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What’s the cost of illegal mining in Brazil’s Amazon? A new tool calculates it

An overflight view over illegal gold mining camps in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in April 2021. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

  • The launch of a gold mining impacts calculator this week — a joint project of the Federal Public Ministry and the Conservation Strategy Fund — marks a big step forward in combating illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon, experts and government agents say.
  • The new tool was able to estimate damages of $431 million caused by illegal mining in 2020 on the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve, where local leaders have reported several attacks in the past month by miners, following an influx of mining activities since 2019.
  • Since 2019, Brazil has exported $11 billion in gold, with Switzerland, Canada and the United Kingdom as the top importers; last year alone, these three countries imported $3.5 billion of the precious metal from Brazil.
  • Improving traceability is another important step to cracking down on the environmentally devasting illegal gold market, says Sérgio Leitão, an expert in the fight against illegal mining in Brazil.

Illegal gold mining caused an estimated $429 million (2.2 billion reais) in social and environmental damages on the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in Brazil’s Roraima state last year, according to a new impacts calculator launched this week by the Federal Public Ministry in partnership with the Conservation Strategy Fund Brazil (CSF-Brazil), the nonprofit organization responsible for the creation of the tool.

In a quick mockup, the calculator was able to estimate the cost of the damage caused by mining on 2,400 hectares (5,930 acres) of the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in 2020: $20 million (100 million reais) to recover the damages caused by deforestation; $83 million (425 million reais) for the rivers, including the cost to remove sediment and stabilize the riverbeds; and $215 million (1.1 billion reais) to at least partially deal with the extensive impacts of mercury, which can cause neurological problems and heart disease in people, and contaminate people, fish, and other wildlife.

The calculation, demonstrated in a test run by CSF-Brazil economist Leonardo Bakker, used data on deforestation and degradation provided by the nonprofit organization Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), taking into consideration the type and the size of the mining operation and its proximity to towns, among other factors. Public authorities may have to adjust parameters to reach an official figure, Bakker noted, but he estimates the extraction of 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of gold can cause an impact ranging from 940,000 to 2 million reais ($183,000-$390,000).

Illegal gold miners have occupied land that belong to Indigenous reserves. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

The new tool is a breakthrough in an otherwise messy and time-consuming task of putting a number on the extent of destruction caused by mining, according to federal prosecutors and environmental police agents who participated in the launch on June 9.

For agents working in enforcement, the launch of the calculator represents a leap in technology and standardization, and makes cases easier to prosecute. Until now, restitution values were calculated based on the price of gold on the global market, and largely omitted the on-the-ground damages caused by the activity, said federal prosecutor Pablo Barreto, the head of technical expertise, research and analysis at Brazil’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, at the online launch event. “We believe the tool will be paradigmatic in our work combating illegal mining in the Amazon,” he said. “We have left the realm of grunt work using inferior methodologies.”

Until last week, Brazilian authorities would not have been able to calculate this damage without an extensive investigation, said Gustavo Geiser, a criminal investigator at the Federal Police, much less in a matter of minutes or hours. “The huge amount of work coming in doesn’t allow us to develop a complex evaluation for each case, as there are simply too many. This means that some of our previous surveys have been more superficial than I would like,” he said, adding that the calculator could solve this problem. “This is a simple platform that even a new criminal investigator with less training will be able to use and reach the same figure as a more experienced agent.”

Illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon has grown to industrial scale. Heavy-duty machinery is used to extract gold from the soil, and small airplanes transport goods in and out of the forest. This photo from December 2020 shows the impact of gold mining in the Waikás region of the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

Since 2019, Brazil has exported $11 billion in gold, with Switzerland, Canada and the United Kingdom as the top importers. Just last year, the three countries imported $3.5 billion of the precious metal from Brazil. Meanwhile, illegal gold mining has exploded across the Brazilian Amazon, but systemic impunity, corruption and bureaucracy has prevented efforts to curb the trend, authorities say. More than a third of Brazil’s gold — an estimated 35 tons out of every 100 tons produced — comes from clandestine origins, according to Agência Publica, a Brazilian investigative news outlet.

Violence in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve has escalated since May 10, with reports of miners opening fire on and intimidating Indigenous villagers along the illegal mining routes. A week later, a court ruling ordered federal forces to enforce the area and remove all illegal mining operations by June 6, under a daily fine of 1 million reais ($195,000). The government presented a schedule within the established timeframe, but managed to extend the deadline for on-the-ground removal, the Federal Public Ministry in Roraima told Mongabay.

On June 7, the Yanomami Hutukara Association reported yet another attack, claiming that miners threw gas bombs at Indigenous people and threatened security guards. The Federal Police told Mongabay that it had received the report, but could not confirm the attack or provide details.

“We have been suffering with the presence of illegal miners in the Yanomami reserve for almost six years,” Dario Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader, told regional news agency Amazonia Real. “Our local leaders were threatened. Our land was totally invaded. Many of our relatives, our elders, have died. People from cities want to make money without thinking about the risks to people’s lives. This gold rush urgently needs to end, so that our people don’t end first.”

In May and June 2021, Brazilian federal authorities flew into the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve to investigate attacks by illegal miners on Indigenous villagers and shut down their mining sites, following multiple reports. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Army.

While fewer than 27,000 Yanomami live on the reserve, officially demarcated by the Brazilian government in 1992, their land has been invaded by more than 20,000 wildcat miners in the last two years, according to Roraima state’s federal police estimates, coinciding with the start of the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro and an increase in the price of gold on the global market.

According to Ana Carolina Haliuc Bragança, a federal prosecutor in the state of Amazonas, the new tool can help in bringing criminal investigations closer to the people at the top by holding them responsible for damages caused by illegal mining in the Amazon. “It’s naive to think we can criminally charge 25,000 wildcat miners working on the ground. We are not going to arrest 25,000 people,” she said during the public online event. “We need to go a step further and look at the gold supply chain as well as the legal loopholes that make it easy for this gold to seep into the legal gold market.”

Sérgio Leitão, a leading expert on combating illegal mining and the president of Instituto Escolhas, a nonprofit focused on sustainable development, echoed the urgency of targeting the people at the top. “We need to be charging the owners of the mining companies. The people on the ground simply do not have the capital to set up the machines used today in gold mining. They are informal workers,” he told Mongabay. “When you punish the right people, you allow the discussion to go in the right direction.”

To effectively combat illegal gold mining in the Amazon, he also called for improving traceability to track the origin of every ounce of gold, “before it reaches the international banks or the jeweler on the corner selling wedding bands.”

An overflight view over the Yanomami reserve in April 2021. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

Banner image: Illegal gold mining camps in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve in April 2021. Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

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