A illegal miner shows off gold he extracted from the Madeira River in Nova Olinda (Amazonas state), Brazil on Nov. 26. (AP/Edmar Barros)
In November, hundreds of illegal mining trucks converged on Brazil’s Madeira River. This created a problem. floating cityNear the town Autazes in Amazonas. According to some estimates, the rush involved as many as 600 vessels. It began after news broke that an illegal miner had discovered gold.
Although the unprecedented event has attracted international attention, illegal mining in the Madeira River or other Amazonian watersways is not new. Political leaders who are sometimes involved in illegal mining tend to minimize the social and environmental damage.
This is partly due to President Jair Bolsonaro’s public support for the miners. A top government official also authorized seven mines in protected areas, which includes Indigenous reserves.
Numerous Catholic Church organizations have spoken up about illegal mining and its effects, but the complexity and financial stakes behind it transform their efforts into a David and Goliath struggle.
“Illegal mining of the Amazonian river requires great investment. These organizations employ heavy machines, planes, and helicopters for their operations. It is clear that they depend on local politicians,” Comboni Fr, an Italian-born priest. Dario Bossi was a founder member the Brazilian bishops’ Mining and Integral Ecology CommissionEarthBeat was informed by.
In fact, a group of local mayors traveled to Brasilia Dec. 1. To meet with Brazil’s defense Minister and with Amazonas legislators to try to get them to suspend a crackdown against the mining boats.
The Madeira River in Brazil is home to gold mining rafts, dredges and other dredges. (Greenpeace Brazil/Bruno Kelly)
Several members from Amazonas said to the press that, despite their concern about the environmental impacts of mining, they believed that people, especially the poor, should be allowed work.
“Every time an operation is launched against mining in the Amazon, local politicians support miners and claim that it generates income,” Danicleyde Aguiar, an activist with Greenpeace, said to EarthBeat. “Yes, it does, but that’s not a good idea. We’ll have to pay a much higher price later.
De Aguiar stated that miners help finance the election campaigns for Amazonian politicians. He added, “And many times the politicians themselves, not the ones who work in the mud but those who benefit” from the mining.
Amazonian rivers transport large amounts of sediment from the Andes Mountains of western South America to the Atlantic Ocean, on the eastern side. The sediment also contains minerals such as gold. While early miners used to pan for gold along rivers, their modern counterparts use large suction hoses, dredges, and sluices.
Rivers are impacted by the massive amounts of mud that the operations produce, which can cause turbidity problems for aquatic fauna. The destruction is worsened when miners move inland and drew along smaller rivers or through forested areas where rivers used be.
Mercury is used to separate small flecks from fine sediment, which has a longer-lasting effect. Workers typically mix mercury with the sand that is gold-bearing to make a lump. After this, they heat it with a torch to evaporate the mercury and leave behind a chunk of gold.
Mercury can cause serious health problems in workers’ health, including neurological and lung problems. This type of small-scale unregulated or poorly controlled mining is also the. largest sourceThe atmospheric mercury can get into the food chain when it settles on the land and oceans.
De Aguiar also has doubts about the claims of miners that they don’t use mercury for mining in rivers.
“If the government can’t control the flux from mining boats, how are we to be sure they don’t use mercury and dump it in the river?” He asked.
De Aguiar stated that riverbed dredging can also cause heavy metals, such as mercury, to be ingested in certain Amazonian soils, or pollutants deposited in the distant past. This can contaminate the water and its plant, animal, and aquatic life.
Mercury in streams and rivers can react with bacteria to form mercury that is absorbed into the flesh of fish. The concentration of toxic metal increases higher up in the food chain as smaller fish are eaten more often by larger fish. These fish are then consumed by humans in large cities, such as Belm or Manaus.
Consuming large amounts mercury can cause neurological problems, particularly in children. Mercury can also affect the developing foetus in pregnant women.
Mercury is not the only health risk from illegal gold mining in Brazil. Church workers have been protesting the presence of illegal miners at Yanomami Indigenous Territory for decades. This area borders Venezuela and is slightly bigger than Indiana.
Some Yanomami are still hesitant to make contact with the wider Brazilian population, making them particularly vulnerable to common diseases, such as flu or colds, that have been introduced by miners. The COVID-19 pandemic poses a serious threat to Yanomami, even if they are immune to common diseases.
