An Indigenous man's hand reads "Stop killing us" during a Feb. 2020 protest against a bill that would open Indigenous lands to mining in Brazil.

U.S.-Backed Companies Poised to Expand Mining in the Amazon

As of November, nine major mining companies considered key players in the extraction of rare metals for electric vehicle batteries had 225 active applications to expand operations into or near Indigenous territories in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

U.S.-based financial institutions are among their top funders, according to a new report by Amazon Watch and the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous People, or APIB. In the past, those mining companies caused environmental damage that sickened Indigenous communities, stirred social discontent, and contributed to the “trail of destruction” of the Amazon rainforest.

The report, fourth in a series called “Complicity in Destruction,” focuses on how the mining companies and their international investors violate the rights of Indigenous peoples and “threaten the future of the Amazon.” It examines the ties between mining companies and global financial institutions, based on research conducted by Profundo Research and Advice, a nonprofit research company based in the Netherlands.

The report focuses on nine mining companies, including Vale, Anglo American, Belo Sun, and Glencore. Those nine companies have received about $54.1 billion in financing through both credit (loans and underwriting) and investments (the purchase of stocks and bonds) between January 2016 and October 2021. Vale denied the allegations in the report. The other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Capital Group, BlackRock, and Vanguard, which collectively invested $14.8 billion in the mining companies, are the top U.S. investors named in the report. The leading U.S.-based creditor is Bank of America, which provided $670 million in loans and underwriting services to the companies. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase were also named as top creditors. Those companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

These mining companies have all made so-called environmental, social, and governance announcements about “how they will protect the Amazon and Indigenous rights, but our research shows that just isn’t true,” said Ana Paula Vargas, program director with Amazon Watch Brazil. “This report should put pressure on these financial institutions to help Indigenous communities — who are in danger when they speak out — denounce mining in and near their territories.”

The report looked at the mining companies’ applications pending with Brazil’s National Mining Agency, or ANM, to mine gold, copper, nickel and other metals and minerals in locations that overlap with or run adjacent to Indigenous territories. Currently, it is illegal to mine or prospect for materials on Indigenous territories in Brazil.

Capital Group, BlackRock, and Vanguard, which collectively invested $14.8 billion in the mining companies, are the top U.S. investors named in the report. The leading U.S.-based creditor is Bank of America.

But, two bills pending with Brazil’s legislature could change that. Bill 191/2020 would open up Indigenous territories to mining and Bill 490/2007 would undermine Indigenous peoples’ rights to land, both policies for which Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, has expressed support. He is the subject of at least four requests filed with the International Criminal Court asking that he be prosecuted for his policies towards Indigenous people and the environment, which advocates say amount to genocide or crimes against humanity. The court has yet to take any of those cases.

The 225 active applications are essentially awaiting approval of the bills so that the companies will have priority access to mine inside of Indigenous territories, the report said. Vale had the most of those applications with 75, followed by Anglo American with 65.

After Amazon Watch and APIB called attention to the applications, several of the companies, including Vale, requested that the territories identified in their applications be redrawn in what is known as a “removal of interference” process. In most cases, the redrawn territories now run adjacent to the borders of Indigenous land, sometimes within the required 10-kilometer buffer zone.

“The removal of interference process is a trick,” Vargas said, adding that mining operations adjacent to Indigenous land still impact Indigenous territories — pollution, noise, and the effects of deforestation don’t respect human-drawn boundaries, she said.

Amazon Watch and APIB have called on the mining companies and their international financiers to take a public position against bills 191/2020 and 490/2007. They also are calling on those companies to refuse to mine, or fund mining, in Indigenous territories even if the bills become law.

“This government has proven itself to be the enemy of Indigenous peoples and the environment,” Vargas said. “Bolsonaro’s strategy is to make horrible things legal. Companies need to agree not to go into Indigenous land under any circumstance.”

Marcio Astrini, the executive director of Brazilian Climate Observatory, said just the prospect of the legislation, coupled with Bolsonaro’s support, has emboldened both mining companies and illegal mining activities.

“The bill is a land grab for Indigenous territories,” he said. “It’s incentivizing destructive activities like illegal mining which bring violence and harm to Indigenous communities.”

The report is the fourth in a series that has focused on the links between the corporate drivers of deforestation in the Amazon and the financial institutions that enable those companies’ operations.

Earlier reports focused on the agricultural sector, but the Bolsonaro administration’s push to open mining on Indigenous land coupled with a global mining boom reoriented Amazon Watch and APIB’s efforts to the sector they say is one of the biggest threats to human rights and the environment in Brazil.

Price Waterhouse Cooper called 2020 a “banner year” for the mining sector, with the top companies expected to profit off the world’s energy transition — which is deeply dependent on materials like copper, lithium, and nickel for manufacturing vehicle batteries. Pandemic-related consumer demand from industrialized countries has also fueled the industry. The minerals most extracted in Brazil are iron, gold, copper, manganese, tin, niobium, nickel, and aluminum, according to ANM.

Some supporters of the mining industry have argued that transitioning away from fossil fuels as soon as possible justifies cutting or modifying many environmental regulations on mining practices. But Indigenous activists point out that they bear little to no responsibility for climate change, biodiversity loss, and mass pollution, yet they are being targeted to solve those problems. Activists also called mining in the Amazon rainforest, the world’s biggest carbon sink and source of biodiversity, a false solution.

“Industrial mining cannot be considered an alternative for development or transition to clean energy if its consequence is destroying the Amazon forest and rivers, and violating Indigenous rights,” Vargas said.

The report highlights a series of case studies where the mining companies have been involved in conflict with Indigenous communities, including episodes of land invasion, violence, pollution, and violations of communities’ rights to free prior and informed consent:

• Vale’s alleged responsibility for polluting the Cateté River with lead, mercury, manganese, aluminum, and iron from its Onça Puma nickel mining project near Xikrin and Kayapó communities. The company denied responsibility for the contamination. The report further alleges that Vale, a Brazilian company, played a role in determining the demarcation boundaries of those communities’ territories to ensure Vale had access to mineral deposits on what had once been those communities’ land. Separately, in 2019, Vale’s Brumadinho tailings dams, a deposit for toxic mining waste, burst killing 270 people downstream.

• Water shortages, polluted waterways and the destruction of springs attributed to London-based Anglo American’s Minas-Rio operations, which includes a 326-mile pipeline that uses large amounts of water to transport iron ore from Minas Gerais state to Rio de Janeiro.

• The alleged harassment and forced eviction of residents in territories where Canadian company Belo Sun Mining intends to mine for gold as part of its Volta Grande Project. The project has been the subject of legal challenges from prosecutors of all levels of government and the company has been accused of violating communities’ rights to free prior and informed consent.

• An agreement signed by Potássio do Brasil with the Chinese construction firm CITIC for a nearly $2 billion mining project in the municipality of Autazes, despite a prior written pledge with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office not to proceed with operations without court approval and consulting affected communities.

Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of APIB, called the push to mine in Indigenous territories a “project of death,” and said Indigenous communities cannot coexist with mining activities, which have killed the ecosystems they depend upon.

“We cannot go on living side by side with activities that force Indigenous peoples to mourn the daily murder of our relatives, or to witness the destruction of biomes which we guard, in order to give way to projects that generate no real development, but only destruction and profits for a handful of individuals,” she said.

Katie Surma is a reporter at Inside Climate News focusing on international environmental law and justice.

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News.