Community resistance has been astonishingly effective at stopping mining in Brazil. This article draws from the book “Iron Will: Global Extractivism and Mining Resistance in Brazil and India”.
Markus Kröger, a professor at the University of Helsinki, wrote the inspiring book “Iron Will: Global Extractivism and Mining Resistance in Brazil and India“. Kröger thinks that the wave of astonishingly effective mining resistance in a large number of countries in the south of the world is an excellent and fast-working remedy against the climate catastrophe that is hanging over us all. In this second article Jan Paul Smit summarises Kröger’s research in Brazil and defines key principles drawn from both India and Brazil. Read Part 1: “Mining Resistance in India“.
Southeast Brazil: David and Goliath in Minas Gerais
In addition to visiting India and speaking with numerous activists there, Kröger has also studied resistance to mining in Brazil, particularly in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. If there was one state in Brazil that was pro-mining, it was this one. The name alone speaks volumes. After all, “Minas Gerais” means “General Mines”, and its’ residents call themselves “mineiros”, “miners”. Yet the mood in the state has shifted.
Minas Gerais is the world’s leading producer of iron, gold, zinc and niobium, and the second most important producer of aluminium. The capital, Belo Horizonte, is one of Brazil’s largest cities, with nearly 6 million people living in the metropolitan region. The area around the capital is rich in iron ore, and the Brazilian multinational Vale had its eye on this area in 2009 to open a new large mine in the Gandarela Mountains: the Apollo project.
Vale is the largest Latin American corporation. It produces the most iron ore and nickel worldwide and also makes steel, copper, cobalt and much more. It has its own merchant fleet, a series of ports and its own rail lines to transport all its raw materials and products. The Apollo project would provide Vale with an additional billion tons of iron ore.
Now, each case of mining resistance is different, because local conditions vary every time. But in general, a mass movement is indispensable to block a powerful mining company that has good contacts with the government. The Apollo resistance, however, is the exception that proves the rule.
It all started with some people from the villages under threat, a few conservationists who wanted to prevent the destruction of the forests, and some experts like Paulo Baptista, landscape photographer and professor of art at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. They raised the alarm: that Vale had no respect for the last great water reservoir that supplied Belo Horizonte with 60 % of its drinking water.
That it had no regard for the last pristine natural area near the capital of Minas Gerais. That it was in fact a matter of the survival of the multi-million person region of Belo Horizonte. In short, that further expansion of mining in this area was irresponsible.
This message struck a nerve with a fair number of critical intellectuals and officials in the big city. The resistance in the hills had reached the capital! A small movement even emerged: the Movimento pela Preservação da Serra do Gandarela (Movement for the Preservation of the Gandarela Mountains), with about a thousand members and a Facebook page at the end.
The resistance built a good relationship with the Ministry of Justice and with the Environment Ministry’s Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation). This institute designed a plan in 2010 to turn most of the Gandarela Mountains into a national park, thus preventing mining there and protecting Belo Horizonte’s precious water. Vale would then have to settle for a much smaller mining area than it wanted.
Meanwhile, resistance to the Apollo project grew and mining giant Vale was very much displeased, still not having received the requested permit. The city government really didn’t know how to “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” and pushed the decision to Brazilian President Dilma Roussef. She designated 31,000 hectares of the Gandarela Mountains as a national park in 2014, and made 900 to 2,000 hectares available to Vale for mining. The resistance was not at all happy about this because they feared that the water and forests would be polluted anyway.
Vale was not satisfied either. It now decided to focus its attention entirely on an iron ore area in Carajás, northern Brazil. Understandably, the resistance in Minas Gerais was not sad about this.
In November 2015, Minas Gerais’ already battered mining image took an additional hit when a dam from a Vale tailings pond in this state breached and a toxic mudslide inundated a series of villages, resulting in 19 fatalities. A similar, but much bigger disaster in 2019 was really the last straw. Once again, the dam of a Vale tailings pond in Minas Gerais broke. This time, 270 people were killed. The government then revoked Vale’s permits for dams at tailings ponds, and the value of the monster company’s shares fell by nearly 25 %. The “mineiros” of Minas Gerais have lost sympathy for mining.
North Brazil: Movement of landless peasants fights mining giant in the Carajás Mountains
For the fifth and final area of mining resistance, we turn our attention to a remote area in northern Brazil’s Pará state in the Carajás Mountains. Here the population has been fighting against mining giant Vale for decades. Vale’s main opponent is the MST, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement).
