Nov 20, 2023

Mechanized destruction of Brazil’s Amazon is rising, but not inevitable

In April, South Korean conglomerate Hyundai announced that it would prevent its excavators from being used in illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon. This followed a recent Greenpeace report that found that about 43% of the excavators seen operating in Indigenous territories there were from Hyundai.

"The Hyundai announcement is extremely important, not only in Brazil but in the world," said Danicley de Aguiar, Greenpeace Brazil's Amazon forest campaigner. "There's a debate about the responsibility of private businesses for protecting the environment and protecting human rights."

Between 2021 and 2023, Greenpeace Brazil conducted aerial flyovers and satellite mapping of illegal mining in Indigenous lands. It spotted at least 176 hydraulic excavators, almost all of them in the Yanomami, Munduruku and Kayapó Indigenous territories.

De Aguiar told Mongabay that since 2010 there's been an explosion of garimpos, or illegal mines, in the Amazon, facilitated by excavators’ capacity to remove much more soil than traditional mining.

Each machine costs more than $133,000 and can perform in 24 hours the same work as three men over 40 days, creating massive returns on investment, according to Greenpeace's report. Yet the costs reverberate far more widely. According to the Mining Impacts Calculator developed by the Conservation Strategy Fund, each kilogram of gold extracted from these territories generates $400,000 in damages, mostly to human health, equating to a social cost 10 times higher than the profits obtained.

In January 2023, the Brazilian government declared a medical emergency in the Yanomami territory after hundreds of Indigenous Yanomami children reportedly died from treatable diseases such as diarrhea and malaria. Greenpeace had earlier revealed the presence of an illegal road in the territory that was used to bring in excavators and illegal miners, stoking the humanitarian crisis and causing violence and health issues for the territory's 27,000 Yanomami inhabitants.

"This is an alert that was made because of our work in the Yanomami territory," de Aguiar said. "But it's only a fraction of what is happening in the [Amazon] region."

Hyundai has positioned itself globally as a sustainability champion, including as a signatory to the U.N.'s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In December 2021, Hyundai committed to the United Nations Global Compact, one of the world's largest voluntary corporate accountability initiatives, where member companies commit to respect 10 principles across human rights, labor, the environment, and fighting corruption.

Julia Neiva, development and socioenvironmental rights coordinator at Brazilian NGO Conectas, told Mongabay that the development of the U.N. principles in the 2000s instilled in companies a sense of responsibility with regard to their production chains. Compliance with these principles, however, isn't mandatory and is self-regulated by the respective companies, Neiva said.

"Companies often use these policies and these codes of conduct as a way to create a positive image for society, for consumers, even for international investors," she said. "This is something that companies have used a lot as a seal of quality and responsibility for human rights. But this does not necessarily translate into real changes in behavior."

In a statement, Hyundai said it sympathizes with the destruction done in the Amazon and the invasion of Indigenous peoples’ lands caused by illegal mining. To prevent the illegal use of Hyundai heavy equipment in the Amazon Basin, the company said it would strengthen its sales processes and compliance systems, and until effective, it would stop selling heavy construction equipment, including the provision of maintenance and parts, in the three Amazonian states of Amazonas, Pará and Roraima.

Hyundai said it would also terminate a subdealership with authorized reseller BMG for selling to illegal miners, and pledged to cooperate with the Brazilian government as far as possible. Greenpeace's report noted that BMG established dealerships and facilities in the vicinity of the three Indigenous territories that account for 95% of all the illegal mines in Indigenous lands across Brazil. It also noted that a BMG representative had expressed solidarity with illegal miners and admiration for former president Jair Bolsonaro's approach to mining, which included the invasion of Indigenous territories.

"It is important for a giant company like [Hyundai] to recognize that it is involved in human rights violations and is contributing to illegal actions and even generating a risk of contributing to the disappearance of a people," Neiva said.

She added that "there are reports that have been published for many years about these violations, so you can't claim that you didn't know. There is a conflict of interest, and the companies benefit from conflicting relationships."

According to Brazilian heavy machinery industry association ABIMAQ, since 2018 demand for excavators in Brazil has increased by about 40% each year. In 2020, Brazil's Federal Public Prosecutor's Office (MPF) initiated a civil inquiry to determine the responsibility of manufacturers and suppliers of heavy machinery for damages related to illegal mining in protected areas. It also requested information from the various brands operating in Brazil.

The clarifications requested include questions regarding the measures companies have adopted to prevent the use of their machinery in illegal activities, especially in protected areas, including the use of installing preventive technologies. Only three of the six companies questioned answered; Hyundai was among those that didn't respond.

