A recent study published in Environmental Research Letters examined the effects of the newly proposed mining bill by Bolsonaro’s government whose goal is to legalize commercial mining in indigenous lands. One might wonder why we need a study to tell us that mining in indigenous lands is a bad idea, this is likely self-evident to most people who are reading this post. Unfortunately, the reason why a bill like this is politically viable is because of the relentless propaganda machine working on the side of the extractive industry. Combating misinformation, hate speech, and right-wing populism is a heavy, multidimensional task, and scientific research is a vital component in constructing effective rhetoric, strategy, and policy.

An alarming context

In recent years, Brazilian government institutions such as the National Indian Foundation, which is in charge of guaranteeing these rights, have been severely de-funded and their ability to do their job was hampered. The result is a sharp increase in mining, logging, and farming in numerous protected areas. This led to a spike in conflicts, an increase in violence against indigenous peoples, and environmental degradation: These factors weaken the ability of many indigenous groups to protect their land and place them in an increasingly vulnerable position. Keep in mind that indigenous peoples have legally recognized rights over more than a fifth of the Amazon biome, and numerous studies have shown that these rights have a positive impact on deforestation levels, which are much lower under the stewardship of the natives.

Xingu River, Photo : John Meisner

The bill violates international law

The next step of Bolsonaro’s crusade against the indigenous peoples is to attempt to directly dismantle the legal protections of indigenous lands by introducing a bill in Congress (Projeto de Lei – PL 191/2020). The bill sets conditions for mining in protected lands and stipulates that indigenous peoples should be compensated and consulted before the start of the activities, but gives them no veto power. This simply means that the extractive industry and the government can dictate their will on the indigenous populations. The bill is a direct violation of the Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations, which Brazil has signed, and which guarantees the right to free, prior, and informed consent, which allows indigenous communities to agree or reject a project that affects their livelihoods.

The researchers highlight the ‘intense socio-environmental impacts’ of gold mining in the Amazon, which are well understood: the direct environmental damage linked to the mining infrastructure; the toxic pollution of heavy metals which spreads through waterways, soil, and wildlife, and the spike in deforestation regularly extending far beyond the limits of the mining concessions. Goldminers introduce the ills of our society to unprepared indigenous communities: alcohol, drugs, and prostitution. Gold mining in this respect is even worse than logging because the gold mining camps are permanent whereas logging camps are seasonal. All of these factors are severely threatening the livelihood and identity of indigenous peoples who rely entirely on the health of the forest and the rivers for their food, their medicine, and their culture. It’s not surprising that well-organized indigenous communities are always opposed to the expansion of the extractive industries on their lands, as the mining poisons their food and their bodies and destroys the very foundation of their societies.

Chief Raoni Metuktire and Chief Yte-i, Photo: Martin Schoeller

“But we have also come to understand that there are two very different paths to money. One path is fast, easy money that leads inevitably, as we have witnessed, to the destruction of our territories and natural resources, infighting, poisoning of our rivers, degradation of our society, and condemnation of present and future generations to lives of poverty and dependence on the Kuben (non-indigenous people). This is the path proffered by gold mining, predatory fishing, and logging! Our other choice is to use the forest in the way our ancestors taught us which relies on territorial protection and empowerment of our people. This is the path to the future we chose. We are working hard to build our Kayapo owned enterprises of sustainably harvested non-timber forest products, handicrafts, and community-based tourism. We are demonstrating that we do not need to destroy our forests and rivers; nor sell our future, in order to gain access to the manufactured goods we have come to need. We, indigenous and traditional peoples of the Amazon, protect nature and will continue to do so.” – Cacique Raoni Metuktire

The industry wants the gold

Mining on indigenous lands is currently forbidden, but this doesn’t stop the issuing of mining requests by the industry, which is continuously lobbying for a change in the law. The first mining requests overlapping with indigenous lands date back to 1971. Today these mining requests cover a huge part of protected indigenous areas, and remain on Brazil’s National Mining Agency registry, waiting to be approved if the legislation allows it. The study lists all the indigenous lands that would be harshly affected by this new bill. In many cases, almost the entirety of the indigenous people’s territory would be affected. The study indicates that the Yudjá ethnic group is the potentially most affected by mining, with around 87% of territory overlapping with requested mining areas followed by the Kayapo with 58%. In terms of territorial size, the Kayapo have by far the highest area of mining requests in their territories, approximately 62.300 km2, most of which are for gold mining. You will find a table with the complete list of the affected ethnic groups and indigenous lands in section 2.2 of the study.

‘Until February 2020, no less than 2760 mining requests overlap indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon, covering a total area of ≈ 176.9 thousand km…When compared the total illegal mining area in indigenous lands verified between 2017 and 2019, the proposed new law has the potential to increase the mining area within indigenous lands by 305,728%.’ Ana C Rorato et al 2020 Environ. Res. Lett. 15 1040a3

Mining area, Photo: Unsplash

Between 2017 and 2019 there was a 161% increase in illegal mining on Kayapo indigenous lands, a total of around 35km2. In contrast with the total scale of Kayapo’s territory, which is around 100,000km2, this might seem like a small loss, but the trend is alarming. The only reason why this number isn’t already higher is because of the excellent organization of the Kayapo people who have been very successful at defending their vast territory despite the absence of government protection. Unfortunately, if this bill passes, it would open up their lands to legal mining and there is likely very little that they will be able to do to stop the destruction.

