Belo Sun signals a restart, but controversial gold mining project in the Amazon remains suspended by three court decisions

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On April 24th, the Canadian mining company Belo Sun released a corporate statement on its website claiming that it ‘successfully completed’ the indigenous component of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for its controversial Volta Grande project, a massive open-pit gold mining operation proposed for installation along the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon. 

According to the corporate statement, the study ‘followed the established protocols of FUNAI (the federal agency for indigenous affairs) including the collection of primary data and consultation with Indigenous communities’.  Belo Sun argues that FUNAI’s review of the study should be completed within 120 days, allowing for the lifting of a legal suspension of the project’s installation license, and hence, the commencement of project  implementation.

Belo Sun’s communique’s represents an attempt to boister sagging interest in the project among potential investors, amidst growing evidence of social, environmental, financial and reputational risks.  Upon closer scrutiny, it’s clear that the corporate statement is misleading.

In December 2017, a federal appeals court (TRF-1) suspended the installation license for Belo Sun, erroneously issued by the environmental agency (SEMAS) from the state government of Pará, where the project would be located.  The court decision demanded a study on potential impacts of the mining project on nearby indigenous peoples be included as a component of the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).  The court decision also required a process of free, prior and informed consultation with the Juruna indigenous peoples of the Paquiçamba Indigenous Territory, following provisions of ILO Convention 169 and a consultation protocol prepared by the indigenous people.

The Belo Sun statement is especially misleading in that no process of free, prior and informed consultation with the Juruna indigenous people has yet been carried out, and such discussions are not subject to a 120-day deadline, as Belo Sun suggests.   Meanwhile, there are indications that the voluminous ‘indigenous study’ prepared by JGP, a consulting company hired by Belo Sun, downplays a series of major social and environmental risks for indigenous peoples.

 “Nothing has changed. The installation license of Belo Sun remains suspended as the result of a federal lawsuit filed by federal public prosecutors.  Moreover, there are two other court decisions within the state judiciary that suspend the license” noted a spokesperson from the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF) in the nearby town of Altamira.

The state lawsuits focus on other illegal aspects of Belo Sun, according to Andreia Barreto, a state public defender. One of the actions focuses on illegal land acquisitions by the mining company within the project areas of Ressaca, Galo and Ouro Verde. As a result of the lawsuit, the company was required to remove signs prohibiting activities such as fishing, hunting and artesanal mining, aimed at intimidating local residents. A second lawsuit highlights major flaws in the Environmental Impact Assessment that underestimate the extent of the area directly impacted by the project.

 “We argue that the area impacted by the project is much larger than the company alleges, while questioning the legality of Belo Sun’s supposed ownership of various landholdings.  There are many families within PA Ressaca (an agrarian reform project) that would have to have been resettled.  This is an unfulfilled condition of a preliminary environmental license that would have to be fully implemented before an Installation License could be issued”, explained Barreto. 

Further information

Belo Sun has been highly controversial since it was first announced in 2012.  An area of particular concern is its potential for cumulative impacts in conjunction with the neighboring Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex.  Only 10 km upstream, one of Belo Monte’s dams diverts 80% of the Xingu River’s flow from a 100km stretch of the river known as the Big Bend (Volta Grande) provoking major stress on freshwater ecosystems and fisheries that have undermined the livelihoods of indigenous people and other traditional communities. This area is precisely where the Belo Sun gold mining project would be located.

In April 2016, Belo Sun presented an initial study on socio-environmental impacts of its mining project on indigenous territories in the region that was deemed insufficient by FUNAI.  The agency ordered the company to redo the studies, addressing potential impacts on the Juruna people and the Pacquiçamba territory.  Belo Sun argued that it wasn’t required to conduct the study since the territory is located 11 kilometers from the proposed mining site – slightly beyond a 10 km limit established in a recent federal ordinance that rolled back requirements for EIAs concerning potential impacts on Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units.

Belo Sun’s argument did not hold up in the federal courts.  Judges recognized the need for a better understanding of potential impacts of Belo Sun on indigenous communities of the Volta Grande, especially in light of existing impacts of the nearby Belo Monte dam complex.

In January 2017, the State Public Defender’s Office filed a ‘precautionary action’ requesting a restraining order to address unresolved land conflicts in the area where the Belo Sun project would be installed. In the lawsuit filed against Belo Sun and the state government of Pará, public defender Andreia Barreto argued that various rural communities that were already directly affected by Belo Sun. “There is a series of unresolved tenure issues that are contributing to land conflicts and illegal logging in such areas as Gleba Bacajá” noted Barreto.

The following month, a state judge, Álvaro José da Silva Souza, confirmed the argument that the proposed project is located in a priority area for agrarian reform. According to Souza, between SEMAS’ issuing of a first phase ‘preliminary license’ (licença prévia) and the ‘installation license’ (licença de instalação), three years passed without a resolution of land conflicts.  In the judge’s view, it is “completely unreasonable and unjustifiable” that families residing in the area “are still at the mercy of their own luck, without knowing what their destination will actually just as the Volta Grande mining project is being initiated.”

On November 17, 2019, the same judge issued a restraining order on another lawsuit filed by the state public defender’s office, recognizing major flaws in the entire environmental licensing process.  In his decision, Souza observed that “the area of ​​direct and indirect influence of the (Belo Sun) enterprise has not sufficiently clarified, and the company has not presented minimum documents for the government to initiate a process of analyzing solutions for land tenure issues in rural settlements where family farmers are currently living”.

(With information from ISA and Estadão)

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