Start Submission

Reading: Brazilian Amazon gold: indigenous land rights under risk


A- A+
Alt. Display


Brazilian Amazon gold: indigenous land rights under risk


Sara Villén-Pérez ,

Department of Life Sciences, GloCEE Global Change Ecology and Evolution Group, Universidad de Alcalá, Madrid, ES
X close

Paulo Moutinho,

Amazon Environmental Research Institute, Brasília, BR
X close

Caroline Corrêa Nóbrega,

Amazon Environmental Research Institute, Brasília, BR
X close

Paulo De Marco

Department Ecologia, Universidade Federal de Goiás, Goiânia, BR
X close


Brazilian indigenous lands prevent the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest while protecting the land rights of indigenous peoples. However, they are at risk because they overlap with large areas of registered interest for mining. Indigenous lands have been in the spotlight of the pro-development wing of the parliament for decades, and the current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, promised that he would open up these territories for exploitation. Recently, bill PL191/2020 was released to downgrade the protection status of indigenous lands by regulating mining activities in these territories. Mining operations have an unavoidable socio-environmental impact on indigenous communities that is difficult to compensate. First, rapid demographic growth associated with the incoming migrant workforce often causes social disruption and threat indigenous societies. Moreover, sustained pollution related to mining procedures and accidental spills largely degrade the environment and imperil indigenous health. Finally, mining operations drive deforestation both within and beyond their operational boundaries. Mining is already an essential determinant of forest loss in the Amazon, where further deforestation may result in extended droughts with significant social and economic consequences. We conclude that, if mining operations were allowed in Brazilian indigenous lands, indigenous peoples would be imperiled along with regional and global climate and economies.
Knowledge Domain: Ecology
How to Cite: Villén-Pérez, S., Moutinho, P., Nóbrega, C.C. and De Marco, P., 2020. Brazilian Amazon gold: indigenous land rights under risk. Elem Sci Anth, 8(1), p.31. DOI:
 Published on 10 Jul 2020
 Accepted on 14 Jun 2020            Submitted on 11 Feb 2020
Domain Editor-in-Chief: Steven Allison; University of California Irvine, US

Indigenous lands protect 23% of the Brazilian Amazon, covering more than 100 million hectares, an area the size of Colombia (Walker et al., 2020). Maintaining the integrity of these lands is crucial to contain deforestation, preserve the stability of the regional climate, mitigate global climate change, and protect indigenous rights (Soares et al., 2010; Nolte et al., 2013; Walker et al., 2020). Indigenous land rights in the Amazon, however, are at important risk. Their large territories are believed to contain vast unexplored mineral deposits, and nearly one-third of them are areas of registered interest for mining (Ferreira et al., 2014). Amazon forests have historically hosted a variety of mining activities, from small-scale artisanal gold-mining to large-scale operations such as the Carajás Iron Ore Complex. Around 60% of mining concessions in Brazil are in the Amazon region. These have led to extensive deforestation (Sonter et al., 2017) and are usually associated with infrastructure investments such as dams and roads (Tófoli et al., 2017). Moreover, the region is affected to a considerable extent by illegal small-scale gold-mining activity (Cremers et al., 2013; Lobo et al., 2016; Lobo et al., 2018) that is a source of violence (Hoefle, 2006) and a threat to the health of local communities (Vega et al., 2018). Indigenous lands have frequently reported illegal mining (Plummer, 2014). Despite this, indigenous lands are largely unexplored in relation to other protected areas (Villén-Pérez et al., 2018) thanks to the fact that legal mining activities are not yet regulated in these territories. However, in February 2020, the Brazilian government signed a bill to open up indigenous lands to mining and other activities (Bill PL191/2020; Agencia Brasil, 2020). Opening for mining activities will presumably boost an avalanche of new exploration requests that will join the hundreds already registered by the National Mining Agency in these territories (; Villén-Pérez et al., 2018), having an incalculable impact on indigenous peoples and the environment.

