Americans often look at Canada as some sort of liberal paradise. And in some ways, obviously the domestic politics are less toxic than that of the United States. But Canada’s natural resource corporations are among the world’s worst in terms of both exploiting the natural world and exploiting the people who are unfortunate enough to live where they want to mine or log. Within the vast lightly populated areas of Canada, companies ravage stands of ancient forests, mine the tar sands, and create huge strip mines wherever there are valuable materials. They do the same in the Global South, especially in Latin America, where they have been involved in some of the most terrible exploitation of largely indigenous populations throughout the region over the last half-century. We are seeing this again in Brazil, where a emphasis on modernism and development coming from Brasilia (whether Lula, Dilma, or the coup leaders) combines with the possibly for mining profits to destroy forests, pollute water supplies, and dispossess indigenous people from control over their lands.
A Canadian company is planning to build the soon-to-be largest open-pit gold mine in Brazil, located in the heart of the Amazon forest on the banks of the Xingu river. Brazilian activists, NGOs and advocacy groups, however, are waging a legal battle over the land.
Belo Sun Mining Corp., which is headquartered in Toronto, is behind the Volta Grande Gold Project, which plans to extract 600 tons of gold over the course of 12 years. The mine will generate toxic waste two-fold the volume of Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf mountain. A community of 300 families, who live off the land in Vila da Ressaca, Galo and Ouro Verde villages, will have to be relocated should the project go forward.
The indigenous communities directly affected by the Volta Grande Gold Project have not been consulted as is provided for in the 169 Convention of the International Labor Organization, of which Brazil is a signatory.
Six days after the issuing of the construction permit in early February, the mining company published on its website, only in English, a detailed exploration plan that encompasses 120 kilometres throughout the Xingu River. If the company were to implement the plan, at least four officially designated Indigenous Lands (Terras Indígenas) would be affected: Paquiçamba, of the Juruna people; Ituna/Itata, where isolated indigenous peoples live; Arara da Volta Grande, of the Arara; and Trincheira Bacajá, of the Xicrin peoples. Brazilian legislation states that constructions permits in this area should be done at the federal level (rather than by Pará state government) because it directly affects indigenous lands.
As of now, there hasn’t been any consultation of the peoples that could be impacted if the project moves forward. “From the way it is on the map, it looks like there are no indigenous peoples there. For Belo Sun there is no one there,” says Mukuka Xicrin, a leader of the Xincrin people.
The permit granted by Pará state in February also bypassed a motion issued by Brazil’s public authority on indigenous matters (the National Indigenous Foundation, or FUNAI), which demands reassessment of the impact on indigenous peoples and considers a study presented by Belo Sun to be insufficient.
Both federal and state public defender’s offices filed a suit to halt the permit, with the latter’s suit being upheld by the state court. The federal prosecutor’s office also filed a motion directed at Pará’s environmental agency recommending against the permit. The prosecutor’s office had already filed two other suits against the project in the past.
We’ll see what happens, but it’s hard to be confident that the mine won’t go forward. Ultimately, Canadians need to demand their corporations live up to ethical standards when they operate abroad. As I have argued repeatedly, this is one of he only ways to tame the worst parts of global capitalism. We must take responsibility for how our corporations treat people in other parts of the world. Sadly, it is not really a major part of the progressive agenda anywhere.