Infrastructure Drives Development in the Brazilian Amazon: Highway –> Hydroelectric Plant –> Gold Mine

Big changes are happening in the Brazilian Amazon along a stretch of the Xingu River known as the Volta Grande (Big Bend), where it takes a detour to the south before turning back north to flow into the Amazon River. The region has experienced rapid growth and deforestation following the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR 230 ) in 1972, as this pair of images illustrates:

1988:  Satellite imagery showing the Volta Grande region along the Xingu River in Brazil’s Para state. Tendrils of deforestation reveal settlement reaching out into the rainforest along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, built in 1972. Site of the future Belo Monte hydroelectric project is marked for reference. Compare with 2016 image below of the same area.

 

2016:  The same area as shown above in 1988. Considerable deforestation has occurred in the 18-year interval.

Small-scale gold mining has also occurred in this area over the past few decades, peaking in the 1980s. But now a major hydroelectric project, that became operational in 2015 and is still under construction, may be paving the way for a multinational mining company, Belo Sun of Canada, to propose a massive open-pit gold-mining operation.  Some local residents, already negatively impacted by the hydro project, are wary of the gold mining proposal: “I have seen mining companies elsewhere, they take all the wealth and leave craters. We have to think about it ten times over before accepting their projects.”

The mining operation is temporarily on hold, so there’s nothing yet to see.  But Google Earth does have high-resolution satellite imagery showing the construction of the hydroelectric project that may be a key part of the business plan for this mining project.

2014: High-resolution panchromatic (black and white) satellite imagery of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project under construction on Brazil’s Xingu River. Project became operational in 2015. Compare with 2010 image below of the same area.

 

2010: High-resolution satellite imagery showing the site of the future Belo Monte hydroelectric project. Compare with 2016 image above of same area.

As we can see from the detail below, showing a line of trucks at work on the dam in 2014, this is a huge project. And the development sequence illustrated so clearly in this area shows that one big project begets another — from highway, to hydro, to mine.

Detail from 2014 satellite imagery showing trucks at work on part of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project.

The influx of people that results is inexorably transforming the Amazon rainforest.

Into… Ohio?

Mining in Ghana’s Forest Reserves

Gold mining chewing up a forest reserve in Ghana. Satellite image taken in 2015.

The government of Ghana has been giving permission to major multinational mining corporations to conduct surface mining operations, mostly for gold, in areas that had been set aside as forest reserves.  Imagery from Google Earth tells the tale of one of these large operations, the Akyem mine operated by Newmont, a Colorado-based company.  The rapid explosion in size of the operation is obvious.  What’s less apparent is the magnitude of the impact on the adjacent forest reserve.  (To be clear: the mining is obliterating the forest, like surface mining anywhere. But we can’t say how big an area of the reserve has been affected.) We don’t have reliable data defining the boundaries of the reserve, so we can’t quantify the destruction of protected forest due to mining activity.  If we can find GIS-ready data showing the reserve boundaries, we’ll update this post.

Akyem project area, 2003. Pre-mining, moderate-resolution satellite image.

Akyem project area, 2012, two years after mining was approved. High-resolution satellite image.

Akyem project area, 2015. The mining operation is 6.5 kilometers across and covers a total area of about 10 square kilometers.  High-resolution satellite image. Smoke, tropical humidity, and dust blowing out of the Sahara make it tough to get crisp imagery in sub-Saharan Africa.