A view of S11D mine surrounded by Carajás National Forest, in Canaã dos Carajás, Brazil, February 2017. Photo: Milton Leal / Diálogo Chino / ChinaFile / Chinadialogue

By Milton Leal
31 July 2017

(Diálogo Chino) – In the middle of northern Brazil’s Amazon jungle, digging equipment rasps at the bottom of a giant iron ore mine.

Here in the municipality of Canaã dos Carajás in the Serra dos Carajás in Brazil’s Pará state, some 1,600 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, Chinese engineers keep watch over a fleet of stackers, reclaimers, and other large scale equipment in the adjacent ore processing plant that will eventually produce 90 million tonnes of the metal annually.

A train with 330 cars waits to be loaded up before travelling approximately 600 miles to a cargo ship that will sail for 40 days from the port of Ponta da Madeira in São Luís in the neighbouring state of Maranhão, delivering 400,000 tonnes of iron ore to Chinese ports such as Dalian, Caofeidian, Rizhao, and Qingdao.

Once there, factories will transform it into cranes, drilling equipment, and smartphones, many of which will then travel back to Brazil to be used in its construction, energy, and retail sectors.

Economic ties with China have provided Brazil with a surge in jobs, profit for mega-mining companies such as the world’s largest iron ore producer, Vale, its shareholders, and service providers, and a positive trade balance with its main trading partner. […]

However, operations such as the S11D mine in Canaã dos Carajás which serve the Chinese market continue to massively outweigh other new projects in value-added or manufacturing sectors.

Large scale iron ore mining has drawbacks for the environment and rural communities, too: enormous holes in Amazonian soil that will never fully close, silted and contaminated rivers, destroyed caves and natural ponds, the impending disappearance of Monogereion carajensis, Parapiqueria cavalcantei, Ipomoea cavalcantei, and other endemic fauna from the area, and agrarian conflict.

Furthermore, in a bid to increase economic output, the Brazilian government is rolling back laws protecting biodiversity and indigenous peoples from big extractive and infrastructure projects.

Earlier this year, Brazil’s federal government cut the size of a conservation unit in Pará by 1.2 million hectares to allow a railway to be constructed and to open new possibilities for mining operations. The government’s far-reaching but unpopular austerity programme also includes slashing the federal budget for environmental protection by 43 per cent.

Alfredo Sirkis, the executive secretary of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change, recently told thinktank Observatório do Clima (Climate Observatory) that cuts would profoundly impact deforestation and, consequently, Brazil’s ability to meet climate targets made under the Paris Agreement on climate change. […]

Pará depends on China for around 35 per cent of its total exports. Of its exports to China, iron ore extracted from within the state’s borders – an area around five times the size of the UK – accounts for 80 per cent. The increased production at S11D – Vale expects to export 90 million tonnes by 2020 – will make Pará the biggest iron ore-producing state in Brazil.

The S11D mine is in an ecosystem called a canga or metallophile savannah, tropical forest that sits on a consolidated rock formation consisting mostly of iron. But these rich metal deposits form the basis of an ecosystem that is also very vulnerable.

“An ecosystem of this type in the middle of the forest creates an evolutionary situation conducive to the emergence of endemic species, caves, and lagoons, which need to be preserved,” explains Frederico Martins, head of the Carajás National Forest where the project is located.

“At least 40 botanical species are only found in this place. If mining takes place across the savannah we are going to eliminate an entire ecosystem,” adds Martins, who is also an environmental analyst for the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBIO), the federal agency responsible for environmental monitoring of the area. […]

“This voracious mining is not just very predatory for the ecosystem, it is economically predatory to the nation. In the long run, it is disastrous,” says Martins, adding somewhat rhetorically: “Are we going to destroy everything and sell it to China at a bargain price so we can have Chinese smartphones? Is this what the Brazilian government wants?” [more]

China is driving a boom in Brazilian mining, but at what cost?

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