The front page of today’s New York Times features a big article clearly intended to get the readers riled up about the latest environmental horror that must be stopped. The headline is “The Illegal Airstrips Bringing Toxic Mining to Brazil’s Indigenous Land.” Subheadline: “The Times identified hundreds of airstrips that bring criminal mining operations to the most remote corners of the Amazon.”
Wow, this is bad. The airstrips are “illegal.” The mining is “toxic,” and not only toxic but also “criminal.” And it’s all happening in the most pristine place left in the whole world, the “remote corners of the Amazon,” much of it inhabited by the most innocent of all innocent indigenous people, the Yanomami.
So what is driving this big rush of miners into these remote regions? Could so-called “green energy” — with its vast demands for raw materials like nickel, manganese, aluminum and iron — have anything to do with it? If so, you won’t learn anything about that from the Times.
The obvious purpose of this lengthy Times piece is to get you outraged about the criminal mining wildcatters now said to be swarming the Amazon jungle. The piece starts with research conducted by the Times, using satellite photographs, that has identified a large number of airstrips — close to 1300 of them — that have been carved into the Amazon jungle, and that are now being used to bring in supplies to support the development of new mines.
Hundreds of airstrips have been secretly built on protected lands in Brazil to fuel the illegal mining industry, a Times investigation found, including 61 in this Yanomami Indigenous territory. The Times identified more than 1,200 other unregistered airstrips across the Brazilian Amazon — many of them part of criminal networks that are destroying Indigenous lands and threatening their people. . . . Carved into the dense, lush landscape, [the clandestine airstrips] . . . operate largely unchecked. . . .
And you will not be surprised to learn that this outrageous and illegal activity is all being facilitated by the callous and uncaring right-wing government of current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Since taking office in 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro has championed industries driving the rainforest’s destruction, leading to record levels of deforestation. He has both loosened regulations to expand logging and mining in the Amazon and scaled back protections. He also slashed federal funds and staffing, weakening the agencies that enforce Indigenous and environmental laws.
The illegal mining is causing extensive harm to the indigenous people of the area, at least if you believe the Times:
A recent study by Hutukara, a Yanomami nonprofit, estimated that more than half of the people living in Yanomami Brazilian territory have been hurt by illegal mining. The fallout, according to the report, includes malnourishment because of destroyed or abandoned crops, and malaria spread by the proliferation of mosquitoes in open mining pits and deforested areas.
OK, but why exactly this sudden rush of mining businesses into these remote areas? The Times offers little clue, basically just one line saying that the illegal airstrips are “pushing the illegal mining of gold and tin ore” into remote areas. But gold and tin are relatively small volume commodities on the world markets. Could these really be the main drivers?
For a somewhat different perspective on the situation of mining in the Amazon, try this February 28, 2022 piece from a publication called Undark (put out by MIT), with the headline “U.S.-Backed Companies Poised to Expand Mining in the Amazon.”
As of November , nine major mining companies considered key players in the extraction of rare metals for electric vehicle batteries had 225 active applications to expand operations into or near Indigenous territories in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
Aha! The “key players” in the mining rush into the Amazon are big companies looking for “rare metals for electric vehicle batteries.” Why am I not surprised?
So are the materials people are looking for mainly just gold and tin, or are there lots of other, higher-volume things to be found? From a publication called Mining Technology, February 12, 2018:
The Amazon rainforest in South America has large quantities of copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, manganese, iron ore and gold, making it attractive to mining companies all around the world.
Nickel and manganese — those are the big inputs to the electric vehicle batteries. Bauxite is ore for aluminum, the main material needed, along with copper, for the huge amounts of new electric transmission lines that need to be built to support wind and solar power. Iron ore? Vast amount of that will be needed for the coming onslaught of wind turbine bases.
Undark tells us that all the major American financial institutions — the same ones that are now boycotting the fossil fuel industries — are lining up to finance the big new mines in the Amazon:
U.S.-based financial institutions are among their top funders, according to a new report by Amazon Watch and the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous People, or APIB. . . . The report focuses on nine mining companies, including Vale, Anglo American, Belo Sun, and Glencore. . . . Capital Group, BlackRock, and Vanguard, which collectively invested $14.8 billion in the mining companies, are the top U.S. investors named in the report. The leading U.S.-based creditor is Bank of America, which provided $670 million in loans and underwriting services to the companies. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase were also named as top creditors.
Hey, this is for EV batteries, transmission lines, wind turbine bases, and all other kinds of good things to make the world “green.” Of course all the big financial institutions are behind it. It’s ESG investing!
And please don’t blame the people at the New York Times for undermining their own incessant and strident advocacy for green energy. They’re just following the essential principles of the official New York progressive orthodoxy as brilliantly distilled on the Manhattan Contrarian “About” page, first posted back in 2012 — particularly this part:
[U]sage of energy is a human right, but all actual known methods of producing energy are environmentally unacceptable. . . .