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Posted on March 4th, 2014

Back to School – Mining in the Amazon

A recent study was conducted on the role of UN development initiatives and the use of mapping in the politically and environmentally precarious areas of the Amazon. Amendments made in 2002 to the Brazilian Forest Code established natural preserves according to the intricacies of nearby watersheds. The law prevents commercial use of land near the preserves with steep penalties for mining, even though that industry is one of the more lucrative in the region. Using GIS and shuttle radar topography (SRTM), the UN mapped the contested areas to understand political relations and their impact on industry and the environment. In 2006, new rules were implemented locally that made great exceptions for “informal’ mining practices that continued to damage the already vulnerable and overused biome.

Spatial distribution of the permanent areas of preservation.
The Tapajos Basin is the area of focus for the study under review here. This map shows a digital elevation model for the region.

Over the last several decades there has been growing concern about the shrinking rainforest. While rainforests only account for 7% of the world’s total area, they contain more than half of the planet’s biodiversity. In the decade between 1990 and 2000, the rate of deforestation was fifteen million hectares a year. In South America alone, the continent saw a decrease of nearly 4 million hectares during the same period, and Brazil’s forest cover was reduced from 567 million hectares to 544 million hectares. The major causes for this deforestation are logging, mining and agriculture. Central to the issue are the rights of those outside national borders to have a say in internal management issues; and many in the region complain that by reducing or eliminating these practices, it effectively destroys the human potential to thrive as then they have no means to make a living.

The researchers mapped the areas of dispute and received support from the UN in stating that the existing laws, originally established in 1965, were not sufficient to support proper environmental legislation in the area. The authors sought to advance the reliability and efficacy of GIS in a region where the technology is not entirely trusted, believed by some to be a manipulated form of imperialism with the intents and purpose of usurping local control over resources. The study’s goal was, in fact, to still allow for the cultural and artisanal mining practices to continue, but to be done so in manner that is less intrusive to otherwise preserved areas, or to areas that are significantly in need of a respite from human interference.

The authors concluded that there needs to be greater effort in creating equity for the use of modern technologies in regions whose inhabitants are not accustomed to the practices. The locals should be consulted every step of the way and be shown how the use of GIS can benefit their livelihoods and future. In sum, mapping is an inherently political act that must be considered at a deeper level when used so as to prevent the abuse of power in instilling a unilateral verdict on land usage and environmental regulation.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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