Brazilian Government undermined

Materials World magazine
1 Oct 2017

The Brazilian Government is attempting to abolish a national reserve in the Amazon. Kathryn Allen reports. 

On 23 August, the Brazilian Government announced that it was abolishing the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), opening up the region to mining. Located in the Amazon between the states of Pará and Amapá and covering about 47,000km2, the area is thought to be rich in gold, copper, tantalum, iron ore, nickel and manganese. 

Established in 1984, the area also includes nine conservation and indigenous land areas, which would remain protected according to the Government. These include the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park, the Paru and Amapá State Forests, the Maicuru Biological Reserve and the Sustainable Development Reserve of the Rio Iratapuru. Mining would take place in about 30% of the region, with rights extended beyond copper to include other minerals. 

Mineral or environmental reserve? 

The announcement resulted in a huge outcry from activists and conservation groups, fearing the environmental destruction caused by mining activities – including establishing access roads and secondary services – would still affect protected areas. WWF Brazil has expressed concern over gaps in the legislation of protected areas that may allow mineral extraction. 

Mauricio Voivodic, Executive Director of WWF Brazil, warned that opening the region to mining would threaten protected areas, potentially causing irreversible environmental damage. In a statement released by WWF, Voivodic commented, ‘Opening up these areas for mining without discussing environmental safeguards is a social and environmental international affront. In addition to demographic exploitation, deforestation and loss of biodiversity and water resources, this could lead to an intensification of land conflicts and threats to indigenous peoples and traditional populations. A gold rush in the region will create irreversible damage to local cultures as well.'

Alison Allen, Technical Director and Environmental and Social Specialist at Wardell Armstrong, UK, told Materials World, ‘Opening up Renca would help to boost Brazil’s currently weakened economy. However, [...] the move also carries significant risk, both in terms of the industry’s impact on the environment but also how increased economic development in the region would affect local communities, including indigenous peoples whose existence is already under pressure.’ The area is home to the Aparai, Wayana and Wajapi indigenous tribes. 

Following the public outcry, an official statement was released by the Brazilian Government clarifying that it was a mineral not environmental reserve that had been abolished and that protected areas would not be affected. It also noted that Renca currently experiences environmental damage from illegal gold mining. The Brazilian Government hopes the abolishment of Renca will attract new investment, create job opportunities and, with an increased supply of minerals in the market, combat illegal mining. A revision of the decree announced that protections remain in place for conservation areas. 

Professor Giorgio de Tomi, Head of the Mining and Petroleum Engineering Department, University of Sao Paulo (USP) and Director of USP Centre for Responsible Mining, Brazil, said, ‘Because industrial mining was not allowed in [Renca] before, artisanal miners started to operate in the region illegally, creating a major environmental risk, because they are not subjected to inspections and there is no guarantee that they will apply proper environmental control measures. By allowing industrial mining in the area, the artisanal miners will have to leave eventually, bringing a significant benefit for the region and for the society in general. The Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy estimates that there are currently nearly 1,000 illegal artisanal miners in that area and that some of them have built illegal air strips locally – apparently there may be as many as 28 illegal air strips.'

De Tomi is in favour of the decree. He added, ‘Allowing proper, responsible mining activities in [Renca] is good news for the mining industry and for society in general. Mining activity has been slow over the last few years in Brazil and the decree is part of what the government calls the “plan of revitalisation of the Brazilian mining industry” [...] I firmly believe that the decree will allow a much higher level of protection for the protected environmental zones within that area.’ 

However, according to Allen, ‘Whereas it is thought that illegal miners already operate within the Renca reserve, as do low-level state-owned mining companies, suddenly removing their source of income, through increased regulation or competition with major mining companies, has the potential for far-reaching socioeconomic negative impacts. In this context, any steps taken towards legalising large-scale mining in the area would have to be supported by extensive stakeholder engagement initiatives, including through long-term consultation with the indigenous and other communities, local NGOs and other experts as well as state officials.’ 

Allen acknowledges the Brazilian Government’s insistence that areas within the reserve where indigenous peoples live will remain protected, but claims independent reviews are needed to mitigate negative environmental and social impacts in areas considered for development. 

On-again, off-again

Despite the Government’s revision of the decree, a Brazilian court suspended it in August. Federal judge Rolando Valcir Spanholo claimed President Michel Temer did not have the authority to abolish Renca. In a statement released after, the Ministry of Mines and Energy announced that mineral rights proceedings in Renca had been halted. This statement also claimed that further decisions about the region would involve debate with society. 

The attorney general has appealed the federal court’s decision, but at the time of writing the injunction remains in place. A new government proposal for abolishing Renca is expected in December 2017. De Tomi expects this proposal to outline inspections, supervision and auditing of mining activities that will be required in the region. ‘One of the initiatives related to the plan of revitalisation of the mining industry is the creation of a National Mining Agency, which will be more agile and efficient to inspect and supervise the mining activities in the country. This new agency will collaborate with the environmental agencies to ensure that mining is carried out in a proper fashion in the region,’ said de Tomi. 

The National Mining Agency will replace the current National Department of Mineral Production (DNMP), which grants mineral exploration licences in Brazil. This is part of decree Medida Provisoria no. 791/17 and is one of three decrees making up the Government’s plan to revitalise the mining industry. However, this decree is yet to be approved by law and it is expected to be at least six months before the agency begins to operate.  

For Allen, it is crucial at this early stage to distinguish between environmental and social impacts – the latter of which she believes have already begun, initiated by speculation concerning potential development in the area. But, mining in this region has further risks. ‘It is important to state that this is not just a matter of the environmental and social risk of development in the Renca. Rather, from the point of view of the mining industry and state officials, the economic and reputational risks of negative impacts from working in such a highly sensitive area are potentially catastrophic,’ said Allen.