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The conflicts of (Neo)extractivism: Mines, tailings dams, and protected areas in the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Les conflits du (Neo)extractivisme : les mines, les barrages de résidus et les aires protégées dans l’aire métropolitaine de Belo Horizonte, Brésil
Claudia Marcela Orduz Rojas, Doralice Barros Pereira et Janise Bruno Dias


La zone péri-urbaine de la troisième métropole brésilienne, Belo Horizonte, abrite des communautés locales qui vivent à la Serra do Gandarela. Ces communautés subissent des tensions, des risques et des conflits liés à l’expansion de l’exploitation minière. Cet article révèle la nature de ces difficultés, en les replaçant dans le contexte du processus de création du Parque Nacional da Serra do Gandarela et de la pré-existence et installation de nouveaux barrages de résidus miniers dans la région. On conclut que les conflits environnementaux résultent des politiques de développement économique (associées au (neo)extractivisme, au progrès et à la croissance) qui tendent à priver les communautés locales de l’accès aux ressources naturelles du territoire, de leur usage et de leur contrôle. En plus, les “risques imminents” et les désastres associés à la construction et au fonctionnement des barrages de résidus contribuent à l’expansion d’un capitalisme de désastres.

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1Over the past decades, environment issues have gained supporters around the world, although it is still asymmetrical with the need to achieve a healthier environment, given the eminence of degradation and lack of thoughtful considerations for a better future for coming generations. But with the guidelines required by (neo)extractivism for commodity-dependent countries, to better position themselves and/or maintain their position in the international division of labour, what is actually achievable? By analyzing the creation of the Serra do Gandarela National Park, as well as the existing and new tailings dams in the area, this article aims to unveil the conflicts experienced by local communities located in the peri-urban area de Belo Horizonte, Brazil. To verticalize the analysis, we have focused on seven villages, six in the municipality of Santa Bárbara (André do Mato Dentro, Conceição do Rio Acima, Cruz dos Peixotos, Paiol, Galego, and Vigário da Vara); and, one in Barão de Cocais (Socorro).

2The considerations were drawn up from the analysis of official documents (Working Groups' Minutes of Meetings, Environmental Impact Studies and Reports, Proposals and Decrees Creating National Parks, and Public Civil Suits), as well as from articles published in local newspapers. In addition, semi-structured interviews were held with local residents (beekeepers, moss collectors, farmers and presidents of community associations), environmentalists, and public sector agents between 2013 and 2014. Furthermore, a literature review was conducted on national and international articles concerning environmental conflicts, (neo)extractivism, disaster, and protected areas.

3The text has been divided into four parts. The first part theoretically exposes, distinguishes and analyses the environmental conflicts identified in Serra do Gandarela, and relates them to development and preservation oriented policies adopted by or otherwise imposed upon Brazil in recent decades. The second part of the text contextualizes the economic, social, and cultural history of the communities located within the researched area. In addition, we analyzed the mining claims applied by companies in the area since 2007; the proposal for the creation of a National Park requested by environmental bodies and normalized by ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Preservation of Biodiversity), in 2010; and, finally, the proposal presented by the local communities for the establishment of a Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável (“RDS” or Sustainable Development Reserve) in order to conciliate the maintenance and reproduction of their ways of life with the proposal for preservation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela.

4The third part of the text addresses the negotiations which involved representatives from public agencies, civil society, and the private sector to solve the analyzed environmental conflicts, which resulted in the establishment of the PARNA Serra do Gandarela, as enacted by the Presidency of the Republic on October 13, 2014. In this respect, we analyzed the political, economic, environmental, and social implications of the decree for the creation of the Park in regard to the Belo Horizonte Metropolitan Region, particularly in what concerns the local communities of the Serra do Gandarela. The last part addresses the perpetuation of conflicts as a result of mining projects and the pre-existence and construction of tailings dams in the region. Preliminary findings indicate a declining of the protection of biodiversity, geodiversity, and the hydro potential of the Serra do Gandarela, as well as a general neglect towards the demands and the ways of life of the underprivileged social groups.

(Neo)extractivism in Brazil

5During the final decades of the 20th century, Brazil, in particular, and Latin America, in general, (re)emerged as a new niche in/of the (re)structuring and the (re)arrangement of global capital (Teubal and Palmisano, 2012). The combination of high prices, the presence of important ore beds, the creation of new technologies that allow for exploring at sites where mining was unfeasible in the past, and the set of neoliberal political and economic reforms has turned the region into an attractive frontier for capital expansion and accumulation (Bebbington, 2007). Therefore, beginning in the 90s, the area received an avalanche of national and international investment, which both require and generate economic, territorial, environmental, and social transformations and dynamics, among others. During the following decade, these investments increased exponentially due to the economic growth rate in China and India, to the rise in demand for mineral raw material, and to these commodities' raised value in the international market.

