soil and dry vegetation. The scarcity of rainfall and the high average temperature do not prevent fruits from growing there. The region has great bio-diversity and, with a little water, the farmers plant everything: pumpkin, zucchini, gherkin, beans, corn, peanuts, passion fruit, mango, papaya, tomatoes, chives and so on. It is this hinterland that is being threatened.

The fact that it is a traditionalist community, and recognized as such by state law 21.147, does not impede the construction of a project of this size in the region, since the process of land demarcation has not yet been completed by the State.

With the undertaking, the objective is to transform the site into a new mining center, as occurred in other regions of the state of Minas Gerais, including those that fell victim to environmental crimes such as the cities of Mariana and Brumadinho.

41 year old Maria Leide Soares dos Santos Moraes, the daughter-in-law of Dona Adelina, says that there is pressure from the company on residents to accept the mining project in the region.

“There are times when they come and say things that we don't understand. It seems that tomorrow the machines will get to work. Then we get scared, because they say it’s going to happen, they will make it happen, even when we don’t wait to”, says Moraes.

Her husband, son of Dona Adelina, Domingo Lisboa de Moraes, 47, says that in the Lamarão community, no one accepts the mining company's arrival. “The concern we have is that this mining company will bring death to everything, it is not just for humans, but for animals, water springs, for the Cerrado. It's a disease. It's something from a different world”, says Domingo.

Even with nowhere else to go, no one wants to leave their homeland, where they planted and nurtured their roots. “We already got used to our territory. We plant little things here and there, we raise a chicken, a pig. It is little, but it is through this struggle that we survive. And when we move from here, we don't know what’s ahead” says Eva Rosa de Souza, another resident.

So far, there is no framework by SAM, the federal nor state government for resettling these families, should the mining complex materialize. Brasil de Fato got in touch with SAM. In a press release, the company says it has “immense respect for people”. Even with the residents reinforcing that they do not want the mining project on their land, the company says that "building a good relationship based trust with the communities is achieved through constant partnership and dialogue".

Impacts on the territory

The SAM project spans 8 thousand hectares, five municipalities and 11 communities, some of which may cease to exist.

According to Bruno Milanez, professor at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) and coordinator of the research group Politics, Economics, Mining, Environment and Society (Poems), the arrival of such a project can destabilize communities, directly impacting the traditionalist way of life of the gerizeiros.

"With the very rapid arrival of a large contingent of workers, there will usually be drug abuse, a greater chance of sexual exploitation, a higher rate of violence, violence against women, teen pregnancy," he emphasizes. In this sense, the geraizeiros can lose the feeling of belonging to the land, leading to the extinction of their culture.

On the other hand, farmers who have a piece of land and work in agriculture may lose their way of life and means of production. "They are taking people out of rural work, imposing precarious work, outsourced work that is underpaid", he points out.

For cattle breeder Valdir Gouveia, these communities are seen as an obstacle by corporations. “If I let the mining company come in however they want, they will only damage our place, because they will say that I am 58 years old and I am not fit to work at the mining company. So, this mining development business is just a lie, it is just deceit”, he says.

Both Sul Americana de Metais and Lotus Brasil Comércio e Logística state that they will invest in training professionals and generate jobs in the region, about 6,200 at the peak of construction works and 1,100 for day to day operations. The narrative is endorsed by the mayors of the impacted cities, who signed a letter of support for the project this year.

However, the project's lifespan is estimated at 20 years, with an investment of U$ 2.2 billion, which can lead to an estimated production of 27.5 million tons of ore per year. As it is a non-renewable resource, when the reserve is depleted, the companies close, “go away and the contingent of people that the company sent there find themselves in a context of economic crisis”, contextualizes Milanez.

Brasil de Fato contacted the city halls and the elected mayors of the municipalities affected, but, until the publication of this report, received no response.

Water situation

The region's ore has a 20% iron content, which is considered low. Therefore, 80% of the product to be extracted has no commercial value. To store this waste, two dams will be needed, occupying an area of 2,596 hectares, which would be the largest in Brazil.

In addition, with a 24-hour operation, the project estimates that it will consume 6.2 million liters of water per hour, in a region that is already suffering from drought, either because it is semi-arid or due to the growing monoculture of eucalyptus and pine. “Water demand from mining in the mineral sector is very high. So it is very contradictory to encourage or stimulate the implementation of projects that will compete for water with the local communities”, emphasizes Milanez.

To this end, SAM already has an authorization from the National Water Agency (ANA) to remove 54 million liters of water from the Irapé Hydroelectric Plant, controlled by the state-owned energy company of Minas Gerais. With this amount of water, it is possible to provide for 400 thousand inhabitants over two years.

In addition to the grant from ANA, SAM also intends to build a dam next to the Vacaria river, covering 757 hectares in four communities and destroying nine cemeteries.

According to Milanez, the impact of mining is not only local. There will be a change in the water system, reaching communities that are 15 kilometers from the complex, in addition to the chemical contamination of the water with poisons such as arsenic and mercury.

South American Metals

The struggle of the farmers fighting to preserve their land and their way of life has been taking place since 2006, when SAM started technical studies in the region to make the exploitation of iron ore viable. Four years later, the licensing process for the Vale do Rio Pardo Project began as the second largest pipeline in the world, covering 482 kilometers. The objective of the project is to transport the ore to the Port of Ilhéus, in the south of Bahia, passing through 21 municipalities, and from there to its final destination: China.

Facing rejection from public environmental agencies, the initial project was split up to facilitate licensing, says the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) and the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).

While SAM requested authorization from the State Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainable Development (Semad), Lotus Brasil Comércio e Logística filed the pipeline licensing process with the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

According to Felipe Soares, from MAB, since they go hand in hand, "they put pressure on Ibama, because after the pit is dug it is necessary to drain the ore in some way, and that is through the pipeline".

To Brasil de Fato, SAM positioned itself through its Environment and Public relations spokesperson, Gizelle Andrade. She relates the role of Lotus to outsourcing logistics, which "is extremely common in mining projects and was decided based on technical criteria". She also states that “the Lotus business is strategic to the SAM project” and that the mining company “has a 5% stake in Lotus, a minimum percentage to guarantee security for the SAM company”.

According to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) and the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais (MPMG), however, Lotus Brasil Comércio e Logística was created by SAM in partnership with Lotus Fortune Holding Limited, one week before the license application for the mining complex. So far, SAM has not been able to obtain any of the three initial stages of licensing.

Edited by: Leandro Melito e Rodrigo Chagas