Craters on deforested land caused by illegal mining on the Tenharim do Igarapé Preto Indigenous land in Amazonas State, Brazil
Wildcat mining for cassiterite was documented in the Tenharim do Igarapé Preto Indigenous land in Amazonas State, Brazil, in 2018. Credit: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama, CC-BY-NC-2.0

Mining on Indigenous land is currently forbidden in the Brazilian Amazon. However, a bill put forth by the Brazilian government is seeking to change that—and if it succeeds and becomes law, the consequences could be dire for isolated Indigenous Peoples, new research warns.

The bill, PL 191/2020, would expand conditions for carrying out research and mining of mineral and hydrocarbon resources, as well as the use of water resources for energy production, on Indigenous lands. By August 2020, a few months after President Jair Bolsonaro backed the bill, Brazil’s National Mining Agency had 3,645 registered mining requests on Indigenous lands with isolated groups in the Amazon. According to the study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, this activity could directly affect more than 10 million hectares, an area 30 times the size of Yosemite National Park.

Even this number might be underestimated, according to lead author Sara Villén-Pérez, a biogeography researcher at the University of Alcalá, Spain. As well as a direct impact, she explained, “mining activities have a great indirect impact over deforestation by stimulating the construction of roads and urban areas to accommodate workers. Some studies estimate secondary effects could extend for over 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) from the mining site.”

Villén-Perez and her colleagues in Brazil and Spain crossed mining requests the National Mining Agency received up to late August 2020 with information on isolated Indigenous groups compiled by the Socio-Environmental Institute, a civil society organization focused on the defense of human and environmental rights in Brazil, and FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation. The researchers considered mineral prospecting and operation requests.

The team found great overlap between territories with isolated Indigenous groups (those without sustained contact with neighboring communities) and areas with registered interest for mining—almost half the lands with these groups have mining requests. These regions (in the states of Amazonas, Pará, and Roraima) sit on the Guiana and Brazilian shields, which are richer in minerals than other areas in the Amazon basin.

The intersection of mineral-rich areas and Indigenous lands with isolated groups is disastrous, the authors write. Recognition of isolated Indigenous groups has almost halted under the Bolsonaro administration, another team of researchers has pointed out, and that recognition is crucial for conservation. “Mining companies file fewer requests on areas with known, uncontacted Indigenous peoples. This reinforces the importance of FUNAI’s work on recognition and mapping of these groups,” Villén-Pérez said.

Constitutional Rights

Yanomami, Munduruku, and Kayapó lands have been especially under pressure for decades, but threats have intensified under the Bolsonaro administration. As a presidential candidate in 2018, Bolsonaro himself promised “not to demarcate a single square centimeter more for Indigenous lands.”

“In some places you can see wildcat mining just about 2 kilometers (about a mile) away from Indigenous villages.”

Anthropologist Fabio Ribeiro, coordinator of FUNAI’s Ethno-environmental Protection Front Cuminapanema in northern Pará, warns that besides large mining companies pushing for more flexible environmental laws, there’s “an epidemic of wildcat [illegal] mining operating all over the Amazon.” In recent years, organized crime has taken special interest in these small mining operations, bringing further threat to the Amazon and its Indigenous Peoples. “In some places you can see wildcat mining just about 2 kilometers (about a mile) away from Indigenous villages,” he said.

On the other end of this tug-of-war is the Brazilian constitution, which recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination and the land they have traditionally occupied. The Brazilian state, according to article 231, must “demarcate [these lands], protect [them] and ensure respect for all of [Indigenous Peoples’] property.”

The passing of PL 191/20 could be a blow to these constitutional rights. Experts expressed concern about the bill not delimiting the area that can be assessed for survey and operation and possibly legalizing wildcat mining operations. Two communities from the Kayapó Indigenous group are particularly at risk, Villén-Pérez said. “Over 80% of the Xikrin do Rio Cateté land in Pará State is under mining requests,” she explained, and the Baú Indigenous land, also in Pará, could have almost 80% of its territory used for mining activities if the bill is approved, according to the study.

Cascade of Negative Effects

Deforestation associated with the mining industry, said Ribeiro, would unleash a cascade of negative effects, especially on isolated Indigenous groups. “They are deeply integrated to their landscape and highly dependent on their land and could have scarcer access to natural resources due to deforestation and riverine contamination,” Ribeiro said.

Increased contact with non-Indigenous people can also pose a serious health threat to isolated Indigenous groups, who are epidemiologically more vulnerable to certain viruses and other diseases carried by outsiders, Ribeiro added.

“[Mercury poisoning] is a silent, chronic, and sluggish contamination disguised by other symptoms.”

The use of mercury in mining also poses a problem, the authors say. Neurosurgeon Erik Jennings Simões, who has been the doctor to the Zo’é people in northern Pará since 2003, warns that widespread mercury exposure affects contacted and isolated Indigenous groups alike. A 2020 study from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and WWF Brazil showed that all Mundurukus, for instance, have some level of mercury contamination—6 in 10 at unsafe levels.

“Mercury gets to Indigenous diets through contaminated fish, causing diffuse poisoning even to people living far from mining areas,” Simões explained. Moreover, he said, mercury poisoning is difficult to track: “It’s a silent, chronic, and sluggish contamination disguised by other symptoms: depression, irritability, trembling, and visual, memory and concentration challenges, giving the false impression of noncontamination.”

Simões said he recently got approval to set up a reference center to study chronic mercury exposure–related diseases in Pará. “[Brazil’s] Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health, SESAI, reckons this is a problem, and they’re trying to get experts together to come up with this reference center. This is an important step forward, despite all the backtracking.”

Financial Forces

According to journalist Maurício Angelo, founder of the Mining Observatory, mining companies are not the only ones interested in the passing of PL 191/20. International banks—stakeholders of these companies—are also part of the game.

An investigation by watchdog group Mining Observatory last year showed that German banks invested more than $1 billion in mining companies involved in socioenvironmental conflicts in Brazil between 2016 and 2021. The British firm Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, was the main beneficiary, having received $627 million from Commerzbank. International banks such as HSBC, BNP Paribas, Barclays, UBS, and Rabobank are also investors in companies such as Vale do Rio Doce, BHP Billiton, Glencore, and the Rio Tinto Group.

“Many of these banks are signatories of the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Banking and have their own internal sustainability agendas—and at the same time, they have vested interests in maintaining and expanding mining operations,” Angelo said. “If the bill passes, mining requests that are already high can skyrocket, and wildcat miners will feel even more legitimized than they do now.”

—Meghie Rodrigues (@meghier), Science Writer

Citation: Rodrigues, M. (2022), Mining threatens isolated Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon, Eos, 103, https://doi.org/10.1029/2022EO220053. Published on 25 January 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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