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The pro-mining mayor claims to be against deforestation, but in 2019 he was sentenced to serve four years and nine months in prison for an environmental crime. Photo: Nelson Almeida/AFP

Itaituba, the municipality most heavily involved in illegal mining in Brazil, has gone into a state of alert. With the denunciation of the Yanomami genocide and the federal government’s decision to go on the offensive over the indigenous land issue, which day after day has been chronicled by the Brazilian and international press with shocking images, a significant part of the population of the city in the southwest of the State of Pará has felt that its very identity is under attack. A counter-offensive is now underway, led by mayor Valmir Climaco, who is well-known for his militant pro-mining stance. “This is not the moment to stop gold-mining!”, he argued at a public meeting on February 13. To avoid association with images of indigenous people dying of malnutrition, Climaco’s strategy is to make Itaituba an exception. As he said in an interview with SUMAÚMA: “90% of Brazil’s illegal mining operations are on indigenous land or in an environmental park, and the other 10% are in Itaituba.” In short: all mining is illegal, except, apparently, for the mining in his municipality.

This is the argument that the mayor intends to use to win the support of his fellow Brazilian Democratic Movement party member Helder Barbalho. The governor of the State of Pará has been attempting a difficult balancing act between the “green governor” image that he displays in his international activities and the need for internal alliances in a state at the forefront of illegal mining activities in the Amazon region, with city halls and municipal governments under the control of those who are ardent supporters of mining, logging and land grabbing. In Amazonian municipalities to call someone a garimpeiro (prospector) is flattering. Proud of its nickname of the “gold nugget city”, the first verse of Itaituba’s anthem opens with “the mines, the beaches, the water source”. Part of the city’s commerce is dedicated to an activity that most people connect with free enterprise and pioneering. “Let the man of the house work,” is a recurring defense when illegal mining comes under criticism.

However, the mayor’s description is belied by the reality of indigenous leaders such as Alessandra Korap who has been threatened with death for her fight against mining in Munduruku territory. “To say that there are no indigenous people in our region is a lie,” she says. “In Sawré Muybu (Munduruku) territory there had already been many ancestors even before the pariwats (non-indigenous people or enemies) arrived. There are at least 13 indigenous villages in the municipality, and a lot of them are victims of illegal mining. There are even two villages in the city [Itaituba] itself. Itaituba grew and absorbed the villages, and they remained there, because they had no way of relocating.”

Alessandra Korap, who fights against mining in Munduruku territory: ‘All this talk of wanting to legalize gold mining is an attempt to legalize our death’. Photo: Fred Mauro/ISA

According to data from the Socioenvironmental Institute, the municipality has two officially recognised indigenous lands, the Andirá-Marau Indigenous Land, occupied by the Sateré-Mawé people, and the Munduruku Indigenous Land. Of the latter only 2%, equivalent to just over 121,000 acres (49,000 hectares), are in Itaituba; the remaining 98% are in Jacareacanga. There are other areas occupied for centuries by the Munduruku that are in the process of demarcation.

The website MapBiomas shows that between 2010 and 2020 mining on indigenous lands increased by 495% in Brazil. Of the total, 9.3% directly affects indigenous peoples. In terms of territorial extension, the main victims are the Kayapó, with 18,700 acres (7,602 hectares) invaded by gold mining operations, followed by the Munduruku, with 3,900 acres (1,592 hectares) and, in third place, the Yanomami people, with 1,023 acres (414 hectares).

The conservation units are also suffering from illegal mining operations. The Tapajós Environmental Protection Area is the most affected, with 85,800 acres (34,740 hectares) of territory under threat, followed by the Amanã National Forest, with 10,200 acres (4,150 hectares), and in third place, the Rio Novo National Park, with 4,329 acres (1,752 hectares) invaded by miners. All of these conservation units are at least partly inside the so-called “gold nugget city”.

