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Vermont Quarterly

Mining’s Major Impact on Amazon Forest

Wetlands on Brazil's coastline
Photograph by Neil Palmer (CIAT)


Mining’s Major Impact on Amazon Forest

GUND INSTITUTE | Sprawling mining operations in Brazil are destroying much more of the iconic Amazon forest than previously thought, according to the first comprehensive study of mining deforestation in the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

The research, published in Nature Communications, finds that mining-related forest loss caused roughly 10 percent of all Amazon deforestation between 2005 and 2015, much higher than previous estimates.

Surprisingly, roughly 90 percent of deforestation related to mining occurred outside the mining leases granted by Brazil’s government, the UVM-led study finds. Mining-induced deforestation was twelve times greater outside the mine lease areas than within them, extending as far as seventy kilometers beyond mine borders.

“These results show that mining now ranks as a substantial cause of Amazon forest loss,” says Laura Sonter of UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment. “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. This includes 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. 

“Our findings show that Amazon deforestation associated with mining extends remarkable distances from the point of mineral extraction,” says Gillian Galford of the Gund Institute and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

The findings come as Brazil’s government considers legislation that would further ease environmental regulations and lift restrictions on mining in protected and indigenous areas. Currently, when companies apply for mining leases, they do not need to account for any damage their operations may cause offsite, researchers say.

“We hope these findings help government, industry, and scientists to work together to address this issue,” says Sonter, who led the study as a UVM postdoctoral researcher, before joining the University of Queensland in Australia.


tree cover and human health

A UVM-led study of 300,000 children in thirty-five nations says kids whose watersheds have greater tree cover are less likely to experience diarrheal disease, the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five. Published in Nature Communications, the study is the first to quantify the connection between watershed quality and individual health outcomes of children at the global scale.

“This suggests that protecting watersheds, in the right circumstances, can double as a public health investment,” says Brendan Fisher of the Gund Institute and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “This shows, very clearly, how ‘natural infrastructure’ can directly support human health and welfare.”

The research team predicts that a 30 percent increase in upstream tree cover in rural watersheds would have a comparable effect to improved water sanitation, such as the addition of indoor plumbing or toilets.

 “We are not saying trees are more important than toilets and indoor plumbing,” says Diego Herrera, who led the paper as a UVM postdoctoral researcher, and is now at Environmental Defense Fund. “But these findings clearly show that forests and other natural systems can complement traditional water sanitation systems, and help compensate for a lack of infrastructure.” 

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