Gold mining or chocolate making? Some indigenous tribes in the Amazon have made their choice.
Brazilian tribespeople grow cacao to help their forests
Gold or chocolate? Some indigenous tribes in the Amazon have made their choice and their environment is likely to benefit as a result.
Across the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, known as “the lung of the world,” an estimated 2,312 illegal mining sites in 245 areas were recently pinpointed by researchers. These gold mines, usually run by artisanal wildcat miners called garimpeiros, have been destroying large areas of forest. Numerous trees have been cleared and earth has been dug up to make way for mining sites and ponds.
And the hazards posed by gold miners do not stop there. Illegal small-scale mining has led to the buildup of toxins such as mercury in local soil and freshwater. Many waterways in the area have been polluted by the heavy metal, which is used in gold extraction, killing and sickening aquatic animals.
Gold mining has also encroached on protected forests inhabited by Yanomami Indians. As a result, not only have wildlife habitats been degraded but the water and food resources of indigenous tribes have also been impacted. “There is a garimpo epidemic in Brazil, we are talking about impact on biodiversity and forests, we are talking about the use of mercury, we are talking about stealing riches from indigenous people and from Brazil,” says Nilo D’Avila, campaigns director at Greenpeace Brasil.
Gold mining is destructive to indigenous tribes living in their reserve, but it is also seductive to some of them. The illegal activity provides good incomes to locals who desire to buy amenities from the outside world. One answer, therefore, lies in providing an alternative source of income for locals.
Villages belonging to the Ye’kwana and Yanomami tribes have joined a sustainability project to improve their financial situation. The project involves producing organic chocolate from cacao grown under native trees. “We want to plant and develop income for the community. And it is not destructive for the forest,” says Júlio Ye’kwana, president of the Ye’kwana people’s Wanasseduume Association.
Cacao trees are native to the Amazon rainforest. Chocolate made from the beans was already highly prized by the Aztecs in faraway Mexico. Cacao trees have been a cash crop ever since. If the trees are cultivated sustainably, grown under the canopy of other trees, local forests can stay intact, leaving an area’s biodiversity relatively undisturbed.
Tribespeople in the reserve have planted many new cacao trees to supplement their incomes. By next year around 7,000 new trees are likely to grow in the area, yielding plenty of cacao beans. “If this project succeeds, we will not have to go to the city or work in the gold mine to make money,” Ye’kwana attests.