Amazon mining threatens dozens of uncontacted Indigenous groups, study shows

  • A study published today in Global Environmental Change shows that the approval of Brazil’s Bill 191 allowing mining on Indigenous land could be detrimental to up to 43 uncontacted Indigenous groups.
  • Researchers also found that almost half of mining requests in the Brazilian Amazon registered through the National Mining Agency, a total of 3,600, were located in Indigenous territories with uncontacted groups.
  • The authors recommend scrapping the bill and increasing research on isolated Indigenous groups so they can be better protected. Still, a dossier published this week by the Uncontacted or Destroyed campaign shows the Bolsonaro administration is not protecting known uncontacted groups.

Mining interests in the Brazilian Amazon pose an imminent threat to Indigenous groups, a new study shows, causing “incalculable damage” for 43 isolated groups if a bill legalizing mining on Indigenous land is approved.

Championed by Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, Bill 191/2020 would allow mining companies to dig up Indigenous territories for minerals and other economic interests, violating the Indigenous right to exclusive use of their land and upending the ecosystem services provided by the protected forests.

“Indigenous lands with isolated groups are threatened by more than 3600 mining requests to date,” researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Global Environmental Change. “There is no guarantee of a safe coexistence between mining operations and isolated Indigenous peoples.”

Graph of mining on uncontested Indigenous lands
Relationship between the number of mining requests in indigenous lands and the number of isolated indigenous groups reported in these territories. The red area highlights the region with over 50 mining requests; the blue area highlights the region with 3 or more isolated groups; the purple area shows the region that met both conditions. Indigenous lands falling within the limits of any of these rectangles are labeled. Image courtesy of Villén-Pérez et al.

Cross-examining mining requests at the National Mining Agency with reports of uncontacted groups in Indigenous territories in the Amazon, researchers found that 45% of registered mining interests were located in Indigenous territories with isolated groups, totalling an area the size of Iceland.

“I can’t say it was a surprise, but I had not realised ten million hectares of Indigenous land was claimed by these mining requests,” Philip Fearnside, a head researcher at the National Institute for Amazonian Research and one of the authors of the study, told Mongabay. “It’s a critical time. A lot of these bills have been hanging around for years and are now accelerating through congress.”

The National Mining Agency (ANM) told Mongabay that they operate in rigorous accordance with the law, and therefore have not accepted any requests on Indigenous land thus far. “ANM will wait for the decision made by the National Congress, and only then will deal with the theme of the article,” they wrote in an email. “Indigenous lands and communities are respected and treated within the legal framework.”

Critics say that the agency should immediately reject the requests that overlap with Indigenous lands and that they are active in attracting more mining investment.

Threats against uncontacted Indigenous groups have escalated under Bolsonaro, who called for Indigenous people to be integrated into society. In February 2021, Bolsonaro featured the Indigenous mining bill in a list of 35 priority projects sent to Congress, according to documents revealed by Brazilian national media.

Uncontacted indigenous group in the Amazon photographed by authorities with the Brazilian Indian affairs agency FUNAI. Photo by Gleison Miranda-FUNAI.
Members of an isolated tribe in Brazil look at a plane in 2008. Image courtesy of Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival International ©.

Political battle ahead

Indigenous leaders have been pushing back. Thousands of Indigenous people took to the streets of the nation’s capital earlier this year to protest attacks on Indigenous rights in the Supreme Court and Congress. Joênia Wapichana, Brazil’s only Indigenous congresswoman, criticized the bill saying it is unconstitutional and threatens native peoples. “An approval of the bill would mean further environmental crimes and degradation that put the lives of Indigenous peoples at risk,” she said in January 2020. “Bill 191 practically attempts to rewrite article 176 of the Constitution — it’s absurd!”

In April 2021, 73 Munduruku leaders signed a letter protesting the proposed law. “Jair Bolsonaro’s government wants to approve the bill at any cost, at the expense of our territory, without our consent or consultation,” read the letter, supported by over 500 Munduruku Indigenous people representing 140 villages. “It’s a project of death, bringing division to our people.”

Nevertheless, fear that a Congress historically aligned with big agribusiness interests and Bolsonaro’s aggressive rhetoric could push the bill through is heightened. “We have another year of the Bolsonaro administration. There’s enough time to get it passed,” said Fearnside.

