Amazon mining

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Open cast mining in the Amazonian rainforest. Guyana
© WWF-Canon / Roger LeGUEN

Extracting valuable minerals and a Pandora’s Box of problems

El Dorado may be the stuff of legends, but gold fever is leaving clear marks all over the region.
While Amazon mining may not cause deforestation on the same scale as logging and mass agriculture, it has a wide range of effects that can affect the environment in the vicinity of the mining site and downstream from extractive operations.

The Amazon is considered to have great potential for mineral assets, namely copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, manganese, iron ore and gold. As a result, governments are providing tax incentives for large-scale projects, in order to boost development. As extractive technologies improve, it is likely that the scale of Amazon mining will increase.

What are the impacts of mining?

Mining can impact the area’s water drainage, pollute water with run-off from the mine, and threaten local communities, including indigenous people, by affecting the quality of the food supply. Other effects include:
  • Deforestation: In the Carajas Mineral Province, Brazil, maybe the world’s largest copper reserve (iron ore, manganese and gold are already found there), wood from surrounding forest is cut for charcoal to fuel pig iron plants, resulting in annual deforestation of 6,100 km21.
  • Pollution: A notorious pollutant used in gold extraction is mercury. In the vicinity of gold extraction sites, it may be found in high concentrations in fish, affecting local populations. Mercury also ends up in the atmosphere, from where it returns to forests. For example, 90% of fish caught by rural villagers south of gold mining areas of the Tapajós River in Brazil were found to be contaminated with methyl mercury2. This chemical is dangerous for the nervous system as well as foetuses.
  • Encroachment on indigenous lands: When mining takes place in areas that are settled by indigenous people, clashes may occur. It has been reported that there are half a million gold prospectors (garimpeiros in Portuguese) working throughout the Amazon Basin in small operations. In Brazil’s state of Roraima, conflicts have flared up between the indigenous Yanomamo Indians and gold prospectors, and the government had to step in with military intervention to evict miners from Indian lands3.

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1Moran et al, 1994, in Kricher, 1997
2Velga et al, 1994 , in Kricher, 1997
3Brooke 1993, in Kricher, 1997

Next [Oil and gas extraction in the Amazon] >>

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Mark EDWARDS
Destruction of landscape due to Carajas mine Amazonia, Brazil
© WWF-Canon / Mark EDWARDS

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