On July 23, Emyra Wajapi, a leader of Wajapi indigenous tribe, was allegedly killed by the garmipeiros or the gold miners in Northern Brazil in the Amazon Forest. Three days later, around 50 garmipeiros invaded the 600,000-hectare Wajapi indigenous reserve in the state of Amapa. The garmipeiros were armed with automatic rifles and shotguns and they threatened the villagers. The villagers were forced to flee to neighboring larger Wajapi village, Aramira. Post these incidents fearing bloodbath, the indigenous tribe leaders and local politicians called for urgent help from the federal police. But no concrete action has been taken by the Brazilian government.
Most of the people are blaming Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro for the situation. Bolsanoro is a pro-mining leader who has promised to allow mining on protected indigenous reserves and not to allow even addition of an extra inch of area to the protected reserves. Bolsonaro had argued that fewer than 0.5 million indigenous people live in fifteen percent of the country’s land area; while 209 million people live in the remaining area. This unequal distribution is unfair. Moreover, there are trillions of dollars in the form of mineral wealth under their land and the remaining population of Brazil is being deprived of these resources and development. He believes that allowing mining in these lands will also help the indigenous people in integrating them with other Brazilians and pull the indigenous tribes out of poverty. Is this comparison fair and correct? Are the indigenous people really depriving the Brazilian population of land, resources and development? Let’s analyze the matter closely by understanding the impact of allowing gold mining on the Indigenous Community, Environment and Economy.
Indigenous Community: Around 350 different ethnic groups live in the Amazon in Brazil, of which 77 are still largely isolated. They have been living in the region for around 32000 to 39000 years. They are entirely dependent on Amazon for food, water and livelihood. Nature is an integral part of their culture and tradition. They have very deep spiritual connection with the land and it is reflected in their history, myths and rituals. Destroying the forest and taking away their land will rob them of their culture and lifestyle. The gold mining results in toxic wastes, especially mercury which is used in the leaching of gold. The mercury gets accumulated in water and fish. This contaminates the drinking water and fish the indigenous tribes eat. The mercury severely impacts the central nervous system and causes cognitive disorders, heart diseases, loss of sight etc. in humans. The children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable. Mining ponds created are breeding ground for mosquitos and cause malaria. Many of these tribes do not have any resistance to Western diseases which they might contract from the miners. Moreover, no real development of people has taken place in the settlements which have been impacted by gold mining. Deforestation, prostitution and drinking problems have wrecked these communities. The mining in the Amazon and integration of the indigenous tribes have only resulted in irreparable damage for the indigenous community. They do not want this model of development. As Pat-I, a leader of Kayapo community said, “I don’t think we are poor. In the cities, the White man lives with money. Here, we don’t; we farm, we hunt, we fish, we dance. With all of that, we are rich.”
Environment: The Amazon Forest spans around 6.7 Million sq kms. One in ten species found on land lives in this forest. Amazon’s canopy regulates humidity, temperature and precipitation. It impacts the climate of Brazil and adjoining areas. The Amazon rain forest is a huge carbon sink and absorbs 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. In spite of such magnitude, the ecosystem of Amazon is very fragile. Around 9% of the Amazon forest was lost to mining between 2005 and 2015. The deforestation is a significant threat to thousands of species including many endangered species, living in the Amazon forest. It is also resulting in the release of 0.5 metric tonnes of carbon annually. Research suggests that 3% to 8% of more deforestation may lead to the tipping point and flip Amazon into a non-forest ecosystem like degraded Savannah. As per study by Gund Institute for Environment, The University of Vermont, mining lease results in 12 times more deforestation in off-lease areas surrounding the lease areas. Hence, the extraction of a few minerals in Amazon can lead to catastrophic damage to the fragile ecosystem of the Amazon and the climate of adjoining areas.
Economy: The deforestation and mining in Amazon have enormous economic cost for Brazil. It has significantly increased the risk of contamination of water and soil and severely impacted the plants and crops that farmer grow in and around the forest areas. The deforestation has the potential to raise the temperature in Brazil by 1.45 degrees Celsius. This increase in temperature will result in higher electricity demands, reduced agricultural yields, greater human mortality because of shift in species distribution including species involved in human disease transmission and the collapse of biodiversity. Brazil is already suffering from low rainfall and drought due to deforestation. According to research by Franklin and Pindyck (2018), one hectare of deforestation leads to the forgone net economic benefit of $3789. The marginal cost of deforestation increases exponentially with an increase in the total percentage of deforestation. Thus, the economic cost mining and deforestation in Amazon is far greater than the benefits.
The facts clearly point that mining in the ecologically sensitive Amazon will only lead to social conflicts, environmental damage and net economic loss. It will also be catastrophic for flora and fauna. By living on fifteen percent of the country’s land, the indigenous people are not only protecting the environment; they are saving other Brazilians from damages due to climate change and the unsustainable model of development. In return, they are asking for nothing. They feel rich and happy with whatever they have got. The land in the Amazon belongs to the indigenous community. They owe anything to anybody. Instead of condemning the indigenous tribes, President Bolsonaro should thank them for saving the fellow Brazilians and the future generations!
- Tropical Forests, Tipping Points, and the Social Cost of Deforestation
Sergio Franklin-Robert Pindyck – Ecological Economics – 2018
- Jair Bolsonaro, on Day 1, Undermines Indigenous Brazilians …
- Amazon Gold Miners Invade Indigenous Village in Brazil After Its Leader Is Killed
- “We Are in Great Danger”: In Amazon, Indigenous Waiapi Chief Is Killed By Illegal Miners
- What Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, Has Said About Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples
Survival International – https://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3540-Bolsonaro
- About the Amazon
- Mining’s Big Environmental Footprint in the Amazon
- The Amazon Rainforest
Rhett Butler – https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/
- Brazilian Indians
Survival International – https://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/brazilian
Alok A is a management student who wants to contribute to the cause of underprivileged communities and the environment.