Forests and caves of iron: An Amazon dilemma


David Shukman takes a look inside the world's largest iron ore mine

In the heart of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, giant diggers tear into the rock 24 hours a day to extract a dark grey ore rich in the iron on which every modern economy depends.

The Carajas complex is the largest iron ore mine on the planet and at any one time 3,000 people are toiling here in the tropical heat using a fleet of giant machines including trucks the size of houses.

Amid an ocean of lush green jungle, a series of four manmade chasms stretching deep into the rock represents an ugly first step in the long process involved in making steel.

The company operating the mine, the Brazilian giant Vale, often criticised for causing environmental devastation, claims it is planning to restore this landscape to its original state.

The conundrum of Carajas is that we all make use of steel but that comes at a price to the natural world.

Constant struggle

This is the source of a constant struggle between Vale's desire to reach new seams of ore and attempts by the environmental authorities to keep the expansion under control.

It is also at the core of the debate on sustainable development at the Rio+20 summit under way this week.

I reported on a similar contest in the UK last week, over plans for the expansion of Lydd Airport in Kent close to the wildlife reserve of Romney Marsh.

Opening to cave The caves are thought to contain unusual biology

The iron rush here at Carajas was only triggered by a chance discovery.

An American geologist, whose helicopter needed refuelling at Carajas in 1967, reputedly bent down to retie a shoelace and noticed the Amazonian soil littered with chunks of rich ore.

The lumps he found here, almost as black as coal, are surprisingly heavy - I picked one up - because this ore has one of the highest iron contents anywhere in the world.

Huge operation

Nearly half a century later, the mine processes a staggering 300,000 tonnes every day and last year generated an immense total of 109 million tonnes - snapped up by the fast-industrialising economies of Asia.

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What was once a landscape of dense vegetation is a now a moonscape of bare cliffs and billowing dust.”

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At first sight the mining operation appears breathtakingly destructive.

For a start the mine is smack in the middle of a National Forest and what was once a landscape of dense vegetation is a now a moonscape of bare cliffs and billowing dust.

The whoops and cries of jungle birdsong are replaced by the constant roar and grind of hundreds of massive engines.

But Vale, like most multinationals these days, is eager to promote the idea that sustainability is embedded in its thinking and points to a series of measures designed to limit the mine's impact.

David Shukman goes inside the lost caves of the Amazon

The operations manager of the mine, Jaymilson Magalhaes, tells me that the mine complex only covers about 3% of the area of the national forest and that before any digging can start, the company has to have a restoration plan to return the area to its original state.

That includes using spoil to fill in the mines once they are exhausted to reshape the topography - a process we witnessed in one small area - and undertake a massive replanting programme using native species.

"I believe we genuinely can restore the forest and we have a strategy to do that," Jaymilson tells me.

"What we do is very careful planning so that when we finish we know exactly the plants we need to replant and we have nurseries with the original vegetation.

"When we grow them we will reposition the soil so the forest can grow back to its original state."

Trying to be green
Amazon skyline The area is one of great natural beauty

Vale also highlights its support for an extensive monitoring operation in the forest run by the Brazilian Government's conservation agency ICMBio - so we checked with the agency to get their perspective.

Frederico Drumond Martins of ICMBio is the manager of the national forest and agrees that Vale is trying to be greener - for example, he says, he only has 12 rangers but Vale pays for a further 80, plus cars, boats and the use of a helicopter, all vital to guard against illegal logging and poaching.

"Vale is really trying to operate sustainably but there's a long way to go - for Vale the iron comes first and Nature second or third."

Frederico and his colleagues are locked in a series of disputes with Vale over its plans for new mines in the forest.

"My job," he tells me, "is not to stop the mining - it is good for the economy and it puts Brazil in a good position in the world - but it is to control it."

Precious caves

One of his greatest concerns is to preserve a surprising and recently discovered world beneath the Amazon - a series of caves lurking in the iron ore under the forest floor.

In this one region, some 2,000 caverns have been found and scientists regard them as potentially precious features because of their iron content, unusual biology and archaeological remains.

A cave we descended into hosts four species of bat - only one of them carnivorous, luckily - and excavations in its floor have revealed evidence of human habitation as long as 9,000 years ago.

The air inside was cool and musty and there was a constant squeaking from the bats as they fluttered above our heads.

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The iron is for this generation but the forest is for the next generation”

End Quote Frederico Drumond Martins ICMBio

ICMBio and Vale are surveying the caves to rank their importance - only those granted the highest grade will be saved from mining while some may be destroyed if others are preserved.

The status of the cave we visited has yet to be decided so its fate is unclear.

