Heriberto Araújo and Anna Veciana in Paracatu, Brazil
Despite her advanced age, Juliana Morais da Costa still retains enough strength in her hands to hold the heavy bateia. “I began to pan gold when I was five. We started at 5am until 4pm. It was tough work, but I did it because it was the only way to be economically independent,” remembers Morais, 86.
Her home city of Paracatu is the epicentre of Brazil’s mining production, in the north of the state of Minas Gerais, which generates almost one-third of Brazil’s total mining production.
The exploitation of gold started in Paracatu as early as 1722. But the days of the garimpeiros, or gold hunters, are long gone. Since the 1990s the hunt has moved from the river banks to underground deposits. Dynamite, excavators and chemicals replaced the garimpeiros, who were pushed out from a business that had sustained hundreds of families.
Booming gold prices
In 2005, Canadian company Kinross – which is listed in the New York Stock Exchange and owns gold mines in Chile, United States, Russia and Ghana, among other countries – took over the mining concession in Paracatu. During a period in which gold prices rose to historical new heights in global markets, Kinross invested $1.86bn in the site, tripling annual production to the current 15 tonnes and making Paracatu the most productive gold mine in Brazil. As the gold in Paracatu takes the form of a powder and not grain or nuggets, the company had to greatly intensify mining activities to keep production up. Today as many as 160 dynamite explosions are carried out daily to dig the Morro do Ouro, the Golden Hill, as locals refer to the area where the main deposits are found.
As a consequence, the local geography has been profoundly transformed. As you approach the mining area we witness an immense crater that covers 615 hectares, half the size of Heathrow’s airport, and resembles a lunar landscape. The only signs of life are the imposing bulldozers and the high-wheeled vehicles that transport the rocks to the plant. There, toxic chemicals, including cyanide, are employed to separate out the gold powder, which is later molten in ingots and transported by helicopter to São Paulo for export around the globe.
Arsenic health risks
While the visual impact seems hard to deny – in addition to the mining area, two large dams the size of an extra Heathrow airport are used for toxic waste disposal – many argue that the mine poses a threat to the local environment and to the health of the 90,000 Paracatu residents. Not only is dynamite used to access the gold reserves as close as 200 metres from the urban area, the precious metal is mixed in the rock with arsenic, a carcinogenic.
Arsenic is commonly found in gold mines, but in Paracatu it is of particular concern. For each tonne of rock removed only 0.4 grams of gold is recovered and 1kg of arsenic is released into the air and groundwater, according to Márcio José dos Santos, a geologist and local activist.
“Nobody knows how much arsenic is going to the city. The northeasterly wind here means that the arsenic travels in the air from the mine to the urban area. People are inhaling the toxic dust and consequently are inhaling arsenic,” explains José. Sergio Ulhoa Dani, a local physician and also an opponent of the mine, argued in a recent scientific article that “the potential damage of arsenic in a gold mine like the one in Paracatu could impact seven trillion people”.
Many in the city wonder if their life is at risk, while the word “cancer” has become a taboo. Data from Paracatu’s city council shows that the cancer mortality rate in the town is similar to the rest of the country. Critics argue that statistics from the local government are unreliable. As Paracatu lacks medical institutions, patients must go to hospitals located hundreds of kilometres away to receive treatment and so are not counted in the city’s official data.
Opponents face harassment and threats
The attitude of the company is also under scrutiny. According to documents seen by The Guardian and interviews with former employees, several Kinross’ employees worked as an intelligence unit to track any potential activity against the mine or the company’s reputation.
In an interview with the Guardian, Gilberto Azevedo, general manager of the mine, denied any risk to the health or the environment. “We monitor everything. People have nothing to fear, because we have everything under control. We regularly make environmental and biological tests, and we have hired external sources to carry studies. They all show there is no risk.”
He also underlined the economic importance of the company’s activity for the region. In 2014, Kinross paid about $10m in taxes and currently employs 3,300 people in the mine, about 8% of the active population in the city.
However, tension is perceptible. As we drive through the public roads bordering the concession, an armed guard who had been following the car for an hour brings us to a halt and questions us.
Dozens of documents and internal emails seen by The Guardian show that in 2012 and 2013 Kinross had a policy in Paracatu of regularly monitoring potential opponents, including the former mayor Almir Paraca – known for being outspoken against the mine – and several union leaders.
“They monitor social movements, politicians, neighbourhood associations and their representatives, environmental activists, union leaders… They even monitor what some Kinross’s employees do at their free time. The main goal is to hide or repress any action, demonstration or reference against the mining company or their interests”, said one of the sources, knowledgeable of Kinross’ policies because of his/her former post at the company.
And at least two local activists – Rafaela Xavier Luiz and Evane Lopes – have had to leave the city in recent months after they received death threats, which they argue were linked to their opposition to the mine.
“We have nothing to do with this. Kinross is a company that dialogues with the community,” says Azevedo, when asked if the enterprise was in any way involved in the threats to activists. Kinross also denied it monitored activists or opponents.
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