6In Latin America, Brazil is the most paradigmatic case. The intensified resource extraction quickly turned the country into the largest mining country in Latin America (Gudynas, 2012), the second largest iron ore producer in the world, and one of the world's major global players in mineral production. However, the expanded and intensified mining activity brought environmental injustices and contributed to the onset and spread of environmental conflicts, as recorded in national (Zhouri, 2017; Rojas and Pereira, 2017, 2015; Milanez and Santos, 2013; Malerba et al., 2012; Acselrad, 2004) and international literature (Marshall, 2017; Zhouri et al., 2016; Zamora, 2015; Burchardt and Dietz, 2014; Antonelli, 2012; Acosta, 2012; Gudynas, 2012; Teubal and Palmisano, 2012; Deneault et al., 2008; Bebbington, 2007).

7The complexity and contradictions arising from the processes of production/destruction of spaces seen in Brazil can be observed in the ongoing struggles and disputes over the appropriation of natural resources in Serra do Gandarela. The environmental conflicts in the region arise from the existence, in time and space, of different projects of appropriation, use, and signification of the material world, and show the existence of different ways of defining, conceiving and interacting with the environment that deserve attention. The intensification of the mineral exploration in the region, inspired by development models and policies, is based on a rationality that conceives nature as a resource, that is, as a "raw material" to be transformed into a commodity (Shiva, 2000). The intensification of these activities is related to (neo)extractivism, a contemporary version of traditional extractivism, in which the secondary and functional insertions of the global south in globalization prevail. New and old structuring elements of traditional extractivism blend together. Among the innovations introduced by (neo)extractivism are the greater participation of the State (State Activism) in economic results, the increase in royalties, and the increase of investment in social programs aimed at reducing poverty. Despite the greater participation of the State in the economic results, some authors establish that this modality of accumulation actually leads to the reprimarization of economy, raises rural violence levels, and reproduces the structuring contradictions in social terms, typical of the extractive model (Torre, 2019; Rojas and Pereira, 2017; Petras, 2014; Milanez and Santos, 2013; Gudynas, 2012; Acosta, 2012).

8Overall, the siding with this development model requires the extraction of natural resources in high volume or high intensity, which are intended mainly for export as raw materials, that is, a development model subordinated to the global production demands. In addition, the exported raw materials undergo minimal processing and the extraction and export processes are controlled mainly by large transnational corporations (Gudynas, 2012). Additionally, the classification of extractive activities, such as "interest and public utility", legitimizes these practices before society and allows the overlapping of extractivism over other land uses and rights (Torre, 2019; Castro et al., 2018; Malerba et al., 2012). In other words, “the practice of extractivism is associated with an imaginary national interest and, consequently, becomes a politically legitimized new development project: (neo)extractivism” (Burchardt and Dietz, 2014, 470) with socio-spatial and socio-ecological consequences resulting from their specific ways of appropriating nature.

9One of the fiercest consequences of this specific/excluding means of appropriation of nature, characteristic of extractive capitalism (Petras, 2014), is associated with the production of large amounts of toxic waste stored in tailings dams. These dams are considered by many to be "some of the riskiest structures on Earth" and have been responsible for the systematic occurrence of environmental disasters in Brazil and in other mining countries (Zhouri, 2017; Rojas and Pereira, 2017; Marshall, 2017; Bowker and Chambers, 2015; Zamora, 2015). Between one and four dam breaks are estimated to occur every year in the world (Kiernan, 2016), with severe or very severe consequences (Bowker and Chambers, 2015). In Brazil, dams may be built and operated in accordance with more inexpensive and unsafe techniques, in addition to being the tallest in the world. In Minas Gerais alone, the main mining state in the country, nine dam breaks have occurred in recent decades. The most severe events were the Fundão dam break, in November 2015, which resulted in 39 million m3 of tailings being dumped, and the B1 dam break, at the Córrego do Feijão mine, in January 2019, which released 12 million m3 of toxic sludge. Both tragedies left approximately 300 victims, polluted three river basins (Doce, Paraopeba and São Francisco), and produced severe social and environmental impacts and losses (Brasil de Fato, 2019; Rojas and Pereira, 2017).

10In addition to the aforementioned damages and losses, (neo)extractivism interferes in the creation and expansion of protected areas, despite being encouraged by compliance with global goals, ratified by Brazil upon signing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB), and with national goals, for the protection of Brazilian biomes. Efforts made to comply with such goals have placed Brazil in a leadership position in the global setting, with 75% of the protected areas created in the world since 2003 being concentrated here (Portal do Governo Brasileiro, 2012). However, the expansion and advancement of mining jeopardize biodiversity protection under bill (PL) 3682/2012, in the Congressional debate phase, which authorizes mining in 10% of the Conservation Units.