The exploration of natural resources on indigenous lands was already a point of contention during the drafting of the Brazilian Constitution in 1988 (Keppi, 2013). Ultimately, mining was permitted in these territories on the condition that the National Congress approved a regulating law (art. 176 and 231). The first regulating attempt (bill PL1610/1996) was proposed a few years later by the conservative pro-development wing of the parliament. The bill was opposed by environmentalist and indigenist representatives, and the debate resulted in a long-standing policy battle in the Brazilian Congress that lasted for more than 20 years (; Rolla & Ricardo, 2013). This long-lasting opposition to the bill seems to have been sustained by a political context favorable to the expansion of protected areas – including indigenous land demarcation – as a strategy to contain the high rates of deforestation occurring in the region (Nepstad et al., 2006; Soares-Filho et al., 2010; Nepstad et al., 2014). Notwithstanding, this battle illustrates how Brazilian society and its leaders are sharply divided between development and environmentalism (Zhouri, 2010).

In 2020, the old controversial bill gave way to PL191/2020, which would not only allow for mining but also the construction of hydroelectric dams in indigenous lands. During the last electoral campaign, the current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, promised that he would open up the Amazon for the exploitation of its natural resources. His agenda was to weaken the environmental legislation that guaranteed the Brazilian Amazon’s protection over the last few decades (Abessa et al., 2019; Artaxo, 2019), with a particular focus on indigenous lands under the argument that “it is too much land for so few people” (Reuters, 2019). The far-right president has already weakened and cut funds from government agencies responsible for environmental oversight (IBAMA) and indigenous affairs (FUNAI; Raftopoulos and Morley, 2020). Moreover, Bolsonaro’s discourse has encouraged the illegal invasion of indigenous lands and resulted in an increase in deforestation rates during his first year in office (INPE, 2019; Ferrante and Fearnside, 2019). Some indigenous groups, such as the Kayapó, have historically allowed illegal activities in their territories. However, these concessions were selective and made in exchange for cash, which was partially used to control further invasions of their lands (Schwartzman and Zimmerman, 2005). The scenario encountered by indigenous peoples if the new bill were passed would be completely different. The Constitution states that the indigenous communities affected by mining operations must receive part of the derived economic benefits (art. 231). However, these may contribute little to indigenous economic development (Lima et al., 2020) and will hardly compensate for the unavoidable socio-environmental impact (Keppi, 2013). First, compensation should go beyond monetary payment. Also, it would be critical to aid communities in improving their capacity to manage the financial resources received and to implement an appropriate benefit-sharing system based on their criteria (Nery et al., 2013). Finally, it would be essential to establish the necessary mechanisms to guarantee that the decision made by the indigenous community on mining in their lands is respected (a right stated by the Constitution, art. 231).

Permitting exploration of mineral resources on indigenous lands will result in substantial degradation of the environment. Mining is already responsible for roughly 10% of Amazon deforestation, considering its effects both within mining concession areas and beyond mining operational boundaries (Sonter et al., 2017). Within concession areas, the forest is cleared to open space both for surface mineral operations themselves and for the storage of mining by-products in tailing dams (Alvarez-Berrios and Aide, 2015; Sonter et al., 2014). Supporters of mining operations argue that the environmental impact of the activity is not that large because operational areas are relatively small compared with large preserved areas in the Amazon. However, mining activities in the region drive significant forest loss extending up to 70 km away from mining boundaries (Sonter et al., 2017). Transportation infrastructure is developed in surrounding areas for the carriage of products and workers, urban areas expand to accommodate the incoming migrant workforce, and forest plantations are established to supply charcoal needs for mineral processing (Sonter et al., 2014b). Among those land-use changes, the construction of roads in remote areas of the Amazon is especially critical because it opens up the forest for further settlement and deforestation (Barber et al., 2014). Further Amazon deforestation may result in regional and global climate change characterized by extended droughts that could entail significant social and economic consequences at national and international levels (Costa and Pires, 2010; Medvigy et al., 2013; Nazareno and Laurance, 2015; Staal et al., 2020).

