An epidemic of illegal gold mining is threatening indigenous territories and other protected lands within the Amazon rainforest, according to a study published by environmental organization Minería Ilegal. Brazil’s recent election could represent a serious setback, as President-elect Jair Bolsonaro has promised to expand more commercial activity in the Amazon.
Known as garimpo in Brazil, mining for gold and other materials in the Amazon forest and its rivers has been an issue for decades. “The situation can readily be described as a ‘collective action’ issue. There are those individuals and corporations who would like to make economic gains by hacking at the forest and digging out the minerals,” said Dr. John B. Hall, professor of economics and international studies at Portland State, as well as an expert in the Amazon River and Basin. “The magnificent and seemingly endless floresta covering this massive basin plays a key role in holding in moisture that helps to stabilize the weather for the rest of the planet.”
With data from six Amazon countries, researchers were able to identify 2,312 illegal mining sites and 245 large-scale areas. In these areas, miners have created an infrastructure of tearing down native forests and contaminating rivers with mercury as they search for gold and extract diamonds.
“The problem is worse than at any other time in history,” said Alicia Rolla, one of the coordinators at the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), which published their report Looted Amazon on Dec. 10. “We wanted to give visibility to the enormity of an issue that doesn’t respect borders.”
Bolsonaro, who takes office January 1, 2019, has pledged to defund both the Institute for Biodiversity and the Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, government agencies which monitor and enforce regulations. Additionally, he has chosen Ricardo de Aquino Salles—a lawyer accused by a public prosecutor of illegally tampering with environmental impact maps while acting as the environmental secretary for the state of São Paulo—to fill the role of environment minister.
Though Bolsonaro stepped back from eliminating the country’s Environment Ministry and pulling out of the Paris Agreement, post-election Brazil withdrew from hosting the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Summit.
Illegal logging and land invasions in the Brazilian Amazon has increased as Bolsonaro gained a lead before his election in October. Between the months of August 2017 and July 2018, deforestation in the Amazon rose 13.7 percent, the highest increase in a decade according to Brazil’s Environment Ministry.
“The problem isn’t just deforestation and pollution, there is a serious social element that includes disease, prostitution and displacement,” Rolla said. “What we need is more monitoring, not less…And I fear the opposite is going to happen.”