Neiva said the activities of Hyundai and other multinational companies whose products or services are used in illegal activity in Brazil need to be seen in the wider context of business and human rights in the country.

"We want these companies to invest in Brazil," she said. "But there's a limit, and the limit is human rights. That's the bar. We will not accept jobs that are not decent or that [show that] these companies do not respect our populations."

Greenpeace's report showed that 79% of the hydraulic excavators spotted were in the Kayapó Indigenous Territory, an area a third the size of South Korea. Doto Takak Ire, the leader of the Kayapó people, told Mongabay that while illegal mining had increased significantly in the past 18 years, it was especially bad during the 2019-2022 Bolsonaro presidency.

"When Bolsonaro started campaigning [in 2018], he wanted to legalize garimpos in Indigenous lands and other protected areas," Takak said. "And because of that we suffered a lot."

He said the garimpos brought violence to their communities and that the mercury used by the illegal miners contaminated the fish that are central to the Indigenous communities’ diet. However, with a new national government in office since January 2023, Takak said they’re already seeing changes for the better, including in the leadership of Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs.

"Now we have a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. And now we have an Indigenous president of Funai, Joenia Wapichana," Takak said. "So now if we find anything, any invasion, any illegality, we report it."

Mongabay reached out to the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples for comment, but didn't receive a response by the time this story was published.

In addition to fighting garimpos and the use of heavy machinery head on, Greenpeace said there's also a need to address the chronic poverty in the Brazilian Amazon through a different model of economic development. Currently, 45% of the nearly 30 million Brazilians living in the Amazon live below the poverty line.

"We are talking about a region that has huge pockets of poverty that invariably provides labor for predatory activities," de Aguiar said. "We need to break away from what we call the destructive economy, and we need a new economy, an economy capable of living with the forest and an economy capable of respecting human rights.

"It is a hand that holds a chainsaw, a hand that operates the drilling tool, a hand that operates the hydraulic excavator," de Aguiar added. "It is the hand of a poor person, so if we want to overcome the garimpo economy, we have to tackle poverty."

While systemic changes are being made, the Greenpeace report noted a multipronged approach is needed to combat the illegal use of heavy machinery in the Amazon. This includes investigating the financiers of the equipment, preventing public financing from underwriting their purchases, and developing strong policies to avoid selling to individuals and entities involved in illegal mining operations. Greater oversight is also needed for lending by big banks.

The report also noted that since 2008, Hyundai's excavators have featured a remote management system called Hi-MATE, which uses GPS to collect data about its machines, such as service and maintenance details.

"For productivity reasons, they all have them, not only Hyundai, but also a Caterpillar, Volvo, all the big companies have software to track the machines so the owner of the machines can know how the machine is working, where it is, if it's consuming too much fuel," said Pedro Araújo, co-creator of Code of Conscience, an open-source software initiative that restricts the use of heavy equipment in protected areas. "They already know that because of the costs."

Code of Conscience, developed by the AKQA advertising agency, is meant to be installed on heavy equipment and can detect when it approaches the boundary of a protected area. It then sends an alert to the operator, and if the operator continues advancing into the protected area, the machine can be remotely disabled.

Araújo said the software uses freely available data from the U.N. that's automatically updated every month. It can even be used at sea to track illegal fishing. He told Mongabay that the system was prototyped, tested and launched in 2019, after which AKQA invited the 10 biggest heavy equipment manufacturers in the world to use it. While Brazilian agricultural company 3Tentos is now using it, and there have been "good conversations" with other companies, no one else has taken it up, Araújo said.

"A lot of times when you see images of deforestation and you see the machines, they have a huge logo of the companies there, it's really bad PR for them," said Hugo Viega, AKQA's global chief creative officer, who was also part of the Code of Conscience development team.

"It was really the way we were trying to sell [the technology] that their machines won't appear anymore in these kinds of images," Viega said.

Many companies claim they have no control over what the buyers of their equipment do. Others, like agricultural equipment giant John Deere, claim to know within an inch where their machines are at any time. The code developed by Viega's team can close this gap by being installed directly onto the operating systems of the machines at the factory, to ensure they can't be used to destroy protected areas.

The Brazilian government could force companies using heavy equipment near protected areas to use the technology, Viega said. He added this could save the authorities significant time and resources on monitoring, allowing them to quickly respond to breaches.

"It's all about interest, because heavy machinery companies could do it," Viega said. "Maybe [the companies] will lose the people that are doing harm, but they will get the love and the interest from companies that have a sustainability focus … because these brands have this system installed in it and they are committing that the system in their machines will never hurt protected areas."

Banner image: Image courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

Related reading

A frontline view of the fight against illegal mining in Yanomami territory

Illegal road found in Yanomami land accelerates destruction

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