- A recent study found that large-scale niobium mining proposals, if carried out in the remote northwest portion of the Brazilian Amazon, would likely cause significant forest loss and threaten biodiversity and fragile ecosystems.
- The study comes as President Jair Bolsonaro pushes for an expansion of industrial mining on indigenous lands and his administration turns a blind eye to expanding illegal mining that is threatening indigenous communities in the northern Amazon.
- There are two known niobium deposits in the region, at Seis Lagos and at Santa Isabel do Rio Negro, located in the Rio Negro River basin. The Brazilian portion of the Rio Negro River basin is home to 23 Indigenous groups, including the Yanomami people, and holds vast tracts of undisturbed rainforest, rich in biodiversity.
- The recent niobium study offers an example of how science can be proactive in analyzing the environmental impact of infrastructure development well before it happens, potentially helping guide policy decisions to prevent deforestation, pollution, the spread of disease and other problems.
As President Jair Bolsonaro pushes for an expansion of industrial mining on indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon, a recent study found that proposals for large-scale mining in the remote northwest portion of the region could cause significant forest loss and threaten biodiversity and fragile ecosystems.
The study, titled “Keep the Amazon niobium in the ground,” focused on proposals to mine niobium deposits and rare earth minerals in the Pico Neblina National Park, overlapping the Balaio Indigenous land in the municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in Amazonas state.
Relatively uncommon worldwide, but abundant in Brazil, niobium — also known as columbium — is an important element used as an additive to steel products in industrial applications, including cars, airplanes, pipelines, spacecraft, nuclear weapons, and even piercings.
There are two known niobium deposits in the region, at Seis Lagos and at Santa Isabel do Rio Negro. Seis Lagos is a biological reserve that covers 36,900 hectares (91,181 acres) of primary rainforest, including an inselberg hill — an isolated rocky knob — and six lakes, each with different colored water due to differing dissolved minerals such as iron, manganese and niobium.
Between Seis Lagos and Santa Isabel do Rio Negro, sits the Pico da Neblina, Brazil’s highest peak at 2,995 meters (9,827 feet) above sea level. The niobium deposits are located within the Rio Negro River basin, the largest blackwater basin in the world. Twenty-three Indigenous groups, including the Yanomami people, live within the Brazilian portion of the Rio Negro basin.
Juliana Siqueira-Gay, a PhD candidate who led the study, told Mongabay that her research was intended to open a dialogue concerning Brazilian niobium mining proposals, an especially important discussion as the indigenous mining bill Bolsonaro introduced to Congress in February, 2020 edges toward possible passage.
Brazil holds 98% of the world’s niobium, with 75% of national production arising from privately-held Brazilian company CBMM in southern Minas Gerais state. Siquiera-Gay said that the CBMM mine has proven reserves covering about 200 years at current production levels, and there are more easily accessible exploitable reserves in other parts of the country, thereby weakening the economic argument for exploiting niobium deposits in the Amazon.
President Bolsonaro is particularly enamored with niobium, and considers it a strategic natural resource.
Niobium was first identified in the Seis Lagos region during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. The Geological Survey of Brazil (CPRM) under the Ministry of Mines and Energy surveyed the region again in 2019 for rare earth minerals.
How likely is niobium development in Amazonia?
“Whilst developing these mineral deposits goes against the economic rationale of matching supply and demand of commodities in international markets, it is conceivable that political will could build a narrative ‘demonstrating’ that opening up the region for mining is in the national interest, thus paving the way for subsidies and public investments in infrastructure that could have devastating consequences for biodiversity and indigenous peoples,” the study reports.
The researchers created four scenarios modeling how much deforestation would likely increase in the remote region depending on different levels of mining infrastructure and activity. The first three scenarios assumed that the country’s regulations would be changed to permit mining within conserved areas, or allow the redrawing of boundaries to facilitate resource exploitation.
“It was important to highlight not only mining’s direct environmental impact, but also other more widespread deforestation induced by road construction, settlement and increased human occupation in the area,” Siqueira-Gay said.
Ever since the construction of the Transamazon Highway in 1972, deforestation in the Amazon has been tightly interwoven with highway construction and infrastructure development. Siqueira-Gay observed that any mines dug would need to be supported with significant public investment in infrastructure including roads, transmission lines to provide energy and land for urban settlements.
One scenario explored improvements to existing roads as well as the construction of the planned BR-210 to connect the two mineral deposits. Another scenario imagined separate road infrastructure would be built for each deposit. Based on the findings of a 2017 study showing mining activity caused deforestation up to 70 kilometers away from mines, the Siquiera-Gay’s study predicts the area of impact from exploitation of both niobium deposits could reach up to 87,000 square kilometers (21,500,000 acres).