Young Yanomami don protective masks during an examination by medical personnel from the Brazilian army of members of the tribe in Roraima on July 1, 2020. This was during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS/Reuters/Adriano Machado)
“Mining produces gold, death from mercury emissions, and also COVID-19. In Yanomami territory, there are more than 20,000 miners. Bossi stated that the invaders have given the coronavirus to the indigenous peoples.
Violent encounters can also take place between miners and the territory’s Indigenous inhabitants. Some of these incidents have been linked to the pandemic.
In the beginning of this year, there was a Wave of attacksYanomami villages were attacked in one attack by miners upset that the Indigenous communities had built barriers to keep outsiders at bay, in an attempt to stop the spread COVID-19. One assault Captured on cameraBoat-wielding miners shot at Yanomami village residents, causing women, children, and their families to flee.
“There has been illegal mining on Yanomami land since the beginning, but now it is a large part of our lives. It has had a variety of impacts on their lives,” Luis Ventura (a lay missionary working with CIMI, the Brazilian bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council) said.
Ventura stated that the miners are most likely to avoid the villages near the mining areas. However, the invaders are slowly displacing the villagers.
“They also feel its impact on their daily lives.” He explained that they can see the water is more turbid and that there are fewer fish.
Jnior Hkurari, a Yanomami worker in health, agreed.
“The water turned to mud. Even the great rivers have turned yellow. EarthBeat told him that it is now impossible to fish in many of the places we used to fish.”
A Yanomami man poses near an illegal gold mine located on Indigenous land, in the heart Brazil’s Amazon forest. (CNS/Reuters/Bruno Kelly)
Hekurari also stated that the invaders brought malaria along with them.
“They destroyed forests and brought the disease,” he stated, adding that up to 1,500 cases of malaria have been reported among Yanomamis in recent months.
He stated that “we see and hear helicopters and planes flying all day in our territory.” “They move tons and tons of materials every day.”
Two Yanomami children, aged 4 and 5, were playing along a riverbank in October. were killedThey were swept into the river’s swift current and deeper water by a mining dredge. Although the circumstances are not clear at this time, observers believe they were drawn into deeper water by a dredge’s suction tube.
“Yanomami children learn how to swim as soon they can walk. Those children knew how to swim. They were hit by a machine. Hekurari stated that it was not an accident. The case is still being investigated.
Hekurari is concerned about the effects of mercury on his people’s bodies. A recent studyThe Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, an agency for government health research, found that 60% of the Munduruku population in the state Par have mercury levels in their blood that exceeds the maximum recommended by World Health Organization.
Franciscan Sr. Laura Vicua Manso from the state of Rondnia is a member CIMI. He said that mining creates internal conflicts on indigenous territories. This pits anti-mining and promining members of the communities against one another.
She told EarthBeat that mining is always a source for conflict. “It also impacts the isolated indigenous groups.”
A miner poses with a shotgun in front of an illegal gold mine located in an area of the Amazon rainforest. Itaituba, Par state Brazil, September 5. (Newscom/Reuters/Lucas Landau)
Greenpeace’s de Aguiar stated that illegal mining has a far reaching impact beyond the areas where miners work. He also said that some successful miners invest their money into cattle ranches on the Amazon, leading to more deforestation as well as the emission of greenhouse gasses.
People living in communities within the mining areas don’t reap the benefits.
“The state of Par has been home to Itaituba for 50 years as a major center of mining. De Aguiar stated that if mining is to bring about progress, it should be comparable to London. “But it is not, it’s a rather impoverished city.”
The Pastoral Land Commission, the Mining Commission, and the Pastoral Land Commission are both church organizations that denounce illegal miners in Amazonia. They also work to promote economic alternatives.
“Due to the rising international price of gold, many traditional communities were transformed into mining communities. Bossi explained that they have been trying other forms of production to create good living conditions based on agroecology or local production.
The bishops’ Mining and Integral Ecology Commission, a joint campaign of the Jesuit Fr. and Bossi, has been raising awareness among those who buy gold about the impact of mining in the Amazon. Bossi, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese raised it during the Synod of Bishops of the Amazon region in Oct 2019, when they suggested that the church Stop using liturgical vessels of gold.
However, illegal mining in Amazon basin is unlikely end soon with the rising international price for gold. Even if it did, recovery will take time for the land that has been ravaged by mining. Scientists agree.
De Aguiar stated, “Decontamination can take a long time, even if mining is stopped today.”
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