Gandarela: The Avatar is right here
by Paulo Baptista *
As in James Cameron’s movie, the Serra do Gandarela’s region is facing today a dispute between the ever growing enterprise profits and the need to preserve the untouched patrimony of an environmental paradise. The Gandarela range encloses the most significant area of ferruginous camps and of Atlantic Forest in the Quadrilátero Aquífero, a region that bears the biggest groundwater volume and potable water springs of central Minas Gerais state. The Gandarela aquifer has been estimated as having around 1,6 trillion litres of potable water, and its recharge by rainfall is done through the “canga” (a shield of ironstone pebble conglomerates) that covers its highest peaks. Its protection is strategic to the future of the Metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte: the waters of upper Velhas river, fed by the west side of the Gandarela range and collected in Bela Fama station, in Nova Lima, supplies 60% of Belo Horizonte’s water demand and 45% of the RMBH’s.
That hydric patrimony can be estimated at hundreds of billions of Reais, if it is seen as a reservoir to be used in the future by the population. In the areas subjected to mining activities, however, that “canga” layer, that hosts an ecosystem of great biodiversity and high degree of endemism, that is to say, with species which occurrence is restrict to few places and therefore extremely vulnerable, is exploded and thrown away as “waste piles” in order to mine the iron ore. That destroys the vegetation and greatly lessens the recharge and protection of the local aquifers.
The creation of the Serra do Gandarela National Park aims to protect not only that enormous hydric and biodiversity richness but also the outstanding landscape scenarios, in a privileged location due to its proximity to Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto and the sanctuaries of Caraça and Serra da Piedade. Its implementation will create conditions for the population of the merging municipalities to develop economic activities related to the commerce, tourism and family economy, in a sustainable and permanent way that would grow and last for centuries. If, on the other hand, the region were to be exploited by mining activities, that would consume the reserves of the iron ore and therefore close the mining related jobs and apparent economic benefits in no more than twenty years, leaving behind the environmental degradation of the region and a series of social conflicts, as shown by the recent history of many Minas Gerais municipalities as Itabira, Barão de Cocais, Congonhas and Conceição do Mato Dentro.
The mining companies of Minas Gerais have profited for quite a while from an anachronistic legislation that allows the predatory exploration by private companies of the richness that belongs to all members of society, which are left behind with nothing but a giant environmental and social liability. The taxes collected by the State’s municipalities, as well as those generated locally, are insignificant if compared to the profit of the private companies and the one-way destruction of the environment. To the mining companies, Gandarela would be nothing but another number to be added to the extensive list of exploited and non-recovered mines: the profits obtained there represent a small percentage if one sees how much has already been mined in many other regions of Minas Gerais. That hasn’t increased the life quality and dignity of the population.
For our hydric, landscape, biodiversity and social-environmental patrimony, on the other hand, the preservation of the Gandarela region is, as in the movie, a matter of survival: it is the last great untouched natural reserve in the Quadrilátero Aquífero and its exploitation by the mining companies would destroy the very last of the “canga” formations, as well as the water reservoir that will guarantee the future supply of the RMBH.
The Gandarela range is “the crown’s diamond”, a highly privileged area due to its natural resources and its landscapes, and as such it needs to be preserved so that our sons, grandsons and great-grandsons can enjoy the most of all its wonders.
* Photographer and professor at Minas Gerais Federal University - UFMG.