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Armadillo in rainforest at night

Salobo Copper Mine, Brazil

Salobo in the Amazon basin is the site of Brazil's largest copper deposit, estimated at more than 1B tonnes. Mining giant Vale was keen to unlock its potential, which meant meeting stringent environmental legislation. Our environmental experts were called in to assist.

Our report into the impact on biodiversity of Brazil’s largest copper mine, prepared in just six months, was acclaimed by the country’s Environment Agency as the most comprehensive yet produced and secured approval for mine operation.

Leopard in rain forest
Protecting threatened species
Protecting threatened species Our specialists encountered the near-extinct jaguar and leopard as well as every other type of big cat known to inhabit the Amazon basin.

Minimising mining impact

To manage risk to the environment, Brazil has some of the toughest environmental and social requirements in the world, designed to protect its biodiversity, indigenous people and cultural heritage. It’s not just the environment that must be considered. Prospective mining companies must also demonstrate that local communities will not become so dependent on the mine for employment that they are devastated when production inevitably ceases.

Charting the unexplored

Vale needed to obtain the last part of a licence required to develop the Salobo site, which is likely to cover 45sq km. But there was a lack of data about the remote site. Like much of the Amazon, it was unexplored, making the impact of mining difficult to assess. The company turned to environmental specialist Habtec, now part of the Mott MacDonald Group. We were engaged to undertake terrestrial and aquatic fauna studies to get the programme back on track.

The Salobo site was challenging to analyse. It is 1000km from Belém, the nearest major city, which made it difficult to access. The nearest airport was 270km from the site, and roads were unpaved in many places. But without the environmental licence, our client could not proceed. Our input was vital to the survival of the entire programme.

We mobilised 70 expert researchers from regional universities around the country, who helped us with their extensive knowledge of Amazonian ecology and with carrying out wildlife sampling, reinforcing our permanent team of 20.

Wildlife and workers

Our specialists found an area teeming with life and encountered many rare and threatened species. Among the exotic fauna we catalogued were the near-extinct jaguar and leopard, as well as every other type of big cat known to inhabit the Amazon basin; 241 species of birds, including the endangered Hyacinth Macaw; 257 varieties of ants; 109 species of bees; 93 different forms of amphibians and reptiles; and almost 40 types of large mammals, including howler monkeys, deer, tapir and armadillos. We built up a detailed understanding of the area’s wildlife, their habitats and migratory movements.

Despite the vast surface area required for the mine – roughly equivalent to 6300 football pitches – the Salobo site is completely surrounded by 12,000sq km of forest, enough to eliminate the need to artificially rehome fauna.

Understanding the local ecology was of paramount importance for worker safety too, as endemic diseases such as yellow fever are found in the rainforest. Developing a clear picture of the area – and what was contained within it – allowed us to make accurate recommendations about protective equipment and vaccinations.

Our report was submitted to Brazil’s Environment Agency less than six months after we were engaged. Not only did our work directly result in the government releasing the necessary licence to Vale, but the agency commented that it was the most effective assessment yet submitted.

Evaluating scope saves cost

Our role didn’t end there. Using a benchmark of ‘normal conditions’, we monitored the environment over the three years it took to construct the mining site, assessing any and all impacts on the fauna and using our detailed insight of the region to propose mitigation measures. It became clear to our team that the scope of ongoing fauna sampling and monitoring stipulated by the licence was unnecessarily extensive. We recommended that the operation be reduced and refocused, cutting the number of areas studied, proposals that our client and the government accepted. A much leaner, more efficient and cost-effective operation continues, fully meeting regulation and safeguarding the Amazon while saving our client money.

The monitoring programme was completed and an operating licence for the mine was granted. Our work continues with environmental education of mine workers, the development of an ecological trail and five books cataloguing the wildlife found in the area.

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