Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon

Download PDF


As the price of gold and other minerals increases, so do the impacts on the Amazon forest and its people, including the 1.5 million indigenous people whose livelihoods and wellbeing depend on the forest. While national laws provide indigenous people with some land rights, they grant few rights to the minerals on their lands. In practice, the law is not well implemented by miners or enforced by governments. As a response, indigenous people have employed various strategies to protect their lands from mining. Some of them have been successful, others, not.

Minerals and metals underpin national economies around the world and provide crucial raw materials to almost every sector of the global economy (World Bank 2017a; IRP 2019). Mining is an important source of public and private investment, employment, and government revenue.1 Globally, commercial-scale mining provides employment to more than two million people, and for every commercial mining job, another two to five jobs are created.2 Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) provides employment and income to an additional 13 million workers and their families worldwide (Walser 2002; EITI 2020).3

With strong global demand and soaring prices, mining has risen markedly in the last few decades. Despite moves to increase recycling and decouple economies from mineral use, mining is expected to continue growing to serve the needs of a larger, more affluent, and increasingly urban and technology-driven population (IRP 2019). If carefully managed, the mining sector presents enormous opportunities for local and national development, particularly in low-income countries (IRP 2019). For many resource-rich developing countries, however, ensuring that mining delivers broad-based social and economic benefits while not irreparably damaging the environment has proved difficult (IRP 2019).

The Amazon contains world-class deposits of copper, tin, nickel, iron ore, bauxite, manganese, and gold. ASM, especially for gold, has been part of the livelihood strategy of rural households for centuries, while large-scale industrial mining has been underway for much of the 20th century. All Amazonian countries have promoted and supported the exploration, exploitation, and export of high-value minerals for decades (D.H. Bebbington et al. 2018a, 2018b). In Peru and Bolivia, industrial mining is concentrated in the Andes, but in the other Amazonian countries, large-scale mining operations are underway in the lowland forest. In recent years, governments have committed to mining as a key component of their national development strategies and have provided more incentives to promote investment. At the same time, mining as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) has increased in several Amazonian countries (Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1 | Mining as a Percentage of GDP in Amazonian Countries


Source: Data from ICMM 2020a, modified by WRI authors.

In Brazil, the 1988 Federal Constitution allows for mining on indigenous lands but only under rules approved by the National Congress. Since the National Congress has not established such rules, mining on indigenous lands is effectively prohibited, although, in practice, illegal mining is underway in many indigenous territories. The government, however, is moving to open up the Amazon to commercial development. In January 2019, the minister of mines and energy announced that the government was preparing to overhaul mining regulations that will include opening indigenous lands to extractive resource exploitation and infrastructure (Branford and Torres 2019). On February 5, 2020, Brazil’s president signed Bill 191/2020 that would open indigenous lands to mining, oil and gas extraction, electricity generation, and agriculture. The bill is now in the Chamber of Deputies for discussion (André Lima, personal communication, 2020; Brito 2020; DW 2020; Vilela 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted mining in Amazonian countries. Governments have declared states of emergency and issued stay-at-home orders, resulting in many sectors of the economy essentially shutting down. In Peru and other Amazonian countries, however, governments have allowed large-scale mining to continue and encouraged expansion while sidelining and constraining livelihood possibilities for ASM (Vila Benites and Bebbington 2020). Mining in Peru accounts for significant percentages of the national and some regions’ GDPs. Large-scale mining is the principal contributor to the country’s Fiscal Stabilization Fund (Salas et al. 2018).4

On August 6, 2020, the price of gold hit a record high of $2,070.80 per ounce. Gold prices had been rising for years but the threat to economies from the novel coronavirus led to a surge in prices—up as much as 35 percent this year—as investors sought the perceived safety of gold. As the price of gold rises, so does demand. The surge has triggered a new, intensified gold rush in the Amazon with implications for local people and the environment (Nascimento and Faleiros 2020). Soaring prices, coupled with the withdrawal of the police and army from the mining areas to enforce lockdowns and attend to the health crisis, has allowed illegal mining to expand further (Saffon 2020).

These and other developments have driven mining into more remote parts of the Amazon with sometimes significant implications for indigenous peoples and the forest (D.H. Bebbington et al. 2018a; 2018b). The Amazon is home to a growing population, including about 1.5 million indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples hold perhaps 2.5 million sq. km of land, almost half of that in Brazil. Much of this land is formally recognized and documented, although more than 20 percent of the indigenous lands is still held only under customary tenure arrangements (RAISG 2019a). Land, together with its natural resources and ecosystem services, is the source of livelihood and well-being for most indigenous peoples. This land delivers food, water, fuelwood, medicinal plants, and other critical resources, while providing indigenous peoples with security, status, social identity, and a safety net. For many indigenous peoples, land is also historically, culturally, and spiritually significant.

Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have a long history of sustainably managing their lands and natural resources. Research shows that the average annual deforestation rates in tenure-secure indigenous forestlands in Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia from 2000 to 2012 were two to three times lower than in similar lands not managed by indigenous peoples (Ding et al. 2016; Blackman and Veit 2018). In the Peruvian Amazon, titling of indigenous lands in 2002 reduced forest clearing by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds in just the two subsequent years (Blackman et al. 2017). Other research has produced similar results for Brazil and across Latin America. Mining (and other developments, such as agriculture and cattle production) threaten to undermine the effectiveness of indigenous peoples’ protection of the forest. The critical role of indigenous lands in climate mitigation is recognized by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2019).

By its very nature, the extraction of minerals is environmentally destructive (IRP 2019). Dredging by ASM disrupts rivers and aquatic life,5 mercury—used to separate gold from rock—contaminates waterways, and the toxic pollutants enter into plants, animals, and people. Large-scale surface mining cuts back forest and other vegetation, which is particularly damaging to fragile environments. The degradation negatively affects the provisioning of ecosystem services, such as local climate and water flow regulation, and results in the loss of biodiversity.

Further, toxic mine and ore-processing waste poses a risk through failures of waste storage facilities or leaching of contained residual metals through acid mine drainage and other factors. Major disasters such as the Mariana (or Bento Rodrigues) tailings dam collapse in November 2015 (Phillips and Brasileiro 2018) and the Brumadinho dam collapse in January 2019 (Senra 2019), both near Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state in southeastern Brazil, make clear the consequences of such disasters. The dam collapses highlight not only the risks of harmful substances entering the waterways and the environment, but of infrastructure and institutional failures that endanger workers, injure and kill people, and destroy towns.

There are also important synergies between mining (and other extractive industries), enabling infrastructure development (e.g., roads, rail lines, waterways, and dams), and trends in financial flows and financing mechanisms with significant land use implications (D.H. Bebbington et al. 2018a, 2018b). For example, the proposed Belo Sun Mine, a large-scale gold mine on the Xingu River in Pará State, Brazil, by Canadian firm, Forbes & Manhattan, is economically viable because of available hydropower (D. Bebbington et al. 2018a, 2018b).

Large-scale mines take up less than 1 percent of the Amazon basin (Sonter et al. 2017), and, as a result, mining has not received the same level of attention as other drivers of land use change and forest loss, such as cattle and soybeans. But mining is often linked to other sources of forest loss, including infrastructure, urban expansion to support the workforce, and development of mineral commodity supply chains. These and other developments beyond the mine accounted for about 9 percent of Amazon forest loss between 2005 and 2015 (Sonter et al. 2017).

Mining can also profoundly impact local populations. ASM can be dangerous work and bring significant health risks (Box 1.1). The influx of workers can lead to the displacement of local people, a rise in prostitution and crime, and the decline of culture and traditional livelihoods. Child labor exploitation, intimidation, money laundering, illegal drug trade, and gold smuggling are also often linked to mining. Further, miners can bring with them new diseases. The novel coronavirus, for example, likely entered the Yanomami indigenous territory in northern Brazil through illegal miners (Branford 2020; ISA 2020); the first death of a Yanomami from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, occurred in April 2020 (Kaur and Alberti 2020). Though July, there were five Yanomami deaths due to the disease (Branford 2020). The most marginalized sectors of society—indigenous people, women, children, and elders and other disadvantaged people—are often the first affected and suffer the most (Lahiri-Dutt and Ahmad 2006; Bond and Quinlan 2018; Mancini and Sala 2018). Evidence shows that women disproportionately bear many of the costs of both large-scale and artisanal mining, such as social and family disruption, health and safety risks (e.g., increased violence against women and girls), and environmental degradation (loss of land, pollution, and increasing resource scarcity) (Hinton et al. 2003; Oxfam 2017).

There are also equity concerns regarding the allocation of mineral benefits, including public revenue from mining (e.g., taxes, fees, and royalties) and mining jobs. Multinational companies often capture disproportionately large shares of mining profits because of their position in commodity markets and generous tax breaks from host governments. (Much of the profit from mines in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are taken out of the country and not reinvested in the host country.) Many companies also bring in skilled managers from the outside and offer local people—or migrants—only low-skill jobs with little opportunity for learning or advancement (Coderre-Proulx et al. 2016). Families and communities around extraction sites, however, are often poorly compensated for the damage to property caused by mining, and local jurisdictions where mining takes place do not receive adequate shares of the mining revenue (although in several countries, the national government has begun transferring more revenue back to the producing regions) (Bauer et al 2016).