The MST is a large organisation founded in 1984, with about one and a half million members spread over local communities in almost all states of Brazil. It is intensively concerned with rural poverty and is best known for land occupations by groups of unemployed farm workers. In this way, these groups force the government to give them a piece of land owned by large landowners that is not in use, so that they can build a farming community there.
In 1985, Vale started the Carajás mine. This is the largest iron ore mine in the world and also has the largest global supply of iron ore. For decades the MST has taken the lead in actions against this mine – for example, regarding the associated railroad, eucalyptus plantations, cast iron factories and charcoal ovens. The first conflicts date back to 1992, when two to three thousand people led by the MST occupied a piece of forest in the Carajás National Park for two days. The site is part of a large area where Vale is allowed to mine. Thanks to this and other similar actions, the government took away a large part of the area adjacent to the mine from Vale. As a result of the successful occupation, an MST group established the peasant village of Palmares here, in the municipality of Parauebebas.
In 2007, the MST, together with small-scale miners and indigenous communities in this municipality, organised a major action of 5,000 people that lasted 26 days. The activists occupied the Vale railroad line that the mining company used for the export of iron ore. The Vale union supported the action and demanded that the company, which was privatised in 1997, be re-nationalised. According to Vale, the occupation caused it to lose twenty million dollars.
Also after 2007, the MST, in collaboration with other organisations, started several Vale campaigns and occupations of company sites in a series of states. It also took action in Rio de Janeiro, where the company’s headquarters are located. Although the actions went well, they did not lead to the closure of the Carajás mine.
That is not to say that the actions had no results. For example, Vale stopped producing charcoal, was forced to slow down its expansions, and part of the area assigned to it by the government was reallocated. In addition, the state government increased the profit tax, to use that money to help the population with the problems it faces from mining. And judges ruled that Vale had to pay a large amount of evaded taxes.
All in all, the resistance not only seriously affected the company’s profits, but also its reputation. A critical consciousness has now grown among the population, which no longer believes that opposition to mining is outdated and that mining companies are the great benefactors of society, the bringers of development and prosperity. But why was it possible to close a large number of mines in India and block a new mine in Minas Gerais – but not to stop the Carajás mine?
First: because the Carajás mine is located in a remote area. For the population there it is much more difficult to engage in a struggle with a powerful mining company than in an area close to a large city, as in our second example, the new mine near the large city of Goa, and in our third example, the Appolo mining project near the state capital Belo Horizonte. This is because in a large city there are many middle-class people who may be critical of mining, and have good contacts with expert scientists, the media, specialised lawyers or political parties, and with state institutions such as an environmental department or the prosecutor’s office. The few middle-class people in a far-flung corner where a mining company operates are usually either employed by the company there or directly dependent on it.
For example, the opposition to the mining project near Belo Horizonte had excellent contacts with the prosecutor in this city, while his colleagues in the Carajás Mountains prosecuted the MST activists for blocking the Vale railroad. Prosecutors in Brazil generally do not like vehement actions by leftist workers. They are more sympathetic to reports and procedures by NGOs, trade unions and churches.
So to make the resistance more powerful, the MST in a backward area can hardly involve engaged middle-class people. It therefore seeks contact with other workers’ organisations such as the mining union. It is also building a national and even international anti-mining network.
Second: because the MST, the main driving force behind the resistance, is a broad-based organisation. In our first three examples, we were dealing with resistance groups that had only one goal in mind: to block one particular mining project. The MST, however, is a large organisation that deals with all kinds of problems facing the rural poor. Mining is one of them. But a decent income and good facilities for workers in remote areas are other concerns for the MST. The organisation has a broader view and that comes at the expense of certain, specific action goals.
The MST has also gained a slightly better rapport with Vale. The company is avoiding confrontation with the MST because it does not want to risk another blockade of its railroad line. The MST can now get amenities, such as the construction of a local road, from the government a little more easily. It raises the issue with Vale, who then, through its good contacts with the local authorities, makes sure that the requested provision is made. Thus the MST strays somewhat from its sharp anti-mining stance, although at the same time it also realises that with Vale “only by fighting you can achieve results”.
On top of this, the local MST has a different position than the national one. At the local level, the MST is interested in bringing in something for the local poor, while the national leadership has the stance that mining should be stopped because of the enormous pollution it brings.
