Bolsonaro to open up indigenous lands to miners

. Sep 28, 2020
bolsonaro amazon mining Amazon indigenous family living on floating wooden house. Photo: CYSUN/Shutterstock

On Monday afternoon, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro launched the Mining and Development Program, which, among other things, intends to regulate mining activities on protected indigenous lands. 

Drawn up by the Mines and Energy Ministry, the plan includes 108 targets and guidelines to be implemented over the next three years. While also including provisions for mining in border areas and fast-tracking licenses, the possibility of allowing mining in indigenous territories is by far the most controversial aspect of the program.

</p> <p>Jair Bolsonaro has had his eye on exploiting indigenous lands ever since taking office as president. &#8220;Whatever we can do for you to have autonomy over your geographical perimeters, we will do,&#8221; said Mr. Bolsonaro in April last year, after a meeting with indigenous leaders. &#8220;In [the state of] Roraima, there are BRL 3 trillion [USD 500 billion] under the ground. And Indians have the right to explore this rationally. Indians cannot keep being poor on top of rich land,&#8221; he added.</p> <p>In February, Mr. Bolsonaro submitted a bill regulating the exploitation of mineral, water, and organic resources on indigenous reservations. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia set up a special committee to discuss the matter, but debates were brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic.&nbsp;</p> <p>President Bolsonaro&#8217;s plan will face significant opposition. The Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) demands that indigenous communities be consulted before new rules are decided upon. The Federal Prosecution Service agrees, recommending to the government that &#8220;surveys and extraction of mineral resources on indigenous lands should only be allowed with authorization from Congress, consulting the affected communities and guaranteeing them a share in the mining profits.&#8221;</p> <h2>The real impacts of mining on indigenous lands</h2> <p>A <a href="">study published</a> in scientific journal One Earth on September 18 concludes that allowing mining to go ahead in these new lands could impact 863,000 square kilometers of forests in Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">Legal Amazon</a> — 20 percent more than under current rules — and also losses of up to USD 5 billion with the ecosystemic benefits these territories provide, such as regulating rains, reducing carbon emissions, and producing food. The paper is authored by researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP), Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and the University of Queensland in Australia.&nbsp;</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="750" height="580" src="" alt="mining indigenous lands" class="wp-image-50412" srcset=" 750w, 300w, 610w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 750px) 100vw, 750px" /><figcaption>Sources: Forest cover (PRODES, 2018); Indigenous lands (FUNAI, 2020); Conservation units (MMA, 2020)</figcaption></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>As the researchers point out, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s original proposal does not include any environmental or social safeguards and dismisses the need for studies on the impact of setting up new mines.</p> <p>When setting up a mine in the Amazon, all vegetation in a 70 kilometer radius must be <a href="">deforested</a>. &#8220;The impacts are direct — when they are related to the facilities required for the activity — and indirect, when we consider the structure needed for access, transport, and provision of services, among other things,&#8221; explained Britaldo Soares-Filho, head of the Remote Sensory Center of the Geoscience Institute at UFMG, in a university publication. His team assessed economic losses based on the value of four ecosystemic benefits provided by preserved Amazon forests: production of foods, such as Brazil nuts, of raw materials, such as wood and rubber, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and climate regulation.</p> <p>While they considered the true value of these services to be unmeasurable, the UFMG researchers <a href="">were able to assign them a price</a> by using their own methodology. &#8220;The change in rainfall, for instance, affects the generation of hydroelectric energy. If you deforest vegetation, rainfall decreases. And the losses depend on the location of each destroyed part of the forest,&#8221; Mr. Soares-Filho affirmed. He noted that agribusiness also depends on the rain cycles controlled by the forest, and that deforestation causes a drop in productivity and profitability for producers, particularly those who deal in soybeans and cattle.&nbsp;</p> <p>Stopping deforestation is seen as the cheapest way to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases that are destroying the planet&#8217;s ozone layer, in comparison to reducing the number of cars on the world&#8217;s roads. “This is a part of our calculation. Brazil isn&#8217;t doing its part in the Paris Agreement, which makes the situation worse as we are losing funds for environmental conservation and development,&#8221; said Mr. Soares-Filho.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3866348" data-url="" aria-label=""><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Who&#8217;s really benefiting?</h2> <p>He also pointed out that the federal government&#8217;s mining plan is unlikely to be a success, as it will struggle to attract major players, increasingly worried about the risks to their reputation involved with setting up in the Amazon. &#8220;Even these companies are weighing up the benefits of going into business like this. Global investment funds have refused to encourage environmental degradation.”</p> <p>In fact, Mr. Soares-Filho believes that the new rules — if approved — will work to benefit <a href="">landgrabbers and illegal wildcat miners</a>, which do not provide any financial returns to the affected communities. &#8220;The bill does not have the capacity to develop mining and it scares off capital and threatens indigenous lands, which are sanctuaries of social and biodiversity. In other words, the plan doesn&#8217;t make economic, environmental, nor strategic sense.&#8221;

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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