11In some contexts, even the creation of National Parks to curtail the advancement of mining engenders new contradictions, increases conflicts and produces new social injustice, which has been analyzed in several studies (Torre, 2019; Castro et al., 2018; Rojas, 2014; Monteiro, 2011; Mungai, 2008; Diegues, 2001). This is because, under the argument of the need for "biodiversity protection" and "public utility," National Parks, as well as other more restrictive protected areas, have enabled and continue to make it possible to overlap nature conservation with other uses and land rights. The imposition of preservationist visions inspired by the interests and desires of the urban elite and scientists has contributed decisively to the fact that numerous human populations are withdrawn from their traditional territories or forbidden to use the natural resources on which they depend to ensure their survival (Diegues, 2001; Colchester, 2000).

12Although environmental protection policies are responsible for innumerable and growing environmental conflicts arising from inadequate, authoritarian, and exclusionary view of protecting and preserving the natural world (Diegues, 2001), the Brazilian State continues to rely on this model of preservation in order to achieve international goals.

13The conflicts analyzed here result from the expansion and intensification of neoextractivism, and therefore denounce that the "environmental issue" is not one, universal, and objective. On the contrary, according to the approach of Political Ecology, the environment must be understood as a social construct and not a neutral category, which can be managed through technique, as hegemonic thinking suggests (Bryant and Bailey, 1997). Thus, we understand the environment as a category that is also the object of dispute and conflict loaded with different senses depending on the social agent that drives it. Therefore, the environment is at the centre of an ideological struggle that expresses disputes over different forms of appropriation, use, and control of the territory, as well as concerning the legitimate representations resulting from it.

Serra do Gandarela in the metropolitan environment of Belo Horizonte

14Situated in the peri-urban area of Belo Horizonte, the third largest Brazilian metropolis, the Serra do Gandarela partially covers six municipalities: four in the Metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte - Caeté, Itabirito, Raposos and Rio Acima; and two, in the Metropolitan Belt: Barão de Cocais and Santa Bárbara, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Serra do Gandarela in RMBH and the Metropolitan Belt

Figure 1: Serra do Gandarela in RMBH and the Metropolitan Belt

Source: Rojas, 2014

15Within the set of ideas of neoliberal hegemony growth, the mining industry has exposed the local communities to a cycle of endless exclusions. This expands insofar as hegemonic capitalist investors are implementing increasingly more economic projects. In this scenario, Serra do Gandarela takes central stage as it is located in one of the major mining provinces of both Brazil and the world - the Quadrilátero Ferrífero (“QF” or the Iron Quadrilateral Region). This region contains large deposits of iron ore and is responsible for 51.6% of Brazilian iron ore production and exports (Ibram, 2015).

16In addition to its mineral richness, the region also has a wealth of surface and underground water resources that supplies public water to Belo Horizonte and its metropolitan areas (Mpsg, 2012). Serra do Gandarela also encompasses the largest area of ferruginous outcrops in the QF, the cangas (clayish iron ore, rocky outcropping) that shelter large quantities of rare and endemic species. The landscape is of great scenic beauty - a mixture of the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado (savannah). Paleontological sites of national and global relevance are part of the natural and paleontological attributes of the region (Mpsg, 2012; Lamounier, 2009).

17The occupation in Serra do Gandarela dates back to the eighteenth century, at the time of gold extraction and exports to Portugal/England, known as the "gold cycle". In those days, the region became a very important route linking Santa Bárbara to Ouro Preto. The transportation there stimulated the emergence of settlements and villages for the miners, for the production of food and supplies for the mines. Afterwards, other villages were created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the iron industry and the production of charcoal fueled the steel industry and were definitively established in the region (Rojas, 2014).

18We have focused on seven villages, or local communities, to verticalize the analysis, six in the municipality of Santa Bárbara (André do Mato Dentro, Conceição do Rio Acima, Cruz dos Peixotos, Paiol, Galego, and Vigário da Vara); and, one in Barão de Cocais (Socorro) (Figure 2). According to the latest IBGE census, the total population residing in these seven communities was of 742 inhabitants in 2010 (Ibge, 2010).

Figure 2: Locations of the communities in Serra do Gandarela

Figure 2: Locations of the communities in Serra do Gandarela

Source: Rojas, 2014

19This population is engaged in everyday activities, which are exclusively agricultural and extractive in nature, favored by the agriculture and extractive nature of the wealth of diversified local flora, with candeia (Eremanthus erytropappus) forests and plentiful water resources. These activities, in addition to providing for the livelihood and family income, also contribute to adequate food supply for the metropolitan population, since the surplus production is sold there (Figure 3). Furthermore, these activities enable the preservation of the sustainable use of resources and biodiversity, in turn promoting the preservation of the rural landscape and contributing to the maintenance of the local social and cultural structure (Instituto Pró-Città, 2012).

Figure 3: Agricultural and extractive activities in Serra do Gandarela

Figure 3: Agricultural and extractive activities in Serra do Gandarela

Source: Rojas, 2014

20Production and commercialization of honey is one of the major agricultural activities in the region (Interview with beekeeper, 2013). Two activities are the most common in forestry: eucalyptus (Eucalyptus) plantations for the production of charcoal, both for consumption and for sale, and the manipulation of candeia (Eremanthus erytropappus), commercialized by companies in the manufacture of cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. In addition to these two activities, the locals also engage in plant extraction on a small scale. Extracted products are sold locally for different uses, such as typical dishes, teas, and homemade remedies, as well as to produce crafts and flower arrangements (Interview with moss collector, 2012).

