The Wider Image: Brazilians toil for gold in illegal Amazon mines

Brazilian Amazon rocked by illegal mining

Brazil has 453 illegal mines in Amazon areas, according to a map presented on Monday, 10 Dec. 2018 by the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG). In the whole group of ecosystems — which stretches across nine countries and almost 7 million km² (almost 3 million mi²) — there are more than 2,500, reports local newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

While Venezuela — a country experiencing a humanitarian crisis — leads the regional ranking of this predatory activity with 1,899 clandestine mines, Brazil runs first among the countries maintaining illegal activity within indigenous lands and protected areas, with 18 cases among the 37 identified.

The picture may become worse soon. The country’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro has argued that indigenous peoples have the right to exploit their lands — but he has also suggested that natives could receive royalties on the extraction of ores from reserves.

On Sunday, 8th Dec. 2018, after much controversy and indefinition, Bolsonaro announced Ricardo Salles will be the minister of environment to deal with the issue. However, Mr Salles — former secretary of environment in the São Paulo local government — is known by his criticism of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).

“The purpose of the map is to show the transnational scope of illegal mining in the Amazon, generally practiced by criminal groups that damage the forest, rivers, natives and traditional populations,” explains Alicia Rolla, a geographer at socioambiental institute ISA, which coordinates RAISG.

In addition to Venezuela with 1,899 illegal mining sites and Brazil with 453, the map shows there are 134 in Peru and 68 in Ecuador.

Researchers had to gather knowledge from various sources such as technical studies, local partner information, country press reports and satellite image analysis. “We worked for about a year and a half on the project,” Rolla says.

The map shows 2,312 spots and 245 areas that mine gold, diamonds and other minerals. “Conceptually, ‘spots’ and ‘areas’ are the same, but to us ‘areas’ are prospects whose extent we determine through remote sensing.”

Additionally, 30 rivers were found to be affected by the extractive activity or its logistical parallel activities. In Colombia and Bolivia, the analysis units were rivers, which is why they did not count as points.

According to Roberto Cabral, coordinator of inspection operations at IBAMA, illegal mining causes “the destruction of the forest lining. In the Amazon, most of the garimpos (illegal mines) follow the water course, so the exploration knocks down the ravines, changes the course of rivers and destroys streams. In addition, mercury used in the activity disseminates across the river.”

For Ms Rolla, the map will allow environmental agencies to devise more articulated intervention strategies, “because it makes it possible to see an entire region, not just isolated mines.”

She also opened the possibility of increasing international cooperation to fight this crime, citing mineral extraction activity in the Yanomami lands in Brazil and Venezuela as an example.

“When an inspection action occurs on the Brazilian side, illegal miners flee to the Venezuelan side and return later. This mapping can serve as a basis to conduct the necessary international coordination that should curb illegal mining.”

“It is an activity not only illegal but impossible to legalise,” Cabral says about mining in indigenous lands and conservation areas.

In addition to leading the ranking, Venezuela is also the place where mining produces more social tension. The creation in 2016 of the Orinoco Mineral Arch, located in the river basin, triggered armed conflicts in the region. More than 100 people are believed to have died in clashes since 2016.

“This is an immense area, which occupies 12% of the Venezuelan Amazon,” says coordinator of InfoAmazônia interactive digital map creator Gustavo Faleiros who produced, in partnership with RAISG, a “storymap” — a form of presentation that presents mapped data in an interactive way.

“The government has mapped the areas of existence of ores to grant concessions and partnerships with private initiative. But there were already illegal miners in this area and, since the decree that created the Mining Arch, the army was sent to repossess some of them,” he says.

The Venezuelan government’s assault on the area is seen as an attempt — after the oil price plunge — to raise funds through the exploitation of gold, which in the last decade has seen a greate increase in its market value.

In Brazil the price of the metal — which has raised to 149% since 2010 and has seen the gram price last week to reach RS155.23 ($39.61) — is pinpointed as one of the reasons for the increase of illegal mining activity in the nation’s Amazon, located mainly in the region of the Tapajós River.

In the Tapajós basin, exploration dates from the late 1950s, says Maurício Torres, from the Federal University of Pará.

At the beginning, work was performed manually. According to Torres, a peculiarity of the region allowed that, at the beginning, mining companies did not push garimpeiros over.

“Gold is spread out over an immense area there. Thus, if a mining company controlled a spot, gold diggers only needed to go to the next field. This, to a certain extent, gave artisanal mining activity a democratic and national situation.”

With the scarcity of surface gold, already taken by the first prospectors, the Tapajós region saw the arrival of the nozzle-jet hoses. In this technique, pressurized water is used for clearing gullies. The resulting slurry is then filtered for the extraction of the metal. The practice produces large craters.

“This has already made possible some control of the diggers’ access to gold,” via the expenses of buying fuel and machinery.

As of 2008, Torres says, the situation changed drastically with the arrival of hydraulic excavators and dredgers, with an overwhelming environmental destruction power.

“The great transformation of the region occurred with the arrival of excavators. They generate an insane environmental impact. I would venture to say that the change in the forest lining has been greater in the last 10 years than in the previous 50 years.”

This also produced an unprecedented economic and control concentration of illegal mining. An excavator costs approximately RS500,000 ($127,570).

In this context, Torres says, it is very important to differentiate the prospector from the prospect owner. “The garimpeiro, in general, is a pawn, a rural worker who lives by the river, someone who struggles to survive. The thug here is the prospect (garimpo) owner. However, the idea persists that the garimpeiro is the bad guy here. Almost all actions only target the end of the chain. It does not work.”

The arrival of excavators in the Tapajós came at the same time the price of gold increased. “Since the 1990s, with the fall of the former Soviet Union, gold was heavily injected into the market so price went down. And since the 2008 crisis gold has strengthened again. From then on, the gold-fuel price ratio began to compensate.”

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