In Brazil, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) has pushed for more mining, including on protected Indigenous lands. These regressive measures accelerated not only deforestation but also the loss of biodiversity, contamination of water sources by mercury, food insecurity, and health hazards for local populations. Since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office at the beginning of the year, a new Brazilian government has committed to removing illegal miners from Indigenous lands and bringing health care assistance to affected populations, especially on Yanomami territory.
Meet Brother Rodrigo Péret OFM, who lives in the state of Minas Gerais, known as the “storehouse” of mineral riches in soil. FI discussed his work on the environmental and human rights violations stemming from illegal mining, and how the change of administration is an opportunity for better accountability of the extractive industry, most recently through the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.
Can you introduce yourself and explain your work, especially on mining issues?
My name is Rodrigo, I’m a Franciscan Brother who lives in the Brazilian city of Uberlândia, and I belong to the Franciscans Custody of the Sacred Heart. I was born in Minas Gerais state, where two big mining disasters (2015 and 2019) killed all together 291 people, destroyed two rivers’ basins, and affected thousands of people. Since then, no real reparation or justice has happened. I have also been working since the 1980s on land conflict and agrarian reform because many people depend on the land to survive, whether for housing or to produce food. I later started to approach issues around mining because, in Minas Gerais, the extraction of phosphate rocks, niobium, and rare earth elements is causing significant environmental impacts. It is worth noting that this area is at the Cerrado Biome, which covers 25% of Brazil, and is one of the world’s most important ecosystems.
What inspired you to start this work? And how does it connect to your calling as a Franciscan Brother?
My inspiration comes from Francis. When he embraced the lepers, it meant that he embraced all those who were excluded. When I moved to Minas Gerais state in the region of the Triângulo Mineiro, I was thinking about who are the ones that are excluded from our society – the ones that I have to dedicate my life to as a consecrated person. This is not something I just do for work, it is also a way of living. I studied civil engineering, which helped me better comprehend mining and environmental issues, and thus serve the people better. I understand my life from this perspective, a gospel that has a social and environmental dimension.
According to you, what are some of the main challenges we are facing today?
I think the main challenge is how to understand ourselves in a consumerist world. Nowadays, we talk about the energy transition to so-called “clean energy”. But if lithium and other elements – metal and minerals – are necessary to develop these technologies, it means increasing mining, which is going to put more pressure on territories, resulting in more conflicts and destruction. The second challenge is how to approach those who are suffering the most from climate change. Because it does not have the same impact everywhere and on everyone, this is something we need to address. The last challenge is how to build a new world from this, with more respect for this planet, Mother Earth, that feeds and governs us.
What would you say is your proudest achievement?
It is to understand that God is everywhere. Even in extreme poverty, people have their own dignity, and life is there. But when fundamental rights are being threatened, it is necessary to work with all the existing tools, which is why it is important to be in discussions at the UN and the local level. It is also to be able to use these instruments from a different perspective, having in mind that the construction of what we call the Kingdom of God is a process where we must involve different people. We need to come together to have one strong voice and to make it heard.
How have you been using the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism? And do you think the new government will have an impact on its use?
The UPR is an important process because it reveals the human rights obligations that the countries have. We wrote a report on the consequences of Bolsonaro’s term: it was a real disaster, especially in terms of the extractive economy, the lack of compliance with environmental laws, and the destruction of the Amazon. We came to the pre-sessions in August last year, and the countries made recommendations to Brazil in November. Now our goal is to translate these recommendations to civil society, and open avenues for negotiations to go towards more business accountability related to human rights. To do so, we need to work at both local and international levels, involving the whole Franciscan family in the process. It won’t be easy to recover from the last years, but I think the new government of Lula will bring a better implementation of these recommendations. Still, we are going to need international pressure to push for important changes in domestic policies.
In the last decade, Brazil has been listed as the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders. Have you ever felt that risk? And what do you think needs to be done in terms of protection?
Of course. Like many other people, I have faced regular threats related to my line of work and have even been arrested. I am now on a protection program. In Brazil, those who are most at risk are HRDs dealing with environmental issues. I think it is important to build a network in the territory of people protecting each other. But it is also necessary that the federal government better implements policies related to the protection of human rights and environmental defenders. Now with the change of government, we have more avenues to make this work.
For more information, check out our main article on Franciscans at the Forefront of Human Rights.