MINING AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT: The Minas-Bahia and Eastern Amazon frontiers
By Tádzio Peters Coelho, Gustavo Iorio and Charles Trocate
Mining activities, particularly large-scale mining projects, are expanding practically all over Brazil, thus intensifying the bonds of subordination and impoverishment of the places where mining establishes itself. This expansion began in the wake of the commodity super-cycle in the 2000s, ebbed in the mid-2010s, but has regained strength in recent years. It is taking place at different rates depending on the various frontiers of mining capital.
A frontier is a geographic area that at the same time divides and incorporates, i.e., it establishes an “inside and out”, but, simultaneously, demarcates penetration of one over another. Unlike a limit, a frontier is not a straight line; it is zonal, undefined, malleable. Frontiers are spaces undergoing movement, where a vector of modernization imposes itself on the territory that is thus de-structured in order to be incorporated into the imperatives of capitalist modernization.
These incorporated territories/economies/places end up subordinated to the dynamic of global capital, interested in lower production costs for the commodities that will be consumed at the center of the world-system. Hence, the resulting social conflicts are situated in the modern world-system, connecting relations of dependence and subordination.
Therefore, the mining frontier brings about the development of underdevelopment. This is because in dependent social formations, capital in its various forms expands through the intensification and broadening of the mechanisms of hyper-exploitation of labor and of the goods of nature.
Examples of frontiers of mining capital in Brazil include, among several others, the Eastern Amazon frontier and the Minas-Bahia frontier, the latter located in the Cerrado region and in its transition to the Atlantic Forest. These are frontiers at different stages of consolidation and in four different states, where companies of different origins and sizes operate.
The Minas-Bahia frontier is currently taking root, with intense expansion of mining over the last few years. From there, we will detail iron ore projects that are under implementation. And from the Eastern Amazon frontier, we will analyze the gold mine in Godofredo Viana, a municipality in Maranhão state, and the Greater Carajás Project in the southeast of Pará state. Because the latter is more consolidated, it is possible to have a clearer picture of the dimension of the appropriation of mineral wealth.
Such frontiers are part of what is termed the Brazilian Mineral Model, and demarcate the deepening of mining activities in territories already debilitated by mining dependence. But they also spread out, incorporating new territories, outside of traditionally mined areas. The appropriation of natural resources and the de-structuring of local production occur as a result of the joint action of mining capital and state agencies.
Employing the terms of Marini (2017) and Frank (2010): MARINI, Ruy Mauro. Subdesenvolvimento e revolução. 6th ed. Florianópolis: Insular, 2017. FRANK, Andre Gunder. The Development of Underdevelopment. In: CHEW, Sing. LAUDERDALE, Pat. Theory and methodology of world development: the writings of Andre Gunder Frank. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2010.
The frontier under consolidation between the Cerrado and the Atlantic Forest
On the Minas-Bahia mining capital frontier, we will focus on two projects that, like the frontier itself, are currently undergoing consolidation processes. The first is the Pedra de Ferro Project. The company in question is called Bamin, a subsidiary of the Eurasian Resources Group (ERG), a Kazakh business entity. The project is located in the municipality of Licínio de Almeida (Bahia state) and once installed estimates its annual extraction capacity at 20 million tons of iron ore, with a lifespan of 30 years. The construction of a downstream tailings dam is also forecast.
The Pedra de Ferro Project aims to connect with important transport infrastructure, a point of major interest on the company’s part. Porto Sul, a harbor in Ilhéus municipality (Bahia), is being built by Bamin in conjunction with the Government of Bahia. The West-East Integration Railway (Ferrovia de Integração Oeste-Leste, FIOL), also under construction, is a possibility for moving the ore. FIOL will have 1,527km in total. The concession for the first stretch, from Caetité to Ilhéus, was acquired at auction by Bamin itself.
Bamin started off requesting the licensing of iron ore mining titles in the communities of Antas, Taquaril dos Fialhos and Palmitos, in Licínio de Almeida, formed mainly by small farmers who grow rice, coffee, sugar cane, beans, corn and cassava. The families also raise animals and have diverse vegetable gardens and orchards. This production is sold at the local market, while the fruit is sold through distribution centers in other states. Beyond the possible de-structuring of production, iron ore mining may affect River Salto, reducing its flow. This river is the main source of water for Licínio de Almeida, Caculé, Rio do Antonio and Guajeru municipalities.
Another project representative of the encroachment of mining capital on the Minas-Bahia frontier is the Bloco 8 Project, located in Padre Carvalho, Fruta de Leite, Josenópolis and Grão Mogol (Minas Gerais state), and also being installed. The company in question is called SAM, controlled by the Chinese group Honbridge Holdings Ltd. Annual production is forecast to reach 27.5 million tons of iron ore.
SAM’s project forecasts the construction of two tailings dams, the larger of which could reach a storage capacity of 891 million cubic meters, making it the largest mine tailings dam in the country. The ore is forecast to be transported by a 480km-long pipeline to Porto Sul, in Ilhéus (Bahia). The iron ore is low grade, meaning its extraction will tend to generate more tailings and sterile waste, which can lead to several negative impacts to local communities – as happened at the gold mine in Aurizona (Maranhão state), as we shall see below.