21Agricultural and extractive activities take place together with family farming, which is their means of support and livelihood (Interview with farmer, 2013). Thus, the land becomes a major factor in the multiplicity of uses, creating and re-creating social forms of strong local insertion and in the invention of intense territoriality (Marques, 2002). Over time, these local populations have framed their territorialities with due regard to the surrounding nature, which they perceive as part of themselves, considering that nature is the foundation of material and social life. The construction of a network of significances and meanings brought by history and culture will produce an identity with which people can either relate or not. Therefore, the diversity of uses, functions, and rural-urban interactions make Serra do Gandarela a strategic area for both the RMBH and the Metropolitan Belt. Serra do Gandarela possesses the "new rareness" (Lefebvre, 1999) of nature upon which struggles and conflicts are waged.

22In fact, the existence of significant mineral deposits represents another important attribute of the neoliberal territorial dispute. Although Serra do Gandarela holds abounding mineral deposits, there was rather little interest in mining projects throughout the twentieth century, which has not significantly compromised the landscape or its natural resources (Lamounier, 2009). Due to the depletion of large reserves in the QF and the need to expand the mining lands, this privileged scenario is now threatened (Amplo, 2009). Over the last eight years, the company Vale S.A., the largest mining company in Brazil, and the fourth largest mining company in the world, has been interested in the implementation and expansion of three mining projects in Serra do Gandarela. The first of these projects is the Apolo Mine, the largest of all, considering its projected investments (Ibid., 5). This mine’s forecasted production is of 24 million tons of iron ore per year (MTPA), and, after its expansion, production is estimated to reach 37.5 MTPA over the following 30 years (Coelho-De-Souza, 2015). The other two projects aim to expand the Capanema and Baú mines for the extraction and processing of iron ore (Rojas, 2014). Such projects reflect the increase of mining interest in the State of Minas Gerais, and respond to the current global environment characterized by the growth of foreign demand for minerals and the valuation of mineral commodities in the international market (Malerba et al., 2012).

23To respond to the announced mining interests of these companies in Serra do Gandarela, a counter-proposal was presented in 2009 in an attempt to create a National Park in the region. This proposal was presented by a diverse group of entities, union leaders, and environmental organizations led by the Movement for the Protection of Serra do Gandarela (MPSG). The proposal was submitted to the ICMBio – a public body responsible for the creation of protected areas in Brazil – who, after some technical adjustments, filed an official request for the creation of the Serra do Gandarela National Park (PARNA Serra do Gandarela). According to ICMBio, the park would cover a total of 38,210 hectares, bordering eight municipalities: Rio Acima, Raposos, Caeté, Santa Bárbara, Barão de Cocais, Itabirito, Nova Lima, and Ouro Preto (Figure 4). Brazilian law states that National Parks must be of public asset and domain, in which human inhabitation is prohibited, and only public visits and scientific researchers are legally allowed (Brasil, 2000, art. 11).

Figure 4: Serra do Gandarela National Park – 2009

Figure 4: Serra do Gandarela National Park – 2009

Source: Rojas, 2014

24According to ICMBio (2010), three major characteristics could justify the creation of a Unit of Conservation for Full Protection (National Park): (1) the existence of a large area, well-preserved with remnants of cangas in the “Iron Quadrilateral” region; (2) the presence of the second largest area of the remnants of the Atlantic Rainforest in the state of Minas Gerais; and (3) the preservation of the water resources necessary to supply water to Belo Horizonte, within its Metropolitan Area and Belt. In addition, ICMBio considered that the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela could promote regional tourism activities, given that it is quite close to the capital city of Belo Horizonte, it attracts more "green companies" with high technology, and it generates royalties from the protected water in the conservation unit (ICMBio, 2010).

25The creation of a National Park (PARNA) is not an exceptionally new project in the region, considering that Serra do Gandarela has already been partially inserted into the Protection Area of the South Metropolitan Region of Belo Horizonte, as shown in Figure 1. This Area of Environmental Protection, as it is less restrictive, has not been strong enough to stave off the progress of mining activities and interests over the past few years. The option to create a Full Protection Conservation Unit seeks to put a firm halt to the destructive extraction of natural resources in Serra do Gandarela (interview with environmentalist, 2013).

26Certainly, the proposal for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela, as claimed by MPSG, represents a "resistance space" (Coelho-De-Souza, 2015). The proposal reveals oppositions that the environmental movement defies as a reality imposed by capitalist logic and begins to see other alternatives to development, defending other methods through which to produce space (Ibid., 2015). In the short run, MPSG's performance was efficient, as they were able to temporarily curb the mining environmental licensing processes in Serra do Gandarela until the studies that had supported the final proposal for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela had been fully completed.

