On August 24th, the BBC published an article declaring that Brazil’s President, Michel Temer, had opened a vast reserve in the Amazon, the size of Denmark, for commercial mining. Despite tepid assurances that indigenous reserves and protected areas, which make up 70% of the Renca area, will not be affected, backlash from national and international environmental groups was vociferous. The result was a swift suspension of Temer’s decree. Although the suspension temporarily halts “administrative acts based on the decree”, Temer’s government is sure to appeal the verdict.
Here’s what you need to know about the Renca controversy:
Renca stands for “Reserva Mineral de Cobre e seus Associados” which translates to “Reserve for Copper Minerals and Associates”. It is crucial to understand that Renca is not and never was a protected area; it was land set aside for mineral exploration and research, but which prohibited mining activity. Renca was created on February 24th, 1984 through Decree n˚89.404. At the time Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship with a fierce agenda to modernize the Amazon region and bring its own brand of state-sponsored economic development. The next two blog posts on this site will talk more about different modernizing pushes throughout the history of the Amazon in a two-part series. Stay tuned for this in the next couple weeks!
At the time of Renca’s creation it was postulated that the Company for Mineral Resource Research (Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais, or CPRM in Portuguese) would have exclusive rights to conduct research within the area to evaluate the mineral deposits which they anticipated would be found in the area. Their discoveries were to be negotiated by private mining companies to determine the viability of extraction (ler mais).
The CPRM did conduct its research and discovered promising deposits of some materials, leading some to declare that Renca was the Amazon region most likely to contain valuable recognized minerals including gold, silver, platinum, copper, nickel, iron and manganese, among others (ler mais).
However, in 1994 the CPRM became a public company and was restricted from acting in the area by article 5 of law n˚8970, which impedes mineral resource research unless it is exceptionally approved as a matter of national interest by the Ministry of Mining and Energy. At this stage, Brazil had transitioned back to a civilian democracy and was seeking to reverse some of the more draconian policies of the dictatorship era.
These legislative adjustments halted legal mining activity for a couple of decades since the lack of regulation and limited physical access translated into high production costs which deterred private investors from exploring the mineral-rich Renca zone. This did not mean that all activity ceased.
When Renca was created in 1984, only one protected area existed within the area designated of interest for mineral exploration. Since then 8 more conservation units have been created. The protected areas which overlap with the Renca reserve include: ESEC Jari, PARNA Montanhas do Tumucumaque, REBIO Maicuru, FES do Paru, RESEX do Rio Cajari, FES Amapá, RDS Iratapuru and two indigenous territories, Waiãpi and Rio Paru d’Este. See below:
The first 3 protected areas, ESEC Jari, PARNA Montanhas do Tumucumaque, and REBIO Maicuru, are all of the integral protection type. This means that, legally, all human activity should be prohibited within their boundaries so as to protect the precious biodiversity of the area. As we’ve seen in the Google Earth application, this doesn’t always work in practice, but we’ll return to this shortly.
The other 4 areas are sustainable use reserves, meaning that some extractive activities are permitted as long as they follow certain sustainability guidelines. Not all of these areas permit mining specifically. For the RESEX do Rio Cajari and FES Amapá it has already been decided by the managing authorities that mining will not be permitted in these areas. FES do Paru will apparently open some areas for mining. As for the RDS Iratapuru, there is no official management plan yet to sanction extractive activities. Thus, for the time being, mining will be prohibited, but should the future management plan approve commercial mining, this decision may be reversed.
With regards to the two indigenous territories, Waiãpi and Rio Paru d’Este, these lands are delimited for the exclusive use of their indigenous inhabitants according to the Funai, Brazil’s ministry for indigenous affairs. Unfortunately, much like the region’s protected areas, securing the territorial integrity of these reserves against illegal encroachments is made incredibly difficult by a lack of institutional presence, financial resources and political will.
So, what are the risks to the protected areas?
Most of the potential mineral resources can be found within the protected areas created after Renca was established. Many environmentalists and activists fear that legal mining in the areas approved by Temer’s decree will attract illegal miners, and significant migration which will put pressure on the region’s resources.
These fears are well-founded. Check out Rebio Maicuru on the Google app in the Discover tab. You’ll see an image of a flyover which shows extensive deforestation associated with illegal mining projects which have been active for over a decade. If you speak Portuguese check out this article by Bruno Calixto, it includes an interview with my former supervisor at Imazon, Jakeline Pereira, which affirms that at the time of the creation of the management plan for the Rebio Maicuru in 2008, there were already over 1000 miners operating illegally in the area, despite the territory having been set aside as a crucial biodiversity reserve. Today, estimates suggest that the number of miners has at least doubled, and with the abolition of Renca, the number is sure to rise further.
The life of an illegal miner is tough. Typically, illegal mines are opened by a “dono” who rarely, if ever, travels to the area but provides the financial capital for equipment and exploration. The miners themselves operate under a system of debt bondage similar to that of rubber tappers in boom times. Everything on the camp is imported at exorbitant prices and purchased in gold. Workers toil for an average of 60 hours a week under precarious health and safety conditions. Many die of malaria and other tropical diseases or untreated injuries.
The main reason this occurs according to Jakeline, is that these protected areas lack the resources to be fully implemented. For example, in the case of the FES Paru, only 2 people are in charge of monitoring and managing over 7 million hectares of protected land.
Temer’s decree, on paper, attempts to bring responsible, modernized mining to the region. But, given the difficulties that exist already for ensuring the integrity of the region’s conservation units, many worry that the proposal will simply exacerbate existing issues. The WWF-Brazil, for example, warns that there are immense risks in opening up a territory that is already fragile in its implementation of environmental protections for commercial mining.
After the outcry which followed the initial announcement on August 23rd, Temer’s government revised the decree with some clarifications, insisting that the area opened for exploration would not harm the existing protected areas. The new document also assigned a committee to accompany the opening of Renca which includes members of the Ministry of Mining and Energy, the Ministry of Environment, the Cabinet for Institutional security, the Ministry of Justice, the National Agency for Mining, and the Civil Cabinet. This committee is supposed to ensure the proper implementation of the decree should the suspension of it be reversed.
Given the already long history of precarious enforcement of environmental protection in the region, activists should be dubious of this limited concession to their demands. More than a Federal committee of politicians, there should be open discussion with the various local stakeholders in the region, including indigenous leaders and community organizations. What the region needs is cooperation with these stakeholders and an influx of Federal resources to secure the implementation of protected areas and to halt illegal mining within their boundaries. These should be the government’s top priorities prior to any conversation about abolishing Renca, and not as a mere afterthought.
Hannah Reardon is a Montreal-based researcher trained in Political Science and Anthropology.