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amazonas : illegal mining : river pollution

Gold mining and oil transport pollute Amazonian rivers

Not only are fires negatively affecting the Amazon, which is undergoing an accelerated reduction in forest cover, but increased activity, driven by deforestation itself - which in turn encourages illegal mining and more fuel transport - is increasing pollution of the Amazon River and other waterways in the countries that make up the region. The use of mercury in gold mining is an additional serious problem for the communities living in the basin.

Sunset on the Amazon River in Brazil [Pixabay].

Sunset on the Amazon River, Brazil [Pixabay].

article / Ramón Barba

Increased illegal mining in the Amazon region, in countries such as Colombia and Peru and especially in Venezuela, has increased river pollution throughout the basin. Pollution is also aggravated by the transport of oil, which generates oil spills, and by the discharge of wastewater linked to increased human activity, which in turn is linked to increasing deforestation.

Illegal mining has spread especially in the last two decades, linked to the increase in the price of minerals. Despite the general fall in the price of raw materials since 2014, the price of gold has remained high in the case of gold, as it is a safe haven that has withstood the global economic slowdown. Gold mining requires the use of mercury to extract and separate gold from the rocks or stones in which it is found. Illegal mining activity is estimated to dump an average of 24 kilos of mercury per square kilometre. As the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty Organisation (ACTO) points out in its report Analysis of the Regional Transboundary Diagnosis of the Amazon Basin 2018 report, it is estimated that the Brazilian Amazon alone received 2,300 tonnes of mercury until 1994 and then has recorded volumes of around 150 tonnes per year.

ACTO indicates that mining is located especially in the Guiana Shield, in the Andean areas of Peru and Bolivia, and in the Colombian foothills. Information gathered by this organisation estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 people are involved in this activity in Colombia and Peru, a figure that doubles in the case of Brazil.

For its part, the network Amazónica de Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG), in its study La Amazonía Saqueada (The Plundered Amazon), published at the end of 2018, notes that the area in which illegal mining occurs "is increasing", especially in Venezuela, where "reports change drastically from year to year". The RAISG computes 2,312 points in the Amazon region where illegal mining activity is taking place, of which 1,899 are in Venezuela.

According to RAISG's report , mining exploitation gives a double function to rivers, as they are used for the introduction of machinery and for the disposal of minerals. This has serious environmental effects (soil erosion, contamination of water and hydrological resources, extinction of aquatic flora and fauna, atmospheric impacts...), as well as serious consequences for the health of indigenous peoples, as mercury contamination of rivers affects fish and other living beings that move in the river environment. Given that the main per diem expenses of indigenous peoples is fish, the ingestion of high levels of mercury ends up damaging the health of the populations (cases of loss of vision, heart disease, damage to the central nervous, cognitive or motor system, among others).

Another aspect of mining activity is that it tends to lead to land grabbing and incursion into protected natural areas in the Amazon, increasing deforestation and reducing biodiversity. The Tapajós and Xingú areas in Brazil, along with the Guiana Shield, are the areas most affected by deforestation, according to RAISG. Taking up previous programs of study , this organisation indicates that deforestation due to gold mining has accelerated in the last twenty years, from 377 km2 deforestation between 2001-2007, to 1,303 km2 deforestation between 2007-2013. In Peru, the case of department Madre de Dios stands out, where 1,320 hectares were deforested between 2017 and 2018.

Other causes of pollution

In addition to illegal mining, other processes also pollute rivers, such as hydrocarbon extraction activities, wastewater dumping and river transport, as warned by ACTO, an organisation that brings together the eight countries with territory in the Amazon region: Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Hydrocarbon pollution. The status affects the five countries to the west of the Basin (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Guyana and Brazil), with Bolivia being a potential candidate as it has large untapped gas reserves in the area. Pollution in this case comes from the transport of oil by river from the extraction points to the refineries. This has important environmental and socio-economic consequences, such as soil degradation and air pollution, which also implies loss of flora and fauna, as well as hydro-biological resources, affecting biodiversity and species migration. In the socio-economic field, these problems translate into increased operational costs, the displacement of indigenous people, an increase in diseases and the emergence of conflicts.