27In addition to the "space of resistance" contemplated by MPSG in Serra do Gandarela, the local communities also took steps and claimed "spaces of resistance" as their agricultural and extractive activities were jeopardized and rendered unfeasible. These claims were based on the tradition of use, as well as the historical appropriation of the land and the natural resources under dispute. Concerning the creation of the park, the communities took steps to "defend" themselves from the "threat" of the creation of a Conservation Unit originated from a dominant model of environmental preservation (Diegues, 2001; Colchester, 2000), which excludes and neglects the human populations and their rights to use/appropriation of the land.

28Within this context, a third proposal was formulated: the creation of a Sustainable Development Reserve (SDR), demanded by locals so as to maintain their livelihoods. This idea came forth in a town meeting held at André do Mato Dentro, during the discussions on the proposal for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela. Questionings and concerns drove ICMBio's environmental technicians to redirect the park proposition to an SDR in an attempt to improve and reconcile the preservation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela, including the major interests and demands from the local population (Rojas et al., 2018).

29The argument for the creation of an SDR was characterized by the fact that this Conservation Unit would unify preservation, conditions, and the necessary means for reproduction and improvement of lifestyle and standards of the local populations (Brasil, 2000, art. 20). Brazilian law stipulates that SDRs of public domain must be governed by specific rules, previously agreed upon with these populations. In this Conservation Unit, the exploitation of natural resources under sustainable management will enable the continuity of agricultural and extractive practices, together with family farming, in the communities of the Serra do Gandarela region.

30After several meetings, the residents of the local communities submitted a proposal to ICMBio in 2012, including an area of 9,165 hectares (ICMBio, 2012; interview with president of community association, 2013). The proposal to reconcile PARNA and SDRs in a "mosaic of protected areas" was welcomed by the members of MPSG and ICMBio so as to halt the expansion of mining activities in the region (Rojas, 2014). Following the request for the creation of the SDR, the residents emerged as true political collective subjects who fight/compete for their participation in the distribution of power and decisions related to the future destiny of the natural resources of their territory. As a result, their territorial demands gained political, social, and cultural visibility. They highlighted the demand for other forms of environmental conservation based on the local reality and the maintenance of the socio-biodiversity. The fight promoted their recognition as subjects of collective rights anchored in domestic and international norms (Ibid., 2014).

The decree for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela: what for and for whom?

31Based on the environmental tensions, struggles, and conflicts in Serra do Gandarela, the government of the state of Minas Gerais introduced two working groups (WG) to propose an agreement regarding the conservation of the region. The adoption of these mechanisms, management, and conflict-solving techniques, whose objective was to establish "agreements" and "consensus," was anchored in the paradigm of ecological modernization, which includes neoliberal strategies to face environmental dilemmas (Rojas et al., 2018). WG 1 evaluated mining projects undergoing a process of environmental licensing that involved the PARNA Serra do Gandarela region. WG 2 was instituted to consolidate the agreements that had been pre-defined in WG 1. However, disagreements arose regarding the exclusion of new areas for the future expansion of Vale's projects, as well as other mining corporations. For ICMBio's technicians and representatives of civil society, the exclusions requested by the mining companies could compromise the main conservation objectives in the park: the cangas, the water resources, and the remnants of the Atlantic Forest. In spite of the divergences, the WG 2 was concluded. A few months afterwards, ICMBio held six public town meetings in the municipalities included within the park and presented the proposal for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela, containing the results from both WGs (ICMBio, 2012; interview with public sector agent, 2013).

32After the conclusion of the public town meetings, the President of ICMBio sent an official letter to the President of the Brazilian Federal Department of Environment (MMA), presenting the proposal for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela (ICMBio, 2013). This proposal included the exclusions of mining activities in the areas overlapping the area of the park and the possibility of creating an SDR. Although the official letter only gave priority to the creation of PARNA, the document indicated that the proposal for the creation of an SDR – under the scrutiny of ICMBio – would also be submitted to the MMA during the following months (ICMBio, 2013).

33Once at the MMA, the proposal for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela was reviewed technically and legally for approximately one year. It was then modified to meet the interests of the mining sector, especially those of Vale's, who had demanded the exclusion of even larger areas than those agreed upon during the activities of the WGs. Despite the price drop in mineral commodities on the market, beginning in 2013, the mining corporations did not give up either on their initial projects, nor on the future expansions/extensions forecasted for Serra do Gandarela. After some amendments, MMA finally submitted the proposal to the Presidency of the Republic, who was responsible for ratifying the decree establishing the PARNA anchored in (Brasil, 2000).

