Brazil, one of the world's great emerging economies, is at a crossroads. As the country seeks to accelerate economic growth, it risks losing ties to both its natural and cultural history.
A new development project in Carajas is under way to mine the rich iron ore deposits in the region. The project is being pushed by Vale, a massive corporation and economic powerhouse that accounts for a full 16% of Brazil's exports. The problem is that the site contains a network of caves that archaeologists believe could help offer insight into the earliest days of human habitation in the Americas.
A fight for our shared history
This is no minor thing. There are roughly 2,000 caverns in the region and evidence has been found of human habitation dating back 9,000 years. Vale has worked to address some environmental and archaeological concerns with the project, changing their plans to preserve some of the caves and promising to protect others in the region to offset their project's impact. However, by their own count, they'll still need to destroy at least 24 caves. Vale, after all, is a mining company, and its overriding priority is extracting and shipping additional iron ore.
It's hard to quantify exactly what will be lost if the mine project goes forward, but as Genival Crescencio, a caver and historian, explained to the New York Times:
This is a crucial moment to learn about the human history of the Amazon, and by extension the peopling of the Americas. We should be preserving this unique place for science, but we are destroying it so the Chinese can open a few more car factories.
Renato Kipnis, a respected archaeologist from Sao Paulo, also sees the caves as important, but was barred from going into detail by Vale who made him sign a confidentiality agreement after hiring him to survey the caves in Carajas.
Vale was given a crucial environmental licence in June, but still needs an installation licence for the project to go forward, which is expected to be awarded in 2013. In the meantime Brazil must decide what to prioritise: a temporary spike in economic growth, or irreplaceable caves that could hold the secrets to our past.
Read more: This isn't the first time Vale has been at the heart of a controversy. The company has been at the heart of the Belo Monte mega-dam project and many other destructive projects over the past few years.
Sources: New York Times, BBC, Avaaz, Amazon Watch