Photo: AP

A new study has determined that mining-related forest loss caused roughly 10 percent of all Amazon deforestation between 2005 and 2015. That’s a much higher number than expected, and it highlights how damage from mining spreads far beyond the confines of leases granted by the Brazilian government.

According to the University of Vermont-led research, published in Nature Communications, up to 90 percent of deforestation related to mining occurred outside of government-granted lease areas, in some cases extending as far as 43.5 miles (70 km) beyond a mine’s official borders. Overall, mining-related deforestation was 12 times greater outside mine lease boundaries than within them.

This off-site deforestation was driven by affiliated developments, including new roads, railways, airports and housing often built by mining companies in search of new sources of natural resources, such as iron ore and bauxite. With this infrastructure in place, further forest degradation can take place as agricultural enterprises—the leading cause of Amazonian forest loss—find it easier to move into newly accessible areas.

This type of mining-driven deforestation is far from unique to Brazil, and as the problem increases in significance and adverse impacts grow, the authors assert that better environmental assessments and licensing must be implemented for both on- and off-lease sources of deforestation. Currently, environmental assessments do not reliably include off-lease areas.


Even as deforestation in Brazil has slowed by some 80% since 2005 due to policy intervention and changing economic conditions, according to the study, the Brazilian government has been under fire for considering legislation to ease environmental regulations and open up more mining in protected and indigenous areas.

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Gillian Galford of UVM’s Gund Institute and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, who worked on the study, told Earther that over the last decade there’s been a major focus on restricting land development for pasture and soybean agriculture in the Amazon, and while deforestation rates dropped significantly, they never reached zero. She said her colleagues wanted to help a simple the question: where is the rest of the deforestation coming from?

The researchers tracked landscape alterations around the Amazon’s 50 largest active mines over for a decade starting in 2005, using deforestation data from Brazil’s Space Agency (INPE) to reach their conclusions. The below video gives an overview of their approach.

“The conventional wisdom is that the footprint of mining is actually fairly small, and this shows that the actual impacts are much greater than expected,” she said. “This is somewhat of a paradigm shift in how we think,” Galford said, emphasizing how most of the focus has been on limiting clear-cutting related to agricultural enterprises including farmland for meat exports. Brazil is the world’s top exporter of meat products.

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According to the INPE, deforestation in Brazil increased in almost 30 percent between August 2015 and 2016, in large part due to the loosening of some of the country’s environmental regulations. However in the year since, stepped up enforcement and better monitoring systems appear to have improved the situation and stemmed losses.

Galford said one partial solution could be for mining companies to purchase conservation offsets in different parts of the forest or sponsor other conservation activities.

Gregory Asner, a professor of Earth System Science at Stanford who wasn’t involved in the study, told Earther that while he’s known mining to be a major source of deforestation—as well as local pollution—he’s glad scientists are systematically documenting it in the Brazilian Amazon.

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As far as ways to curtail the damage, Asner said more protected areas and more involvement by and respect for indigenous peoples are necessary.

“Governance reforms alone will not slow deforestation or forest degradation,” he said. “That is a fallacy that needs to end.”

Asner has been working for years to document deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, where forest loss related to mining is also a critical concern amongst conservationists and scientists.

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David Pearson, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University who did not participate in the study, told Earther that he’s watched “hundreds of square miles of pristine forest in Madre de Dios, Peru, turn into a quagmire of orange chemicals and moonscape destruction in the last 15 years.”

This 2014 photo shows a deforested area dotted with blue tarps, marking the area where miners reside, and craters filled with water, caused by illegal gold mining activities, in La Pampa, in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Peru’s government declared an emergency across a broad jungle region because of mercury contamination, much of it caused by wildcat gold mining. Photo: AP

Pearson said the international community has let this problem get too far, and that calls for action are failing to motivate the powers that be.

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“I don’t hear the appropriate alarm bells going off as this type of chemical poisoning and destruction is so extensive any plan for forest recovery is beyond difficult,” he said. “The positive economic rewards of gold are powerful, but if we can emphasize the negative economic impacts of this destructive extraction process that affect us all, perhaps we can increase the volume of the alarm bells that should already have been ringing loudly.”