Temer walks back plan to open Denmark-sized area of Amazon to mining

Brazilian president Michel Temer last Tuesday published a new decree reversing his August 23rd order to open a vast national reserve in the Amazon to mining.

Article by Jenny Gonzales.

In barely more than a month, President Michel Temer signed three decrees concerning the National Copper and Associated Reserve (RENCA), located on the border of Amapá and Pará states. In the first (decree no. 9147), he abolished the reserve — an area of Amazon rainforest the size of Denmark and opened it to mining. In the second, he responded to a wave of criticism by clarifying the first decree, but made no significant changes to it. Then on Tuesday, in the third decree (no. 9159), published in the Union’s Official Gazette, he repealed the first one, closing the region to mining.

The president’s reversal reveals the delicate political moment he faces. Temer is about to be judged by the Chamber of Deputies on obstruction of justice and criminal organization charges, in a second complaint authorized by former Attorney General Rodrigo Janot. And, say experts, the public controversy surrounding RENCA’s abolishment was more political stress and peril than Temer is willing to face currently.

RENCA, established in 1984, encompasses 4.6 million hectares (17,800 square miles), and is rich in gold, diamonds and chromium. It includes nine protected areas, seven of which are Conservation Units (CUs) — three with full protection and four where sustainable use of resources is permitted; it also encompasses two indigenous reserves. Only 0.3 percent of the entire RENCA Reserve is deforested, making it one of the Amazon’s most intact rainforests.

RENCA covers an area of 4.7 million hectares, almost all of it heavily forested, between the states of Amapá and Pará. Photo © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace

The president’s RENCA reversal is seen as a victory for environmentalists and indigenous groups, and a defeat for Brazil’s ruralistas, along with Canadian mining companies who met with the administration back in March about RENCA, and who stood to gain considerable profit from the opening up of the region to large-scale mining.

In their protests over RENCA, environmentalists, indigenous leaders, scientists and Brazil’s artistic community had accused Temer of selling out the Amazon to foreign mining interests.

Kutanan Waiapi Waiana, leader of the indigenous communities of the RENCA region, strongly criticized those responsible for the original decree. Besides Temer, the August 23rd document was signed by Fernando Coelho Filho, the Minister of Mines and Energy. “What will solve Brazil’s problem is good management, not the sale of our wealth. The government steals and sells what is ours in front of all Brazilians,” said Waiapi Waiana.

Only 0.3 percent of Brazil’s RENCA National Reserve of Copper and Associates is currently deforested. Photo © Fábio Nascimento / Greenpeace

The surge in negative public opinion has now caused the Ministry of Mines (MME) to suspend all mining activities related to RENCA for 120 days, and declared that any mining plans going forward would only be analyzed after extensive discussion with local populations in the region. Of RENCA’s nine protected areas, seven are designated Conservation Units, three of which have full “integral protection,” while four permit “sustainable use” of resources, which can include mining. Sustainable use CUs include the state forests of Paru and Amapá. Mining is banned in CUs with “integral protection” and on indigenous lands.

Temer was ultimately forced to reverse his abolishment of RENCA due to moves by Congress to restore the reserve. On September 14th, Deputy Ricardo Trípoli, president of the Environment Committee of the Chamber, called for the definitive revocation of Temer’s abolishment decree in an official letter to the Civil House: “The most serious problem is that in almost all of RENCA’s area there are conservation units (CUs), some of which are classified as fully protected, in which mining and other activities are prohibited,” Trípoli said.

The president was also alerted by Eunício Oliveira, president of the Senate, that Senator Randolfe Rodrigues’ bill to reverse the presidential act was already on the voting list in the House of Deputies for this week.

Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy Fernando Coelho Filho Photo by Wilson Dias / Agência Brasil

Others had tried to persuade Temer not to revoke his original abolishment decree, including ministers Fernando Coelho Filho (MME) — whose appointment last year caused surprise due to his total inexperience regarding mining policy — and Moreira Franco, of the General Secretariat of the Presidency; as well as Fabio Schvartsman, president of Brazil’s Vale SA, the transnational mining company. Vale had submitted more license applications for mineral exploration in RENCA than any other company, according to the newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo. Of the 154 exploration and research applications authorized for government analysis in RENCA, at least 104 were from subsidiaries of the Vale group.

In the original decree that abolished the reserve, the Ministry of Mining and Energy determined that only exploration and research requests prior to 1984, the year of RENCA’s creation, would be analyzed.

It was a former director of Vale Fertilizers, Vicente Lôbo, current MME secretary of geology and mining, who directed the original RENCA abolishment proposal. Lôbo was appointed by minister Coelho Filho, son of senator Fernando Bezerra Coelho, who worked closely with Vale SA when he was a member of the house commission to investigate the rupture of the Mariana tailings dam, in Minas Gerais state in 2015 — Brazil’s worst environmental disaster, which killed 19 people and polluted 500 miles of the Doce River with toxic mining waste, impacting millions of Brazilians.

Mining activity inside the RENCA National Reserve. Critics blame a lack of monitoring and enforcement for the rise of these illegal garimpos operations. Photo © Fábio Nascimento / Greenpeace

In a recent seminar for investors in New York, sponsored by the newspaper Financial Times, minister Coelho Filho seemed to dismiss the key role played by inadequate government regulation in the disaster: “Mariana… has to be seen as it was, an accident. We must work to ensure that other ones do not occur, but as a fatality, you have no control over it.”

Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator of Greenpeace Brasil, said that in order to effectively protect the RENCA Reserve for the future, it is now necessary to create a mosaic of fully protected public lands, located within the reserve. He added that, “In addition to the consolidation of the mosaic, it is fundamental that the government intensifies monitoring and combats clandestine activities in the region.” Last week, Greenpeace Brasil reported the presence of 14 garimpos (illegal mining operations) plus eight illegal airplane runways in the Paru Forest, located in RENCA.

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