Itaituba is the Brazilian municipality with the highest concentration of mining activity, be it industrial mining or gold prospecting. The other four municipalities that head up the rankings are also located in Pará: Jacareacanga (23,300 acres or 9,450 hectares), Parauapebas (18,700 acres or 7,578 hectares), Oriximiná (15,500 acres or 6,278 hectares) and São Félix do Xingu (15,300 acres or 6,212 hectares). In total, 110,900 acres (44,890 hectares) of the municipality of Itaituba are being exploited for this activity, but unlike Oriximiná, which has one of the largest bauxite mining companies in the world, in a large high-impact industrial production, in Itaituba 95% is dedicated to illegal mining, which entails another type of occupation and extraction.

Both industrial mining and gold prospecting produce serious environmental and human impacts, but one can understand the gold miners’ anger at observing large transnational corporations operating “legally” within the Amazon, causing huge levels of damage, but hardly being bothered at all by the government. Much higher standards are necessary if the law is to mean anything.

Long before Itaituba became the “gold nugget city,” the entire region had been occupied for more than a century by traditional riverside communities, descendants of rubber tappers who migrated there in the 19th century. And, long before the arrival of the riverside dwellers, for thousands of years indigenous peoples had been present, to the point that the Tapajós valley was known by Europeans as Mundurukânia. Today, both indigenous peoples and traditional communities occupy isolated, disconnected parts of the region. This is the case for the six indigenous lands which have significant slices of their territory in the municipality, or of Montanha e Mangabal, the only traditional community whose territory has been recognized.

Unlike other parts of the State of Pará and the Amazon region, where traditional forest communities have to fight against large transnational mining companies, in municipalities like Itaituba the involvement of the city’s non-indigenous population with mining is more widespread and has created its own identity. The mayor of Itaituba is proud of the number of licenses he grants in the municipality and insists inspection is “rigorous”. Last February 9, Itaituba’s Department of Environment and Mining issued 10 operating licenses to individuals and companies that are now allowed to prospect for gold and cassiterite on the forest floor. By combining the environment with mining, the department’s name gives an indication as to how the municipality views its role.

While the mayor, city councilors, gold miners’ associations and businessmen met in the auditorium of the municipality’s education department to discuss strategies to protect the gold mining operations, the Federal Police continued with their operation aimed at destroying the illegal mining infrastructure. Since February 7, the state of Pará has declared a state of environmental emergency in 15 municipalities: Altamira, Anapu, São Félix do Xingu, Pacajá, Novo Progresso, Portel, Senador José Porfírio, Novo Repartimento, Uruará, Rurópolis, Placas, Trairão, Jacareacanga, Medicilândia and Itaituba. The measure, which will initially last for 180 days, promises to tighten the net against environmental crimes in regions regarded as critical.

The mayor has already realized there is a certain magic to the adjective that usually goes hand in hand with accusations of prospecting: “illegal”. If there is an “illegal” mining operation, then there has to be a “legal” one. His mission is to show that the one in Itaituba is “legal”. Thus, Climaco is committed to “legalizing” Itaituba’s gold mining operations. But he can only do this by ignoring the indigenous presence.

For Alessandra Munduruku, the mayor’s speech is an explicit attempt at historical deletion. “This is aimed at deleting us, to say that we don’t exist. We do exist. There are villages that only speak Munduruku. There is Munduruku history and a person comes from the State of Ceará and says that we do not exist? “And I will say another thing: all this talk of wanting to legalize gold mining is an attempt to legalize our death”.

Almost 94% of Brazil’s illegal gold mining operations are in the Amazon region. For Alessandra, as for most indigenous leaders, there is no way mining can exist without environmental and human destruction. “The river is blocked, the fish get snagged, hunting is disrupted. Even if an illegal mining camp is far from an indigenous land, it affects all of us, because it destroys the river. It doesn’t matter whether it is inside the territory or not. A mine that is in the Upper and Middle Tapajós affects people in the city of Santarém, which is a long way away, but [where the river is already] contaminated with mercury. Now imagine what it is like for a resident or the population living next to these miners?”, she says.