Mining activities also threaten indigenous society and health. The massive migration of mining employees to a region might cause social disruption in indigenous communities by affecting traditions, depleting local water supplies, or reducing fishing and hunting resources on which local communities are dependant (Hilson, 2002). Moreover, rapid demographic growth associated with illegal mining in the Amazon has historically increased violence and prostitution (Carneiro and de Souza, 2009). As a consequence, the establishment of mining operations within or near indigenous lands has resulted in confrontations between miners and tribes (Carneiro and de Souza, 2009; Haslam and Tanimoune, 2016). Furthermore, the health of indigenous peoples is compromised by chemical pollution associated with different mining procedures. For instance, cyanide and mercury are used to extract gold from ore and then released to the environment, affecting animal and plant species and accumulating throughout trophic chains and food supplies (Eisler and Wiemeyer, 2004; Esdaile and Chalker, 2018). After four decades of intensive gold mining in the basin, Amazonian peoples are among the most exposed to mercury in the world and report consequential neurological and cytogenetic damage (Passos and Mergler, 2008). Accidental spills add to this sustained pollution. Indeed, Brazil recently suffered two tailing dam collapses with serious ecological and socioeconomic consequences in the regions, rivers, and seas affected by toxic sediment (Escobar, 2015; Cionek et al., 2019). These have been considered the worst environmental disasters in the history of the country and have raised societal awareness on the environmental and human health risks imposed by mining operations (El Bizri et al., 2016). The same companies responsible for these accidents would be involved in the construction of a new tailing dam in the Amazon if a Canadian company receives permission to build the largest open-pit gold mine seen in Brazil to date. The environmental impact assessment of this mega-project recognizes that there is a certain risk of dam collapse, which would have unforeseen consequences, including impact to near-by indigenous communities (RIMA, 2012; Tófoli et al., 2017). Nonetheless, despite adverse technical reports, the licensing process of this and other controversial projects could be expedited with the support of the new pro-development president (Campos-Silva and Peres, 2019; Lorinc, 2019).

Indigenous lands are very effective against the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest (Nolte et al., 2013; Walker et al., 2020). If its protection status is downgraded, indigenous peoples will be imperiled along with regional and global climate and economies (Soares-Filho et al., 2010; Coe et al., 2017; Walker et al., 2020). Last year, more than 4000 indigenous leaders of 305 different tribes demonstrated in Brasilia for their land, cultural, and health rights (ATL, 2019). They claimed that the government is neglecting their territories’ natural assets and their survival in favor of agribusiness and mining interests. Meanwhile, more than 600 European scientists appealed to the EU to impose strict social and environmental conditions in their trade negotiations with Brazil, highlighting the co-responsibility of developed countries for Brazilian deforestation (Kehoe et al., 2019). Recently, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) expressed its emphatic refusal of the bill proposed by the government to regulate mining and hydroelectric projects on their lands. Even though they are faced with the challenge of sustainable economic development (Le Tourneau, 2015), they are not willing to allow the enrichment of others by exploiting their natural resources. Bolsonaro’s policies are promoting the ecocide of the Amazon and, if implemented, will have a devastating impact on the region and its traditional inhabitants (Raftopoulos and Morley, 2020). Thus, we add to national and international calls to urge Brazil’s federal administration not to yield to mining companies’ interests and to recognize the social and ecological value of indigenous lands.


We thank Rafael Loyola, José Alexandre Felizola Diniz Filho, and Rogério Bastos for reviewing the text.

Funding information

This work was supported by madri+d Foundation for Knowledge [grant number 2017-T2/AMB-6035]; the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) [grant number 308694/2015-5]; and the University of Alcalá [grant number CGB2018/BIO-032].

Competing interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Author contributions

Contributed to conception and design: SV-P; Drafted and/or revised the article: SV-P, PM, PDM; Approved the submitted version for publication: SV-P, PM, CCN, PDM.


