Amazônia Minada project finds unusual rise in demand for manganese in 2020, when it became the second most requested on indigenous lands – just after gold. Some of the richest manganese deposits in the world are in southeast Pará, overlapping with the territories of the Kayapó, the most affected by recent records in mining requests. Illegal mining has increased and Indigenous people denounce mining on their territories.

Demand for manganese in China is having a huge impact on the other side of the world: for the Indigenous Kayapó people in the Brazilian Amazon. The metal is essential for the manufacturing of steel used in new public infrastructure works in China, and the high demand has pushed its price up on the international commodities market. In Brazil, one of the world’s biggest producers of manganese, that’s led to a surge in illegal mining — in particular in the Kayapó Indigenous Territory in Pará state.

“The Federal Police have been seizing trucks with manganese almost weekly at inspection points in the interior of Pará,” the National Mining Agency (ANM) said in February through its press office. 

According to the ANM, the illegal manganese comes from southeastern Pará. In this region, on the outskirts of the Carajás mining complex, the Kayapó people live atop of some of the richest mineral deposits in the world. 

The Amazônia Minada project, which monitors formal applications to mine on Indigenous lands — a practice banned under Brazil’s Constitution — has detected an unusual rise in requests to mine for manganese. The metal typically accounts for just over 1% of such requests, but last year made up 15% of the total. Most of the applications targeted the Kayapó territory.

Though formal solicitations with the ANM merely signal interest, they can also open the way for illegal extraction. In the Kayapó territory, the most targeted by the 2020 requests for manganese, the population already lives with miners seeking the mineral. “We see the traces of people who have been digging there” reports a Kayapó citizen who asked not to be identified. A 2019 report by the National Indian Foundation (Funai) already denounced the problem.

The ANM explains that illegal mining of manganese is not a recent phenomenon, “but that it has been intensifying.” The agency also confirms that the illegal cargo confiscated recently, was destined to the Asian market. “The upsurge seen in 2020 reflects the international demand for steel, iron, alloys and batteries, the currency devaluation, as well as the expectation of impunity due to insufficient personnel for field inspections. All this worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic,” adds the agency.

The environmental policy of President Jair Bolsonaro drives this scenario, as we have shown in a previous report.

2020 requests for manganese equal total number of the previous 40 years

The number of requests for the exploration of manganese on indigenous lands filed last year, 21 in total, almost equals the total in the entire period between 1980 and 2019. Adding the one application registered by June 4, 2021, this new decade in only 17 months has broken the records of the previous decades.

In fact, the requests sent to ANM in 2020—38 only for manganese—even surpassed the total number since the 1980s. But between September last year and June 2021, 17 of these were rejected by the agency because they overlap with indigenous areas. Another two requests had their original areas adjusted and now only target areas right next to indigenous lands.

The rejection of mining applications that overlap with indigenous lands reflects an order of the Federal Public Ministry. The attorney general’s office filed lawsuits requesting the cancellation of these applications since there is no law permitting mining on indigenous lands, succeeding in some cases. “Based on this argument, three applications filed in 2021 were rejected by the ANM.”

Despite this, the mining agency maintains that applications cannot be rejected when they enter the system.

“At the time of Brazil’s Constituent Assembly in the late 1980s, the Minister of Mines and Energy Aureliano Chaves established an odd procedure for mining requests on indigenous areas, which is still in place. When they enter the government register, they are neither rejected nor authorized. They persist like Snow White, waiting for the kiss of the prince to awaken. This kiss is the regulating law,” explains Marcio Santilli, founder of the Instituto Socioambiental who participated in the debates during the drafting of Brazil’s constitution.

Moreover, the Amazônia Minada project has exposed cases where the mining agency authorized research although the requests overlapped with indigenous lands. In February 2020, President Jair Bolsonaro presented a bill to regulate mining on indigenous lands—possibly the “kiss of the prince” the mining companies are waiting for. “Many attempts have been made, but this is the worst I’ve seen because it doesn’t acknowledge the constitutional protection of protected areas,” Santilli points out.

When they enter the government register, they are neither rejected nor authorized. They persist like Snow White, waiting for the kiss of the prince to awaken. This kiss is the regulating law

Marcio Santilli, founder of the Instituto Socioambiental.