The Munduruku leader also guarantees there will be resistance: “We know mining brings disease, prostitution, drugs, mud, and a lot of dirty water. If the governor and the president accept these people’s demands, of wanting our death, we will not accept it, and we will fight. And I want to make it very clear to the mayor and anyone who wants to legalize mining on our lands that we are going to confront them, because we are not going to simply hand the territory over to them.”

Itaituba, Pará: illegal mining installed in the Sawré Muybu indigenous territory, claimed by the Munduruku people in the Mid Tapajós. Photo: Anderson Barbosa


“What happened in Roraima was because Bolsonaro caved in”

Sumaúma interviews gold prospector, cattle rancher, logger and Itaituba mayor Valmir Climaco who recently appealed to people not to abandon gold mining

Valmir Climaco (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) is a prospector, cattle rancher and logger. Ever since the offensive against illegal mining began in the State of Roraima, all of his energy has been focused on convincing the authorities and the press that the mining camps of the municipality of Itaituba in the State of Pará are “different”. To this end, he is hell-bent on getting a slot on President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (Workers Party) agenda in order to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, he is still having talks with the state governor, Helder Barbalho of the same political party, with the aim of regulating this activity. On Monday, February 13, he called an emergency meeting with the population asking them not to halt their gold mining activities.

The pro-mining mayor claims to be against deforestation, but in 2019 he was sentenced by the Federal Court in the city of Santarém to serve four years and nine months in prison for an environmental crime committed in the municipality of Altamira, in the southeast of the State of Pará. He was convicted of destroying 1,843 acres (746 hectares) of native forest in a preservation area, in addition to having appropriated Federal property by exploiting raw materials without legal authorization.

Valmir Climaco is also emphatic in stating that on the left bank of the Tapajós River, where Itaituba is located, there is zero deforestation. Although this information is true, it is only because all the area outside the conservation units has already been totally razed to the ground. There is almost nothing left to cut down.

The mayor is very proud to say Itaituba was the municipality in the State of Pará that granted the greatest number of environmental licenses to allow gold mining activities. On February 9 alone, 10 new operating licenses were issued by the municipality’s Department of Environment and Mining, which curiously unites environment and mining in the same portfolio. The licenses are for mining gold and cassiterite, and include both individuals and legal entities. By law, the issue of preliminary permits, for the setting up and operation of mines are the responsibility of the municipalities. The licenses only become the responsibility of the state government in the case of mining on an industrial scale.

Valmir Climaco enthusiastically claims to have contracted malaria several dozen times, which, he says, confirms his identity as a genuine gold prospector. According to him, the information can be found in the records of the former Superintendency of Public Health Campaigns, an agency extinguished in 1992 that was linked to the Ministry of Health. “If you insert my Individual Taxpayer Registration Number there, it shows that I caught malaria 43 times.” He also claims to have used mercury to settle his stomach, though the metal is considered dangerous by the World Health Organisation. Check out the interview that Itaituba’s mayor gave by telephone to SUMAÚMA, on February 14.

Why was the meeting called to defend the mines?

Because we want to work legally and because we want people to realize that Itaituba’s gold mining operations are different from those of the State of Roraima. We have mining camps which have a school with 600 students, as is the case with Creporizão, a district of Itaituba, a community where everybody works with gold mining. There is a big school there, a health center, a day care center run by the federal government, we have everything there, and the place is not on indigenous land. I am against prospecting inside indigenous territories.

Did you call the meeting because you are afraid?

Yes, I am afraid that the government will come up with a general rule, lumping the gold mining operations in our region together with those in indigenous areas and [environmental] park areas, because we do not work in indigenous areas, nor inside parks. But we are very concerned and I spoke to Governor Helder Barbalho to find out what to do. He asked us to put together a team, cooperative groups, and for us to go and talk to him. And we will show him our reality.

Does Itaituba make its living from gold-mining?

