In a new report, legal and illegal mining in the Amazon have been linked to higher levels of deforestation.

A new report reveals that mining operations in the Amazon basin now covers more than 20% of indigenous land, threatening hundreds of Indigenous communities and endangering critical ecosystems across 450 000km2. This new paper from World Resources Institute and the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) details for the first time the full extent of large-scale mining concessions and illegal mining on indigenous territories across the Amazonian rainforest, and offers solutions.

The Amazon rainforest is under siege from illegal and legal mining. Image credit: Chimu Adventures

The Amazon rainforest is under siege from illegal and legal mining. Image credit: Chimu Adventures

With gold prices skyrocketing and demand for other minerals on the rise, mining is a growing threat to ecosystems and communities around the world. In the new report, Undermining Rights: Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon, WRI estimates that 1131 indigenous lands across the Amazon basin suffer from the impacts of legal and/or illegal mining. The report finds that illegal miners have invaded 370 indigenous lands, including many in Brazil, where all mining on indigenous lands is illegal. Illegal mining operations are also leaching toxic chemicals, such as mercury, into at least 30 Amazonian rivers.

“Despite growing evidence that indigenous peoples are among the world’s greatest environmental stewards, our paper confirms what Amazonian Indigenous leaders have been telling us for years,” said Peter Veit, director, Land and Resource Rights Initiative at WRI, and co-author of the new paper. “Across the Amazon, Indigenous territories are under siege from mining, both legal and illegal, and these activities are eroding communities’ ability to protect themselves, prevent deforestation and safeguard ecosystems that are essential to the planet’s wellbeing.”

Past WRI research found deforestation rates are two to three times lower within tenure-secure Indigenous lands than outside those territories. The new report also reveals that mining is eroding communities’ proven ability to prevent deforestation: from 2000 to 2015, indigenous lands with mining activities had higher incidences of tree cover loss than those without mining across the Amazon. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, forest loss was at least three times higher in indigenous territories with mining operations – both legal and illegal – than those without; and one to two times higher in Colombia and Venezuela.

“We found that countries in the Amazon all grant some important legal protections to indigenous people, but these protections are often weakly or unevenly enforced,” said Patricia Quijano Vallejos, international legal consultant and co-author of the paper. “Governments either own the mineral resources or control them, so indigenous peoples can neither prohibit miners with government permits from entering their lands nor fully access the minerals within their territories.”

In their legal analysis of six Amazonian countries that hold over 90% of the Amazon Basin, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Peru, Quijano Vallejos and her co-authors find that national laws and regulations often favour companies over indigenous peoples.

Beyond damage done to the ecosystem, weak government oversight of mining activities can also lead to violent conflicts between indigenous communities and miners. In 2019, more environmental defenders – including many indigenous people – were killed protecting their lands from mining than from any other sector, with two thirds of all murders occurring in Latin America.

Even in countries like Guyana, the only nation reviewed in WRI’s research that grants Amerindians a limited right of consent to any mining development on their lands, authorities have ways around legislation.

“The reality on the ground is quite different,” said Michael McGarrell, who represents the Amerindian People’s Association in Guyana and is the human rights coordinator for COICA (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca), the umbrella organisation for the indigenous organisations of the Amazon Basin. “Government officials can say, for example, that a mining concession on Amerindian land is in the public interest. This means that even if a community says no, the minister can say yes.”

What can be done? The WRI report outlines concrete steps that government officials can take to protect Indigenous Peoples from harmful mining activities.

“Protecting indigenous communities will require a radical shift in governments’ approach to mining,” said Eleodoro Mayorga Alba, former minister of mines for Peru, where significant progress has already been made in adopting legislation to protect Indigenous communities and their lands. “This includes establishing and enforcing social and environmental safeguards aligned with international standards, more consistently monitoring mining operations across Indigenous lands and stepping up efforts to identify and prosecute those who facilitate illegal mining practices.”

The report also finds that in several countries, Indigenous communities have successfully used their rights to shut down illegal, harmful mining on their lands. It offers a number of case studies of successful efforts to block mining in regions including the Yaigojé Apaporis’ land in the Colombian Amazon and the Indigenous Shipibo and Ese’Eja communities’ lands in the Tres Islas territory of Peru. But to secure long-term benefits, Indigenous communities will need financial and technical assistance to monitor illegal mining practices on their lands, recognise threats and collect evidence that can be used in courts.

Ultimately, safeguarding Indigenous territories – including the sustainable development and environmental benefits they generate – will require stronger commitments and urgent actions from governments, companies, civil society leaders, non-governmental organisations and others. The new report details what these commitments and actions look like for all key actors so that Indigenous Peoples can safely protect their lands and livelihoods.