Floresta Nacional de Altamira (Flona de Altamira) spans some 724,965 hectares in the state of Pará, and is home to a rich diversity of plants and animals, including several species threatened with extinction.Recently, an influx of illegal mining has led to rampant deforestation and the sullying of rivers. The miners are targeting the mineral cassiterite, the main ore of tin. Illegal ranching and road construction are also causing deforestation in Flona de Altamira.The government intervened earlier this year to put a stop to the mining, but satellite imagery shows deforestation around mining sites has picked back up since October.Conservationists and activists worry the rhetoric and policy changes of the Bolsonaro administration are encouraging the invasions of Flona de Altamira and other protected areas that provide important refuges for Brazil’s wildlife and indigenous communities. The damage only became clear once the rain stopped and the clouds parted over Altamira National Forest in northern Brazil. Instead of dense jungle, large patches of bare land now flanked the banks of the rivers snaking through this protected stretch of the Amazon rainforest. “When we got a clean satellite image, we just saw devastation,” said one source at a government environmental agency, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. “We never saw anything like that in Altamira.” Floresta Nacional de Altamira (Flona de Altamira) spans some 724,965 hectares in the northern state of Pará, with the bulk of the territory stretching across the municipality of Altamira. It is home to a rich diversity of plants and animals, including several species threatened with extinction such as the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) and the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis). The area was once a hallmark of sustainable forestry, in a region of the Brazilian Amazon where haphazard clearing and illegal deforestation are the norm. Under federal protection since 1998, Flona de Altamira holds a status that only allows regulated activities like licensed logging. Over the years, it became home to the largest area of forest concessions in the country. The goal was to boost the local economy, while minimizing the impact on biodiversity. “It used to be our example of how things could work here, how we could create jobs, how we could use the Amazon rainforest in a sustainable way,” the government agent said. “And then everything fell apart.” Escalating deforestation Satellite data and imagery from the University of Maryland (UMD) show illegal deforestation has surged in Flona de Altamira over the past year, with local sources pointing to illegal mines, known as garimpos, as the key culprit in most of the protected area. Satellite date from the University of Maryland indicate Flona de Altamira lost more tree cover in 2019 than during the previous 18 years combined. Mining is the major driver of deforestation in most of the protected area, with the exception of the southern portion where illegal clearing for ranching is intensifying. Source: Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA, accessed through Global Forest Watch. About 300 hectares were deforested between January and October 2019 just for mining, according to Thaise Rodrigues, a remote sensing specialist with Rede Xingu+, a network of environmental and indigenous groups working in the Xingu Basin. This represents an increase of 85 percent over the prior year, Rede Xingu+ data show. Part of the pressure has come from a large clearing in its western frontier of the territory, “where a clandestine airstrip was built between May and June 2019,” Rodrigues noted. Miners – or garimpeiros – often carve out makeshift airstrips deep in the Amazon, allowing supplies and equipment to be flown into densely forested areas by plane. Many also come with heavy machinery, including excavators, that can clear large chunks of forest easily. Local sources say most of the miners invading Flona de Altamira are scouring for the mineral cassiterite, the main ore of tin. Gold miners, cattle ranchers and loggers in search of valuable tree varieties are also present in the area. Some of the invaders have also been carving out clandestine roads to help with the transport of minerals and timber out of the forest. Cassiterite mining in Flona de Altamira. Photo courtesy of Daniel Paranayba/Rede Xingu + Authorities first detected the increase in mining activity in April, the government source said. But, faced with dwindling resources and a surge in forest clearing across the Amazon this year, federal agents only made their first raid on the area in late August. They destroyed some of the mining equipment and handed out fines – but, by that point, extensive and irreversible damage had already been done, according to the enforcement source. Yet, following this initial crackdown, the forest clearing in Flona de Altamira resumed with force, with UMD data and imagery from Planet Labs showing a particularly dramatic increase in deforestation at several mining sites between October and November. This prompted authorities to go back twice more in November and December. Flona de Altamira’s major sites of active mining (circled in red) show ongoing deforestation. Imagery from Planet Labs accessed through Global Forest Watch. “Now that we have a government that is way more hostile to the environment, the garimpeiros feel more powerful, they feel they can be successful,” said the enforcement source. Mounting pressure Like in much of Brazil, the mining fever gripping Flona de Altamira has its roots in the broader development of the Amazon region in the 1970s and 1980s. The construction of the BR-163, a behemoth highway stretching thousands of kilometers from the south of Brazil through the heart of the Amazon Basin, served as a catalyst: the eventual paving of the road in the 1990s brought a flood of people scouring the unexplored region for gold and other minerals. “All of the deforestation started when we created a road,” said Antônio Victor Fonseca, an environmental engineer and researcher at Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (Imazon). “So the government had this idea that we need to protect this area or we will lose all the forest here.” The Flona de Altamira protected area was formed mostly to guard against such encroachment. The territory was also seen by Funai, the federal agency responsible for protecting the interests of indigenous people, as a crucial buffer for the neighboring Xipaya and Kuruayá indigenous lands. But now, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is sending much more encouraging signals to invaders – and local sources say this is emboldening illegal miners. The controversial new leader has been sharply critical of land protections, casting them as an “obstacle” to development and mining. Bolsonaro – who has his own history of illegal mining in the Amazon – has also repeatedly vowed not to demarcate a centimeter of additional land for indigenous people. Currently, his administration is pushing forward a bill that would permit mining on indigenous land. The president also supports reducing the boundaries of some protected areas and opening up the 4.6-million hectare Renca reserve to miners, a move that his predecessor Michel Temer abandoned following an international outcry and a federal court ruling. “The interest in the Amazon isn’t in the Indian or the [expletive] tree – it’s in the mining,” Bolsonaro said in an impromptu speech to miners in October, referring to foreign investment interest.