An uneven war: The environmental and human disaster in the Brazilian Amazon


Author: Tomás Mousinho, Founding Partner at PGMBM

Brazil is many Brazils. To talk about the country’s conflicts and inequalities, it is important to remember that its continental scales are home to distinct realities.

These realities are delimited not only by social, economic, and geographical contexts, but also by varied public policies and asymmetrical power relations.

The Amazon

Of these many Brazils, perhaps the most famous and, at the same time complex, is the portion that is home to the largest tropical forest in the world: The Amazon region.

A region of superlatives, it is home to the world’s greatest biodiversity, kilometres-wide rivers, and dozens of people with complex cultures, including isolated indigenous communities with little or even no contact with our predatory society.

An environment capable of making a decisive contribution to combating climate change and curing existing and future diseases.

However, in this world of superlative, much is lacking. Among them, are public environmental and social policies aimed at protecting it, its people, and its reasonable and sustainable development. The absence of infrastructure, and private and public support generates harmful consequences.

Between the murder of the US activist Dorothy Stang, who was fighting for agrarian reform and sustainable production in Pará in 2005, and the recent murder of Bruno Pereira and Dom Philips, in Amazonas, many have lost their lives fighting in this context.

Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips

Bruno Pereira was an employee of Brazil’s National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) and a well-known expert and defender of indigenous causes.

He was a reference as an indigenous expert in Brazil and a specialist in the region, working to protect indigenous territories against invasions by miners and loggers. In 2019, Bruno led an enforcement operation against illegal miners in Vale do Javari, which was considered a success. Shortly after, he was removed from his position by the Brazilian federal government. Bruno denounced the dismantling of FUNAI and was working as an advisor to the Union of Indigenous Peoples of Vale do Javari, but, apparently, acting in accordance with the law and in favour of indigenous communities was severely punished not only with the loss of his position but with death.

Dom Phillips was a British journalist, a veteran of international coverage and had been reporting on Brazil for over 15 years. In an interview with President Bolsonaro last year, he asked about the reduction of environmental law enforcement in Brazil. Phillips was known for his admiration of the Amazon, where he went to expose the impact of the actions of environmental criminals and was writing a book on the Amazon Forest and its sustainable potential.

Both were committed to the arduous task of preserving the Amazon rainforest’s peoples and its incredible biodiversity. The Vale do Javari, the second largest indigenous land in Brazil is the stage of conflicts related to the illegal deforestation, appropriation of land by means of forged deeds and land invasion, illegal mining, illegal fishing and hunting and drug trafficking.

Impacts of public and private enterprises

Added to these illegal activities are the impacts caused by large public and private enterprises, ranging from hydroelectric power plants built without due respect and care for the population and the environment to mining and industrial activities, which generate negative impacts in their operations and are prone to major disasters. Unfortunately, this reality is shared throughout the approximately 5.2 million km² of the Amazon basin in Brazil.

Brazil is the fourth most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental defenders, according to the NGO Global Witness. In the year 2020 alone, there were 20 murders. Since Stang’s murder, less than 5% of the more than 550 murders that have occurred were brought to court. Lack of law enforcement helps perpetuate chronic violence against rural workers and activists for land, environmental and human rights.

Under the current government, the alarming destruction of the Brazilian Amazon has intensified. The aggressive weakening of forest protection and the promotion of policies to expand industrial-scale mining and agribusiness in the Amazon have severe consequences not only for the region’s residents but across the globe.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Legal Amazon between August 2020 and July 2021 was estimated at 13,235 km2, which represents the highest level since 2006. The appropriation of public lands also generates deforestation and violence in the region, with 23% of the 49.8 million hectares of undesignated public forests in the Amazon already invaded by land grabbing, one of the main drivers of deforestation.

The expansion of mining coincides with the advance over indigenous territories and conservation units. According to data from Mapbiomas, from 2010 to 2020, the area occupied by mining within conservation units grew by 301%. Data from the Map of Conflicts indicate that more than 7,000 occurrences of conflicts with 2,000 victims took place in the last decade in the Amazon.

