Quilombolas’ relationship with their local environment is influenced by their ancestral African cultures and, in some cases, Indigenous peoples’ worldviews: Most Quilombolas today are Afro-Brazilian, though some might have Indigenous heritage as well. The community’s belief system inspires respect for nature, and for this reason they are accustomed to utilizing just enough resources for their subsistence. Water, soil, and other inanimate natural objects are treated as living and, therefore, worthy of reverence.
Santos, who’s 45, recalls growing up amidst rivers and fruit-bearing trees, playing games with his cousins and uncles. “My memories are of living freely!” he says. “We would go down to the igarapé (a stream split off from the main river’s course) for a swim from where the tides come in up to where they stop, you know?” he tells us. “The elderly wouldn’t let us pee in the river. Because, otherwise, the candiru (a tiny local fish in the Amazon that can enter the male urethra) would catch us; the Mother-Water would punish us. We also avoided walking in the forest at certain times because those were sacred places. Today I realize that all these things were ways of defending nature.”
This nature-centric cosmovision was, of course, at odds with the interests of large-scale industrial and agricultural corporations that began arriving in localities like Barcarena in the second half of the twentieth century.
THE ALUMINUM INDUSTRY was the first to take root in Barcarena in the 1980s and ’90s, disrupting the lives of many locals. Above all, it impacted the Quilombola who were living on the land where the Brazilian government wanted to build an industrial complex that would include a bauxite refinery where alumina, the materia prima of aluminum, is processed from its ore, and a facility where alumina is transformed into primary aluminum. This gargantuan project also included a cargo port for mineral commodities. At present, the port is an important conduit for soy and cattle exports as well.
Santos was still a boy in the ’80s when the Brazilian dictatorship of the time decided to break ground in his very backyard. The area would soon come to represent one of the largest value chains of aluminum in the world. In 2010, both facilities were bought by Norwegian conglomerate Norsk Hydro whose largest shareholder is the Norwegian government.
A large part of the aluminum produced in Barcarena’s refinery and sold to international markets has seals of quality and environmental responsibility, including, ironically, certifications from the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative. In 2018, the refinery exported close to 2.6 million tons of calcined alumina, worth some $845 million dollars. Little of this largesse makes its way to local residents, many of whom live right next to the industrial complex and its associated enormous tailings dams.
Tailings dams are typically massive embankment dams used to store byproducts of mining operations, called “tailings,” which can be in liquid, solid, or slurry form, and are usually highly toxic. Tailings from aluminum processing contain lead, cadmium, aluminum, manganese, chromium, and even radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium. The entire composition, however, colloquially goes by the benign name of the ochre soils common in the tropics: red mud.