Considering that SAM’s project goes beyond the area of mine, i.e., it also includes the ore pipeline and the port, it affects 21 municipalities, nine in Minas Gerais and twelve in Bahia. Along the path of the pipeline, there are various traditional communities – indigenous peoples, quilombolas (peasant’s black communities, descended from enslaved people) and geraizeiras (peasant communities that have straight relationship with the Cerrado commons), among others – that were intentionally made invisible by the Environmental Impact Study (EIA/Rima). According to the partial mapping undertaken by the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT) in Minas Gerais, from the Zacarias dam, upstream, they are: Córrego do Vale, Batalha, Lamarão, São Francisco, Barra de Canoas, Diamantina, Catulé, Tamboril, Miroro, Vacarias, Ponte Velha, Vaquejador, Ribeirãozinho and Água Branca. Downstream from the dam there are many others, all the way to the River Jequitinhonha: Sucesso, Brejinho, Ponte Nova, Barra de Curral de Varas, Catulé, Ribeirãozinho de Josenópolis, Pintado, Barreiro, Mandassaia and São João do Vacarias, among others.
Bloco 8 and Pedra de Ferro projects are part of the encroachment of Minas-Bahia mining capital frontier (see map below). This expansion front is located in the Cerrado and in the transition between the Cerrado and the Atlantic Forest.
Mining de-structures other productive activities
The Amazon region has several consolidated mining capital frontiers. We have opted here to address the Eastern Amazon frontier since it contains two key projects of the Brazilian mining model, one in Maranhão and the other in Pará.
The gold mining project in Godofredo Viana municipality (Maranhão) is conducted in an open pit by Canadian corporation Equinox Gold, through its subsidiary Mineração Aurizona S.A. (MASA). Godofredo Viana is a municipality close to Maranhão’s border with Pará. According to the company, the deposit contains more than 200 tons of gold.
Aerial view of the Piaba mine in Godofredo Viana (Maranhão). Photo by Tádzio Coelho.
Aurizona mine has recurrently caused harm. On November 4, 2018, there was a landslide of sterile waste piles in the Piaba mine area. Some of these piles were near Aurizona Village and the road to Godofredo Viana town, which was blocked.
Watercourses have been seriously affected. As well as the waste having reached an area of mangrove swamp and streams, the Lagoa do Pirocaua Dam burst on March 25, 2021, impacting the lagoon where the community of Aurizona, made up basically of small farmers, fisherfolk and miners, obtains water for treatment and consumption.
While in 2020 Equinox Gold’s gross revenue from the Aurizona mine was 1.135 billion Reais – which puts Godofredo Viana in sixth place among Brazilian municipalities that extract gold –, the region’s farmers are abandoning agriculture. Since the start of operations in 2010, the development of mining activities has involved the renouncement and de-structuring of other local economic activities. Thus, fishing and the cultivation of bananas, rice, cassava and beans, most of which sold locally, have declined in this period.
Many farmers have sold their properties to the mining company. According to local residents, before the announcement of the gold mining project, many properties were purchased at prices lower than those reached after the announcement of the arrival of the Canadian corporation. This exposes the company’s territorial strategy of buying up land before declaring its interest in mining the subsoil, which would increase the value of these properties. Hence, the company both raises its value capture and uses this strategy to “expand its power and/or reduce the power of other agents”  that might raise questions, organize resistance and place obstacles before Equinox’s venture.
Therefore, the specialization in large scale mining takes place to the detriment of the development of other economic activities, generating dependence and underdevelopment. Jobs were created in industrial mining but at the same time were lost in fishing, agriculture and cooperative mining, in a dialectic of creation and destruction typical of large-scale mining.
The Godofredo Viana mine is located in the same mining frontier as the Grande Carajás Complex, the largest iron ore producer in Brazil. The setting up of the infrastructure for its operation began in February 1978. As well as the four Carajás mines, three others make up the complex: Salobo (copper); Azul (manganese); and Sossego (copper). Mineral extraction in Parauapebas and Canaã dos Carajás (Pará), the country’s top two mining municipalities by value of operations, earned the Vale corporation gross revenues worth some 79 billion Reais in 2020. Since the operations in question are already consolidated, the surrounding territories of the past have been restructured by the mining dynamic with a view to capital accumulation in this sector.
Despite the immense revenues obtained by Vale in Parauapebas and Canaã dos Carajás, the two municipalities have social indicators that reflect a situation of poverty, inequality and pauperization. 55.4% of the population of Canaã dos Carajás and 55.8% of the population of Parauapebas have no refuse collection or sewage treatment.
ANM. Agência Nacional de Mineração. Maiores arrecadadores. 2021. Accessed on June 20, 2021.
Development of underdevelopment
The Minas-Bahia and Eastern Amazon mining frontiers have different dimensions in terms of the capital mobilized, the origin of the company (China, Kazakhstan, Canada and Brazil), mineral goods extracted, payment of fees and taxes, ecosystems affected and the destination of the ores.
However, despite significant differences, both generate damage to local populations. Such production arrangements and their economic and social effects can be understood through the category ‘development of underdevelopment’. The same single process harms local economic dynamics, thus reinforcing the dimension of poverty, while at the same time directing the income from mining to corporations and their shareholders.
Tádzio Peters Coelho and Gustavo Iorio are assistant professors of the Social Sciences Department (DCS) and of the Postgraduate Program in Geography at Universidade Federal de Viçosa (UFV).
Charles Trocate is a member of the Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining (Movimento pela Soberania Popular na Mineração, MAM).