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In Brazil, the Canadian mining company Belo Sun is pushing to develop what would be the country’s largest open-pit gold mine in the heart of the Amazon rainforest without the consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. The Volta Grande mine would be located on the banks of the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon, in the northern state of Pará. The proposed mine would use cyanide to extract gold from 3.5 million metric tons of ore each year in one of the most significant biodiversity hotspots in the world. This area of the Amazon is home to the Juruna (Yudjá), Arara and Xikrin, as well as other Indigenous Peoples and communities located along the banks of the Xingu.

The mine is another threat to the Amazon at a time when the world needs a healthy rainforest to help offset global warming and the impacts of climate change. A 2020 study found that Indigenous populations can effectively curb deforestation when their full property rights over their territories are recognized. Earthworks and its allies are supporting the Indigenous Peoples affected by the Belo Sun mine to ensure they are able to exercise those rights.  

A number of experts have documented the threats posed by the mine to the health and livelihoods of the downstream communities and ecosystems. A technical evaluation of the project’s feasibility study found inconsistencies in the information presented by the company and concluded that the project “risks contaminating water sources and harming the area’s indigenous and riverine communities.” A review of the company’s Environmental Impact Assessment found the proposed tailings dam (waste storage facility) has not been designed to meet seismic safety criteria, in violation of Brazilian law. The review recommended that,“based on the high probability of failure of the proposed tailings dam, the Volta Grande Gold Project should be rejected by the Brazilian regulatory authorities without further consideration.”

The mine has come up against strong opposition from Indigenous Peoples along the Xingu River. At a side event organized during the 2021 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous leaders from the Associação Indigena Juruna Kuxima da Aldeia São Francisco and from community of Iawá spoke to the inadequate and underhanded nature of the indigenous studies carried out by the company, the lack of consent from affected communities, and the effects the proposed mine would have on Indigenous Peoples. Lorena Curuaia, from Iawá forcefully explained “Nós não estamos respeitadas…Nossa cultura está em jogo, nossa vida está em jogo… Isso não deve acontecer.” [We are not being respected…Our culture is at risk, our lives are at risk….This should not happen]. 

The lack of appropriate community consultation and consent and the company’s flawed environmental licensing process have led to seven lawsuits in Brazilian courts. These suits, filed by multiple agencies in the Brazilian judicial system, including the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, the State Public Prosecutor’s Office, the State Public Defender’s Office, and the Union Public Defender’s Office, seek the cancellation of the company’s current environmental permits and the suspension of the project’s entire licensing process. One of these cases resulted in the suspension of one of the company’s permits, called an Installation License (IL). 

However, Belo Sun and its CEO, Peter Tagliamonte, have made a number of misleading claims in the media about the status of the mine. In March of 2021, Tagliamonte claimed the mine was “fully authorized” at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada convention, and that construction was expected to begin by the end of 2021. Belo Sun has repeated those claims in other interviews and official company documents. In fact, the Federal Regional Court has ordered that the IL remain suspended until the company carries out consultations using protocols developed by the affected Indigenous Peoples. These consultations cannot be carried out safely with COVID-19. In March, Brazilian press reported the company was pressuring the Brazilian government to allow it to hold in-person consultations during one of the worst moments of the pandemic after the communities stated they would not accept virtual meetings as an alternative. While the government initially approved in-person meetings, the company faced fierce national and international pressure, and ultimately dropped their plans. 

Last week, eight organizations, including Earthworks, sent a letter of concern to the Ontario Securities and Exchange Commission (OSEC) asking for an investigation into the misleading statements made by Belo Sun and contending “Belo Sun has failed to fully communicate to current and potential investors about the complex nature of its project.” The OSEC’s mandate includes protecting investors from “unfair, improper or fraudulent practices” and reducing systemic risk in the financial system. Last week’s letter concludes that the lack of accurate information creates major exposure to reputation and legal risks for investors, “at a moment when heightened attention is focused on the Amazon rainforest and its capacity to provide environmental services and mitigate climate change.”

As the communities and Indigenous Peoples fight for their right to consultation and to protect their land, Earthworks will work in solidarity to support their demands. Stay tuned to our website and social media for more information and to get involved in the future.