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Temer’s Amazon mining decrees derided by protestors, annulled by judge

  • In a seeming win for Canadian and Brazilian mining companies, President Michel Temer on August 23rd abolished a vast Amazonian national reserve — the Renca preserve, covering 4.6 million hectares — and opened the region up to mining.
  • The reserve, straddling Pará and Amapá states, contains large preserved areas and indigenous communities. Temer’s original Amazon mining decree was met with widespread condemnation, resulting in a second clarifying decree on August 28th.
  • On August 29th, federal judge Ronaldo Spanholo annulled both decrees, citing Brazil’s 1988 constitution, and ruling that the Renca preserve may not be abolished by presidential order but only legislative action. The Brazilian Union´s General Advocate said it will appeal the judge´s decision.
  • BBC Brasil reported that Canadian mining companies, who would likely profit from the Renca preserve´s abolishment, were notified that the region was going to be opened up for prospecting last March, five months before the original decree was issued.
The Serra dos Carajás iron mine in northeastern Brazil. When questioned about the opening of the Renca preserve to mining, the coordinator of the Brazilian-Canadian Chamber of Commerce told BBC Brazil that “mining protects the environment” and that he believes it is “very healthy” to open the Renca area up to prospecting. Photo credit: RikyUnreal via / CC BY-NC-SA

Last week’s presidential decree by Michel Temer abolishing a gigantic national reserve In the Amazon — opening up 4.6 million hectares (17,800 square miles) to mining — was met by a firestorm of criticism. That outcry led this week to a second presidential decree, clarifying the first, and then to a federal court decision annulling both decrees.

The original August 23rd announcement was received with a wave of protest from lawmakers, scientists, environmentalists, artists, singers, and even Brazilian super model Gisele Bündchen. “Shame! They are auctioning our Amazon! We cannot destroy protected areas for private interests,” Bündchen tweeted.

The preserve to be abolished, known as the National Copper and Associated Reserve (Renca) was established in 1984 during the Brazilian military dictatorship to provide mineral wealth for the nation, plans never carried out. The Temer government said that Renca is being eliminated in order to attract foreign investment, improve exports and boost Brazil’s struggling economy.

Temer’s second decree, made this week on August 28th in response to the protests, upholds the abolition of Renca´s special protected status, but specifically prohibits prospecting in indigenous areas, nature preserves or in border regions, and creates a review committee to assure those protections.

However, the next day, federal judge Ronaldo Spanholo, ordered both decrees annulled. EBC Agencia Brasil reported that the judge was responding to a private lawsuit filed by Carlos Antonio Fernandes. The suit argued that the Renca preserve may not be abolished by decree but only through legislative action as stipulated by Brazil´s environmental law.

Spanholo cited article 255 of Brazil´s constitution when he wrote that protected areas within the Amazon fall under congressional authority. His opinion stated that: “Our Constitution makes it clear that after October 1988, only formal laws may impose changes to the way natural resources are used.”

A Brazilian decree opening an Amazonian region to mining covering 4.6 million hectares and double the size of New Jersey was met with angry global protests. Photo credit: Norsk Hydro ASA via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

This potentially far reaching court decision comes at a critical time for Brazil’s environment, during which the Temer government has pushed through a wide range of policies expected to have a substantial negative impact on the environment — especially the Amazon — and on indigenous and traditional communities.

The Brazilian Union´s General Advocate has said it will appeal Spanholo´s decision.

Cleber Buzatto, Executive Secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), told Mongabay that with Temer’s August 28th decree “the government [made] a marketing play.” He said that CIMI will continue to push for the first decree’s full revocation, a prospect that the judge´s decision could fulfill if upheld. “The new decree [made] basically no changes and [continued] to allow mining in this vast area with extremely serious consequences for the ecological preserves and indigenous communities in that region,” Buzatto said.

Prof. Mario de Lima Filho, a geologist at the University of Pernambuco, told Mongabay: “This new decree is as senseless as the first one; It gives you the feeling the government is trying to justify the unjustifiable.”

The Renca region lies between the Amazonian states of Pará and Amapá, and covers an area the size of Denmark. It is reportedly rich in gold, iron, nickel, manganese and other minerals, but also includes nine conservation and indigenous areas. Map the Environment tweeted a map with requested mining permits attached, showing the extent of the potential impact.

Still, unauthorized mining is already taking place in the area, according to de Lima Filho. “The government recognizes that there is clandestine prospecting in the Renca area, and this decree is supposed to forgive that exploitation,” he said.

Brazilians are understandably skeptical of Temer’s promises to protect the Amazonian environment from mining in light of the November 2015 mining disaster caused by the failure of the Fundão iron mine tailings dam. 1.6 million Brazilians were impacted by the spill, which poisoned 500 miles of the Doce River all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Fernando Coelho Filho, Minister of Mines and Energy, explained that the August 28th decree aimed to clarify points that had generated outcry against the initial Renca decree abolishing the protected area.

The Minister of the Environment, Sarney Filho, when asked the reasons for the second decree said that “there was a lot of confusion in the way society as a whole perceived this decree.”

The BBC Brasil reported over last weekend that Canadian mining companies, who would likely profit from the preserve´s elimination, were quietly notified that the area was going to be opened up for prospecting five months before the original decree was issued.

During a March gathering, Coelho Filho told the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada that the area would be opened up for bidding. The BBC also reported that shortly thereafter, Brazil´s Official Diary, where all laws and decrees are published, printed a notice that paved the way for last week´s announcement.

In June, the Brazilian-Canadian Chamber of Commerce announced a new mining commission focused on mining in Brazil. There are currently approximately 30 Canadian mining firms operating in Brazil.

A massive wave of toxic mud swept away the lives of 19 people living in the shadow of the Fundão mining waste impoundment. Experts say the accident resulted due to inadequate government regulation, and poor management by the dam’s owner, Samarco, a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, two of the world’s largest mining companies. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

The coordinator of this commission told BBC Brasil that “mining protects the environment” and that he believes it is “very healthy” to open the Renca area up to prospecting.

Environmentalists disagree. Last week, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues denounced Temer’s original move to abolish Renca as “the biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years,” reported the O Globo newspaper. Before news of the judge´s decision broke, Rodrigues commented on the second decree, calling it an attempt to “trick Brazilian society and the international community.”

While both of Temer’s decrees assert that indigenous and environmental preserves will be protected, critics worry that adjacent mines, roads, transmission lines and other infrastructure will greatly compromise the region’s forests and impact its indigenous people.

World Wildlife Fund Brazil Executive Director Maurício Voivodic said that opening the region to mining would result in a “demographic explosion, deforestation, the destruction of water resources, the loss of biodiversity and the creation of land conflict,” repercussions seen in other parts of Brazil opened to rapid mining and infrastructure expansion.

The new, August 28th decree, called for a new a regulatory body, the Committee to Accompany the Environmental Areas of the Former Renca. That committee would have to be consulted prior to mining permits being issued. Mining companies would also have to submit plans demonstrating that their projects are financially sustainable and include environmental recovery measures for impacted areas, as well as plans to prevent environmental damage.

NOTE: This story was updated on August 31st to include the judge’s annulment order.

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The Morro do Ouro Gold Mine, Paracatu, Brazil, showing tailings impoundments. Mining not only deforests habitat in its immediate surroundings; large mines can also poison groundwater and, if impoundments leak or burst, can contaminate downstream waterways. Photo credit: SkyTruth via / CC BY-NC-SA