New gold rush fuels Amazon destruction

Published: 10:24 AM, 9 Nov, 2021
New gold rush fuels Amazon destruction
Caption: File photo.
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Standing over the gaping pit in the middle of his small farm, Brazilian wildcat miner Antonio Silva struggles to explain why he joined the new gold rush sweeping the Amazon.

The 61-year-old grandfather of six had planned to retire from illegal mining, and the environmental destruction that comes along with it.

He bought this farm in rural Sao Felix do Xingu, in the southeastern Amazon, and was starting a cattle ranch on a long-deforested patch of jungle where he would not have to cut down more trees.

But then the pandemic hit, gold prices soared, and Silva -- a pseudonym, as the man is involved in illicit activity -- couldn't resist the temptation of easy money.

He put his retirement plans on hold and spent 50,000 reais ($9,000) of his meager savings to rent an excavator, hire four workers, and dig a hole the size of a large house that now dominates his emerald pastures.

Filled with murky gray-green water, the hole is outfitted with a pump sitting on a ramshackle raft that delivers muddy sediment to a sluice to be panned for gold. To his chagrin, he has found only trace amounts so far.

"I know it's wrong. I know the problems mining causes. But I don't have anything else," says Silva, who got his start mining in the gold rush of the 1970s and 80s at the infamous Serra Pelada mine, known for images of tens of thousands of mud-soaked men swarming its cavernous sides like ants, hauling sacks of dirt from its bowels.

Now, illegal mining is surging again in the mineral-rich Amazon basin, fueled by poverty, greed, impunity and record gold prices.

As investors have sought a haven from pandemic-induced economic chaos in gold, illegal miners have responded by hacking giant rust-colored scars into the plush green of the world's biggest rainforest.

Mining has already destroyed a record 114 square kilometers (44 square miles) of the Brazilian Amazon this year -- more than 10,000 football pitches.

Silva's operation is relatively tiny, and the land he's damaging is his own.

But much of the destruction is on protected indigenous reservations. 

There, gangs with heavy equipment and brutal tactics are installing huge mines, attacking villages, spreading disease, poisoning the water -- and devastating the very communities experts say are key to saving the Amazon.

- 'You'll have to kill me' -

The Brazilian Amazon has 1.2 million square kilometers (450,000 square miles) of indigenous reservations. Most of it is pristine forest, thanks to native traditions of living in harmony with nature.

Mineral-rich and remote, many reservations are also easy prey for illegal mining gangs. Their camps often are a breeding ground for other crimes, prosecutors say, including the drugs trade, sex trafficking and slave labor.

The government estimates there are 4,000 illegal miners operating on indigenous territory in the Amazon, though activists say the figure is much higher.

Recent studies found they used 100 tonnes of mercury in 2019-2020 to separate gold dust from soil -- and that up to 80 percent of children in nearby villages show signs of neurological damage from exposure to it.

Mercury also poisons the fish that many indigenous communities rely on for food.

Native peoples facing this nightmare have begun organizing anti-mining patrols and protests -- sometimes paying a heavy price.

Maria Leusa Munduruku is a leader of the Munduruku people, whose territory has been among the hardest hit.

When illegal miners started buying off community members with cash, alcohol and drugs in a bid to move in on tribal land, Munduruku, 34, organized local women to resist.

Soon, she was getting death threats, she says. 

On May 26, armed men swarmed her home.

"They poured gasoline on my house, then set it on fire," she says, red flowers crowning her black hair, her baby nursing at her breast.

"I said I wasn't leaving, that they would have to kill me. Somehow, my house survived. God only knows why it didn't catch fire. They burned everything inside it."

Munduruku, who has five children and a grandson, did not back down. 

In September, she traveled to Brasilia, some 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) from her village, to help lead a protest of indigenous women demanding the government protect their land.

That rally came in the wake of another major indigenous demonstration in the capital a month earlier, also over land rights issues.

"We have to make sure our children have a river to fish in, land to live on," she says.

"That's why I keep fighting."

- Backed by Bolsonaro -

Brazil mined 107 tonnes of gold last year, making it the world's seventh-biggest producer.

