Deforestation from mining is new Amazon threat

26 October 2017
Dr Laura Sonter (left) of UQ and Dr Gillian Galford (University of Vermont)

Sprawling mining operations in Brazil are destroying more of the iconic Amazon forest than previously thought, according to a new study involving a University of Queensland academic.

Amazonian mining operations.  Photos courtesy University of Vermont

UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences researcher Dr Laura Sonter said the study found that mining-related forest loss caused roughly 10 percent of all Amazon deforestation between 2005 and 2015, much higher than previous estimates.

Dr Sonter, whose research was conducted at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment, said surprisingly, roughly 90 percent of mining-induced deforestation occurred outside the mining leases granted by Brazil’s government.

Deforestation related to mining was 12 times greater outside the mine lease areas than within them, extending as far 43.5 miles (70 km) beyond mine borders.

“These results show that mining now ranks as a substantial cause of Amazon forest loss,” Dr Sonter said.

“Previous estimates assumed mining caused maybe one or two percent of deforestation. Hitting the 10 percent threshold is alarming and warrants action.”

Mining infrastructure is one key form of off-lease deforestation, researchers say, including worker housing and new transportation routes – roads, railways and airports.

Built by mining companies or developers, these routes also enable other forms of deforestation, including agriculture, which remains the leading cause of Amazon forest loss. 

University of Vermont Research Assistant Professor Gillian Galford said the findings showed that Amazon deforestation associated with mining extended remarkable distances from the point of mineral extraction.

Dr Sonter said mining-related deforestation (11,670 km2) was significantly larger than previously assumed, twice the size of the state of Delaware.

 “We hope these findings help government, industry and scientists to work together to address this issue,” Dr Sonter said.

Brazil is currently considering proposals to ease current environmental restrictions further on mine development.

The study, Mining drives extensive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, is published in Nature Communications (doi 10.1038/s41467-017-00557-w) and was conducted by researchers in the U.S., Brazil and Australia.

Media: Dr Laura Sonter, l.sonter@uq.edu.au, +61 7 334 61646. @LauraSonter

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