Satellite images show how a lust for gold is damaging Brazil’s remote Amazon
Illegal gold mining activity has risen sharply over the last five years in Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami reservation in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, a Reuters review of exclusive data shows. The Yanomami are the largest of South America’s tribes that remain relatively isolated from the outside world. More than 26,700 people live within the reservation, which is the size of Portugal.
Reuters worked with Earthrise Media, a non-profit group that analyzes satellite imagery, to plot the expansion of the mines across the Yanomami reservation. An analysis of these sites revealed that the number of mines has grown 20-fold over the past five years. Collectively, the mining areas identified in the reservation cover an area roughly the size of over 1,000 soccer fields.
The miners are wildcat illegal prospectors looking for gold along two rivers, the Uraricoera and the Mucajai.
Although the mining is small in scale compared to mass logging and agriculture, it is devastating to the environment. Trees and local habitats are destroyed and high concentrations of mercury, used in the extraction process, are released into the local environment.
The mining poses a grave danger to the indigenous people. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2018 found that in some Yanomami villages, 92 percent of residents suffered from mercury poisoning, which can harm the organs and cause developmental problems in children.
The Yanomami have called the rainforest their home for thousands of years. In recent decades, illegal gold miners have brought malaria, measles and other illnesses fatal to the tribe.
In the 1970s, when Brazil’s military government bulldozed a highway through the rainforest north of the Amazon river, several Yanomami communities were wiped out by epidemics of flu and measles. A gold rush in their territory a decade later killed 20% of the tribe, some in skirmishes with armed miners, but mainly due to malaria, a preventable disease that had not existed before on the reservation.
Today, the coronavirus pandemic threatens the tribe. So far, five Yanomami have died of COVID-19 and there were 168 confirmed cases of infected tribe members through June 21, according to Rede de Pesquisadores Yanomami, a network of researchers, anthropologists and doctors working with the tribe.
“The main form of transmission of this deadly virus into our communities are the illegal miners,” said Dario Yawarioma, vice president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, in a telephone interview.
“There are so many of them. They arrive in helicopters, planes, boats and we have no way of knowing if they are ill with the coronavirus.”
Dario Yawarioma, Hutukara Yanomami Association
The virus is particularly dangerous for indigenous people such as the Yanomami, who live in large communal dwellings, with as many as 300 people under one roof. Sharing everything from food to utensils and hammocks, their collective lifestyle makes social distancing virtually impossible.
Yawarioma said the government’s indigenous affairs agency Funai and its health service Sesai have not visited the reservation. He said the Brazilian army has tried to stop miners going into the reservation but the miners return after the soldiers leave. Funai and Sesai did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Amazon’s riches
The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, is a delicate ecosystem that houses more than 10% of the world’s known biodiversity. However, the land beneath the pristine forest is considered to have great potential for mineral assets.
Gold has become a significant export from Brazil’s northernmost state of Roraima, according to government data. Yet there are no legally registered mining operations in Roraima. Most of the gold in the state is believed to be on the Yanomami reservation and is being extracted illegally. Much of it goes to India. Official statistics show that 486 kilos were exported to India from Roraima in 2019, up from 38 kilos in 2018.
Illegal gold prospectors have been emboldened by the election in 2018 of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to develop the Amazon economically and tap its mineral riches.
He has also said he wants to legalize wildcat mining, which Yawarioma says has encouraged more prospectors, known in Brazil as ‘garimpeiros,’ to encroach on the Yanomami territory.
Bolsonaro has said the Yanomami reserve, which at 9.6m hectares (24m acres) is twice the size of Switzerland, is too big for its indigenous population.
“President Bolsonaro is supporting mining projects in indigenous lands and since he said the ‘garimpeiros’ should be legalized their numbers have grown a lot and continue to grow,” the Yanomami leader said. Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Earthrise analysis of satellite imagery involved scouring images covering the entire reservation. Earthrise enlisted the help of dozens of people to get through the first initial screening.
Some of the extra eyes came from ninth grade students at Weston High School in Massachusetts. Retired NASA Astronaut Catherine Coleman initiated the student search with a recorded video, saying “We need your help”.
Three classes combed through the images using a purpose-built tool, focusing mainly on river systems. Earthrise then revised and refined the findings.
Water is a key element in the mining process, so the mines are concentrated along the reservation’s rivers that flow out to the Amazon River.