  1. Abessa, D, Famá, A and Buruaem, L. 2019. The systematic dismantling of Brazilian environmental laws risks losses on all fronts. Nature Ecol Evol 3(4): 510–511. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-0855-9

  2. Agência Brasil. 2020.

  3. Alvarez-Berríos, NL and Aide, TM. 2015. Global demand for gold is another threat for tropical forests. Environ Res Lett 10(1): 014006. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/1/014006

  4. Artaxo, P. 2019. Working together for Amazonia. Science 363(6425): 323. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw6986

  5. ATL. 2019. Documento final do XV Acampamento Terra Livre. Brasilia. Available from:

  6. Barber, CP, Cochrane, MA, Souza, CM, Jr and Laurance, WF. 2014. Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biol Conserv 177: 203–209. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.004

  7. Campos-Silva, JV and Peres, CA. 2019. Brazil’s policies stuck in the mud. Science 363: 1043. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8293

  8. Carneiro, A and de Souza, OB. 2009. Atlas de pressões e ameaças às terras indígenas na Amazônia brasileira. São Paulo, Brazil: ISA.

  9. Cionek, VM, Alves, GHZ, Tófoli, RM, Rodrigues-Filho, JL and Dias, RM. 2019. Brazil in the mud again: lessons not learned from Mariana dam collapse. Biodivers Conserv 28(7): 1935–1938. DOI: 10.1007/s10531-019-01762-3

  10. Coe, MT, Brando, PM, Deegan, LA, Macedo, MN, Neill, C and Silvério, DV. 2017. The forests of the Amazon and Cerrado moderate regional climate and are the key to the future. Trop Conserv Sci 10. DOI: 10.1177/1940082917720671

  11. Costa, MH and Pires, GF. 2010. Effects of Amazon and Central Brazil deforestation scenarios on the duration of the dry season in the arc of deforestation. Int J Climatol 30(13): 1970–1979. DOI: 10.1002/joc.2048

  12. Cremers, L, Kolen, J and De Theije, M. 2013. Small-scale gold mining in the Amazon. The cases of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Suriname. Cuadernos del CEDLA 26 . Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

  13. Eisler, R and Wiemeyer, SN. 2004. Cyanide hazards to plants and animals from gold mining and related water issues. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol 183: 21–54. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4419-9100-3_2

  14. El Bizri, HR, Macedo, JCB, Paglia, AP and Morcatty, TQ. 2016. Mining undermining Brazil’s environment. Science 353(6296): 228. DOI: 10.1126/science.aag1111

  15. Escobar, H. 2015. Mud tsunami wreaks ecological havoc in Brazil. Science 350(6265): 1138–1139. DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6265.1138

  16. Esdaile, LJ and Chalker, JM. 2018. The mercury problem in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Chemistry-A European Journal 24(27): 6905–6916. DOI: 10.1002/chem.201704840

  17. Ferrante, L and Fearnside, PM. 2019. Brazil’s new president and ‘ruralists’ threaten Amazonia’s environment, traditional peoples and the global climate. Environ Conserv 46(4): 261–263. DOI: 10.1017/S0376892919000213

  18. Ferreira, J, Aragão, LEOC, Barlow, J, Barreto, P, Berenguer, E, Bustamante, M, Gardner, TA, Lees, AC, Lima, A, Louzada, J, Pardini, R, Parry, L, Peres, CA, Pompeu, PS, Tabarelli, M and Zuanon, J. 2014. Brazil’s environmental leadership at risk. Science 346(6210): 706–707. DOI: 10.1126/science.1260194

  19. Haslam, PA and Tanimoune, NA. 2016. The determinants of social conflict in the Latin American mining sector: new evidence with quantitative data. World Dev 78: 401–419. DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2015.10.020

  20. Hilson, G. 2002. An overview of land use conflicts in mining communities. Land Use Policy 19: 65–73. DOI: 10.1016/S0264-8377(01)00043-6

  21. Hoefle, SW. 2006. Twisting the knife: Frontier violence in the central Amazon of Brazil. J Peasant Stud 33(3): 445–478. DOI: 10.1080/03066150601062993

  22. INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais). 2019. Monitoramento do desmatamento da floresta Amazônica Brasileira por satélite. (accessed 22-04-2020).

