Mining on the Madeira River is less destructive than mining on indigenous lands

The images of hundreds of rafts profiled over the Madeira River are impressive, but only reveal part of the story. Unlike mining on indigenous lands, the search for gold is not carried out by capitalized bandits who arrive by plane and helicopter, but mainly by riverside dwellers in the region. The great environmental villain there is the federal government and its Jirau and Santo Antônio hydroelectric plants.

This is not a “garimpeiro invasion”, as occurs in the Yanomami Indigenous Land (RR/AM). Most, if not all, small ferries currently concentrated in Autazes (AM) were already working along the Madeira River, between Rondônia and Amazonas.

They only moved there because someone ” bambrowed”, that is, found an above average amount of gold. In the Amazon, this gold rush has a name: gossip. In 700, when Leaf visited one of these gossips, the concentration was 500 ferries, similar to this year’s. But the mining issue was far from the news cycle, and few paid attention.

The profiled rafts also suggest that this is a major unique undertaking. It’s not like this. The explanation lies in the ethics of mining. They are side by side to ensure that no one has an advantage over the other when vacuuming the bottom of the riverbed, where the gold is deposited.

The vast majority of miners have one or a few rafts, played in the family. The contract workers work together with the ferry owners and are paid according to production. It’s a strenuous routine, under the deafening noise of the engines running 11h a day amidst the nauseating smell of diesel oil.

O The cost to build a mining barge on the Madeira River is relatively low, around R$ 11 thousand. This is an investment many times smaller than the excavators (PCs) that infest and destroy the rivers of the Munduruku Indigenous Land. Each machine costs around R$ 500 thousand, with a much higher diesel consumption than the small engines used on ferries.

They are the PCs are the main protagonists of destruction in the search for gold, especially in the Tapajós basin, where the Munduruku live. In just a few weeks, they are capable of destroying and diverting kilometers of streams, opening huge scars in the Amazon rainforest. It is no longer about artisanal mining: it is illegal mining.

The social impact is also smaller than in the Yanomami territory. Mining in Madeira does not lead to the creation of large illegal encampments with airstrips in the midst of a vulnerable and isolated indigenous population. It is a river dotted with several cities and with intense navigation. The indigenous people of the Madeira, like the Muras, are more hardened by the presence of “white”.

Although raft mining on the Madeira destroys much less, there is environmental damage. After being vacuumed and passing through a kind of mat to remove the gold, the mud returns in a concentrated form to the river. The “belch”, as this debris is called, tends to form islets in the river bed. Most, however, disappear in the flood cycle.

There are indications that the river is contaminated by mercury. A recent survey of one of the Madeira’s tributaries shows that fish have mercury levels above those allowed by the WHO (World Health Organization). The origin, however, is not exclusive to the garimpo. Deforestation and burning also take the metal, which occurs naturally in the Amazonian soil, to water courses.

Hercury continues to be used on a large scale in mining, but the adoption of an instrument called crucible, a practice adopted for some years, reduced the amount that goes to nature by allowing reuse.

In an interview in 2020, the coordinator of the Laboratory of Ichthyology and Fisheries Planning of the Madeira River Valley from Ufam (Federal University of Amazonas), Marcelo dos Anjos, said that regulation is the best path for Madeira. “Illegality has a much greater impact. What should be done is to regulate, through garimpeiro cooperatives, and create protocols that they can follow in order to minimize the expected impact of the activity.”

This process, however, has been dragging on for years, amidst the divergence of attributions between the government of Amazonas and Brasília.

What was not long in coming was the environmental license from Ibama for the two huge hydroelectric plants built by PT governments near Porto Velho (RO). As is the custom of works of this size, they brought profound impacts.

The great symbol of this disaster is the golden one, catfish that makes the largest migration of fresh water ever recorded by science, from until

thousand km. According to surveys, the dam poses a serious risk of causing it to go extinct in Madeira.

Irritated by Ibama’s delay in releasing the license because of the impact on the ichthyofauna, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva criticized the organization, during a meeting with its political council, in 2007: “Now they threw the catfish in the president’s lap. What do I have with that?”. A phrase that his main political opponent, Jair Bolsonaro, would sign at the bottom.

Descendants of indigenous and northeastern people who migrated during the rubber cycle, the riverside miners claim that the Madeira River was never the same after the plants.

Last year, Elanjo de Souza, who worked on a ferry in Humaitá (AM) with two teenage children, told me that he abandoned the farm in the floodplain and fishing. “The fish come and go. When it reaches the dam, how will it get through? Even the plants don’t generate anymore. Before, it was watermelon, corn, tobacco. Now, the flood gets higher and kills everything.”

Vulnerable to pressure from the Planalto, public policies for Madeira remain indifferent to the precarious situation of the traditional population. Is it environmental racism that calls?


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