Read in Chinese 中文版本
Brazilian president Michel Temer arrived in Beijing on August 29 to attempt to persuade his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to invest in Brazil, a day after trying to explain that his action to eliminate the National Copper and Associates Reserve (RENCA) was intended to open-up iron ore exploration to the private sector – not to destroy 47,000 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest. Previously, mineral exploration in this area in the north of the country roughly the size of Denmark, which is rich in iron, gold, manganese, and nickel ore, had been limited to the state.
“We are not abandoning the Amazon. We have reduced deforestation by 21% after five years of growth. The government has taken back control of deforestation,” José Sarney Filho, Brazil’s environment minister told Diálogo Chino. “The reserve that was closed was not an environmental preserve. It was a mineral reserve. Within this reserve there are conservation units and indigenous areas. The area to be explored does not exceed 20%. The environmental issue overrides any others,” he added.
Large-scale metal and mineral mining in the Brazilian Amazon has expanded rapidly in recent years, in large part to meet demand from China – the number one export destination for iron ore mined in the region.
Despite outcry from around the world, on August 28 the Brazilian government repealed and drafted a new decree on exploitation of iron ore within the Amazonian forest. But environmentalists say that the new rules do not eliminate the risks that affect the area. “The withdrawal of the original act to draft this new one was done precisely to confuse and demobilise civil society and relieve pressure from the international community,” said Antonio Nobre, a researcher from the National Institute for Space Research (INPA) and a leading expert on the Amazon forest.
The government does not share this opinion. “With these decisions we will have responsibility in the region, and the rampant deforestation which was our concern is not going to happen,” said Sarney Filho, whose appointment by the government was interpreted green groups as an attempt to appease environmentalists from concerned about the liberalisation of iron ore exploration in the Amazon. “It would be a disservice to environmental policy if we did not create a new decree that makes it clear to people that this decree was not going to loosen environmental rules or affect conservation units,” he added.
With the new decree, companies interested in exploring iron ore within the former environmental reserve in the Amazon will have to comply with certain rules. They will need to submit environmental control plans that include sustainable economic development, rehabilitation of degraded areas, and containment of potential damage. Furthermore, it creates advisory body the Committee to Monitor the Environmental Areas of the Defunct Renca, which will have an audience with the National Mining Agency before mining rights are granted.
But none of these measures can stop ore exploration from having strong impacts on the region, environmentalists. They say iron ore exploration causes deforestation, drives the migration of hundreds and thousands of people seeking jobs, and attracts people who provide services to these formal and informal employees. These services range from sales of goods to prostitution. According to André Aroeira from the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (Fundo Brasileiro para a Biodiversidade), 100,000 people travelled to the city of Altamira in Pará, in the north of the country, attracted by the promise of 20,000 jobs resulting from the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant.
In addition to these hazards, environmentalists also posit that big development projects impact the traditional lifestyles of indigenous communities, such as the Waiãpi people, who live within the defunct reserve, as settlements of miners and squatters spring up around mines in remote areas of the Amazon.
Since president Michel Temer, who is in China for a meeting of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), announced the elimination of RENCA, artists and celebrities began a campaign on social networks asking the population to mobilise to help the Amazon.
Supermodel Gisele Bündchen called the measure “a disgrace” on Twitter. “They are auctioning off our Amazon,” she wrote.
Singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, singers Ivete Sangalo and Anitta, and the actress Sonia Braga all criticised the government and began a campaign on social networks under the hashtag #TudoPelaAmazonia in an attempt to preserve the 60% of the forest that lies within Brazilian territory.