34Amendments to the design of the park and its boundaries were published in the Official Federal Gazette (Diário Oficial da União - DOU) on October 14th, 2014, one day after the decree for the creation of PARNA Serra do Gandarela was issued. Under its terms, the park covers an area of 31.284 hectares, in other words, seven thousand hectares less than the initial proposal, and allows for mining activities in the region (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Comparative and annotated map of Serra do Gandarela National Park after the Decree – 2014

Figure 5: Comparative and annotated map of Serra do Gandarela National Park after the Decree – 2014

Source: Mpsg, 2014

35The creation of the park thus brought a process of social, political, and economic exclusion in the terms proposed by Martins (2002). Its creation produced a non-compliance in the agreements and consensus reached by the WGs and in the negotiations conducted between ICMBio and the local communities. That is, the spaces that had been opened for negotiation and the agreements that had been made were erased and neglected at the federal level. The Brazilian federal government approved the design of the park, favoring the private interests of one corporation in a single sector: mining. Some areas of the consensus in the WGs were ignored, and areas of poor environmental attributes were incorporated within the Conservation Unit. It became evident that the mining sector had the power to decide and choose which areas can and should be mined and/or protected.

36Moreover, the modifications made in the boundaries of the PARNA region compromise the protection of water resources, the conservation of remnants of cangas and the Atlantic Forest, the beautiful scenic landscape, and the biodiversity and geodiversity of the region. In short, the park was "mutilated" and does not meet its purposes and objectives or the key demands of civil society (Coelho-De-Souza, 2015). Finally, the creation of the park disrespected the territorial demands made by the local communities. The decree neither mentions nor acknowledges the existence of these local residents, not to mention their proposals for the future of the region. Their rights and demands were disregarded and erased at the federal level, whose negligence struck the residents twice: first, because it enabled them to carry out agricultural and extractive activities in the area of the park, and second, because of the territorial and environmental impacts stemming from the mining industry. All things considered, the decree for PARNA Serra do Gandarela shows incoherent power over territories and resources, and exposes perverse political, economic, and social hierarchies.

37Currently, the implementation of the park has been taking place slowly and negligently. So far, a head of the park has been designated and an advisory council has been set up (ICMBio, 2017). Almost all measures for the creation of a Conservation Unit are still lacking: the establishment of a Management Plan, the outlining of the Buffer Zone, Land Regularization, and the implementation of a physical facility. Thus, the effective protection of the main natural resources that the proposal had intended to preserve is under threat, on the one hand, due to the delays in the implementation of the park, and on the other, because of the renewal of environmental licensing by mining corporations after the enactment of the Decree. It is with noting that the current policies tend to exonerate the mining companies from carrying out and presenting environmental licenses, and determine that only the environmental impact assessment will suffice for the implementation of mining projects. It is a frightening scenario when we consider the risks that such a project has generated for the communities and the environment in Brazil.

The perpetuation of conflicts: tailings dams in the buffer zone of the Serra do Gandarela National Park

38In addition to the impossibility of maintaining economic activities, due to the creation of the park, local communities experience other pressing issues arising from the pre-existence and installation of large tailing dams in the buffer zone of the Serra do Gandarela National Park. Such tailings dams have become a threat to many communities due to their locations – always uphill from these communities – a method of construction, expansion, heightening, and closure without proper monitoring. Presently, three such large structures are being discussed and are under the process of obtaining environmental permits: the Maravilhas III dam, in the municipality of Itabirito; the Fazenda Velha dam, in Rio Acima; and the Mina Apolo dam, in Serra do Gandarela. The major concern is the construction of the tailings dam that belongs to VALE S.A., in the municipality of Rio Acima. Possessing a storage capacity of 600 million cubic meters of tailings, a possible rupture of this dam could flood the entire town. It would irreparably impact the Ribeirão da Prata - the main watercourse in Serra do Gandarela - and would completely jeopardize the water supply for Belo Horizonte and its metropolitan area (Projeto Manuelzão, 2015).

39In a regional scale, although Fazenda Velha was listed as a heritage by the municipality of Rio Acima in 2014, due to its landscape, archaeology, and natural setting, the provisional protection of this area is under threat. After being subjected to heavy pressure by the mining company, the town intends to call off the listing of the town’s landscape as a national heritage in order to allow for the construction of the tailings dam. The residents of Rio Acima do not share this decision, as demonstrated in Public Hearings, where the people have voiced their opposition to this annulment and the construction of the tailings dam in the municipality (Fazenda Velha, 2016). The decision of the public municipal agencies is, at least, questionable, in view of the recent risks and disasters caused by the construction and monitoring of tailings dams in Brazil (Rojas and Pereira, 2017). The failure of Fundão Dam, on November 5, 2015, in the town of Mariana (Minas Gerais), which brought about 19 casualties, as well as the collapse of B1 tailings dam at the Córrego do Feijão Mine, on January 25, 2019, in Brumadinho (Minas Gerais), which caused the death of 270 individuals, merely illustrates the serious impacts and risks these constructions bring.

  • 1 On March 22, 2019, the company raised the risk level to imminent or effective (level 3), the final (...)