The authors of the study remind us of the effect that legalizing mining in indigenous lands has had in countries like the US, Canada, and Australia such as the establishment of new frontiers for urban development, displacement of indigenous peoples from their territories, demographic changes caused by the migration of foreign workers, increased exposure of indigenous peoples to diseases and a break in the social dynamics of these peoples.

How do we stop this?

I wish I could point to clear and simple action that would stop this proposed law and ensure the protection of the Amazon rainforest for decades to come. Unfortunately, such a solution does not exist. We need to act on several different fronts at the same time, and we need to do this urgently. Preserving the rainforest is not a matter of aesthetics or even compassion for indigenous peoples, it is fundamentally a matter of survival for all human civilization.

“What you do will change the whole world and destroy our home – and it will destroy your home too.” – Cacique Raoni Metuktire

We must fight against the extractivist rhetoric that presents destructive economic development as the panacea of ​​the economic problems facing both the indigenous peoples and the industrial society. In reality, mining on indigenous lands is disastrous for local communities, as the vast majority of the wealth extracted goes into the pockets of a small group of shareholders. At the same time, the natural resources that ensure the livelihoods of indigenous people are being stripped and destroyed forever. Furthermore, despite what the lobbyists try to make us believe, the destruction of primary forests is bad for the entire economy.. Of course, mining all that gold and turning it into trinkets would make money in the short term, but we can’t afford to be so short-sighted. What would Brazil’s huge agricultural sector do, if the rainforest was irreversibly destroyed, which would dry up the regional climate, a trend that we are already seeing. In the long run, Brazil as a whole is the first victim of the destruction of the Amazon biome, but the rest of the world will suffer as well, due to the major role in carbon sequestration and storage that the Amazon rainforest plays. There is no economy on a dead planet.

Photo: John Meisner

Chief Raoni recently led a coalition of several indigenous communities trying to bring Jair Bolsonaro to the International Criminal Court, accusing him of crimes against humanity for killing indigenous peoples and destroying their lands. We need to lobby our institutions. Our elected officials must effectively oppose Bolsonaro’s government by discrediting and sanctioning it. Many of us have understood that systematically boycotting products related to deforestation has a tangible impact. Let’s be vigilant and engaged consumers and citizens. Changing our personal habits and societal attitudes is crucial, but these solutions take time that we may not have.

We need to do all we can to protect the rainforest today, and the best way to do that is to directly support the indigenous peoples who are fighting to protect their lands day in and day out. The Kayapo Project is currently raising funds to do precisely that. We are trying to finance two new guard posts at the Iriri and Xingu rivers which are aimed at protecting Kayapo’s huge border from the ongoing invasion of miners and loggers. Follow the link below to learn more, and support the campaign in whichever way you can. Help us spread the word, help us defend the Amazon today.

Most of the time thinking about deforestation is depressing and discouraging. And while this article starts on a grim note, bear with me, by the end you will have more hope and you’ll be ready to take effective action today!

2019 & 2020: catastrophic years for the Amazon

Do you remember how bad the summer of 2019 was for the Amazon rainforest? The massive fires, the skyrocketing levels of deforestation, the denial and spiteful rhetoric by the Brazilian government… The reason why many people remember these forest fires is not just because they were particularly bad, the worst levels of deforestation since 2008, but because the media covered them in a manner that reflects the severity of the situation. Social media played a huge role in elevating the topic in the public consciousness and because of this, it was profitable for regular media to report on it. Of course, they did so in the usual, sensationalist manner, focusing on the spectacle and oversimplifying the root causes of the crisis by blaming one evil person, Bolsonaro. It’s not like he didn’t deserve all the criticism, but the systemic problems which lead to this, were as usual, ignored. Capitalism’s insatiable need for growth, consumerism’s destructive nature and the racism against indigenous peoples are not great topics for selling advertisements, therefor we can’t expect the media to discuss them.

Nevertheless, many people around the world realized that there is a major crisis going on in the Amazon. Millions prayed for rain and hoped for change. For a brief moment, many thought that this must be a turning point, that governments were going to take serious and urgent measures to halt deforestation, and that we’ll start moving towards a better future for tropical conservation. Unfortunately, thoughts, prayers, likes and retweets alone can’t do much to change the real world, unless they are backed by actions. The rain season finally came, and most people moved along. Bolsonaro continued his crusade against the territorial rights of indigenous people and gave green light for the illegal destruction of their forests. Capitalism continued to demand more meat, soy, gold and timber…

In the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, we saw many articles and images showing a slow down of environmental destruction and pollution, because of the lockdowns. Some hoped that this would slow down tropical deforestation, but the fires were about to sweep through the Amazon once again. During the dry season, humans start setting fires in order to clear up new land for grazing cows and plating soy. Last summer, we didn’t hear much about forest fires. Of course, environmental outlets reported on the situation, but there was no serious coverage by the mainstream media. While this may have led people to believe that the situation was not so severe, the reality on the ground was dire. Deforestation rates in the Amazon have increased by nearly 10% in comparison with 2019, which was already a catastrophic year for Earth’s most biodiverse forest ecosystem. An area of at least 11,000 km2 was destroyed. The panic of the pandemic and the fear of an economic crisis were ideal pretexts for uncontrolled devastation.