Company with most mining requests on indigenous lands targeted by Federal Police

Sixteen of the 17 rejected requests in 2020 were made on behalf of one company, Patium Beneficiamento de Minério. All bids targeted the Kayapó Indigenous Lands. In addition to the rejections, Patium maintains another 17 active requests to extract manganese overlapping the Kayapó (11), Badjonkore (3) and Las Casas (3) indigenous areas, which all belong to the Kayapó people. The company is by far the thirstiest for manganese within protected areas.

Up to this year, Patium was one of 12 companies of a conglomerate linked to the businessman Samuel Borges, whose main brand is RMB S.A.—the acronym for Mineral Resources of Brazil. It is one of few companies authorized to explore manganese in the mineral province of Carajás, the best deposit in the country and one of the purest in the world.

Patium was sold in early 2021, but three other companies of Mr. Borges have applications to mine within indigenous areas, including RMB S.A. itself.

The ANM asserts that “it does not grant any permission on indigenous land” and that “requests may be filed but will not succeed after analysis.” But contrary to this declaration, in 2017, two requests from RMB Manganese overlapping with the Las Casas Indigenous Lands were granted research authorization. One of them is for manganese research, the other for copper.

The company defends itself claiming that the permits granted “are not located within indigenous lands, but in the bordering neighborhoods.” But Amazônia Minada uses public data from ANM’s own system to generate maps and detects even the smallest overlap with protected areas.

Through its press office, the mining group announced that it was dropping mining bids on indigenous lands filed on behalf of its companies. “We understand that the regulation of this matter is discussed in the National Congress and that it would not be viable at the moment to keep these requests in our portfolio,” the office says. But all of them remain active in the ANM registry.

In 2020, another issue involving RMB Manganês alerted the authorities. The Federal Police and the ANM found 81,100 tons of manganese “with evidence of illegality” in the company’s warehouses in the port of Barcarena and at the company's headquarters in Curionópolis. This was the second largest confiscation last year, almost a third of the 305,000 tons seized by public authorities.

In addition, the company owes R$ 8.9 million to the Union, arising from unpaid taxes and social security contributions of its employees. Another company in the group, AllMineral Ltda owes R$ 120 thousand in public debt. The group’s CEO Samuel Borges owes R$ 55 thousand in taxes and is listed in the Federal Active Debt registry. This is although the capital stock of his companies amounts to more than R$ 6 million, according to the Federal Revenue.

The conglomerate states that it has renegotiated part of its debts with the tax authorities and is disputing a certain (uninformed) amount in court. “The RMB Group emphasizes that it does not participate in or approve any illegal activities. Its business is based on sustainable practices, rules of compliance and cooperative governance. The group does not only focus on returns to shareholders, but also on sustainable development, as well as employment and income for the regions where it operates,” states the note, which can be read here.

A new conflict between Vale and the Xikrin

Of the 53 requests to mine manganese on indigenous lands analyzed by the Amazônia Minada project, eight had research permits issued by the ANM—contrary to the agency’s commitment not to authorize mineral exploration in demarcated areas. This authorization includes the extraction of samples even if only for research purposes.

One of the applications with research authorization draws attention because it was issued more than 30 years after being requested and because it may intensify a conflict between the Xikrin indigenous people, one of the communities of the Kayapó people according to the Socio-environmental Institute, and the company Vale S.A. The Xikrin are suing Vale for harm caused to their community by three operations of the company around the Xikrin do Cateté indigenous area. The most prominent case is that of Onça Puma, an operation located six kilometers west of the indigenous territory. According to a report by the Federal University of Pará, Onça Puma is contaminating the Cateté riverbed with heavy metals, compromising the health and daily life of the indigenous community.

Now Vale is exploring—under a research permit—a site of manganese that touches the south of the indigenous land of the Xikrin. The company says it does not seek research or mining activities on indigenous lands in Brazil, be it mining rights or expectations thereof.” But in October, it informed the ANM that it also found copper during its analysis in one of these areas. Vale has also paid the annual fees required to maintain the bid for manganese located on the Xikrin do Cateté indigenous territory.

Vale holds at least 75 mining bids registered in its name that are overlapping with the territories of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, not including other companies in the group. The company claims that it is dropping these processes and indeed, the number was much higher in January, reaching 137 open requests. “Although a larger number of processes in the name of Vale Group companies appear on the National Mining Agency's website, most of them have been dropped by Vale, pending only updating or rejection with ANM.”