40In addition to the serious social and environmental impacts resulting from the two dam breaks, the Serra do Gandarela communities are affected by the imminent risk of breaks in previously installed dams in the region. The most dramatic scenario is experienced by approximately 500 residents in the Socorro community, in the city of Barão de Cocais, who have been "preventively" evacuated and relocated in hotels, inns, and rented houses in the area (Mpmg, 2019). Residents were transferred in the morning of February 8, 2019, in a sudden and frightening manner, after Vale S.A. sounded the alarm that the Upper South Dam in the Gongo Soco Mine was at risk of collapsing (level 2).1 The dam, which stores 6.8 million m3 tailings, is two km away from the Socorro community. If it should break, the toxic sludge would reach this community in only six minutes! The cities of Barão de Cocais, São Gonçalo do Rio Abaixo, and Santa Bárbara would be hit by a sludge wave within one hour, requiring the evacuation of over 10 thousand people.

41Because of the ‘imminent’ risk of a dam break, residents of the Socorro community – who were not aware of the risk to which they were exposed, as observed in the interviews conducted by the authors in 2013 – are still living in hotels and inns, with all expenses paid by Vale S.A. They have left behind their documents, personal belongings, houses, crops, animals, and their three-century long history. It is uncertain if they will be able to perform their economic activities, such as beekeeping, farming, and collecting native species. Information on the actual conditions of the structures and the possible impacts of the dam break are insufficient and limited. Uncertainty, insecurity, impotence, and depression are part of their routine (Mpmg, 2019). For the past months, appointments at the health care clinics due to psychological factors have reached record numbers, reflecting a crisis that seems to have no end (Damázio, 2019). The calamitous situation experienced by Socorro and Barão de Cocais residents is not an exception. Other communities where "time bombs", as the tailings dams are known, were installed are also experiencing a similar drama.

42Currently, of the 105 dams owned by Vale S.A. in the state of Minas Gerais, 32 have been shut down by environmental agencies, for not having stability certificates; four are at "imminent" risk of break (level 3), and two have already collapsed (Fundão and B1). Although the company knows the structural problems and instability conditions of the dams, it has been withholding information, and it does not avoid and/or minimize impacts, as explained by the Fundão and B1 dam breaks. The company policy, geared towards maximizing profits for its shareholders - mostly foreign - neglects investments on dam maintenance and safety, which have been cut in half in recent years (Belluzzo and Sarti, 2019). Omission and neglect in this action resulted in incalculable financial, human, and environmental losses: approximately 300 deaths; more than 1.3 thousand people evicted from their homes; three contaminated river basins; hundreds of devastated water springs; more than 900 km of toxic sludge in water bodies; thousands of acres of destroyed Atlantic Rainforest; the imminent collapse of the water catchment and distribution systems in the Belo Horizonte Metropolitan Area, which is responsible for supplying water to five million residents; irreparable social and cultural damages; and losses that have not yet been fully calculated (Brasil de Fato, 2019; Mpmg 2019; Rojas and Pereira, 2017).

43Paradoxically, the crisis scenario does not seem to affect the Brazilian company. Vale S.A. has been using the chaos and collective disorientation generated by the "imminent" risks and the dam breaks to "remove hurdles" from its path, as well as to increase its profits. The forms and strategies mobilized by the company are numerous and heterogeneous: a) fostering and encouraging psychological terrorism; b) evicting the population with the argument of "imminent risk of break", thus earning new areas for mining; c) purchasing property at lower prices; d) making "donations" to public agencies responsible for immediate response to tragedies; e) signing deals with public organizations and the people affected that are financially favorable to the company; f) privatizing repair, reconstruction, and compensation actions, among others (Rojas, forthcoming). In short, the company uses the crisis created by itself to increase its economic and political power, reinforce territorial control, and win over the central core of the state (that is, essential catastrophe response, safety, and social and environmental repair and reconstruction services and sectors). Such actions contribute to the rise of disaster capitalism in Brazil (Rojas, forthcoming), an expanding market that has been thriving worldwide, according to Klein (2008).

44In addition, despite the serious and extensive damages caused by the dam breaks in 2015 and 2019, the company shares and market value do not seem to have been affected. On the contrary, the company was able to emerge from the crises unpunished and strengthened. After the Fundão break, for instance, the company’s shares fell sharply, but soon after, they experienced an extraordinary recovery. Between 2016 and 2018, the shares nearly quadrupled in value (Belluzzo and Sarti, 2019). A similar phenomenon occurred after the B1 dam collapse, when the company’s shares dropped significantly, but recovered quickly. Five days following the tragedy, the shares increased 9% with the announcement of cuts in production and the shutdown of 10 of its dams, and after one month, the shares had accrued 11% in value, as a result of an increase in demand for iron ore in the international market (Rojas, forthcoming). Therefore, in face of such an exuberant economy resulting from disasters, from destruction and reconstruction, what incentive would there be to avoid catastrophes?

