Will Brazil destroy the Amazon to save the climate?

“WHETHER it was gold, diamonds, or iron, the history of Brazil has been shaped for centuries by the hunt for minerals – but,” says Robert Muggah, “the coming treasure hunt may trump them all. The 21st century’s prizes are cobalt, lithium, nickel, niobium, and the other critical strategic minerals of which high-tech gadgets and green energy technology are built. To produce an equal amount of power, photovoltaic generation consumes 40 times more copper than fossil fuel combustion and wind power up to 14 times more iron, according to a forthcoming Igarapé Institute report. To meet the burgeoning global demand for green energy technologies—including a massive switch to electric batteries—the World Bank estimates that 3 billion tons of critical strategic minerals will be needed by 2050.”

Mr Muggah is an internationally renowned expert who uses data and evidence to explain and predict global change. For more than two decades he has worked in some of the world’s most challenging settings to promote inclusive urbanization, responsible crime prevention, more effective stability and peace operations and smarter migration policy. Using powerful visualisations can be used to track real time changes, for example, Earth Time, has tracked climactic and human-induced risks, from refugee flows, terrorism and other risks, on a planetary scale for three decades.

In an article for Foreign Policy, Mr Muggah writes “That this scramble for resources is centred on the Amazon lays bare an uncomfortable truth: Climate policy and environmental protection are not the same thing, and as the energy transition gathers pace, that trade-off is becoming increasingly evident. How Brazil handles the energy transition’s burgeoning hunger for resources will help determine whether our policies to save the planet will leave us with a planet left to save.

“Owing to its vast expanse and favourable geology, Brazil is exceedingly well endowed with highly valuable critical minerals. It sits on 94 percent of the world’s niobium, a bright, white metal crucial to strengthening steel; 22 percent of all graphite; and 16 percent of known reserves of rare-earth metals. The latter comprise 17 scarce elements, many of which are indispensable for clean energy and other technological hardware.

“Right now, most of these mineral deposits are still in the ground. Brazil is not yet mining enough of them to even rank among the world’s major producers of strategic minerals or rare earths. That could soon change, driven by rising global demand and Brazil’s centuries-old engineering and geological acumen. Brazil already mines 70 minerals, worth $62 billion in 2021. And whereas Asia’s and Africa’s potential is comparatively well known and researched, much of Brazil’s critical mineral bounty has yet to be mapped.

“But the most consequential dilemma is how to unearth, refine, and ship these valuable assets without razing forests, eroding biodiversity, and devastating Indigenous and riverine communities. Close to one-third of Brazil’s critical minerals wealth—including one of the world’s largest deposits of rare earths—lies cached beneath the Amazon Basin. The region has scant infrastructure and public institutions to manage conflicts or tensions arising over resource competition. Official data shows that close to 15 percent of known deposits lie in protected conservation areas across Brazil and more than 4 percent within Indigenous lands.

“Clearly, no government can forgo a mother lode, especially when the world is scrambling for these resources. How Brazil manages a vast expansion of its mining industry and handles the attendant environmental, social, and other negative consequences could therefore shape the rules and red lines of an expanding global mining sector for years to come.

“[Former]-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sought to boost the mining sector in 2021 with his landmark Pro-Strategic Minerals Policy. This was a marquee initiative of the country’s public-private investment program, which holds that government entities have a duty to expedite priority investments. It gives the government discretion to waive regulatory restrictions designed to protect the environment and Indigenous communities if the project is deemed to be in the “national interest.” The gates were opened to fast-tracking critical minerals exploration and mining permits.

“Even before he took office in January 2023, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva vowed to rewrite the script. He pledged to make the Amazon the centrepiece of Brazil’s green reset while also committing to prioritizing the search for vital minerals. Lula talked up mining in recent meetings with both the United States, which wants exclusive access to some of Brazil’s critical minerals, and China, which is hoovering up raw materials from everywhere.

“To be sure, Lula cannot escape the trade-offs that come with wanting to accelerate mining of critical strategic minerals on the one hand and protect the rainforest and its people on the other.

“Extracting and processing critical minerals and rare earths can exact a heavy environmental toll, from releasing carbon dioxide stored in the subsoil to spilling toxic mercury used to amalgamate gold into the rivers and food chain. Limiting these effects will be especially difficult in the vast Brazilian Amazon, an area that has long been troubled by poor governance and outright lawlessness.

“More positively, Lula seems intent on reinstating the regulations and consultation processes that his predecessor weakened or scuttled outright. Ratification of the Escazú Agreement, signed by Brazil in 2018, would go a long way to institutionalizing these protections, including safeguarding environmental defenders and Indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Efforts are also underway to lock in private sector commitments to the terms of a new green deal in Brazil.

“Encouragingly, private operators are also increasingly facing growing pressures to do good while doing well. Last December, for example, Canada-based Indigenous groups and supporters launched the Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance, calling on countries to protect against unsustainable mining in the Amazon by honouring their agreements to safe keep at least 80 percent of the river basin by 2025.

“Ultimately, that decision will fall to Brazil. If the country manages to create productive strategies for delivering both wealth and well-being, this land of prospectors has a shot at reinventing the rules for sustainable, socially responsible enterprise and its own history as well.”

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