Illegal mines have exploded under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed to open indigenous reservations to mining since taking office in 2019.

A recent study found just one-third of Brazil's gold production is certified as legally mined.

Current regulations allow sellers to vouch for the origin of their gold by simply signing a paper.

The Amazon region is notoriously hard to police.

"We realized using only on-the-ground police operations was an exercise in futility," says Helena Palmquist, spokeswoman for the federal prosecutors' office in the northern state of Para.

Miners would flee into the jungle when police arrived, she says. Authorities burned the machinery left behind. But in a sign of how well-financed the gangs are, they easily replaced the excavators, which cost 600,000 reais apiece.

So prosecutors got creative, going after the powerful financiers trafficking illegal gold.

In August, they moved to suspend the operations of three major gold dealerships, asking a court to fine them 10.6 billion reais. The ruling is pending.

But there are powerful interests in play.

"Gold-sector lobbyists regularly meet with the environment minister, with top administration officials. They have direct access to the government," Palmquist says.

"And there's a very deep-rooted idea here in Brazil that the Amazon is a good that exists to be exploited."

That may be changing.

In downtown Sao Felix, Dantas Ferreira is fishing at dusk on the Xingu River, a bright blue Amazon tributary, just upstream from where another river, the Fresco, dumps its turbid, brown-stained waters into the Xingu's crystalline ones.

Authorities say the Fresco is badly polluted with illegal mining waste.

Like most people in Sao Felix, Ferreira, a 53-year-old cattle rancher, is a proud Bolsonaro supporter.

But he says the environmental destruction in the region has gone too far.

The president "needs to stop this," he says.

"If they don't crack down on illegal mining, our water is never going to be normal again."

Deforestation threatens jaguars, giant eagles

Boating slowly upriver through the Pantanal, the world's biggest tropical wetlands, Brazilian biologist Fernando Tortato scans the bank for signs of Ousado, a jaguar badly burned in devastating wildfires last year.

A thousand kilometers (600 miles) to the north, at the rapidly receding edge of the Amazon rainforest, conservationist Roberto Eduardo Stofel peers through his binoculars, monitoring a baby harpy eagle sitting alone in a giant nest, its parents apparently out searching for increasingly hard-to-find food.

The sleek, majestic jaguar and spectacularly powerful harpy eagle are two of the most iconic species threatened by the accelerating destruction of the Amazon, whose breathtaking biodiversity risks collapsing as the world's biggest rainforest approaches a "tipping point."

Scientists say that is the point at which a vicious circle of deforestation, wildfires and climate change could damage the rainforest so badly it dies off and turns to savannah -- with catastrophic consequences for its more than three million species of plants and animals.

- 'Flying rivers' drying up -

The jaguar and harpy eagle are already feeling the impact.

Ousado, a four-year-old, 75-kilogram (165-pound) male, was wounded a year ago when wildfires tore through the Pantanal, fueled by the region's worst drought in 47 years.

The region, which sits just south of the Amazon, is known for its stunning wildlife, drawing tourists from around the world.

But nearly a third of it burned in last year's fires, killing or wounding countless animals -- including Ousado, who was found with third-degree burns on his paws, barely able to walk.

Veterinarians took the big black-and-yellow spotted cat to an animal hospital, treated him, and then reintroduced him to the wild with a tracking collar to monitor his recovery -- which is going well.

The destruction of the Pantanal, Tortato explains, is directly linked to that of the Amazon

The rainforest's 390 billion trees generate water vapor that dumps rain across much of South America -- a phenomenon known as "flying rivers."

Sometimes appearing as wisps of mist streaking skyward, then gathering into giant clouds that look like streams of cotton, these "rivers" likely carry more water than the Amazon River itself, scientists say.

As humans raze the forest for farms and pastureland, "the rainfall that would normally arrive in the Pantanal via the 'flying rivers' has diminished," says Tortato, 37, of conservation group Panthera.

Classified as "near threatened," the jaguar, the biggest cat in the Americas, has its stronghold in the Amazon.

Its population declined an estimated 20 to 25 percent over the past two decades.

