Traditional communities’ prize-winning coffee and cachaça at risk from Brazil mine

When you reach the cross atop the highest peak in the Santana mountains near Piat in the Brazilian state of Bahia, you can actually see the low clouds that surround the city in the foothills below. Since 2019, however, the cold climate of the Chapada Diamantina plateau, where the highest municipality in Bahia is located, is no longer the sole cause of the cloudy skies. As a result of blasting at the Mocó iron ore mine, the haze is currently composed of clouds of dust that float in the air.

“At first, the noise from trucks and the dust bothered us the most,” says Gemilson Bebiano, a resident of the Afro-Brazilian settlement of Bocaina on the outskirts of Piat.

“When we looked up at the hills, it appeared to be raining,” says Bebiano, a distiller of cachaca, the traditional Brazilian sugarcane spirit. It looked exactly like drizzle was falling.

Brazil Iron, a subsidiary of the U.K.-based holding company Brazil Iron Trading Limited, operates the mine. Since acquiring mining rights in the Chapada Diamantina in 2011, the company has gone by several different names, but has always been engaged in prospecting and mining in the region, primarily in the municipalities of Piat, Abara, and Jussitape.

The source of the Bebedouro River, which is the primary source of freshwater for the Bocaina quilombo, has been contaminated by Brazil Iron’s mining operations. At least two additional springs in Abara are also at risk, as exploration for future mining is currently underway. The company’s growing presence in the region is causing concern among coffee and cachaca producers due to the negative effects it has.

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