The area of the Upper Rio Negro and the municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, located in the very Northwest of Brazil and in the middle of the Amazon, have recently become the focal point of contentious debates on the compatibility of mining, sustainability and indigenous rights. While the pro-mining lobby is pushing forward mining activities and their regularization in protected indigenous territories, the claimed consensus seems only an ostensible one as in particular indigenous rights organizations and the destructive historical experience with mining in the region give rise to misgivings.
Known as the ‘most indigenous’ municipality of Brazil (with an indigenous population of 95% and 80% of its land listed as Indigenous Territory), São Gabriel da Cachoeira also looks back on a history of social and indigenous struggle that is closely linked to issues of mining, land demarcation and indigenous autonomy. The region is rich in gold, tantalum and niobium, as well as in copper, tin and diamond, and alone in São Gabriel mineral resources are spread over an area of 100,000 square kilometers.   A notably important mineral has become niobium, a component of tantalite. Used in nuclear, aircraft and high-tech technologies (e.g. in mobile phones and computers), it is experiencing growing demand and is thus likely to affect mineral extraction in São Gabriel where around 82 million tons of niobium (around 20 per cent of the world’s reserves) are located but not yet systematically used. Not included in these numbers is the probably largest worldwide niobium deposit of Morro dos Seis Lagos, an area around 90 kilometers North of the city of São Gabriel. It is situated within the Balaio Indigenous Territory and national park, home of indigenous people of various ethnicities who consider it a holy site, and despite not yet being fully explored, illegal extractions took place particularly in the 1970s and 1980s and, as it is reported, also continue today.   Brazil has a quasi-monopoly in the world’s niobium resources - the largest part situated in Minas Gerais and controlled by Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM) of the influential Salles family - but due to the complexity and capital-intensiveness of niobium mining, there are currently only four mines operating worldwide. The niobium market is considered to be of high political importance in the near future with the U.S. government listing Brazil’s current niobium mines as sites of strategic national interest (as Wikileaks documented) and Brazilian voices calling for policies to make the country sustainably benefit from the resources instead of selling raw minerals ‘for the price of banana’. 
The extraction of minerals, and in particular gold, has long been taking center stage in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, on the one hand through corporations seeking increased access to minerals, and on the other hand through informal small-scale manual extraction through garimpeiros (unauthorized mineral searchers) and some indigenous people.  Many communities in the region have been living for decades with illegal mining activities that have caused conflicts, pollution of rivers through mercury and the spread of disease.   The situation around illegal mineral extraction and smuggling has recently been taking on a worrying dimension as due to the increasing demand of niobium from the electronic and high-tech industry illegal manual extraction of minerals (using a pickaxe) has significantly increased. Due to the proximity of São Gabriel to Colombia, the Içana river is among the main smuggling routes for minerals over the border. Often traffickers take money from cocaine trade and invest it in extraction equipment or the purchase of minerals which are in turn sold to European companies located at points of charge across the Colombian border to launder traffic money. The minerals are then further brought by truck to the Pacific and shipped to Asia or Europe.  There are parallels to the gold rush in the 1980s which has brought massive invasions of garimpeiros and mining corporations in the Alto Rio Negro region, causing increasing conflict and pressure on indigenous communities of e.g. the Baniwa, Tukano and Maku territories. Back then, the introduction of mining brought deforestation, the contamination of water and a cash system that replaced traditional economic systems based on mutual aid within the communities, leading to a plundering of their wealth and a collapse of traditional social structures. Mining corporations used their close links to the government to obtain search authorizations from the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM). With the support of private security forces and the military, whose mission was to combat illegal mining, they started to occupy land and expelled garimpeiros who had come before to practice surface mining, resulting in deaths of both miners and indigenous people. The enterprise Gold Amazon established itself with two concessions in Panapana and Tunuí on the Içana river and Paranapanema in the gold-rich Serra da Traíra where the local indigenous peoples were made numerous promises to sign contracts that allow corporate mining explorations of the subsoil which would however turn ineffective after the adoption of Brazil’s new constitution in 1988 – a success for indigenous peoples whose leaders, alarmed by the negative consequences of corporate mining, had been vigorously opposed the pro-mining lobby and after long negotiations achieved a greater recognition of indigenous peoples’ territorial and cultural rights. This was considered a great success for the indigenous movement leading to the expulsion of corporate mining and in the following years to the establishment of five indigenous territories within the municipality of São Gabriel and a recognition of a total of 23 ethnic groups in the whole Upper and Middle Rio Negro area.      Thus, according to the Federal Constitution of 1988, mining activities in indigenous territories are practically prohibited with the exemption of artisanal mining by indigenous people, based on their right of the 1973 Indian Statute, and only without heavy machinery and polluting substances. Thus, by law the exploitation of the subsoil of indigenous territories can only be carried out with the approval of the National Congress and the consultation of the affected indigenous communities, and that it must be determined by a special law which has not yet been issued despite the distribution of mineral exploration and operation permissions.  The great interest in mining inside indigenous territories continues until today and is evidenced by the number of requests for mineral search, mineral exploration or mining permissions in indigenous territories submitted to DNPM (4,181 in total and 387 in the Alto Rio Negro Indigenous Territory in year 2016), most of them however remaining pending and practically blocked by the regulations of the Federal Constitution of 1988. 
