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.