Pollution from domestic, commercial and industrial wastewater. Despite the large amount of water available in the countries of the Amazon Basin, the level of sanitation does not exceed 60%. As a consequence, rivers become vectors of disease in many rural communities, as sanitation is poorer there. data not up to date reports of urban and domestic waste of 1.7 million tons per litre and 600 litres per second in 2007. At the same time, it is important to take into account the damage caused by agro-industrial activities in river courses, as the large number of insects and micro-organisms issue implies an abundant use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Among the environmental and social problems caused by this activity are the emission of greenhouse gases, the deterioration of aquatic ecosystems, eutrophication and pollution by agrotoxins, and the loss of wages and increased costs for water treatment.

Pollution from river transport. The Amazon region has about 24,000 km of navigable rivers, which are the main means of communication. Some 50 million tonnes of cargo were transported on the Amazon at the beginning of the decade just ended. In addition to fuel leaks, the activity results in sludge being washed away, which is not dredged regularly, as well as pollution of riverbanks and beaches, which is detrimental to Economics and tourism.



Impact on indigenous communities   

For many indigenous peoples, as is the case in Colombia, gold is a sacred mineral as it represents the sun on earth. They consider that the extraction of this mineral implies the loss of life in the territory and in order to extract it the shamans of the area must "ask permission" through a series of ceremonies; to do so without the granted permission implies negative consequences, hence the indigenous populations associate the improper extraction of gold with illness and death. An example of this is area of the Aaporis River, also considered sacred, where Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa speaks of the xawara wakémi (the smoke epidemic), derived from the burning of gold and which is, he claims, the cause of death of some inhabitants of the area.

However, members of indigenous communities also engage in artisanal mining, either because they reject entrance tradition in the face of the economic benefits of illegal extraction, or because they are forced into the occupation due to lack of opportunities. The latter is the case in the Peruvian communal reservation of Amarakaeri, which has been heavily affected by extractive activity, where its inhabitants have been forced into artisanal mining under pressure from their subsistence needs and from external mining interests that end up exploiting them.

Uncontrolled mining, on the other hand, negatively affects the environment in which indigenous life takes place. project In the Ecuadorian province of Zamora Chinchipie, for example, a mega open-pit mining project was carried out, the impact of which has led to a deforestation of 1,307 hectares in the area between 2009 and 2017.

It is worth highlighting the fact that mining not only implies an attack on certain aspects of indigenous culture, but also a serious attack on their human rights in that, despite being peoples living in voluntary isolation, mining companies interfere in these reserves and force displacement and uprooting. This status is especially critical in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, countries in which there is a "grey zone" between legality and illegality in artisanal mining, increasing the Degree impact on indigenous areas. At the same time, it is worth highlighting the repressive activity of the states in destroying dredges and rafts, which leads to a violent response on the part of those affected, as occurred in the Humaita revolt in Brazil.

Indigenous life has also been affected by the presence in these territories of guerrilla or paramilitary groups, as well as organised crime groups. In Colombia, armed groups have taken advantage of mining to finance their activities, which they carry out in areas with high levels of poverty and difficult access for the government. Between 2017 and 2018 there was a 6% increase in this activity, in places where coca can also be grown, the production of which has also increased in recent years. The OECD 's 2016 Due Diligence in the Colombian Gold Supply Chain report indicates that the FARC, ELN and criminal gangs began mining in the 1980s and increased their mining activity in the 1990s as a result of the rising price of gold and the increased difficulty of obtaining stable drug revenues. In 2012, the FARC and ELN were present in 40% of Colombia's 489 mining municipalities. Recently, ELN presence has been witnessed in illegal mining in Venezuela, especially in the state of Bolivar, which could be joined by FARC dissidents sheltering in Venezuelan territory.

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