The researchers say an area the size of Switzerland is under threat from mining alone. Image courtesy Alexander C. Lees

New laws threaten Brazil's unique ecosystems

Brazil´s globally significant ecosystems could be exposed to mining and dams if proposals currently being debated by the Brazilian Congress go ahead, according to research co-authored by an Exeter academic published today in the journal Science.  

The new report by a group of Brazilian and British researchers comes in the wake of Brazil´s recent presidential elections.

It warns that new legislation could pose a serious threat to protected areas, weakening Brazil’s international status as an environmental leader.

One of the proposals of particular concern is the call to open up 10% of the most strictly protected areas to mining. In a new analysis, the research shows that at least 20% of all Brazil´s most strictly protected areas and reserves for indigenous people overlap with areas that have been registered as under consideration for mining.

In addition, many of the river systems associated with protected areas will be influenced by the construction of large hydroelectric dams.

The threat that this mining and hydropower poses to Brazil’s ecosystems is not trivial. Areas of registered interest for mining include 34,117 km2 that are currently classified as strictly protected areas – including National Parks, Biological Reserves and Wildlife Refuges. This is equivalent to an area the size of Switzerland.

The situation is worse for indigenous lands, 28% of which, or 281,443 km2, overlap with areas of registered mining interest – an area larger than the whole of the UK.

In recent years Brazil has enjoyed increasing recognition as a world leader in combating environmental destruction. Brazil´s protected area network is the largest in the world, while improved environmental governance in private lands has contributed to an 80% reduction in the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the last decade. Yet these new proposals could threaten these recent successes and undermine Brazil’s reputation.

Dr Joice Ferreira, a scientist at Brazil´s agricultural research institute, Embrapa, and lead author of the study, said: “The purpose of this analysis is not to say that Brazil´s development should not benefit from its abundant natural resources, but that we should not squander our hard-won record of success and leadership in favour of fast-tracked and poorly planned development projects that leave a long legacy of environmental damage. It is possible to manage our development in a more sustainable way.”

The authors also warn that the proposals for minimizing and mitigating the environmental damage of large-scale development projects are so inadequate that even if only a fraction of these mining concessions were approved then the impacts could be enormous.

Co-author Dr. Luiz Aragão of Geography at the University of Exeter and Brazil´s federal space agency (INPE) said: “Our concern is that even if the proposed mitigation actions were put in place they are oversimplified because they fail to take account of the indirect effects of mega-projects. These projects can involve thousands of workers and lead to rapid local population growth. This, combined with new roads and access routes, is a recipe for the emergence of new deforestation frontiers.”

Date: 7 November 2014