45Therefore, the costs and reliance on mining activities considering their demographic density, must have their pros and cons reviewed and rethought, especially with regard to local impacts. These aspects bring to mind crucial issues on shared responsibilities between the government and the mining companies, especially regarding the social and environmental safety of large mining projects. In recent years, both federal and state agencies have been discussing changes aimed at making environmental and mining legislation more flexible, which represents a true throwback in policies and instruments achieved in recent decades. Among them, the federal-level handling of the New Mining Code, the Constitutional Amendment Project (PEC) 65/2012, which will allow for the construction of large projects by simply submitting the Environmental Impact Study, the PL 1610/1996, which allows for mining activities on Indigenous Lands; the PL 3682/2012, which provides for mineral exploration in 10% of the Conservation Units; and Bill 654/2015, which revokes the holding of public hearings, speeds up licensing, and eliminates the three stages of the process of environmental licensing. At the state level, in Minas Gerais, Bill 2946/2015 excludes the participation of civil society and the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the process of environmental licensing, while Decree 47.137 of 2017 speeds up this licensing process. In this context, those most affected and vulnerable continue to be historically neglected, excluded, and invisible individuals, with their living and reproduction spaces reduced, confirming Wacquant’s quote (Wacquant apud Arantes, 2015, p.19) that “the watchword of capitalism today is to punish the poor.”


  • 2 According to the World Bank, an economic crisis will bring up to 3.6 million Brazilians to a povert (...)

46As we have demonstrated, under the argument of "public interest", (neo) extractive-based development policies deprive local communities of the access, use, and control of natural resources and their territory. The rhetoric of "public interest", used in developmental discourse, has been applied to legitimize the social reproduction of models inspired by certain groups, classes, and countries. However, "public interest" is nothing more than the interest of a specific group (Alves, 2014) that presents its demands as universal. This strategy of universalizing their interests/needs contributes to neglecting/preventing other forms of social groups from being related to space and the environment. The paradox is evidenced by an economic growth that does not promote the overcoming of poverty,2 but boosts it in a process of social and environmental inequality and exclusion of the most vulnerable social groups (Malerba et al., 2012). In addition, such a policy departs from the separation of man/nature, excludes local communities, and threatens their survival. It clearly shows that there is an unequal distribution of power in terms of access to and use of natural resources and territory, thus promoting environmental injustices and favouring the emergence and proliferation of socioenvironmental conflicts. In other words, they trigger the process of internal spatial transformation connected to a political power shift (Burchardt and Dietz, 2014).

47As we have demonstrated, the creation of the Serra do Gandarela National Park (PARNA), which should preserve and safeguard the main natural assets of the region, was far below the expectation of the movements and entities that demanded and fought for its creation. The Decree for the creation of the Conservation Unit undermines the socio-biodiversity, geodiversity, and water resource potential in Serra do Gandarela, and neglects the demands and lifestyles of these underprivileged social groups. These findings therefore reveal the complexity and contradictions surrounding the protection of biodiversity in the metropolitan context, bearing in mind that the idea of development is a disputed field.

48In the short and long terms, the residents of the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte and the metropolitan belt will face water crises due to the pollution and depletion of main water sources, as witnessed in major Brazilian cities. Likewise, in the short and long runs, the rural and metropolitan area, as well as the metropolitan socio-spatial dynamics, will be seriously compromised as a result of the intensification of mining operations, the imminent danger of the implementation of large tailings dams, and the forthcoming changes in the environmental licensing process.

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1 On March 22, 2019, the company raised the risk level to imminent or effective (level 3), the final expected level before a dam break.

2 According to the World Bank, an economic crisis will bring up to 3.6 million Brazilians to a poverty line by the end of the year. The economy will grow by 0.5% and the total number of poor will rise by 2.5 million. According to the study criteria, people living below R$140 per month are considered below the poverty line. Most of the "new poor" will come from urban areas. The increase in poverty in rural areas, according to the study, will be lower because vulnerability rates are high in the countryside (Máximo, 2017).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Serra do Gandarela in RMBH and the Metropolitan Belt
Crédits Source: Rojas, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 120k
Titre Figure 2: Locations of the communities in Serra do Gandarela
Crédits Source: Rojas, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 168k
Titre Figure 3: Agricultural and extractive activities in Serra do Gandarela
Crédits Source: Rojas, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k
Titre Figure 4: Serra do Gandarela National Park – 2009
Crédits Source: Rojas, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 176k
Titre Figure 5: Comparative and annotated map of Serra do Gandarela National Park after the Decree – 2014
Crédits Source: Mpsg, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 234k
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Référence électronique

Claudia Marcela Orduz Rojas, Doralice Barros Pereira et Janise Bruno Dias, « The conflicts of (Neo)extractivism: Mines, tailings dams, and protected areas in the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte, Brazil », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Espace, Société, Territoire, document 913, mis en ligne le 07 août 2019, consulté le 09 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Claudia Marcela Orduz Rojas

Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Currently attending a Doctoral Program in Geography.

Doralice Barros Pereira

Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Professor of Geography.

Janise Bruno Dias

Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Professor of Geography.

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