It lies within a zone identified for potential mining by Vale but any bid to start digging will require a lengthy planning battle.

The rainforest is under assault from a variety of sources and, compared to soya planting and cattle grazing, iron ore mining causes relatively minor damage.

And there's an irony: the vehicles used by the conservation rangers around are made with steel that may have had its origins in this very landscape.

Expansion of the mines would create new jobs and lead to valuable exports. An informal estimate of one planned project is that the ore could yield, at current prices, a staggering $800bn.

Set against that is a growing awareness of the uniqueness of the forest, not only with the ecosystems thriving within and below its canopy, but also a dark and largely unknown realm under the forest floor.

As Frederico of ICMBio puts it: "The iron is for this generation but the forest is for the next generation."

As the host of the Rio+20 summit this week, Brazil faces its own difficult choices over how to define the much-disputed phrase 'sustainable development' and what it means for the jungles and caves of the Amazon.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    #17 Jonathon Holt
    "We humans are like trust fund kids, blowing our way through inherited capital. "

    The Reith Lecture on Radio 4 this morning said something very similar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    We humans are like trust fund kids, blowing our way through inherited capital. If the family silver, the family seat and the family portraits are seen only as a cash generator for the next party or holiday we will soon be left with nothing of true worth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Provide corridors from old growth forest and the fauna will recolonise the new plantations. They do need to be wide corridors. Richard Black's recent rainforest regeneration report mentioned that tamarinds need at least 40 metres width.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Its all very well replanting the flora but it isnt rainforest without fauna.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It is unfortunate that this report has come out at a time when drought seems to be pushing much of the western Amazon rainforest across the tipping point from rainforest to scrub desert.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Overpopulation, overpopulation, overpopulation ....

    Any other questions ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Across the world, companies are paying attention to natural capital as well as to climate change: it is governments that are dragging their heals. The problem remains that we live on a finite planet and that basic resources are running out. As long as it is cheaper and/or easier to mine fresh ore than it is to recycle we are hurrying towards a bleak future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Vale, the Brazilian government and ICMBio all have different priorities. It is good to see them working in relative harmony.
    Corporations are coming to recognise that a society which collapses from overpopulation, resource depletion and climate change is bad for business. They are certainly paying the problem more attention than the governments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    We are not unique in being endlessly destructive, reproducing too much and using more resources than we can afford. Any organism will do that given the chance. Put a bunch of water fleas in a jar and feed them and they will reproduce endlessly until they run out of food, pollute themselves in their own waste and all die. What makes us different is that we know we are doing it and still do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Surely the act of replanting the vegetation after using the site as a mine will work as a form of carbon offsetting, I can see that there are deremental effects in the short term, however an economy such as that of Brazil needs to use it's assets (Natural resources). We did it here in the UK and we're hardly in a position to preach about green politics now are we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Isn't quaint how all these "save the planet" statements are being written on technology that has huge energy requirements and generates vast amounts of toxins.

    We're not destroying the planet, merely accelerating the point at which human life is unsustainable.... when we're gone, we're gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Its amazing to find only 6 comments on this article whereas there are hundreds of comments on most articles in the economy and immigration related ones. Clear indicator of how much disregard humans as a species have for the environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Unfortunately the human population is ruining poor old planet Earth......It cannot go on and on and on this way can it?..........people before trees, wildlife, the oceans, that is what the polititicians seem to want world wide..........just destroy Earth to make room for more industry. Not good or sustainable to keep cutting down vital jungles. Think about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Vale seems to be working quite well with ICMBio in this instance and if they are going to restore the topography after the mine is exhausted then it sounds like a win/win situation. Brazil is a rapidly expanding economy and needs to make use of it's natural resources to be competitive on the worldwide stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Old UK quarries can teem with life, and be good places for rock-climbers.
    Another irony: A mining company being required to fill-in holes it has dug in the ground, while protecting other holes in the ground!

    It's not all doom. Economies such as the US recycle a high fraction of steel. In time, China will do the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    #2 "the rich west".... which western nation is this? We all owe trillions to China. China of course being the major buyer of this iron-ore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Its not just about over-population, its over consumerisation. We need to use less, stop being greedy and remove the debts owed by some countries that are using these resources to pay back the rich west. Bring back a balance. Will it happen....?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    With seven billion people on the planet, rampant comercialisation and an ever growing trend of consumerism, just how surprised are we supposed to be that the world is being torn up for profit and self gratification


    1. We all pack up our lifestyles and live in caves, or
    2. We GET A GRIP on the overpopulation problem

    Your choice



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