This rhetoric has fueled the invasion of Flona de Altamira, which was already under mounting pressure from widespread clearing in the surrounding area, Fonseca said. Deforestation by miners, cattle ranchers and loggers has been particularly relentless in the Floresta Nacional do Jamanxim, which lies just southwest of it.

“We have a lot of pressure here,” said Fonseca. “This region is very, very critical because we already have a lot of deforestation around it.”

Meanwhile, rising tin prices gave a further incentive to miners this year, encouraging them to invade the mineral-rich Flona de Altamira. In March 2019, global tin prices hit their highest in more than a year, aided by a large expected deficit and rising demand for the metal, which is used in a variety of products ranging from cell phones to toothpaste. Tin prices have since fallen, with smaller spikes in September and December.

But unlike gold mining, extracting tin ore is less costly and difficult, making the activity particularly attractive to speculators, according to local sources. Illegal miners – many of whom are impoverished, illiterate men – have flocked to Flona de Altamira with the hopes of striking it rich.

Across the Brazilian Amazon, there are more than 450 illegal mines in the Brazilian Amazon, according to the Rede Amazónica de Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG), a consortium of civil society organizations. Thousands of illegal miners toil away at these sites, extracting resources like tin, gold and nickel.

“They see the Amazon as this huge place that must be exploited, that must be invaded,” said Danicley Aguiar, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil. “It’s a predatory economic model.”

Losing the battle

Authorities have been trying to combat illegal mining in Flona de Altamira for years – but the recent spike in activity signals they may be losing the war.

As budgets at environmental agencies have been slashed in recent years, the state’s presence in the region has been dramatically weakened. Ibama, ICMBio and Funai have been forced to reduce staff and shut posts in remote parts of Brazil, leaving illegal miners free to invade protected territories without fear of being detected.

Satellite images show clearing activity moving away from the main mining site and further into Flona de Altamira. Imagery from Planet Labs accessed through Global Forest Watch.

Environmental enforcement – already undermined by prior administrations – has further deteriorated under Bolsonaro’s watch. Fines for environmental crimes have plummeted since he assumed office to their lowest in a decade, and earlier this year the president stripped Ibama, the country’s main environment agency, of some of its powers.

Recently, Bolsonaro sent a further positive signal to miners and loggers when he personally stepped in to stop Ibama from destroying machinery seized during a raid on a protected territory in Roraima.

In Flona de Altamira, the reduced state presence has had a tangible impact. Environmental agents raided the protected area multiple times in 2016 and 2017, doling out fines and destroying equipment, sources said. Yet authorities stepped back from the area entirely in 2018 and returned this year only to find mining activity had surged back with renewed force.

Meanwhile, illegal miners have become bolder, as the Bolsonaro administration has signaled it may be on their side. In late October, they blocked several key highways in Pará and demanded that the government legalize their activity and stop enforcement agents from damaging mining equipment.

“When this type of rhetoric is put on the table, it’s only natural that garimpeiros will feel supported by the government in their activity,” Aguiar said. “It creates an expectation.” 

Lost forests, polluted rivers

In recent months, Flona de Altamira has also seen a surge of deforestation driven by clandestine road-building and illegal agricultural development, as cattle ranchers convert more forest to pastures.

By comparison, mining generally accounts for far less forest destruction – but it can leave a profound imprint on ecosystems and water resources. In Flona de Altamira, local sources point to the surge in mining activity as a key contributor to the stark deterioration in the water quality of Rio Aruri.

Amazonian manatees live in Flona de Altamira and are threatened with extinction. Photo by Dirk Meyer via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

While some tin ore can be found in ground rock, most easily accessible deposits are concentrated in streams and along river banks. When forest and topsoil are removed from shorelines for mineral extraction, soil and mining waste run unobstructed directly into the river when it rains.

Tin ore mines also use water from nearby rivers for hydraulic extraction and then dispose of the waste in mining ponds and tailings dams nearby. Research has linked highly toxic tin ore waste stored in tailings dams to dramatic pollution of soil, vegetation, surface water and groundwater.

In the case of gold mining, where mercury is often used in the extraction process, the impact on human and animal health can be devastating. Studies have linked exposure to the element to skin disease, infertility and birth defects. Mercury can also contaminate fish populations, travelling vast distances and amplifying in toxicity up the food chain.

The pollution entering Rio Aruri then flows further afield, contaminating other regions and communities. Notably, Rio Ariri connects with the larger Rio Jamanxim, an important river that winds through several protected areas, including Floresta Naciona de Itaituba and the Área de Proteção Ambiental do Jamanxim. A few kilometres upstream, Rio Jamanxim also flows into Rio Tapajós – a major tributary of the Amazon River.

Activists in the region also worry about the impact on neighboring protected areas, such as the Xipaya, Kuruayá and Bau indigenous territories. Across the Brazilian Amazon, some 18 indigenous territories have already been invaded by illegal miners, according to RAISG. “There’s huge pressure on indigenous lands from mining,” Aguiar said.

The region around Flona de Altamira is also home to river-dwelling and other traditional communities whose members harvest Brazil nuts within the forest. These communities often rely on the local rivers to fish and sustain their traditional lifestyles.

Conservationists and activists working in the area say the invasion of the region – and the pollution of the area’s water sources – can have detrimental impacts on the health and livelihoods of those dependent on the forest for survival.

“The problem is, when you contaminate the water, the impacts travel,” Aguiar said. “A mine has the power to impact thousands of people – it can affect generations.”



Banner image: Deforestation at an illegal cassiterite mining site in Flona de Altamira. Imagery from Planet Labs.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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