How Gold Mining In Brazil Destroys Local Nature
When natural disasters like fires destroy forests, it’s always a tragedy. But for the Munduruku Indigenous People in the state of Pará, Brazil, it’s only a part of the problem. Their area of residence also suffers from illegal gold mining poisoning the water and causing deforestation.
As a result, locals fall sick because of the unsafe amount of mercury in the water they drink and the food they eat, and the deforested nature now requires decades to restore.
Aimed at preserving the planet by harnessing the power of satellite technologies, EOS Data Analytics, a global provider of AI-powered satellite imagery analytics, decided to help assess the scale of the problem by taking a look at it from space.
The New-Age El Dorado For Miners
Decades ago, Munduruku – just like many more indigenous people of Pará in the Tapajós region – were left mostly untouched by the civilization since it was hard to get to their areas of living.
That helped them survive and prosper by combining farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering activities in the tropical forests they’ve been populating.
To understand how certain Munduruku communities exist, imagine a tribe of 50-100 persons living in a village. A few dwellings, where only prepubescent boys and women reside, surround an area that is the center of social life for locals. Here, at leisure, men play karökö, sacred musical instruments, and then go to sleep in hammocks to their eksa, a huge wall-less lean-to facing eastward and observing the whole village.
In the past, some Munduruku moved their villages every decade because the belt of shrubbery growing around them would eventually become an excellent cover for vermin and enemy raiders. Today, the loggers and miners are the primary enemies of theirs and many other communities in Brazil. They destroy the land by building clandestine roads, airstrips, and camps for their infrastructure needs without considering the locals’ interests.
As of 2022, the Munduruku Indigenous Reserve is the second worst-affected territory occupied by illegal miners after the Kayapo Territory . In 2021, it was reported that the illegal mining there grew by 363% within only two years, seizing hundreds and hundreds of lands .
Also, because of gold mining, mercury leaks into water and contaminates the fish inhabiting it. Today, 99% of the Munduruku people are studied to have mercury levels above safe limits . Almost three of four suffer from neurological symptoms caused by contamination of the Tapajós river.
Mercury also penetrates the soil, which miners dig over during their work. Then, the sludge pollutes even the smallest waterways and, eventually, the whole local flora.
And while various institutions are studying the deforestation effect on the ground, EOS Data Analytics decided to estimate the size of the problem from space.
Studying The Mining Impact From Space
For the purpose of the research, the data from 2017 and 2022 collected using EOSDA Crop Monitoring, an online satellite-based precision agriculture platform, will be compared to see how the situation in the region of Itaituba, which is in the state of Pará, Brazil has changed since more miners came to the area.
In these images, the total area of 1,900 ha with 10 m resolution was compared based on the NDVI index of the soil. NDVI, or the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, reveals the density and the greenness of the vegetation in the area. Red spots represent areas where the land was deforested, and now there’s only bare soil.
In the second image, the lower right corner reveals the emergence of one of the mines in the region. For its functions, active deforestation has been taking place. Apart from that, the NDVI index helps spot and track new clandestine roads that had been formed throughout the region.
Comparing these two images, the EOSDA team calculated that over 66 hectares of the land had been deforested in the span of five years.
Now let’s take a look at what’s happening to the Tapajós river. Here the NDCI index, which reveals the amount of vegetation on the water surface, allows noticing the appearance of the algae.
Algal blooms usually appear around underwater stones. They bring harm to the water inhabitants and consumers by blocking sunlight and consuming oxygen needed for aquatic life to survive. In this case, the bloom is caused by wastewater discharge, a usual practice in the mining business, which nevertheless makes the problem even worse since such algae can release toxic chemicals contaminating the water even more.
New mines lead to deforestation and water poisoning, but what about existing mines?
In the screenshots above, the area around one of the mines is presented. The mine did not grow in size, but notice the consequences of its five years of operations: the amount of bare soil (red areas) had increased by 50 hectares. This obviously happens because of the contamination of the soil and the groundwater.
Satellite images show massive amounts of vegetation were destroyed, but this is just one of many areas in that region that we’ve studied. It’s heartbreaking to imagine the general situation with the Amazon forests; ruining these “lungs of the planet” will have a devastating effect on both the ecosystem of the region and the Earth as a whole.
The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
Gold mining will remain a very profitable business, especially during the crisis times humanity’s going through at the moment.
However, the problem can still be tackled in different ways.
One way is the legislative work of activists, petitions of people who care about the problem, and protests performed by locals. For instance, in 2021, Anglo American, a British mining company, had already been forced to withdraw 27 mining research permits . That became possible thanks to the sustained public pressure of the Munduruku people.
We have already learned once how indigenous people can take care of nature and follow the best resource sustainability practices to grow and prosper. The Munduruku people are an inspiring example of that as well. With EOSDA’s vision to make space tech a global driver of sustainability on Earth, we share their determination to improve the situation and ensure the local nature will stop suffering from the mining and logging industries.
Another way to get involved and fight against destruction caused by illegal gold mining is to partner with indigenous communities in Brazil: Society for Threatened Peoples Switzerland (STP), for one, has been strengthening indigenous communities in the Tapajós Region in Brazil for several years. The NGO STP supports local initiatives of the Munduruku and Tupinambá people to have their territories demarcated and their rights recognized.
It helps by facilitating workshops on political and legal knowledge and provides the necessary means for the communities to monitor their territory. STP also conducts research and does advocacy work, such as pushing Swiss and international gold businesses toward legally anchored human rights and environmental due diligence obligations with sanction mechanisms.
Furthermore, STP supports a project of the Brazilian partner organization ISA, which aims at providing Yanomami and Ye’kwana people an alternative to destructive gold mining by training them as cocoa producers and managers of other sustainable value chains out of forest products.
The situation is really dramatic, but what makes me continue is the stamina and strength of indigenous leaders who don’t give up despite the huge challenges they’re facing. Even if we can’t change the whole system yet, we can take small steps focused on positive impact.
Until there are people who care about the Earth and its nature, the fight for it is never over.
And we see that there are people — people of Munduruku — who are courageous enough to continue protecting their territories and talk about the problem. There are activists, volunteers, and institutions that care about nature and the fragile balance it needs to continue existing. And there are teams who create and utilize modern technologies like remote sensing and satellite imagery to assess such problems and seek unexpected ways of solving them.
It is an honor for EOSDA to be among so many people, teams, and organizations passionate about preserving the planet – the vision we’ve been dedicated to for years. With such support, there is no doubt Munduruku will eventually score a brighter and cleaner future for their people.
These environmental cases are created following EOSDA’s vision to make space tech a global driver of sustainability on Earth. If you wish to share a story that relates to this idea and believe our solutions can help develop it, pls contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author:
Vera Petryk is the Chief Marketing Officer at EOS Data Analytics, a global provider of AI-powered satellite imagery analytics.
She has a degree in marketing from the Netherlands Institute of Marketing, as well as a master’s degree from Kyiv Institute for Interpreters and Translators under the Ukrainian Science and Research center. She is in charge of marketing and PR for EOSDA and all of its products.
Her main goal is to put EOS Data Analytics among the world leaders of satellite monitoring companies, as well as to promote sustainable products that utilize cutting-edge infrastructure helping to preserve the Earth and bringing the benefits of space to all humanity.
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