- Facing starvation -

Known for its massive size, fearsome claws and tufts of feathers protruding Beethoven-like from its head, the harpy eagle is, like the jaguar, an apex predator in the Amazon.

Weighing up to 10 kilograms, harpies scope their prey from the canopy, and then swoop in with deadly precision, snatching monkeys, sloths and even small deer.

But despite their hunting prowess, they are at risk of starvation.

It takes the gray and white eagles, which mate for life, about two years to raise their young. They fledge just one eaglet at a time, but need enormous territory to hunt enough food.

A recent study found harpy eagles are not adapted to hunt for prey outside the forest, and cannot survive in areas with more than 50 percent deforestation -- increasingly common at the Amazon's edges.

"They are at high risk of extinction in this region because of deforestation and logging," says Stofel, 43, who works on a harpy conservation program in Cotriguacu, in Mato Grosso state.

The area sits on the so-called "arc of deforestation."

In a poignant snapshot of the harpy's plight, AFP journalists saw one eagle eating food set out for it by conservationists, against the backdrop of a logging truck hauling giant tree trunks from the forest.

"We've monitored nests where the eaglets starved to death because the parents couldn't hunt enough food," Stofel says.

- Matter of survival (our own) -

For Cristiane Mazzetti of environmental group Greenpeace, it is crucial to protect the Amazon's threatened biodiversity -- and not just for the plants and animals' sake.

Nature's complex interlocking web plays an essential role in the planet's ability to provide food, oxygen, clean water, pollination and myriad other "ecosystem services" on which all life depends.

"Biodiversity isn't something that can be resuscitated," says Mazzetti.

"It's important to protect it for our own survival."

'We can't live in a world without Amazon'

Erika Berenguer, an Amazon ecologist at Oxford and Lancaster universities, is one of the most prominent scientists studying how the rainforest functions when humans throw it off balance.

AFP asked the 38-year-old Brazilian to break down the latest research on the Amazon and what it means for us all.

- There are lots of headlines on the destruction of the Amazon. What does the science say? -

"The results are truly horrifying. They are in line with discussions about the 'tipping point' (at which the rainforest would die off and turn from carbon absorber to carbon emitter).

"One study found that in the southeast of the Amazon in the dry season, the temperature has increased by 2.5 degrees Celsius (over the past 40 years). That is truly apocalyptic.

"I don't think even academics were prepared for that. The Paris deal is trying to limit the world to 1.5 degrees; 2.5 in the Amazon is huge.

"And in the northeast Amazon, we've seen a decrease of 34 percent in precipitation in peak dry season (from August to October).

"The implication of all this is that if you have a hotter and dryer climate, fires are just going to escape more into the forest. So it gets into this feedback loop, this vicious cycle of horror."

- Can we still save the Amazon? What happens if we don't? -

"That's the million-dollar question. We'll never know the tipping point until we're past it. That's the definition of a tipping point. But different parts of the Amazon are speeding up toward it at different paces.

"If we pass the tipping point, it's the end. And I don't say that lightly. We're talking about the most biodiverse place on the planet collapsing.

"Millions and millions of people becoming climate refugees. Rainfall patterns being disrupted across South America.

"Without rainfall, we don't have hydroelectricity, so it means the collapse of industry in Brazil, and therefore the collapse of one of the largest economies in the world, of one of the biggest food suppliers in the world.

"We cannot live in a world without the Amazon."

- Your WhatsApp profile picture has the word 'hope' written in big letters. What keeps you hopeful for the Amazon? -

"Chocolate (laughs).

"But really, there is definitely hope for change. Within my lifetime, I saw a decrease of more than 80 percent in deforestation, between 2004 and 2012. It wasn't easy.

"You require coordination between several (government) agencies. But they did it. So why can't we see it again?

"Globally, there are several levels of solutions for everyone in the world. Everybody has to reduce their carbon footprint. Nobody's going to go back to living in a cave, but we all need to have a deep reflection on what we can do.

"We also need to pressure for transparency on commodities that come from Amazonia. Know where your gold is coming from, know where your beef is coming from.

"But most importantly, we need to insist on structural changes. We need to pressure our governments and corporations to cut emissions."


Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.