How can 2021 be any better?

Is 2021 going to be bad for the Amazon rainforest? Yes, most certainly. Deforestation rates have been unsustainable for decades, there is absolutely no reason to believe that things will magically change now. We saw that even during an economic recession in 2020, the destruction of the forest accelerated. Capitalism has one solution to everything : growth, and I don’t see this changing in the near future. Unless the world’s economy grinds to a halt, we know that the pressure on the forests will keep on increasing. Reversing this worsening trend seems to be an impossible challenge. Both climate change and forest degradation are making the Amazon more vulnerable to fires, which cascades into even more deforestation. A vicious cycle that is hard to slow down, let alone to stop. Furthermore, the looming economic crisis resulting from the pandemic is already being used as an excuse to slow down international efforts to combat climate change and deforestation. We know that the pandemic is not going to be the last major global crisis humanity is going to face in the coming decades. So is there any hope left for the future of the Amazon?

We don’t need to wait for the summer to put out a couple of angry tweets and share some depressing photos of burning trees and scorched animals. Instead of praying, hoping and gesturing, we have to do whatever we can in the present, in order to increase our chances of experiencing a brighter future. But can we, regular people, really do something to have a real impact?

Personal and systemic change

Living in the West and taking action against deforestation can appear as a very abstract thing to do. Generally, we think of two types of solutions. On a personal level, we can lower our consumption of goods related to Amazon deforestation. This can feel good, taking action is empowering, it appeases our consciousness and it’s certainly effective to some extent. Global markets respond to our demand, and less demand for beef and exotic timber will eventually translate into less deforestation. Taking political action can also be very effective, after all our politicians have the power to control the economic and diplomatic levers of our societies. Yet it’s hard to see how our small electoral victories at home can translate into effective action that will prevent the damage that is currently being done to the Amazon. It’s hard to feel satisfied with this type of action, when the news from the forest are often so grim. We are close to dangerous tipping points that could push forest degradation beyond our control. While we’re fighting to build up the environmental consciousness of our societies, while we’re waiting for the market to respond to our better consumer choices and while we’re lobbying our institutions to make effective structural changes, we must directly support the people who are on the ground defending the forest from the invasion of the industrial world. If we want to protect the tropical forests, if we want to avoid a complete disaster, supporting the rights of indigenous peoples is the most effective type of action that we could be taking today.

They give us hope

In South East Amazonia, right at the front-lines deforestation lays a huge area of pristine rainforest guarded by the Kayapo. Against all odds, these Indigenous Peoples have managed to secure, constitutionally recognized, territorial rights over an area of 100,000 km2. This land is three times the size of Belgium, bigger than Iceland or South Korea. Thanks to Kayapo’s social organization and warrior attitude, they have managed to preserve both their forest and their cultural identity. Partnering with international NGOs has allowed the them to control the unfathomably large border of their territory, despite the lack of support from the government. Studies have shown that deforestation, mining and grazing remain outside of their lands despite the massive exploitation around their borders. They have managed to protect their lands for decades, but that doesn’t mean that they will be able to do this forever on their own.

It’s time to act

The Brazilian government has turned its back on the indigenous peoples and is in fact painting their territorial rights as an unjust privilege that is hampering the economic development of the country. Currently, the Kayapo Project is trying to raise funds in order to strengthen the territorial integrity of the Kayapo land along the mighty rivers Xingu and Iriri. The Kayapo shouldn’t be alone in this fight. While they are trying to protect their land and culture, they are also protecting the future of all of humanity. Supporting this campaign is likely the N°1 thing that you could do in order to help protect this large piece of the Amazon forest in 2021.

There are two ways in which you can do this: support the campaign directly and/or help them spread the word. Sure, sharing on social media is great and it doesn’t take much effort, but let’s try to do something even more effective: old fashioned talking to people. You will find concise information about the Kayapo right on the fundraiser page, so soak it in and talk to a couple of friends or family about the importance of this forest. Talk to them about the incredible effectiveness and bravery of the Kayapo. Convince them to support the campaign and convince them to follow your example and talk to someone else they know. When we are organized and when we speak with courage we can achieve truly great things!

We need to act swiftly, once destroyed, the rainforest is not going to come back. The choices we make today will shape the world for thousands of years ahead. The Kayapo have made the choice to continue living in a way which is truly sustainable and enables the protection of this ancient ecosystem. Do we chose to support and fight for them?