Ever since then, mining operators, politicians and businessmen have been looking for ways to regain and increase access to mineral resources in indigenous territories, while indigenous associations started developing cooperative mining models. Since at least 2004 more and more political and economic voices together with DNPM have been lobbying for a change of legislation at the federal level to regularize mining activities on indigenous territories and several proposed amendments for the mining code of the 1988 Constitution have been brought forward. These attempts have intensified over the last years and received a boost through the center-right Temer government which declared its support for the plans and in 2017 released a first controversial decree to approve mining plans in an Indigenous Territory in the State of Amapá which however caused mass protests of EJOs and indigenous organizations and became suspended by the court shortly after, claiming it was not in accordance with the National Congress. Discussions over the last years turned around proposed regulations in the draft bills PL 1610/1996 and PL 5807/2013 to establish a new mining code which, if approved at some point (as it stands now) by the Congress, would allow mining in indigenous territories without any regard for villages and areas of ecological, cultural or spiritual importance, and leaving indigenous peoples without veto right. The proposed law would put mining interests above socio-biodiversity protection and the traditional use of land of indigenous and quilombola peoples.       There are ongoing efforts by mining corporations to achieve a regularization of mining, often arguing that indigenous communities should have the final say on whether to allow mining or not while in fact at the same time aiming to gain support from these. On the political front, 2017 eleven parliament members of Amazonas State went to lobby for the proposed legislation at the Congress in Brasilia. They enjoyed the support of São Gabriel’s mayor - who, as a former garimpeiro, frequently speaks out in favor of the regularization and denounces NGOs for blocking the decisions - as well as the president of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) who claimed that 99,9 % of the people of Alto Rio Negro opted in favor of the regularization.   
Lacking legal access to indigenous territories, the mining sector in turn has repeatedly aimed to gain presence in communities of the Upper Rio Negro region in order to convince them for cooperation. A first agreement over a subsoil mineral exploration project was established in 2011 between the Canadian mining corporation Cosigo Resources and the Secretaria Estadual de Povos Indígenas (SEIND) which realized the accord in name of the indigenous communities along the Içana and Tiquié rivers in the Alto Rio Negro Indigenous Territory and along the Japurá river in the Apaporis Indigenous Territory, however without having consulted them.  In 2018, Gold Amazon was reported to have been trying to convince indigenous communities of Tunuí Cachoeira, located along the Içana river and inhabited by the Baniua people, to practice mining on their territory. The practices resembled the ones in the 1980s although the company’s founder has sold most of the shares to his businesspartner Otávio Lacombe and is now advisor of president Temer. Lacombe has recently also bought shareholding control of two other mining companies and therefore now possesses 95 mineral exploration requests in the region. In the meantime, communities should be persuaded to practice surface mining using their rights constituted in the Indian Statute of 1973, and via this legal loophole, sell tantalite minerals to the company which in turn supplies the electronics industry. Communities received boat donations and other equipment and were promised payments and the receive of basic baskets for their support. Another example is the village of Nazaré which became divided between accepting the company’s proposals or not. Efforts from Gold Amazon to persuade them included ‘first improvements’ in form of a donation of a boat, two engines and a computer, and the sponsoring of a football tournament. Moreover, a community leader received payments in exchange for a sample of tantalite minerals. It is reported that already hundreds of kilos of tantalite are stored and that at least four other communities along the Içana river have adhered to the proposal. The company argues that engaging these communities in mining would only help them as they, abandoned by the State, would be sitting in the middle of gold but starving. Communities that were visited by journalists indeed complained about lacking public services of health care and education but not about hunger. 