We have other activities, we work with legalized timber with public forest concessions, with cattle ranching and now we are planting soy. But 60% of the money that circulates in this area comes from gold mining. We do not work with just any old gold mining operations, but instead with sustainable mining, where you work and do not cause degradation to the environment, where the water that you release into the river is clean water, where the gold-miners are not allowed to leave holes in the ground, do not use mercury, and do not degrade the environment.

What is your assessment of what happened in the State of Roraima?

It is ridiculous. I remember that back then during [Fernando] Collor’s time [1990-1992], gold mining was also prohibited, then along came this lunatic [Jair] Bolsonaro [2019-2022], who encouraged people to do the wrong things, but didn’t help at all. More than two backhoe loaders were burned here during the four years of the Bolsonaro government. This Bolsonaro guy is the worst president we have ever had. We went through hell with him, and he blamed everything on the Federal Supreme Court, but we know that the reality is different. What happened in Roraima only happened because Bolsonaro caved in.

Why did it happen?

He [Bolsonaro] wanted to put on a show for the gold-miners. He got half a dozen votes there [in the city of Boa Vista] and wanted to put on a show for the people there. Remember that a week before he left, he issued a decree to remove timber from indigenous lands? Well, Lula has already put an end to this, because it was just ridiculous.

[Two weeks before the end of his mandate, Bolsonaro issued Normative Instruction IN 12/2022, which allowed the extraction of timber from indigenous lands. This measure was revoked by the current Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sonia Guajajara, on January 16].

Mr. Mayor, is it true that you made bets that Lula would win the election?

Yes I did and I won R$ 9 million as a result of those bets. I won money, a truck, a plane, I won everything.

Do you think the dialogue with Lula will be better?

Yes, dialogue and environmental education. I am against deforestation, put that in your newspaper. Deforestation has to be zero. Just for you to get an idea, on the left bank of the Tapajós River, which is where Itaituba is, there is practically zero deforestation. Now, on the municipality of Itaituba’s border with Novo Progresso, Castelo dos Sonhos, I can’t keep up with it.

So, the focus is on regularizing the situation of the gold-mines?

Yes, we already have a lot of regulated mines, do you understand: we do not have anything to do with the Boa Vista issue. Nothing at all. Our situation here is different, the gold-miners sell their little bit of gold and go to the mini-market. Yes, we are the municipality that has issued the most environmental licenses, but we also carry out inspections to make sure that everything is correct.

Are you getting gold prospectors coming in from the Yanomami Indigenous Land?

No. We don’t have many gold-miners here who came in from outside, no. We don’t have the structure for it. I have to admit that it’s been a long time since I was there [in Roraima], but I think those gold-miners are people from Venezuela and Bolivia who live on the borders of those countries.

The gold mining operations work like this: there is the owner of the mine and then you have the gold-miners. 20% of everything that the miners produce is theirs and 80% goes to the owner. The owner brings in a PC [abbreviation used in the mines for powerful hydraulic backhoe loaders], brings in an engine, provides beans and rice and pays the cook. But they are two entirely different creatures.

Have you ever drunk water contaminated with mercury?

Yes, I have. I was really stuffed. Do you know what really stuffed is?

No, what is it?

It’s when your stomach is full, excessively full. Then I took a drop of mercury with water and it solved the problem.

Are you a prospector?

I have been a prospector for a long time. I am from the municipality of Ubajara, in the State of Ceará, and I started working as a prospector when I was 17 years old, in 1977, at the Bom Jesus gold mine, here in Itaituba. Back in my day things were different, it was manual work. We worked with a wheelbarrow, then we moved on to a motor, and then came the backhoe loaders. Beforehand, you would dig a hole 1.20 meters x 1.20 meters in the ground, like a well. You would get down into the hole, remove the earth and extract the gold. It has been 43 years working with gold mining and catching malaria. I’ve been out of the business for a couple of years now, because I’ve been a little sick, but the day I leave City Hall, you can be sure, that I’ll be back there [gold-mining] again.

Translated by Mark Murray

Itaituba is the Brazilian municipality with the highest concentration of mining activity, be it industrial mining or gold prospecting. Photo: Nelson Almeida/AFP

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