With gold prices skyrocketing and demand for other minerals on the rise, mining poses a growing threat to communities and ecosystems around the world. Conducting geospatial analysis of the Amazon biogeographic region, this report estimates, for the first time, the full extent of legal, large-scale mining concessions and illegal mining operations on Indigenous territories within the rainforest. It finds that, together, legal and illegal mining now cover more than 20% of Indigenous lands, endangering hundreds of Indigenous communities and critical ecosystems across 450,000 square kilometers.
Mining, the study also shows, is polluting at least 30 Amazonian rivers and eroding communities’ proven ability to prevent deforestation. From 2000 to 2015, Indigenous lands with mining activities had higher incidences of tree cover loss than those without mining. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, for example, forest loss was at least three times higher in Indigenous territories with mining operations – both legal and illegal – than those without; and one to two times higher in Colombia and Venezuela.
Yet national laws often favor companies over Indigenous communities, the study’s comprehensive legal assessment of six Amazonian countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Peru, reveals. Although these countries all grant important legal protections to communities, these land rights are insufficient and leave most Indigenous Peoples vulnerable to mining. Government oversight of mining activities across Indigenous lands, enforcement of existing legal protections and compliance with international environmental and social safeguards also remain weak in practice, creating tensions between Indigenous communities and miners that often escalate into violent conflict.
Protecting Indigenous lands, including the sustainable development and environmental benefits they generate, will require a radical shift in governments’ and companies’ approaches to mining. Amazonian countries should strengthen Indigenous Peoples’ land and natural resource rights; establish and enforce social and environmental safeguards aligned with international standards; more consistently monitor mining operations across Indigenous lands; and step up efforts to identify and prosecute those who facilitate illegal mining practices. Companies, the report recommends, should comply with these stricter safeguards as well as invest in ecological restoration and reforestation of old mining sites.
Industrial mining concessions cover approximately 1.28 million square kilometers (more than 18 percent) of the Amazon. Mining concessions and illegal mining overlap with 450,000 sq. km (more than 20 percent) of indigenous lands and affect 1,131 (31 percent) Indigenous lands.
Overall, Indigenous lands on which mining is carried out showed a higher rate of forest loss (from 2000 to 2015) than Indigenous lands without mining. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, the rate was at least three times higher; in Colombia and Venezuela, it was one to two times higher.
National laws provide Indigenous Peoples with some land rights but few rights to the minerals on their lands. Only in Guyana do Indigenous Peoples have a limited form of consent, and only in Colombia do they have the right of first refusal over commercial mining on their lands.
In practice, the law is not well implemented by miners or enforced by governments. Indigenous Peoples have employed various strategies, such as litigation, to protect their lands from mining.
There is a need to strengthen legal protections for Indigenous lands, establish strong social and environmental safeguards, build the capacity of Indigenous Peoples to protect their lands, ensure all mining meets established safeguards and provide for effective law enforcement.