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Brazil's Amazon Rainforest Has Become the Wild West for Illegal Gold Miners
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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By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that she will attempt to dismantle the National Rifle Association (NRA), arguing that years of corruption and mismanagement warrant the dissolution of the activist organization, as CNN reported.
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