For thousands in the Juruti region of Para whose livelihood depends on wildlife and plants, everything changed in 2006. That's when New York-based Alcoa, the world's second-largest primary aluminum producer, started to bulldoze a 35-mile swath of the rain forest across hundreds of families' properties to build a railway.

Share story




For four decades, Edimar Bentes and his family have survived by farming tiny clearings in the jungle near their dirt-floor shack in the state of Para in the Brazilian Amazon.

On this April afternoon, Bentes squats in the driving rain and dips a glass into what just four years ago was a crystal-clear stream that provided drinking and bathing water. He frowns as the glass fills with brown silt. A thin man with dark hair and a tanned, deeply wrinkled forehead, Bentes gazes around his land.

There are no signs of the deer, armadillos and pacas he used to hunt to feed his wife and 10 children.

For Bentes and thousands of others in the Juruti region of Para whose livelihood depends on wildlife and plants, everything changed in 2006. That’s when New York-based Alcoa, the world’s second-largest primary aluminum producer, started to bulldoze a 35-mile swath of the rain forest across hundreds of families’ properties to build a railway.

This cleared corridor, 109 yards wide, will lead to a mine that will chew up 25,900 acres of virgin jungle over three decades.

More than half of the mine will lie inside a forest that by Brazilian federal law is supposed to be preserved unharmed forever for local residents. By year’s end, Alcoa says, the railway will transport 7,000 tons a day of bauxite, the dark red ore that’s used to make aluminum, from the mine to a port on the Amazon River.

“It makes you want to cry when you see this stream,” says Bentes, his bare feet sinking into the mud. He views a wasteland of uprooted trees and brown rivulets seeping into the water. A growing array of evidence in court documents puts Alcoa among the multinational corporations that prosecutors accuse of destroying or causing destruction of the world’s largest rain forest.

Brazilian federal and Para state prosecutors sued Alcoa’s Brazilian mining subsidiary in 2005 to block the Juruti mine, saying the company had circumvented the law by not applying for a federal permit and instead seeking a license from the state of Para.

After four years of legal haggling, the suit is still pending. Alcoa, which denies any wrongdoing, has completed construction of the railway, port and processing plants. It’s now ready to start mining.

“The state agency has no power to give anyone full rights to exploit land, especially in the case of a reserve,” state Prosecutor Raimundo Moraes says.

“Alcoa invaded the area, undeterred. Alcoa has no shame.”

In written responses to questions from Bloomberg News, Alcoa says it “has all necessary government licenses to implement the Juruti mining project.”

The Amazon, which spans nine countries and is roughly the size of Australia, has for centuries been the lungs of the Earth, its plants and trees absorbing pollution from the air. But that strength is fading. The world’s largest inhaler of carbon dioxide is shrinking — thus aggravating, instead of slowing, global warming.

Every week, federal prosecutors say, people acting outside the law use bulldozers, chain saws or fire to wipe out parts of the jungle to make way for crops, cattle and mines.

Fires set to clear land

The fires men set to clear land for ranches and farms create 6 percent of the carbon dioxide spewed into the air worldwide, according to the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. That equates to half of all the emissions from cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world.

Brazil has become the planet’s fourth-biggest polluter.

The fires that rage across the Amazon could help increase Earth’s average surface temperature by as much as 11.5 degrees this century, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists from 194 countries.

Global warming threatens to melt glaciers, raise sea levels and lead to drinking water shortages, the United Nations-sanctioned panel says.

“We are not going to reduce global warming if we don’t do something about deforestation in the Amazon,” says Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at Concerned Scientists. “The Amazon is a big part — if not the key part — of a solution to deal with global warming.”

To date, companies and individuals have destroyed more than 331,000 square miles of the Amazon, an area almost the size of France and England combined, according to the U.N. Environment Programme. Cattle ranchers have caused 80 percent of the illegal deforestation, according to Brazil’s environment ministry.

They sell steers to Brazil’s three biggest beef producers. One of them, São Paulo-based JBS, is the world’s largest; the others are Santo Andre-based Marfrig Alimentos and Bertin of Lins.

Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s biggest retailer; French supermarket chain Carrefour; and McDonald’s have purchased beef from those companies, according to Brazilian internal-revenue-service sales and export records.

Ford Motor, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz have bought leather for car and truck seats from Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Eagle Ottawa, a leather company supplied with materials from illegally deforested ranches, the records show.

These multinationals say they’re working to avoid buying products originating in deforested land.

Alcoa inherited its Juruti mining rights from Reynolds, which it bought in 2000. Alcoa revived the project in 2003, as global economic growth increased demand.

Simao Jatene, the governor of Para, supported the Alcoa project. BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank, provided the company with $1 billion of financing for construction.

In January 2005, Alcoa requested state permits to build the $1.7 billion mine. Gabriel Guerreiro, who was then Para’s environment secretary, says the company submitted an impact study done by an independent firm, São Paulo-based CNEC Engenharia.

Guerreiro says his agency analyzed Alcoa’s plan and concluded the mine would be modern and efficient. Guerreiro says Para’s mineral riches must be explored for the good of the state’s 7.1 million residents, 50 percent of whom live in poverty.

“Nobody is going to build a rich civilization without using the natural resources of the tropics,” he says.

Guerreiro gave Alcoa a preliminary license in June 2005 and asked for 35 improvements to the impact study. After Alcoa made adjustments, he recommended the project be accepted by the state environmental council, called Coema, which approved it in August 2005.

Meanwhile, a federal and state prosecutors sued Omnia Minerios, the Santarem-based Alcoa subsidiary running the mine; Para’s state government; and Ibama, the federal regulator. The government’s civil suit says Omnia Minerios was required to seek and obtain a federal environmental permit.

Prosecutors say Ibama failed by not taking control of the licensing process.

In court filings, Alcoa and the two regulators each say they followed procedures.

Complicated issue

Marcus Luiz Barroso Barros, Ibama’s president from 2003 to 2007, says he didn’t know about Alcoa’s project until after the company had applied for licensing with Para. At that point, he decided it would be too complicated for Ibama to get involved — a position he now regrets.

“Now that I know more about Alcoa’s mine, looking at the significant impact it’s having in the area, I’d say it’s a major project that should have been handled by the federal agency,” says Barros, a physician who’s now in private practice in the Amazon city of Manaus.

State regulators aren’t as reliable as the federal government, Barros says.

Alcoa has already torn down 900 hectares of rain forest. Within 30 years, the mine will consume more than 10 times that much jungle, the company said.

Bentes and his family show where Alcoa workers strip the rain forest.

“We don’t know many things, and we are very simple people,” Bentes says, adding that he does understand the value of economic development in Brazil. “But they should find a way to do that without destroying the rain forest.”