The Brazilian Amazon’s Trombetas River is well known for its exceptional biodiversity, including nesting turtles. In 1979, to protect flora and fauna there, the REBIO Trombetas was founded; it’s a highly restrictive form of conservation unit where today only very limited economic activity is permitted.The two traditional communities inside the reserve — the Último Quilombo and Nova Esperança Quilombo (Afro-Brazilian communities of runaway slave descendants) — complain that the government has unfairly penalized them for conducting forest and river livelihoods including Brazil nut collecting and fishing.Local residents also contend that while they’re fined for such minor infractions, MRN, the world’s fourth largest bauxite mining company, located near the REBIO, has done extensive ecological damage due to ore ship traffic and water pollution, which severely impacts turtle populations.In fact, MRN’s mines, ore processing and bauxite waste lagoons are located inside the Saracá-Taquera National Forest, a protected area known as a FLONA, on the Trombetas River. MRN has been fined often for its environmental violations there, fines it has appealed and not yet paid; the firm says it’s operating within the law. This story is the third in a series reporting on the legacy, current status and likely future of bauxite mining in the Trombetas river basin and Amazon delta. Journalist Sue Branford and filmmaker Thaís Borges journeyed there in February, 2020. Their investigation of aluminum production is especially relevant now, as Brazil’s Bolsonaro administration pushes to open the Amazon’s indigenous reserves and other protected areas to large-scale industrial mining. ORIXIMINÁ, Pará state, Brazil — As the dry season gets underway in July, the water levels in most Amazon basin rivers fall. As river beaches are exposed, millions of river turtles begin creeping ashore in an eons-old ritual to lay their eggs, burying them in sand dunes flooded half the year. Among these far traveling chelonians are the Giant South American turtle (Podocnemis expansa). One of the world’s largest freshwater turtles; it can grow to 90 centimeters (nearly three feet) in length, and weigh up to 65 kilograms (145 pounds). “Amazon turtles cover long distances between the basins of the big rivers in the Amazon basin. They migrate in groups and, guided by the adult females, they tend to follow the same route each year between the feeding areas and the spawning areas,” biologist Virginia Bernardes of the Institute of Ecological Research (IPÊ) told Mongabay. One place they particularly thrive, and a prime spawning spot, is found on the flat dunes along the Trombetas River. Many mating turtles head for Erepecu, an immense lagoon that opens along the left-hand river bank. Between the months of September and November, the Giant South American turtle and other species, such as Yellow-spotted river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) and the Six-tubercled Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata), arrive and nest. They lay between 15 and 130 eggs on average, depending on species. The period of egg incubation and the hatching is a dangerous time for young turtles. Countless predators — vultures, other birds, lizards, caimans, frogs and varied small mammals — dig up the nests, or are ready to pounce on the small turtles as they break out of their shells, claw to the surface, then scuttle to the river where they find some refuge. The assistance of traditional communities has been vital to the success of turtle conservation programs in the Trombetas River basin. Image courtesy of ICMBio. People, too, are a threat; turtle meat has long been prized in the Amazon. Eighteenth and 19th century traveller accounts tell us that turtle meat and eggs, common in the indigenous diet, became highly prized among colonists. The eggs were even used in the making of streetlamp oil. The wild turtle trade was banned in 1967, though it has continued clandestinely. However, according to Bernardes, changes in habitat are just as much of a threat as poaching. “The construction of physical barriers like hydroelectric dams, the heavy traffic of large ships, the dredging of deep channels in the river, the pollution of creeks or tributaries, all this severely affects the turtle population,” she said. In 1979, the Brazilian government moved to protect flora and fauna here, including the turtles, and set up the Trombetas Biological Reserve (REBIO Trombetas), a highly restrictive form of conservation unit, where at first virtually no economic activity was permitted. The area selected, covering 385,000 hectares (1,486 square miles) on the left bank of the Trombetas River, was not, however, uninhabited, for it included two communities of quilombolas — Afro-Brazilians, many of them descendants of runaway slaves. The creation of the REBIO Trombetas in an area occupied by those two traditional communities (the Último Quilombo do Erepecu and Quilombo de Nova Esperança) has created complications and ongoing conflicts that have rippled down through the years to the present day.