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11/10/2010 - 14:14hs

Mining companies seek sustainability

Companies such as Vale and Colossus promote environmental and social actions in southeast Pará. The Carajás National Forest, where the former's mine is, contrasts with surrounding deforested farms.

Parauapebas, Curionópolis and Marabá, Pará – Mining is regarded as an activity hazardous to the environment. And indeed it is. However, depending on the location and the exploring company, it may prevent an even greater devastation. Such is the case with Serra dos Carajás (Carajás mountain range), in the state of Pará, where Vale operates the world's largest iron ore mine.

João Marcos Rosa/Agência Vale
João Marcos Rosa/Agência Vale

Carajás National Forest, where the mine is located

The mine is located inside the Carajás National Forest (Flona, in the Portuguese acronym), a 412,000-hectare reserve in the municipality of Parauapebas, in the southeast of the state, protected by the company itself in partnership with the Brazilian Environment and Renewable Natural Resource Institute (Ibama) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio).

Upon looking at the mine, an open wound in the mountain where huge machines work around the clock, it may seem that the devastation is all-encompassing, but in reality it only represents 2.5% of the park's area, according to the general manager of mining at Carajás' mines, Fernando Carneiro. A satellite picture available at the mine's belvedere shows that it resembles a tiny spot in a sea of green.

Outside the Flona, however, it is another story. Travelling the roads of southeast Pará, forests are few and far between. Most of the scenario consists of cattle farms or degraded grazing lands. Nothing indicates that the reserve would not have the same fate, were the mining company not present.

Alexandre Rocha/ANBA
Alexandre Rocha/ANBA

'Canga' vegetation, at a site that contains ore

On the sidelines of its main business, the company employs several professionals and resources to minimize the mine's impact and return to the environment, and to the local community, part of what has been degraded. In that respect, it invests in reforestation and preserving local species.

The Flona is monitored and research is conducted in order to return the groundcover to areas that have already been mined. The iron ore mines in Carajás are dug from the "canga," a protruding rock on the mountain top that contains the metallic element. Savannah-like low vegetation covers the ground.

According to agronomist Alexandre Castilho, in charge of reforestation work, roughly 300 plant species have been mapped out. This type of ecosystem is known as "campo rupestre" or "metallophile savannah." He showed an area of the "canga" that is still virgin and may be explored in the future, and then another that has already been mined and recovered. They look alike to the naked eye.

[[IMGNOT3]The company also works in partnership with other organizations to protect endangered species, such as the harpy eagle, and maintains a zoo botanical park near the mine, comprising native species such as jaguars, cougars, various monkey species, birds, collard peccaries, tapirs, among others. According to biologist Eduardo Perin, a senior environment analyst, the site may be visited by the population and admittance is free. He added that the park will be refurbished on a budget of 30 million reals (US$ 18 million) to be spent over five years.

Another concern is the water. Vale has developed a system for sifting the ore, which is part of the rock's industrial processing, that is water-free. Process engineer José Anselmo Campos, who is in charge of the Carajás plant, claimed that out of 17 sifting lines, eight are currently dry-operated.

According to the company, this technology has made it possible to reduce water usage by 19.7 million cubic metres per year, enough to supply a city with a population of 430,000. The effluents of the water still being used are treated. In 2009, the company invested US$ 166 million in these and other environmental and social actions in the state of Pará alone.


The state is brimming with wealth above and below ground. It was peopled relatively recently, mostly with encouragement from the military regime of the 1970s. The occupation was haphazard and, until this day, there are several land ownership-related conflicts.

The most blatant of these conflicts involves farmers on one side and those fighting for agrarian reform on the other. By the roads in southeast Pará, in addition to the vast farms, one can see various landless movement settlements.

Such conflicts often end up in gun violence, the most famous case of which took place in the municipality of Eldorado dos Carajás, in 1996, when 19 protesters were killed by the police during a confrontation at the PA-150 highway. At the site, known as "Curva do S" (the S curve), a monument has been erected to the memory of the victims.

Alexandre Rocha/ANBA
Alexandre Rocha/ANBA

Monument to landless movement members killed in Eldorado dos Carajás

This, however, is not the only conflict. In Serra Pelada, a famous 1980s mining site near Carajás, remaining former miners and their families still live in the local village. They are poor people who have not found the much dreamed-of gold, and now live off the hopes of still making some money.

It is in this scenario that Canadian company Colossus operates, through a joint venture with the Mining Cooperative of Serra Pelada Miners (Coomigasp). The company has recently begun digging a modern mine, near the old mining site, in order to dig out the gold that is still there and cannot be extracted by hand.

"The miner goes first, and then the geologists. Miners find the surface gold and the hard-to-extract metal remains," said the director of the venture, Luiz Carlos Celaro.

In order to carry out the project, Colossus has to deal with a part of the community that is distrustful of the agreement established with the cooperative and believes that they are being aggrieved.

Alexandre Rocha/ANBA
Alexandre Rocha/ANBA

Colossus employees analyze soil sample

Production should only start late next year, but the company is promoting a series of actions to establish closer ties with the former miners and their families. These range from medical attention – the village has high rates of Hansen's Disease and AIDS –, refurbishment of schools, professional training and even garbage collection, which did not take place previously. The waste used to be dumped into the streets.

Colossus personnel claim that if the project is economically and socially successful, it may serve as a model for solving similar problems in other regions of Brazil.


Despite the socio-environmental measures and generation of jobs for the local population, social movements in Pará disapprove of these business ventures.

Vale is targeted by landless movement members, for instance, who believe that mining is going to occupy areas that could otherwise be used in family farming, that the Carajás Railroad train poses a threat to people living near the railroad tracks, that the jobs go to foreign professionals rather than locals, and that the siderurgy will contribute to increase pollution. The company is starting to build a laminated steel plant named Aços Laminados do Pará (Alpa)in Marabá, the region's largest city, by the BR-230 highway, a.k.a. the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

*The journalist is a member of E.torQ Amazon Journey, a car trip from São Paulo to Pará sponsored by FPT, the engine manufacturing plant of automaker Fiat. Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum

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