One year ago, Maria Leusa Kaba Munduruku’s home was burned by miners. She’s in Europe asking for help.
BY KARL MATHIESEN May 10, 2022 4:31 pm
The EU has the power to intervene on behalf of indigenous people being forced from their homes to make way for mining in the Amazon — but will Brussels act?
That’s the question indigenous leader Maria Leusa Kaba Munduruku asked on a trip to Europe, where she hoped to confront the companies she says are responsible for harming indigenous groups and destroying the world’s most important rain forest — and to convince EU lawmakers to bolster proposals to hold them to account.
“I left the territory to come to Europe to denounce this and to tell the people who buy the gold that comes out with indigenous blood, they are guilty for it too,” she told POLITICO. “They are the perpetrators of the violence that is happening in Brazil.”
Mining hastens the deforestation of the Amazon, contributing to climate change as large areas of land gets stripped of trees. It also weakens indigenous land protection, seen as a critical buffer against the wholesale industrialization of the rain forest.
The European Commission in February released a proposal for new rules to make companies that do business in the EU liable for human rights abuses within their supply chains and give victims the right to sue for damages.
Human rights and green groups hailed the corporate sustainability due diligence legislation as potentially historic, but criticized its narrow scope — only the largest 1 percent of companies in Europe will be targeted by the proposed rules — and its failure to explicitly outlaw environmental damage.
With the proposal now being discussed in the European Parliament, Munduruku said she wants to ensure the final legislation is strong enough to allow the EU to step in where Brazil’s own government has failed to do so.
Munduruku, who is from a tribe of the same name that occupies a section of dense jungle upriver in the Brazilian Amazon, said garimpeiros, the miners encroaching on the area, are destroying villages to open new mines.
“Today is one year since my village was attacked by the invaders. They burned our house,” said Munduruku, who became an activist trying to push back against the miners’ encroachment. Mining gangs have hunted her and her young children, forcing them to move from town to town. For a time, they lived under police protection.
Under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon, driven by agriculture, logging and mining, has surged in the first four months of this year; in April the country hit double the previous record for the number of hectares lost.
His government, which has been openly hostile to the indigenous land rights embedded in the constitution, is seeking to push through a law that would legalize mining on indigenous lands.
Europe has repeatedly faced criticism for its role in that destruction, with NGOs pointing out that European companies and banks are financing or buying products that drive deforestation. Brussels has proposed a separate piece of legislation to tackle the problem, seeking to ban the import of commodities linked to deforestation and forest degradation, such as wood and soy.
“We want [the EU] to hold these actors accountable,” said Luiz Eloy Terena, the legal coordinator of the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples, who has been traveling in Europe with Munduruku. “People who are doing business here need to know that their business is affecting the lives and rights of indigenous people.”
As the EU works to find consensus on its new due diligence rules, the next challenge will be enforcing them.
Munduruku said the need for a strong EU role was highlighted by a meeting last week in Bern, Switzerland, between indigenous representatives, executives from gold refineries Metalor, Précinox and Argor Heraeus, and the Swiss Association of Manufacturers and Traders in Precious Metals (ASFCMP). While the companies are Swiss, their business in the EU means they would be subject to the proposed rules, depending on their size.
At issue were five tons of gold that the German-based Society for Threatened People (STP), which organized the meeting, said had been exported to Switzerland from two regions in the Amazon, including the land owned by Munduruku’s tribe. That made the Alpine country the second-largest importer of Brazilian gold in 2021 after Canada, at a time when a gold rush is pushing garimpeiros deeper into indigenous lands.
“We do not have certainty, but the risk is high that gold that is exported from these regions is problematic,” said STP campaigner Julia Busser.
Munduruku told the executives her story. In return they detailed the measures they said ensured their supply chain was free of gold from the Amazon. But Munduruku was unwilling to take the companies at their word. Her search for accountability frustrated, she left the meeting “shocked and revolted by their indifference.”
“What seems to matter to the people we met [on Thursday] is the gold and not the lives of indigenous groups. To be honest I couldn’t even look them straight in the face,” she said.
There is no evidence to prove any of the companies at the meeting used the gold from Brazil. It may well have gone to other companies, said Busser.
ASFCMP President Christoph Wild strenuously denied the industry had been indifferent to Munduruku’s story and said the group had pledged to keep their supply chain free of human rights violations.
“We heard their testimonies, the very serious realities they face, and their wish to see no more gold extracted from their territories,” he said in an email. “Our members once again confirm that dirty gold has no place in Switzerland and that in case of doubt, one should refrain from buying it.”
Busser said from STP’s perspective the meeting was among their “most constructive” with the industry.
For Munduruku, traveling across an ocean hasn’t helped, she said. Finding the companies that are responsible and stopping them will require the EU to step in, she argued.
“Their business means the death of my people and my territory,” said Munduruku.