Other communities such as Canada on the Aiarí river have rejected cooperation with Gold Amazon. People were shown fake signature of local indigenous leaders, offered basic food baskets as part of the payment and told that FUNAI and the army would support the plans which was however denied by these.  This was not the first time that communities have mobilized as several communities of the Rio Negro and the Içana, Traíra and Apaporis rivers have recently spoken out against mining. In 2017, the village of Arurá, located in the Medio Rio Negro Indigenous Territory downstream of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, has mobilized against mining activities and expelled newly arriving garimpeiros. This was seen as a mobilization after the increase of violence from garimpeiros against indigenous communities in other parts of Brazil but also against the persisting lobbying of politicians from the region to push forward mining regularization.  Moreover, in May 2018 Baniwa and Koripako communities of the Ayarí river within the Alto Rio Negro Indigenous Territory rejected attempts to convince them of allowing mineral exploration. They issued a manifest against the Geological Survey Research Project on their territory and stated that they do not want to be victims of the common practice of coopting indigenous leaders. As a consequence, the Federal Public Ministry reaffirmed the duty to consult affected indigenous peoples in accordance with ILO Convention 169. 
While there is thus a clear increase of the political and economic lobbying for mining regularization and new strategy of approaching communities directly to gain their support, objections are particularly articulated by civil society and indigenous organizations. In the case of the mining explorations by Cosigo Resources, the Federação das Organizações Indígenas do Rio Negro (FOIRN) in an open letter recalled the historical suffering that corporate mining has brought to the communities in the past and denounced the fact that there has been no dialogue with local leaders and indigenous organizations, or the possibility of a debate within the community which SEIND claimed to represent. Hence explorations do not comply with the legislation of the 1988 Constitution as it is falsely claimed. Moreover the project initiators were accused of intentionally using a strategy that seeks the consent of individuals to then claim that these represent the community as a whole, but ultimately leading to tensions within these.  The Coordination Board of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COAIB) supported FOIRN’s letter and repudiated the project, stating its outrage that the debate over mining is handled in an authoritarian way, ignoring the fundamental and collective rights of indigenous peoples recognized in the Federal Constitution and the ILO Convention 169. It stated that the project ignores the fact that there has so far not been a clear regularization by the Congress and moreover noted that mining interests seem to prevail in the cities where the impacts are less felt and even although there are indigenous people supporting regularization, these represent just a selected group that followed a business rationale.  Regarding the practices of Gold Amazon in the Içana area, a representative of FUNAI and the Associação das Comunidades Indígenas do Rio Aiarí (ACIRA) accused the company of using strategies of grooming and cooptation towards the communities with the simple rationale to increase regular access to tantalite and other minerals which are otherwise smuggled. Similarly, FOIRN leveled criticism against the Gold Amazon and its main owner Otávio Lacombe and reported them to the Federal Public Ministry, noting that strategies of directly approaching indigenous communities had already been used in the region in the 1980s and are nowadays once more employed. 
FOIRN however also criticized FUNAI for its misleading statements about alleged full support for mining by the Upper Rio Negro population. It notes that while some communities are open to discuss the issue but not necessarily approve mining on their lands, it just reflects the current political strategy to pretend consensus and avoid public debate. As an example, they quoted an indigenous representative saying that only about 20 percent of his community was in favor of mining, and another one saying that his village is divided about mining but there is a clear concern that the regularization would increase environmental damage compared to the situation now.  Also the National Committee to Defend Territories strongly rejects the regularization proposals and has been among the civil organizations mobilizing most against them, especially via social media.  Moreover indigenous representatives have repeatedly expressed doubts about side effects from mining as it would not only lead to the degradation of land, deforestation, and new roads, infrastructure and housing but also cause social and cultural impacts and divide communities. Similarly the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) questions that the mining sector, in the way it tries to obtain authorizations to exploit mineral deposits in indigenous territories, has a true interest in minimizing the impacts of its essentially deprecatory economic activity. Instead, mining would inalienably deteriorate the local environment and living quality of communities and thus mean ‘another death sentence for Brazil’s native peoples’.   Also an academic indigenous movement of the Federal University of Amazonas mobilized against the increasing influence of the mining sector which has been noted in the university’s restructuring plans regarding lines of research and the future department in São Gabriel but also when it comes to the manipulation of public hearings where the benefits of mining where extensively promoted while collective discussion was not allowed. The critique of lacking transparency and top-down decisions was also directed against the mayor of São Gabriel da Cachoeira who is politically pushing forward mining regularization and claiming that the local communities would be fully in favor of it despite clear rejection from some indigenous and political organizations.   In another attempt to encounter the alleged consensus over mining in the region, as communicated by the pro-mining lobby, indigenous organizations such as the Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB) announced that the Amazonian indigenous movement is absolutely against mining in its territories and that politicians promoting mining regularization would only be interested in the economic profit of a few. They instead refer to the Brazilian legislation and demand to be consulted over all issues and legislative or administrative measures that may directly affect them.  In June 2018, this was also officially reaffirmed by Brazilian authorities who emphasized the revocation and cancellation of any mineral exploration project, research or measurements currently carried out or planned without the consent of potentially affected indigenous communities, particularly noting the Upper Rio Negro region.