Barcarena and the Pará River

When we think about conflicts related to companies, the municipality of Barcarena, the largest mineral processing pole in the State of Pará, stands out negatively. At least 26 environmental disasters/crimes have been recorded in this area over the last two decades, with significant impacts on the environment and the local population. Among these cases, some stand out, such as the disaster involving the Hydro Alunorte company in Barcarena (Pará), a place which concentrates an enormous amount of large-scale environmental crimes in a short time.

In 2018, in a Parliament Inquiry Commission (CPI) to investigate the environmental damage in the Pará River basin in the House of Representatives of Pará (ALEPA), the following conclusion was reached: “There is in Barcarena an overlapping of polluting activities to which no environment should be subjected, and there is concerning “

Barcarena a system of concealment, normalisation, legalisation, and maintenance of these indiscriminately overlapping socio-environmental impacts.” Such reality is, unfortunately, not only that of the municipality but all the state of Pará.

The municipality of Barcarena has several enterprises and activities in operation with potential environmental impact. An example of this is the industrial complex of Barcarena, an existing risk in the region because of the tailing dams in this area. Companies such as Imerys and Hydro are considered primary sources of pollution.

The site of this complex is currently called the “Brazilian Chernobyl” by the population contaminated by the mining industries. As an aggravating factor, the victims of environmental crimes from mining companies in the region, who live around these potentially impacting enterprises, live mostly in stilt houses, and depend directly or indirectly on the use of land for survival, which contributes to increasing their fragility in the face of potential threats.

Environmental crimes, in addition to serious health effects, also generate the continuity of the expulsion of traditional communities – which is doubly felt in Barcarena. This is because the environmental damage causes a second forced eviction to the nearby communities – the first having occurred in the 90s, in the 20th century, for the implementation of the Alunorte industrial plant and its DRS I Tailings Basin, located in the south of the municipality.

This is a Norwegian company headquartered in Oslo, the world’s largest mining and aluminium refinery and the perpetrator of several environmental crimes in the region: one of them occurred in February 2018, consisting of a bauxite leak. The “red tide” – the colour that the water acquired, seriously contaminated the river and consequently the people. Subsequent studies of blood samples in the region found very high and fatal amounts of heavy metals.

The Human Rights Commission of ALEPA itself has already explained in a report that the environmental disasters that affect the population living in the municipalities of Barcarena, Abaetetuba, and others located on the banks of the Pará River have been much more frequent than expected due to the nature of the industrial operations carried out in the area.

The royalties end up generating an enormous dependency since the governments are held hostage by the constant inflow of foreign currency, always alleging the effective job creation and the tangible, indirect benefits arising from the constant need to generate profits obtained from polluting operations.

The municipalities are subject to pollution and damage to the health of the populations left behind by the royalties, money that ends up circulating freely in the municipal coffers, without a specific purpose, and without social control of the effective use of these resources that rarely reach the populations.

The Brazilian judiciary

Faced with this situation, the Brazilian judiciary often cannot satisfactorily resolve the situation in terms of compensation for the affected, while environmental bodies, highly underfunded due to the country’s current situation, do not monitor the companies’ risky activities.

To complete the triad, environmental activists are under constant threat. Such is the situation of Socorro do Burajuba, President of the Associação dos Caboclos, Indígenas e Quilombolas da Amazônia (Cainquiama), who has been fighting in court against the Norsk Hydro group for a long time.

Because of her activism, since 2018, Socorro do Burajuba has received death threats and had her house invaded, and important documents of the association were stolen, which hindered the progress of some of the claims the association was pursuing against Hydro.

In the face of this machine of corruption and inefficiency that affects several spheres of the government responsible for protecting the environment, action in search of a solution outside national territory is imperative to guarantee a minimum of dignity for a large number of local victims, but not only, since the medium and long-term effects will invariably be felt by a much larger number of individuals.

May the example of international litigation serve to curb the lethal modus operandi of foreign companies in the Brazilian territory.


Article: Lawless land in no man’s land: The undesignated public forests in the Brazilian Amazon
Steinbrenner, R. A., Neto, G. G., Bragança, P. L. D., & Castro, E. M. R. D. (2020). Mining disaster in Barcarena, Pará and media coverage: differences in duration and listening directions.


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