Professor Alberto Fonseca, an environmental assessment expert, did not participate in the study but was involved in the report’s peer-review process. Although he said he was unable to verify the exact numbers predicted by the various scenarios, Fonseca said the study is an “important piece to showcase what could happen if the government starts allowing mining within conservation units and indigenous lands and the implications for deforestation.”
“It’s difficult to know if her numbers are completely correct, but if anything, they could be an underestimation. Brazilian history tells us to wait two, three or four decades [after a project is first implemented] and we see the full impacts of mining on the forest,” Fonseca said.
Siquiera-Gay told Mongabay that two companies, AngloAmerican and Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM) have the potential capacity to exploit the Amazonas state niobium reserves, but there is no evidence either company is interested currently in working claims in the remote area.
Changing law to allow mining on indigenous land
Bolsonaro took office in 2018 having expressed a goal during his campaign to actively exploit the mineral and agricultural resources of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. A major component of this scheme included opening up Indigenous reserves to industrial mining exploration and production, as well as opening to extensive cattle ranching and agribusiness.
“From day one, Bolsonaro has signaled he would prioritize economic growth over any form of restraint or care for the environment and forest peoples,” said Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, a nonprofit that works to protect the rainforest and the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin.
In early February, the executive branch introduced a bill drafted by Minister of Mines and Energy Bento Albuquerque to the lower chamber of Congress that would open up protected indigenous reserves to mining, agribusiness, electricity production and tourism — activities that are currently prohibited under the state’s 1988 constitution — by eliminating the right to veto large-scale projects.
While the bancada ruralista agribusiness and mining lobby wields significant influence in Congress, the bill was placed on an indefinite hold on February, 18 by the President of the Chamber of Deputies Rodrigo Maia, who reportedly said, “I think it is not the right time for this debate.”
Although Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was caught on tape in March declaring that the COVID-19 pandemic offers a distraction during which the government could weaken environmental rules in the Amazon, the indigenous mining bill has not reappeared before Congress since Maia shelved discussions in February.
According to data from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and the National Mining Agency (ANM) reviewed by non-profit news organization Agência Pública, applications to mine on indigenous lands in the Amazon have increased by 91% percent since Bolsonaro took office in 2019.
“Scourge of illegal mining”
Amid an explosion of COVID-19 cases and deaths at the end April, the Bolsonaro government changed regulations that opened up nearly 10 million hectares (38,600 square miles) of Indigenous land — on reserves still not fully demarcated —to non-indigenous land people and land speculators. The measure has been challenged in court, and faces a bid for annulment by the state attorney general of Mato Grosso.
Amazonas state, where the niobium deposits are located, is also the state with the most threatened indigenous reserves — a total of 30 being eyed by land grabbers, landed estate owners, and oil and gas companies.
Poirier accused the Bolsonaro government of “basically encouraging a scourge of illegal mining that has destroyed the ability of Indigenous people to live in their territories.”
The Yanomami people are one of the worst affected to date by the Bolsonaro government’s aggressive resource development policies. The vast Yanomami Park territory is located in Roraima and Amazonas states along the Venezuelan border, and overlaps with the Pico da Neblina National Park and comes near the Santa Isabel do Rio Negro niobium deposits.
While Mongabay found little evidence of widespread illegal mining near the Seis Lagos Biological Reserve, the Yanomami and the Ye’kwana people are facing increasingly dire invasions by gold miners. Now suffering from a serious, ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, the Yanomami and the smaller Ye’kwana indigenous groups have demanded the Brazilian authorities remove an alleged 20,000 illegal gold miners from their lands to prevent the spread of the deadly pathogen, a plea to which the Brazilian courts have listened. In early July, a federal court ordered the Bolsonaro administration to formulate and implement a plan to remove the miners .
A new report by the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), an NGO, demonstrated that Covid-19 could infect up to 40% of the Yanomami who live near the illegal mining sites.
“We are following the spread of COVID-19 in our land and are very saddened by the first deaths of the Yanomami,” said Dario Kopenawa Yanomami, a young leader. “We will fight and resist. But we need support from the Brazilian people and people all over the world.”
The recent niobium study offers an example of how science can be proactive in analyzing infrastructure development well before it happens, potentially helping guide policy decisions to prevent deforestation, pollution, the spread of disease and other problems.
Siqueira-Gay, J.,Sánchez, LE. Keep the Amazon niobium in the ground. Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 111, September 2020.
Banner image: Pico da Neblina National Park, a potential niobium mining site in the Brazilian Amazon. Image courtesy of Força Aérea do Brasil (Brazilian Air Force) under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
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