Satellite view of the Carajás Mine in Pará state, Brazil is the largest iron ore mine in the world. Photo: Google Earth

By Philip Fearnside
15 September 2017

(Mongabay) – On 23 August 2017, Brazil’s president Michel Temer issued a decree revoking the RENCA (National Reserve of Copper and Associated Minerals), an area the size of Switzerland on the northern side of the Amazon River straddling the states of Pará and Amapá. The Ministry of Environment had not been consulted and Brazil’s environmentalists and public were caught by surprise. Actually, in March the Temer administration had announced its intention of revoking the RENCA at a convention of mining companies in Canada. The choice of venue is telling.

A firestorm of criticism in Brazil and abroad (see here, here, here, here and here) led Temer to “revoke” the decree on August 28th and replace it with a new one. However, this widely trumpeted “revocation” didn’t mean ceasing to abolish the reserve, as the new decree merely tacked on some language stating that protected areas and environmental regulations would be respected. Needless to say, these regulations were already in place, and the original decree implicitly assumed that they would remain so.

On August 30th a federal judge issued a preliminary decision (liminar) suspending the decree and directed that the matter should be decided by the National Congress. However, the National Congress is presently dominated by representatives with a decidedly anti-environmental stance (see here, here and here). In addition, preliminary judicial decisions such as this are easily overruled by interested parties, such as the presidential administration, by seeking out friendly judges to issue a counter decision. This occurred many times when decisions halting construction of dams like Belo Monte were overturned within a few days.

The RENCA was not created for conservation purposes, but rather as an act of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship to preserve a strategic reserve of mineral deposits instead of allowing international mining companies to exhaust and export these deposits, as, for example, had happened with the manganese deposit elsewhere in Amapá. However, in practice, the RENCA’s prevention of large-scale mining has protected the environment in this vast area, both inside and outside of legally protected areas.

Aerial images produced by the MAAP Project showing before (July 2010) and after (June 2017) the construction of the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River. Photo: DigitalGlobe / ACT / Airbus / Apollo Mapping

In an editorial, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper considered the negative public-opinion reaction to be “exaggerated.” Although it is always possible to exaggerate environmental threats, and a few statements by politicians and others can best be interpreted as hyperbole, abolishing the RENCA is indeed a threat to the environment and to traditional peoples in this highly biodiverse and relatively undisturbed area. […]

The presumption that what is forbidden by Brazil’s laws or by the constitution will simply not happen in real life is very naïve. After all, the Belo Monte Dam was well described by the Federal Public Ministry (public prosecutors charged with defending the people’s interests) in Belém as “totally illegal,” but it now stands on the Xingu River as a concrete fact (see here and here). The Canadian mining firms that the Temer administration has invited to the area are of sufficient size to change history in their favor. [more]

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