A new report has exposed the scale and impact of mining on indigenous reserves in Amazon countries as gold prices soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 20 percent of indigenous lands are overlapped by mining concessions and illegal mining, it found, covering 450,000km2 — and 31 percent of Amazon indigenous reserves are affected.
The report, released on Wednesday last week by the World Resources Institute (WRI), said that indigenous people should be given more legal rights to manage and use their lands, and called for better environmental safeguards.
As pressure mounts over the issue, a leading Brazilian think tank has called for regulations tracing gold sold by financial institutions.
“The extent of mining concessions and illegal mining areas that overlap indigenous areas in the Amazon is much more significant than many people thought,” said Peter Veit, director of the WRI’s Land and Resource Rights Initiative, and one of the report’s authors.
It used geospatial analysis, and literature and science reviews, and estimated that half a million small-scale gold miners are active in the Amazon region.
Only half of legal mining concessions in the Amazon are active, Veit said.
Howeer, with mining seen by many Amazon countries as a key to development, that could change.
In Brazil, the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has sent a bill to the Brazilian Congress to formally legalize mining on protected indigenous reserves.
“The implications for the environment and for indigenous peoples could significantly increase if those concessions that have yet to be allocated were to start up,” Veit said.
Rising gold prices — which hit nearly US$2,100 an ounce in August — have helped to drive wildcat miners into the Amazon.
“Gold prices had been rising for years, but the threat to economies from the novel coronavirus led to a surge in prices — up about 35 percent this year — as investors sought the perceived safety of gold. As prices rise, so does demand and mining,” the report said.
In Brazil, invasions of indigenous lands by garimpeiros — as wildcat miners are called — have increased since Bolsonaro took office in January last year. Many voted for Bolsonaro after he promised to legalize their work.
Last year, deforestation caused by garimpeiros in the Amazon rose 23 percent from 2018 to a record 10,500 hectares, O Globo newspaper reported in May, following a freedom of information request to the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.
Army operations have failed to clear tens of thousands of miners from Brazil’s biggest indigenous reserve, the Yanomami.
From October 2018 to March alone, nearly 2,000 hectares were degraded by mining in the reserve, the report said.
The Munduruku Indigenous Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon state of Para has been heavily affected.
Garimpeiro investors have paid local indigenous people to help them enter the reserve and work within it, said Ademir Kaba Munduruku, a local leader.
“This has been imitated by other Munduruku and become a big problem,” he said. “Alcoholism, prostitution, drugs, violence, division within the Munduruku people, contamination of river beds have all increased.”
Brazilian federal prosecutors are investigating whether an air force plane flew indigenous garimpeiros from his region to Brasilia for a meeting with Brazilian Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles during a military operation to control illegal mining, following media reports.
The operation was suspended.
Brazilian think tank Instituto Escolhas (Choices Institute) has opened a public consultation for a proposal it would present to Brazil’s central bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate gold purchases, the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper reported.
Garimpeiros presently just need to show identification card and sign a form, it said.
Brazilian gold exports rose 35 percent from January to August, hitting US$3 billion, the Folha said.
Legal mining can also come at a high cost, Veit said.
“Many companies don’t adhere to the law, the letter of the law, many don’t seem to adhere to their agreements with the government,” he said.
Case studies from Peru and Ecuador document legal struggles between indigenous groups, governments and mining companies.
In Guyana, Patamona indigenous people from Campbelltown involved in artisanal mining have “shown some willingness” to work in a more sustainable way, banning mercury and rehabilitating mining sites, the report said.
During a virtual press conference on Wednesday last week, Michael McGarrell, from the group Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, said that his Patamona indigenous people in Guyana had long practiced traditional, low-impact artisanal mining.
“Our people were mining before anyone came; however, it was done in a way that [meant] it had minimal impact and it continues to this day,” he said.
However, Amazon indigenous peoples lose out when mining companies and illegal operations enter their land.
“We are under siege from legal and illegal mining, and our governments are doing little to enforce the rights that do exist,” McGarrell said.
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