Brazil expands mines to drive future, but cost is a treasured link to its past

December 17, 2012

Simon Romero – The New York Times, 12/15/2012

Archaeologists must climb tiers of orchid-encrusted rain forest, where jaguars roam and anacondas slither, to arrive at one of the Amazon’s most stunning sights: a series of caves and rock shelters guarding the secrets of human beings who lived here more than 8,000 years ago.

Almost anywhere else, these caves would be preserved as an invaluable source of knowledge into prehistoric human history. But not in this remote corner of the Amazon, where Vale, the Brazilian mining giant, is pushing forward with the expansion of one of the world’s largest iron-ore mining complexes, a project that will destroy dozens of the caves treasured by scholars.

The caves, and the spectacular mineral wealth in their midst, have presented Brazil with a dilemma. The iron ore from Carajás, exported largely to China where it is used to make steel, is a linchpin of Brazil’s ambitions of reviving a sluggish economy, yet archaeologists and other researchers contend that the emphasis on short-term financial gains imperils an unrivaled window into a nebulous past.

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