Indigenous community contaminated, scientist warns

The exploitation of manganese on the Xikrin do Cateté Indigenous Territory, which is in Vale’s name, may worsen the health condition of the population. According to the researcher Reginaldo Sabóia from the Federal University of Pará who measures the rate of heavy metals in hair samples, the indigenous community is in danger. “These people present an index of manganese contamination that will impress any professional with knowledge of the case,” Sabóia attests in a report from February of last year.

His tests detected a level of manganese in the bodies of the indigenous people that is 500% above what is considered safe for humans. Two village elders, Kokono Xikrin and Painho Xikrin, have accumulated 2000% more than the tolerable limit. “Extraordinary,” writes the researcher.

Of the metals found in the bodies of the indigenous people, manganese had the highest accumulation. If not urgently treated, it will cause devastating and irreversible health damage

Reginaldo Sabóia, researcher from Federal University of Pará.

. According to a study conducted by Fiocruz, the toxic effect of manganese immediately impacts the lungs and the central nervous system, “causing clinical neurological conditions and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract.”

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic—which attacks especially the lungs—the indigenous people of the Xikrin do Cateté indigenous lands registered the highest percentage of deaths from Covid-19 in Pará. Now, the whole community is vaccinated.

Professor Sabóia attributes the high rate of contamination among the population of the villages to the operations of Vale S.A. The company denies that its activities around the indigenous areas are polluting the river or harming the health of the local community. The dispute went to court, but the case was suspended until the end of this year. During a conciliation hearing between Vale and the Xikrin, a decision was made that, according to the company, “aims at creating a favorable and harmonious environment for the construction in a joint and participative way, in agreement that judicial actions are concluded. The full response from Vale can be read here.

Carajás: forest, indigenous people, and mining

The figures disclosed by the Amazônia Minada project shed light on the reality of the largest tropical forest on the planet: while it is home to thousands of indigenous people, the Amazon holds below its surface precious treasures that provoke the greed of mining companies. The region where the Kayapó live is especially prone to conflicts because it includes the famous mineral province of Carajás. This geologically privileged location offers the world gold, copper, iron, and manganese of exceptional quality.

The manganese that occurs in the mineral province of Carajás has a purity of 80%, thanks to the process of time. “This deposit was formed 2.75 billion years ago,” explains geologist Raphael Neto, from the Geological Service of Brazil. It is difficult to imagine, but the formation goes back to the period when the region today covered by forest was an immense sea, when the Earth’s atmosphere was being formed. First dissolved in water, then shaped by oxygen gas and finally reshaped by the shifting tectonic plates, the metal acquired an exceptional quality.

“All metal from Carajás is pure, it is everything a mining company wants because it lowers the cost of exploration,” adds Neto. But not all deposits in Carajás are explored by companies that have authorization. They have attracted miners who supply the illegal market. According to the ANM, there is major illegal extraction “specifically in areas where mining rights are held by Vale S.A., in the region of Buriti and Sereno.”

Apart from the areas assigned to Vale that the company does not explore, in Carajás it maintains the main manganese-producing mine in Brazil, Azul, which is closed since last year. Recently, Vale sold part of its mining rights in the region to RMB S.A. The latter wants to “enlarge its participation in the national and international market” for the metal. Neither RMB nor Vale provide details about the deal. “This information is confidential,” Vale adds.

According to the authorities, also mines located in Carajás under the name of Mineração Buritirama—the largest producer of manganese in Brazil–are being explored. This company is under investigation for manganese mining in the Kayapó Indigenous Territory, according to an indigenous source as well as a by Funai. According to Repórter Brasil, the suspicious activity takes place close to an operation of the company, five kilometers away from the eastern border of the indigenous territory. Since 2018, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office holds a confidential civil inquiry about the case.

“We disagree with any illicit activity,” states the company. “Whenever we become aware of any irregularity, we communicate it to the government and the responsible authorities,” adds Buritirama, whose full response can be read here. Unlike gold, which must be washed with mercury to filter out the nuggets for sale, leaving deep traces of environmental contamination, the illegal extraction of manganese is done mechanically. It only needs to be digged up from the soil and sieved. The problem, according to Pará State Prosecutor Igor Goettenauer, who investigates illegal activity in the manganese economy, is that the miners end up exploring in a very superficial way. He warns that “when the mine gets deeper, they abandon it, increasing the scope of environmental damage.”

Translated by Claudia Horn.


This report is part of Amazônia Minada, a special project of InfoAmazonia with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund/Pulitzer Center.

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