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Brazil's Amazon Rainforest Has Become the Wild West for Illegal Gold Miners

Aerial view of the Esperanca IV informal gold mining camp, near the Menkragnoti indigenous territory, in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 28, 2019. Joao LAET / AFP / Getty Images

By Peter Yeung

From the skies above Creporizao, a remote town in the south of the Brazilian Amazon, the surrounding area looks like a vast blanket of dark green rainforest. But along the dirt roads and rivers that run through it like arteries are telling patches of muddy brown: illegal gold mines.

Wildcat miners come to the area seeking their fortune. Every day, hundreds of laborers embark on long journeys up and down the Crepori river to reach the gold pits, while others fly in on small planes that land on makeshift airstrips. Such scenes have become common across the world's largest rainforest, and are being held up as the cause of widespread destruction.

Jose Maria, a miner from the state of Maranhao, some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to the east — who does not reveal his full name — is waiting on the river banks for a ride. "We're here to do honest work and earn a living," he said. "I don't see what the problem is."

But the pits where Jose Maria and fellow miners work are located on the more than two million-hectare territory of the Munduruku, one of the largest indigenous tribes in the Amazon, whose mineral-rich lands are protected under Brazil's 1988 Constitution.

A 2019 survey by polling institute Datafolha showed 86% of Brazilians oppose mining on indigenous territory, yet it has been encouraged by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's controversial bill, which calls for the legalization of commercial mining on indigenous land.

Submitted to Brazil's Congress in early February, the bill has yet to be put to a vote. A planned ballot was pushed back with the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, telling Congress it was "not the right moment." But he also stressed that the bill was "not unconstitutional."

Brazil's Ministry of Mines and Energy told DW it was planning to "regulate activities" on indigenous land, adding that the process would require "consultation with the indigenous communities," which would be able to participate in mining activity.

While some in the Munduruku have been won over by the allure of riches, and allow gold extraction on their land in exchange for money, the majority remain opposed to illegal mining.

'Full-scale gold rush'

About 13% of Brazil's territory is classified as indigenous land, spread across more than 400 reserves. But according to the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network, there are more than 450 illegal mining sites in the Brazilian Amazon, where most of those reserves are located.

The proposed law would likely lead to a dramatic rise in the level of mining activity.

"Once you open the door, it will become a flood," Glenn Shepard, an American anthropologist who works with indigenous populations affected by illegal mining, told DW. "The law will create a precedent for miners to go in. It's already a full-scale gold rush going on, and these indigenous groups are losing control."

Greenpeace's journalism team, Unearthed, has reported that gold miners planned to continue working through the coronavirus pandemic, increasing fears of spreading the disease to indigenous groups.

In advance of the vote on the bill, the Ministry of Mines and Energy told DW it had received more than 4,000 applications for mining-related activities on indigenous land.

Tensions between miners and local communities are already high. In June last year, Brazil's indigenous rights agency, Funai, reported dozens of miners dressed in military uniform invading the Wajapi community, in the Brazilian Amazon, stabbing and killing one of its leaders.

According to research by international NGO, Global Witness, 20 land and environmental defenders were killed in Brazil in 2018 alone. Globally, the nonprofit cited mining as the deadliest sector, with 46 reported murders in the same year.

The deforestation issue

Environmentally, one of the biggest impacts of mining is logging. A 2017 report published in the journal Nature Communications found that mining accounted for 9% of all forest loss in the Amazon between 2005 and 2015.

Satellite analysis published by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project revealed that 2,000 hectares of gold mining-related deforestation occurred in 2019 across the Munduruku indigenous reserve, more than double the amount recorded the year before.

Last November dozens of tribal leaders from the Amazon met with officials in Brasilia to file claims and report serious threats to their territories.

Alessandra Korap Munduruku, a leader from Para state who attended the meeting, says the legalization of mining would "be the death of our people."

Besides bringing "disease and prostitution to our people, drug addiction to our children, and violent conflict to the Munduruku men," she said gold mining activity is also killing fish through mercury poisoning.

Released across the region's major Tapajos River during the mining process, mercury is seeping into the tributaries like those that snake past the mining town of Creporizao. Local communities rely on these rivers for many of their water needs.

Late last year, in the first study of its kind, Erik Jennings, a neurologist based in the city of Santarem, took blood and hair samples from 112 tribespeople to assess mercury levels.

"It's a slow genocide," Jennings told DW. "The mercury can cause serious cognitive and visual impairment, and deform fetuses."

​Problematic legal trade

Even the legal gold trade in Brazil is largely unregulated, which facilitates illegal business and plays a significant role in the destruction of the Amazon. Prosecutors in Para state say the lack of regulation in the legal trade and the fact that receipts are paper-based carbon copies make it easy for criminals to thrive and illegal gold to enter the legal system.

"The practice of fraud in the sector is quite easy, and the investigation of illegalities becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle," Luis de Camoes Lima Boaventura, public prosecutor in the Amazonian city of Santarem said.

"Until a computerized system is installed, the authorities cannot check, in real time, the legality of the transactions. To make a transaction of illegal gold, all you currently need is a pen and paper."

According to National Mining Agency estimates, around 30 tons of gold worth some 4.5 billion reals ($1.1 billion, €900 million) are illegally traded in the state of Para annually. That is around six times more than the amount legally declared.

When miners like Jose Maria return to Creporizao at the end of what can be days away, they come to one of a dozen gold shops that line the main drag to melt what they have mined into standardized bars. Once that is done, illegally-mined gold, which is responsible for widespread deforestation, pollution and violence in the Amazon, has entered the system and can no longer be traced.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.


An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."