  23. Kehoe, L, Reis, T, Virah-Sawmy, M, Balmford, A and Kuemmerle, T. 2019. Make EU trade with Brazil sustainable. Science 364(6438): 341–341. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8276

  24. Keppi, J. 2013. Mineração em terras indígenas. São Leopoldo, Brazil: Oikos.

  25. Le Tourneau, FM. 2015. The sustainability challenges of indigenous territories in Brazil’s Amazonia. Curr Opin Env Sust 14: 213–220. DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.017

  26. Lima, M, do Vale, JCE, de Medeiros Costa, G, dos Santos, RC, Correia Filho, WLF, Gois, G, de Oliveira-Junior, JF, Teodoro, PE, Rossi, FS and da Silva Junior, CA. 2020. The forests in the indigenous lands in Brazil in peril. Land Use Policy 90: 104258. DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2019.104258

  27. Lobo, F, Costa, M, Novo, E and Telmer, K. 2016. Distribution of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in The Tapajós River Basin (Brazilian Amazon) over the past 40 years and relationship with water siltation. Remote Sens 8: 579. DOI: 10.3390/rs8070579

  28. Lobo, FDL, Souza-Filho, PWM, Novo, EMLDM, Carlos, FM and Barbosa, CCF. 2018. Mapping mining areas in the Brazilian Amazon using MSI/Sentinel-2 imagery. Remote Sens 10(8): 1178. DOI: 10.3390/rs10081178

  29. Lorinc, J. 2019. A Canadian company wants to build Brazil’s largest open-pit gold mine: Now that Bolsonaro is in power, it just might succeed. The Star . (accessed 17-04-2020).

  30. Medvigy, D, Walko, RL, Otte, MJ and Avissar, R. 2013. Simulated changes in northwest US climate in response to Amazon deforestation. J Climate 26(22): 9115–9136. DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00775.1

  31. Nazareno, AG and Laurance, WF. 2015. Brazil’s drought: beware deforestation. Science 347(6229): 1427–1427. DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6229.1427-a

  32. Nepstad, D, McGrath, D, Stickler, C, Alencar, A, Azevedo, A, Swette, B, Bezerra, T, DiGiano, M, Shimada, J, Seroa da Motta, R, Armijo, E, Castello, L, Brando, P, Hansen, MC, McGrath-Horn, M, Carvalho, O and Hess, L. 2014. Slowing Amazon deforestation through public policy and interventions in beef and soy supply chains. Science 344(6188): 1118–1123. DOI: 10.1126/science.1248525

  33. Nepstad, DC, Schwartzman, S, Bamberger, B, Santilli, M, Ray, D, Schlesinger, P, Lefebvre, P, Alencar, A, Prinz, E, Fiske, G and Rolla, A. 2006. Inhibition of Amazon deforestation and fire by parks and indigenous reserves. Conserv Biol 20(1): 65–73. DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00351.x

  34. Nery, D, Christovam, M, Mesquita, I, Splendore, J, Stella, O and Moutinho, P. 2013. Indigenous peoples and the reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) mechanism in the Brazilian Amazon – subsidies to the discussion of benefits sharing. Brasília, Brazil: Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia.

  35. Nolte, C, Agrawal, A, Silvius, KM and Soares-Filho, BS. 2013. Governance regime and location influence avoided deforestation success of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. P Natl Acad Sci 110(13): 4956–4961. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1214786110

  36. Passos, CJ and Mergler, D. 2008. Human mercury exposure and adverse health effects in the Amazon: a review. Cadernos de Saúde Pública 24: 503–520. DOI: 10.1590/S0102-311X2008001600004

  37. Plummer, J. 2014. The Yanomami: Illegal mining, law, and indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon. Geo Int’l Envtl L Rev 27: 479.