For Sara Villén-Pérez, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the University of Alcalá in Madrid, mining operations could be up and running in as little as eight years. “This is the first study to evaluate the near future for isolated groups,” she told Mongabay. “We evaluated what would happen if a very specific decision is made in congress and we show the impact for Indigenous peoples if the bill is approved.”

Graph of mining on uncontested Indigenous lands
Geographical distribution of indigenous lands in the Brazilian Legal Amazon, the number of isolated indigenous groups (A) and the number of mining requests (B). Indigenous lands with no isolated groups are in white in both maps. The Legal Amazon region is in gray. Indigenous lands with >3 isolated groups or >50 mining projects are labeled. Image courtesy of Villén-Pérez et al.

Uncontacted are the most vulnerable

Impacts from mining come in several forms: trees are cut down to make way for infrastructure, food resources are depleted due to the influx of industrial activity and toxic waste from mining contaminates rivers and kills fish. Illness can also spread through vectors like mosquitoes, carrying malaria to uncontacted groups who may be nearby and have limited antibodies for foreign diseases.

Deforestation in the rainforest is threatening the very survival of these hunter-gatherer groups. According to a study published by the Indigenous-led organization Land is Life, the destruction of the forest threats the survival of these hunter-gatherer groups, killing the plant and animal life that nomadic or semi-nomadic groups depend on to survive.

“Mining in Indigenous territories can be devastating, and given that the uncontacted are the most vulnerable people on the planet, it could wipe out whole peoples,” Sarah Shenker, head of Survival International’s Uncontacted Tribes campaign told Mongabay in a telephone interview. “For Bolsonaro, uncontacted tribes are an obstacle to what he calls development.”

Piripkura men Baita and Tamandua, photographed during an encounter with a FUNAI unit. The two men, who are uncle and nephew, have had sporadic interactions with the local FUNAI team, but returned to live in the forest. Image courtesy of Bruno Jorge ©.

The Uncontacted or Destroyed campaign, organized by Indigenous human rights organizations, published a dossier this week showing Brazilian authority’s disregard for an uncontacted group in the Piripkura Indigenous Reserve in Mato Grosso state. Without any real enforcement of a land protection order issued in September, farmers have invaded the reserve, released hoards of cows, and have not yet been removed.

The Yanomami Indigenous Reserve, in Roraima state further north, holds the highest number of mining requests documented by the study, with 1,020 requests, and protects at least seven uncontacted Indigenous groups. Less than 27,000 Yanomami live in the Portugal-sized reserve today, officially demarcated in 1992, but the territory has been invaded by an estimated 20,000 wildcat miners in the last two years, causing a surge in death of adults and children due to conflicts, mining accidents, and infectious diseases such as malaria and COVID-19.

In other Indigenous reserves analyzed by the study, there are so many requests that if they were to all be approved, 80% of the land would be occupied by mining operations. “There is not even a limit in relation to the area or proportion of land that can be exploited,” said Villén-Pérez.

Protection for isolated groups?

Bill 191/2020 states that Brazil’s National Indigenous Agency, FUNAI, should set limits to protect isolated groups against mining and that the activity should not be permitted in those Indigenous Reserves.

But the caveat is viewed with distrust. “I don’t think that there is any such legal safeguard, with this genocidal government and a FUNAI that has been taken over by agribusiness interests,” said Shenker.

The paper’s authors agree. “Bolsonaro’s interest is money. There is no concern about the impacts,” said Fearnside, adding that his administration has made it more difficult for FUNAI agents to collect information on isolated Indigenous groups.

“Little is known,” said Villén-Pérez. “Government agencies need to know about these Indigenous groups in order to protect them.”

Rita Piripkura, the only contacted member of the Piripkura tribe. Her brother and nephew, Baita and Tamandua, are known to still live inside the territory. Image courtesy of S. Shenker/ Survival International ©.


Banner image: A communal house in Moxihatatea, a community of uncontacted Yanomami seen from the air. There are several groups of uncontacted isolated Yanomami in the vast territory. Image © Guilherme Gnipper Trevisan/FUNAI/Hutukara.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here:

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