Amazon area at centre of mining row ‘no paradise,’ Brazilian officials say

President under fire over decision to strip protections from area size of Switzerland


Brazil’s decision to allow mining in the Amazon is sparking a war of words as the government calls opponents alarmists and a politician threatens to seek the Pope’s help to protect forests and communities.

After an announcement last week on stripping protection from a national reserve between the northern states of Para and Amapa sparked criticism, president Michel Temer said he was committed to sustainable development.

His office also said the area is no “paradise” and that proper permits would be required for any gold operations.

One of the plan’s most vocal critics, Amapa Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, called the decree the “worst attack on the Amazon in history” and said the fight to protect the land had only just begun. The area spans about 47,000 sqkm, making it larger than Switzerland.

“We’re going to do everything we can - judicial actions, legislative actions, pressure on leaders, artists, if necessary we’ll go to the Pope,” Mr Rodrigues said.

In Ecuador last month, Pope Francis voiced his support for better protection of the Amazon and the indigenous people who live there.

Opening up the region known as Renca, short for National Reserve of Copper and Associates, will undo a decision by the military dictatorship three decades ago to safeguard resources and sovereignty.

Revised decree

Ministers on Monday said the decree would be revised. Mining and energy minister Fernando Coelho Filho said a new decree abolishing the mineral reserve but specifying existing protections for parts of the area that will remain in place would be introduced.

The changes, as described, will be largely superficial, spelling out protections that would have remained in place anyway, and Mr Coelho Filho largely repeated remarks he made on from Friday defending the move to allow mining.

The revision shows the government scrambling to respond to criticism, including threats of legal action and an effort to overturn the decree in Congress, with a stream of news conferences and statements since Renca was abolished last week.

Mr Coelho Filho dismissed media reports that the decree was first discussed with foreign mining companies before it was announced in Brazil. He said the policy had been discussed well before he told a Canadian mining conference about it last year.

He said the Renca territory was designated for mining and “was never an environmental reserve.”

The rate of deforestation in the Amazon increased 29 per cent last year, according to government data. Mining, while not considered the primary cause, is listed among them.

The government says only unprotected areas will be up for grabs to private-sector explorers, that absolute caution will be taken to avoid disrupting nearby protected territories, and the decree will help protect the area from dirty illegal gold operations.

“Nearly 90 percent of what was authorised for mining is included in the protected areas,” Mr Rodrigues said, arguing that mining in specific areas without harming adjacent land and communities makes no sense.

Political winds

Alexandre Sion, a legal expert in mining licensing in Brazil, said that while obtaining permits in Renca will be difficult given the conservation areas and indigenous communities, sustainable mining there is possible.

Beyond the licensing complications miners might face there is the chance that a change in political winds ushers in a reversal of Mr Temer’s decision.

“As I understand it, this should have never been decreed and I believe it hasn’t been cancelled already because of a lack of political will,” Mr Sion said. “The focus of Congress and the president has been elsewhere during the current political crisis. Perhaps the president found the political moment favourable to push the measure through.”

Mr Temer, who took over last year after the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, is scheduled to leave office next year.