  38. Raftopoulos, M and Morley, J. 2020. Ecocide in the Amazon: the contested politics of environmental rights in Brazil. The International Journal of Human Rights , 1–26. DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2020.1746648

  39. Reuters. 2019.

  40. RIMA – Relatório de Impacto Ambiental. 2012. Projeto Volta Grande. (accessed 17-04-2020).

  41. Rolla, A and Ricardo, F. 2013. Mineração em Terras Indígenas na Amazônia Brasileira 2013. São Paulo, Brazil: ISA.

  42. Schwartzman, S and Zimmerman, B. 2005. Conservation alliances with indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Conserv Biol 19(3): 721–727. DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2005.00695.x

  43. Soares-Filho, B, Moutinho, P, Nepstad, D, Anderson, A, Rodrigues, H, Garcia, R, Dietzsch, L, Merry, F, Bowman, M, Hissa, L, Silvestrini, R and Maretti, C. 2010. Role of Brazilian Amazon protected areas in climate change mitigation. P Natl Acad Sci 107(24): 10821–10826. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0913048107

  44. Sonter, LJ, Barrett, DJ, Soares-Filho, BS and Moran, CJ. 2014. Global demand for steel drives extensive land-use change in Brazil’s Iron Quadrangle. Global Environ Chang 26: 63–72. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.03.014

  45. Sonter, LJ, Moran, CJ, Barrett, DJ and Soares-Filho, BS. 2014b. Processes of land use change in mining regions. J Clean Prod 84: 494–501. DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.03.084

  46. Sonter, LJ, Herrera, D, Barrett, DJ, Galford, GL, Moran, CJ and Soares-Filho, BS. 2017. Mining drives extensive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Nat Commun 8(1): 1013. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-00557-w

  47. Staal, A, Flores, BM, Aguiar, APD, Bosmans, JH, Fetzer, I and Tuinenburg, OA. 2020. Feedback between drought and deforestation in the Amazon. Environ Res Lett 15(4): 044024. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab738e

  48. Tófoli, RM, Dias, RM, Alves, GHZ, Hoeinghaus, DJ, Gomes, LC, Baumgartner, MT and Agostinho, AA. 2017. Gold at what cost? Another mega project threatens biodiversity in the Amazon. Perspect Ecol Conserv 15(2): 129–131. DOI: 10.1016/j.pecon.2017.06.003

  49. Vega, CM, Orellana, JD, Oliveira, MW, Hacon, SS and Basta, PC. 2018. Human Mercury Exposure in Yanomami Indigenous Villages from the Brazilian Amazon. Int J Environ Res Public Health 15: 1051. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph15061051

  50. Villén-Pérez, S, Mendes, P, Nóbrega, C, Cortes, LG and De Marco, P, Jr. 2018. Mining code changes undermine biodiversity conservation in Brazil. Environ Conserv 45(1): 96–99. DOI: 10.1017/S0376892917000376

  51. Walker, WS, Gorelik, SR, Baccini, A, Aragon-Osejo, JL, Josse, C, Meyer, C, Macedo, MN, Augusto, C, Rios, S, Katan, T, de Souza, AA, Cuellar, S, Llanos, A, Zager, I, Mirabal, GD, Solvik, KK, Farina, MK, Moutinho, P and Schwartzman, S. 2020. The role of forest conversion, degradation, and disturbance in the carbon dynamics of Amazon indigenous territories and protected areas. PNAS . DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1913321117

  52. Zhouri, A. 2010. “Adverse forces” in the Brazilian Amazon: developmentalism versus environmentalism and indigenous rights. J Environ Dev 19(3): 252–273. DOI: 10.1177/1070496510378097

comments powered by Disqus