Mining companies or illegal miners operating on or near indigenous lands can lead to conflict, especially with indigenous peoples who depend on the land for their livelihood (REPAM 2019a). In 2018, at least 164 land and environmental defenders, including many indigenous people, were killed around the world, while many more were threatened, harassed, stigmatized, attacked, or jailed (Global Witness 2019).6 More than half of the murders took place in Latin America, which has ranked as the worst-affected continent since 2012, with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala at or near the top of the list (Global Witness 2019). In 2018, mining was for the first time the world’s deadliest sector, with 43 defenders, including indigenous people, killed protesting against the destructive effects of mining on their lands and livelihoods (Global Witness 2019).7

In 2019, a record 212 land and environmental defenders were killed around the world, an average of more than four people per week. Seven of the top 10 worst-affected nations were in Latin America, where more than two-thirds of the total killings took place. Colombia was the deadliest country, with 64 killings—up from 25 in 2018—accounting for 30 percent of the global total. Brazil had 24 killings, almost 90 percent of which took place in the Amazon. Globally, 40 percent of defenders killed were indigenous people, despite representing just 5 percent of the world’s population. Mining was again the deadliest sector, with 50 people killed. Ten percent of those killed were women. Women also faced smear campaigns using sexist or sexual content, and sexual violence (Global Witness 2020; Guy 2020).

Given these developments, there is an urgent need for indigenous peoples to have a say in mining and other development matters that affect their lands, and for mining that does take place on indigenous lands to mitigate the social and environmental risks. The research for this report was designed to better understand three issues:

  • The law regarding the rights of indigenous peoples over their lands and the mineral resources on their lands, as well as the powers and obligations of miners operating on indigenous lands.
  • The implementation and enforcement of these laws and the experiences of indigenous peoples when mining occurs on their lands.
  • The environmental impacts of mining on indigenous lands, especially the impacts on forests.

The research examined mining on indigenous lands in the Amazon with a focus on six countries—Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Peru. Data and information on the three issues were collected by conducting literature reviews; reviewing the relevant national laws (legal reviews); preparing six case studies of indigenous experiences, one in each research country; and conducting a geospatial analysis to examine forest cover change on indigenous lands affected by mining across the Amazon and the six case study sites. This report presents the data, analysis, and principal findings of this research.

box 1.1 | Mercury Poisoning in Madre de Dios, Peru

In the gold mining region of Madre de Dios in southern Peru, mercury is a serious and increasing environmental and public health problem. High mercury concentrations are found in most local people and in most of the wild caught fish sold in markets and consumed in the regional capital city, Puerto Maldonado. In a recent assessment, indigenous people had levels of mercury roughly five times that considered safe by the World Health Organization (WHO), whereas people in urban areas had double the safe limit. Indigenous children had unsafe mercury concentrations over three times the level of their nonindigenous counterparts (indigenous children had mercury levels more than five times the limit with some having levels as high as 34 times the safe limit). Women of childbearing age were also disproportionately affected as mercury, a neurotoxin, can cause severe, permanent brain damage to an unborn child.

Sources: Swenson et al. 2011; Ashe 2012; CAMEP 2013

Based on the findings, several practical recommendations were developed. These recommendations are designed to empower indigenous peoples to take charge of their own development and to ensure mining on indigenous lands delivers positive social and economic outcomes while not causing irreparable damage to the environment. The recommendations target four audiences:

  • Government agencies and legislative committees responsible for supporting indigenous peoples and for minerals and mining, as well as their development partners.
  • Domestic and international ASM actors and industrial mining operators, as well as industry associations, investors, and risk assessors.
  • Indigenous peoples and other local communities, as well as their representative bodies and supporters, including local civil society organizations (CSOs) and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
  • The broader human rights, land rights, forest conservation, and climate change communities.

This report is organized in six sections. Following this Introduction (Section I), Section II provides some background information on the forests, indigenous peoples, and mining in the Amazon. Section III presents the research methods used to collect and analyze the data. Section IV presents the data and findings of the geospatial analysis, legal reviews, and case studies. Finally, Section V provides five recommendations for empowering indigenous peoples and improving the practice of mining on indigenous lands. Several appendices are provided, including the data sets used for the geospatial analysis, the indicators/questions for the legal reviews, and the international treaties, national laws, regulations, and court cases reviewed.

Start reading