MAC: Mines and Communities

The Weekend Essay: Brazil's Bolsonara threatens Amazonia in Niobium battle

Published by MAC on 2020-07-25
Source: Mongabay (2020-07-24)

Ango American potential mining beneficiary

The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonara, is yet again attempting to force Indigenous Amazonians off their territory, in the country's voracious acquisition of minerals, and using the sourge of Covid-19 as a pretext.

This time niobium is in his sights, and according to a new study by Mongabay, British company Anglo American may be persuaded to obtain "rights" to explore the rare and much-prized metal, although it's not currently "interested".

Niobium mining in Brazilian Amazon would cause significant forest loss: Study

by Taran Volckhausen

Mongabay

24 July 2020

* 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, hopefully 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, hopefully helping guide policy decisions to prevent
deforestation, pollution, the spread of disease and other problems.

Citation:

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.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If
you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the
page.

Niobium mining in Brazilian Amazon would cause significant forest loss:
Study

by Taran Volckhausen

https://news.mongabay.com/2020/07/niobium-mining-in-brazilian-amazon-would-cause-significant-forest-loss-study/

24 July 2020

  * 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, hopefully 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, hopefully helping guide policy decisions to prevent
deforestation, pollution, the spread of disease and other problems.

Citation:

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.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If
you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the
page.

Niobium mining in Brazilian Amazon would cause significant forest loss:
Study

by Taran Volckhausen

https://news.mongabay.com/2020/07/niobium-mining-in-brazilian-amazon-would-cause-significant-forest-loss-study/

24 July 2020

* 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, hopefully 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, hopefully helping guide policy decisions to prevent
deforestation, pollution, the spread of disease and other problems.

Citation:

Siqueira-Gay, J.,Sánchez, LE. Keep the Amazon niobium in the ground.
Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 111, September 2020.

 

 

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