Commentary: After the aluminum rush: restoring the Amazon rainforest – by Peter Whitbread-Abrutat (Northern Miner – April 24, 2013)

Since 1915, the Northern Miner weekly newspaper has chronicled Canada’s globally significant mining sector.

Peter Whitbread-Abrutat holds a PhD in Mining Environmental Science from the University of Exeter, and is a mining environment and community specialist at U.K.-based independent engineering consultancy Wardell Armstrong International. He can be reached [email protected] .Visit for more information.

Can the degraded land of the Amazon rainforest be salvaged by large-scale landscape restoration? Is it really possible to rebuild ecological integrity and enhance the lives of local communities in a sustainable way?

To delve deeper into these questions, in late 2011 I took a two-month sabbatical from my position as a mining and environment consultant specializing in mine closure and post-mining regeneration at Wardell Armstrong International. It was a personal odyssey to explore world-class landscape restoration, where I came face to face with some of the biggest environmental challenges in international mining, and found some equally surprising answers.

Supported by a fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I travelled from mountaintop-removal coal mines in Appalachia to the southern tip of South America, and from the Everglades, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands to Atlantic rainforests and the farmlands and logged forests in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.

But it was in Brazil — a country determined to use its vast natural resources to help lift its citizens out of poverty — that I was best able to assess some of the biggest impacts of international mining operations, as well as some of the most pioneering restoration measures to be found anywhere in the world.

Brazil’s rapidly growing mining industry extracts metals and minerals across the Amazon. The typical image of mining here is one of thousands of garimpeiros causing environmental and human damage as they scrape gold and gemstones from the harsh earth. But while such scenes do exist, the real national wealth from Brazilian mining is produced by some of the world’s biggest mines.

My visit took in two of the largest aluminum mines in the Amazon: Mineracao Rio do Norte’s (MRN) Trombetas and Alcoa’s Juruti. The Trombetas mine is located on the Trombetas tributary of the Amazon River, and ranks as the largest aluminum mine in the world.

Mining began in the 1970s when there was little but rainforest and small, scattered communities. Today there’s an enormous surface mine and a town of a few thousand people, surrounded by the Saraca-Taquera National Forest protected area.
A legal obligation to restore the forest has been underway since 1984. Up to 2011, 9 million trees have been planted over 45 sq. km to recreate high biodiversity rainforest.

The Juruti mine, on the south side of the Amazon, is a similar bauxite deposit boasting 700 million tonnes of ore. The development is much newer, however, with mining beginning in the last couple of years and set to last until at least the end of the century.

Both operations strip-mine the expansive deposits just a few metres below the roots of the rainforest. First, the forest is cleared and the commercial timber is stockpiled. Then the 5 cm thick topsoil and the 8- to 12-metre-thick overburden are scraped off separately and stockpiled for later use in reclamation. This reveals the red bauxite below, which is excavated. The topsoil is then put back and planted with rainforest tree seedlings.

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