However, all this does not mean that resistance in remote areas has no chance; see the successful campaign in Keonjhar (our first example).
Conclusions About Mining Resistance
When Kröger reflects on all those many, many conversations with activists in India and Brazil and the whole pile of books he has read on the topic of mining resistance, a few conclusions come to his mind.
First: a combination of five strategies is the best guarantee for successful resistance:
- 1. To build a mass movement through, for example, mass demonstrations, mass meetings, a busy Facebook page or a mailing list with many subscribers.
- 2. To attack existing ‘truths’ and replacing them with a different view of life, with for example poems, songs, murals, documentaries, and in speeches and articles, where mining no longer stands for development and prosperity, but for pollution of the air, water, and lands. Where a particular mountain is not just a stock of ore that can bring in a lot of money, but for the Adivasis who live there, it is a god whose value cannot be expressed in money. And where the world is not a repository of natural treasures to be discovered and exploited, but a web of life of plants, animals and people.
- 3. To organise protest actions, such as blocking roads or railroad tracks, occupying squares, or surrounding offices or factories.
- 4. To build networks or join existing ones.
- 5. To make use of the government by, for example, building up good contacts with certain government institutions, such as the Ministry of the Environment or Rural Affairs, or an environmental department. Or by supporting candidates in elections who are explicitly on the side of resistance and keeping them to their promises later. Or by starting legal proceedings.
But beware, only do this last if there is already a strong mass movement, otherwise a negative ruling from a court can easily work against you. By the way, for a successful procedure you need the help of a specialised NGO.
Second, what you should definitely not do is let a government agency or a mining company take you in. For a resistance movement, autonomy is paramount. Don’t be lured into “reconciliation” or “a good talk”, where mining officials offer apologies, vow improvement and make vague promises. And where critics are silenced. Don’t accept gifts like free shares, either.
The price of armed resistance
Third, companies and government in India and Brazil are taking appallingly violent action against mining resistance. Especially in remote areas. Both countries are among the most dangerous in the world for activists. Mistreatment and murder are commonplace there, to break resistance and allow mining projects to go ahead. It is completely understandable that in such a situation activists reach for weapons, in order to save some of the life, culture and forests of the people.
It is a huge achievement that the MST, which often operates in remote areas, has not allowed itself to be drawn into armed resistance – although it would be quite capable of doing so. It explicitly chooses to work for a political shift through sustained, extensive, tenacious resistance. To that end, it endures all the violence that government and corporations exert on it. It is true that armed resistance is capable of blocking mining projects, but the price that activists and the rest of the population pay for this is very high: long-term living in a militarised environment. Moreover, national and international solidarity is very difficult to build in such a situation.
Reducing fossil fuels
Fourth, discussions about the climate crisis often involve the need to sharply reduce the use of fossil fuels because they are a source of the notorious greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Mining is not often talked about, but it also produces huge amounts of those dangerous gases. Now you can urge consumers to buy less in order to reduce the use of resources. But in practice, the effect of such campaigns is small. Reducing production at the source works faster and is more effective.
It has already become almost a cliché to say that we are running out of time to prevent the worst climate disasters, but it is unfortunately true. Mining resistance turns out to be a quick, concrete, feasible and effective tool against global warming.
Moreover, by 2030, half the world’s population will suffer from water shortages. Mining uses and pollutes huge amounts of water. From that perspective, too, mining resistance is a pure necessity.
Support mining resistance!
Much and strong mining resistance is not a future dream, not a pious wish. It is already taking place now. It is not yet another piece of advice to the climate-conscious consumer, not yet another plea for a “promising” technical solution, not yet another multi-billion-dollar government plan, not yet another call to politicians to finally really drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it is a social movement in numerous countries especially in the Global South that is already achieving great results on the ground. All we have to do is support this movement wherever we can.
Jan Paul Smit
Read the first part of this article: “Mining Resistance in India“.
About the article and author
- This article is written by Jan Paul Smit: Dutch activist, journalist, writer and author of the web book “A Peasant History“.
- This article is based almost entirely on Markus Kröger’s 2020 book “Iron Will: Global Extractivism and Mining Resistance in Brazil and India“, which you can download for free.
- Practical information on organising (mining) blockades can be found in the article “What Will It Take for the Climate Movement to Win?” from Nicholas Beuret.
- Thanks to Marcia Tiede for her translation assistance.
- This is a Creative Commons text CC BY-NC.