The main mining areas were identified along the Uraricoera, Mucajai, and to a lesser extent, Catrimani rivers. The mines appear as bright gold and turquoise patches on the satellite images, due to the exposed yellow earth and mercury-tainted ponds of wastewater.
An expanding footprint
The analysis documented the exact shape, size and location of the mines as well as the date they were first spotted on satellite imagery.
“The median size of the mines discovered was roughly the size of two football pitches. That seemed huge to me. Enough so that I went to double check. The numbers do, in fact, check out,” said Edward Boyda, co-founder of Earthrise. "The numbers point to a wave of mining that was in nascent stages around 2015 and dramatically expanded in the years following.”
The data shows that from 2015 and 2016 there were at least 10 mines in the Yanomami reservation, covering 0.25 square kilometers collectively.
However, images taken between 2017 and 2019 show the number of areas identified as mines had grown dramatically to 207 locations. The surface area mined or being mined grew 32-fold to about 8 square kilometers.
A destructive process
The creation of the Yanomami reservation was officially approved in 1992. Under Brazilian law, no mining is allowed on indigenous lands. But miners continue to exploit the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. Greenpeace said this week that its own satellite data analysis had found that 72% of all illegal wildcat mining in the Amazon was done in protected indigenous lands or conservation areas.
The mercury has become a growing cause for concern. While miners once killed the Yanomami with guns or disease - nearly 20 percent of the population was wiped out in the 1980s - today the threat is the toxic liquid metal used to separate gold from grit.
Experts believe mercury is entering the food chain through fish in polluted rivers.
Creating an amalgam
Miners take advantage of the reaction between gold and mercury to create an amalgam, separating the metals from other waste. Here’s how it’s done.
Separating the gold
A methane torch is enough to separate gold from mercury due to its much lower boiling point compared to gold. However, the gases that are released as a result of the process are highly toxic.
A United Nations report published last year said artisanal and small-scale gold mining accounted for up to 83% of South America’s mercury emissions in 2015.
Along the Uraricoera, a total of 64 mines were identified in the Earthrise review of satellite images. The distance from the furthest upstream to furthest downstream mine stretches across 210km of river, including the bends.On the Mucajai river and its tributary, 115 mines were identified across 110km of river. There were 28 further mines on the nearby Catrimani river, as well as by some unnamed streams in the area.
Before and after
Below, satellite images taken by Airbus show the damage along the Mucajai River between 2016 and 2019.
The Yanomami estimate that there are now more than 20,000 “garimpeiros” looking for gold along the Uraricoera and the Mucajai. They have implored the government to expel the miners from their reservation, and stepped up their demands since the spread of the coronavirus. The tribe has begun a campaign to draw attention to its plight, with the help of indigenous rights organization Survival International. The Miners Out COVID Out petition has gathered more than 280,000 signatures.
Brazil’s human rights committee has raised their case with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington.
Help might be on the way. A federal court on June 17 ordered Funai to reopen three protection outposts on the Yanomami reservation to help fight the coronavirus outbreak and halt the illegal gold mining. One of the posts is particularly vital because it is meant to monitor an uncontacted group of Yanomami.
Over the border in the Peruvian Amazon region of Madre de Dios, illegal gold mining has already destroyed hundreds of square kilometers of rainforest. Last year, the government installed three military bases to combat the mining.
Madre de Dios
Satellite imagery shows the staggering scale of environmental destruction from miners in Peru.
The Yanomami territory needs to be much more effectively monitored and all invaders removed if the Yanomami are to survive as a people, Survival International said. This would require “boots on the ground” to monitor and protect their land, and an end to impunity and derisory fines for those involved in the mining, it said in a statement.
“The Yanomami are extremely vulnerable at the moment, but they are also a resilient people who have survived the past 50 years. They can never sit back and relax. There is always someone wanting to get into their land,” said Fiona Watson, advocacy director at Survival International, who has worked with the tribe for three decades. “Their deep spiritual connection with the land, the mountains and the rivers makes them such fantastic conservationists and guardians of the rainforest.”
Earthrise Media; Maxar Technologies; Airbus; Rede Amazonica de Informacao Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG); GLAD (Global Land Analysis & Discovery); Survival International; Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM); HYDROSHEDS, Lehner, B., Verdin, K., Jarvis, A. (2008): New global hydrography derived from spaceborne elevation data. Eos, Transactions, AGU, 89(10): 93-94