Amazonian challenges: Resource extraction

Updated Tuesday 27th May 2014

Extracting resources from the Amazon can not only impact the environment in the vicinity of the extractive site but also much further afield.

While Amazon resource extraction may not cause deforestation on the same scale as mass agriculture, it has a wide range of effects that can impact the environment in the vicinity of the extractive site and much further afield, including downstream of the extractive site.

Mining and fossil fuels

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Charlie Hamilton James Abandoned illegal gold mine in Peru The Amazon is considered to have great potential for the exploitation of its mineral resources, especially copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, manganese, iron ore and gold. Venezuela has recently been identified as holding the world’s largest fossil fuel reserves, larger even than Saudi Arabia’s. National governments are incentivising mineral extraction by providing tax incentives for large-scale projects, initiatives which are seen as a major boost to development.

Mining and fossil fuel extraction, however carefully it is executed, usually results in impacts on the area’s water – polluting the water with toxic run-off from the mine, which often affects the quality of the food supply for the local communities. Spills and toxic by-products are sometimes deliberately dumped in the vicinity of the site or are stored in crude and porous open waste pits. Some of the by-products of natural gas are burned in the open air, polluting the air and sometimes causing forest fires.

A notorious pollutant used in gold extraction is mercury. As a heavy metal, mercury does not biodegrade, and can readily be incorporated into the food chain, often resulting in high concentrations in fish, which are then eaten by local populations. Mercury is dangerous for the nervous system as well as in foetuses - resulting in stillbirths, deformations, and severe brain damage.

Apart from the deforestation resulting from access roads (which brings in more settlers) some mines promote localised processing. For example, the Carajas region of Brazil is one of the world’s largest copper, iron, manganese and gold reserves. As a way of reducing the costs of transporting heavy, low mineral density raw material outside of the region, wood from the forest is cut for charcoal to fuel smelting, resulting in annual estimated deforestation of 6,100 km2.

Indigenous and local peoples often gain the least from natural resources extraction, but stand to lose the most. An estimated half a million gold prospectors (‘garimpeiros’ in Portuguese) occupy the Amazon Basin in small, often illegal, operations. Contact between miners (almost exclusively male) and the indigenous population spreads disease to which the indigenous people often have limited immunity. In Peru, for example, oil explorations by Shell in the 1980s resulted in almost one-half of the Nahua people dying from influenza and whooping cough.

Selective Logging in the Amazon     

With the depletion of forests in Asia and Africa, the Amazon is being targeted by domestic and transnational corporations as a key source for tropical timber products. In 1996, Asian companies invested more than US$ 500 million in Brazil’s timber industry.

Selective logging in the Brazilian Amazon is occurring at rates of about 12,000–20,000 km2 per year. Although selective logging has a lower immediate impact on forests compared to deforestation, areas that have been selectively logged experience higher rates of forest fires, tree fall, changes in microclimate, soil compaction and erosion  - ultimately resulting in a destructive downward spiral which leading to severe degradation and deforestation.

Logging operations almost always involves the construction of access roads. Once felled, trees must be transported which may involve using tractors. The erosion that follows logging washes away nutrients and overwhelms streams and rivers with excess sedimentation. The access roads within logged areas also means that these areas are much more likely to be settled and cleared by landless settlers compared to unlogged forest.

Sustainable logging can be a long-term source of income for local communities, but it is often not carried out sustainably. While laws exist which authorize sustainable logging in designated areas, illegal, predatory logging is widespread in Brazil and several other Amazon countries. During the 1990s, 80% of all timber emerging out of the Amazon was shown to be illegal. The short logging concessions do not incentivise companies to replant trees or harvest carefully. The strategy is often to extract as much profit as possible in a short timeframe, leaving an irreversibly damaged site which may never recover. IMAZON (Amazon Institute of Man and the Environment) has documented that for every commercial tree removed, 27 other trees more than 10 cm in diameter are damaged, 40 m of road are created and 600 m2 of canopy is opened (Holloway, 1993, in Kricher, 1997).

Next: Amazonian challenges: Wildlife trade

This page is part of our series of articles on the Amazon System, emerging out of the experience of Dr Andrea Berardi, a Lecturer in Environmental Information Systems at The Open University to support the BBC Two series I Bought a Rainforest. See the full reference list for these articles.

Dr Berardi is a co-investigator on Project COBRA. COBRA is researching ways to integrate community solutions within policies addressing escalating social, economic and environmental crises, through accessible information and communication technologies.



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