Business & Economy

Illegal mining exacting hefty toll on Brazil’s Amazon region

By Maria Angelica Troncoso

Rio de Janeiro, Aug 30 (EFE).- Roughly 72 percent of all mining extraction in Brazil occurs in its Amazon region, with legally established environmental and indigenous reserves being the most affected areas.

Mining activity, which has expanded six-fold in Brazil over the past 35 years, occupied a 206,000-hectare (795-square-mile) area nationwide in 2020, or more than double the area of Berlin, Germany’s largest city.

Most of the mining activity in the planet’s largest rainforest – 67.6 percent – is illegal. Known in Brazil as “garimpo mining,” those small-scale extractive operations are mainly carried out in environmentally protected Amazon areas, where mining activity has increased by 300 percent over the past decade, according to a study released Monday by the organization Mapbiomas.

An initiative involving several non-governmental organizations, universities and technology companies, the study leveraged satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to create an unprecedented map of mining areas and analyze the evolution of that industry in Brazil from 1985 to 2020.

Cesar Guerreiro Diniz, technical coordinator of Mapbiomas’ coastal zone and mining team, said the data is alarming because 97.3 percent of all illegal mining in Brazil occurs in the Amazon, a region where nearly half of all industrial extractive activity (legal mining) in that country takes place.

Gold is the main metal extracted by garimpeiros, accounting for 86 percent of detected illegal mining activity.

Mining, and illegal mining in particular, has a devastating impact on the Amazon region, on inhabitants of that biome and on the country as a whole.

Garimpo mining is one of the main causes of deforestation in the Amazon, which lost around 8,500 square kilometers (3,280 square miles) of rainforest in 2020 alone, according to official figures.

It also contaminates rivers with chemicals, which causes both environmental damage and health problems for indigenous populations, and encourages other scourges such as prostitution and work conditions tantamount to slavery, the expert told Efe.

The Mapbiomas study showed that 50 percent of Brazil’s garimpo mining occurs in environmentally protected areas, which legally are completely off-limits to any mining activity, Guerreiro said.

Mapbiomas said the amount of land in environmental reserves used for illegal mining grew 301 percent between 2010 and 2020.

The biggest increase (495 percent) occurred in indigenous territories, with the lands of the Kayapo, Munduruku and Yanomami – all of them Amazon peoples – the most affected.

The Amazon region is coveted by garimpeiros due to its large number of tributaries – gold is found on the banks of rivers – and because the dense vegetation conceals their illegal activities.

In 2020 alone, Brazil exported around 110 tons of gold and took in $4.9 billion in revenue from those sales, up 60 percent from 2019 and an 18-fold increase from a decade earlier, according to figures from the non-governmental organization Escolhas. Some 19 tons of that total came from illegal mining.

Experts have blamed much of the increase in illegal mining in recent years on the policies of rightist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who since his 2018 presidential campaign has encouraged mining in indigenous Amazon reserves. EFE


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