Brazilian president Michel Temer arrived in Beijing on August 29 to persuade his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to invest in Brazil, where an economic crisis is deepening.
The visit followed on the heels of Temer’s attempt to explain a controversial decision to eliminate a vast protected area of the Amazon known as the National Copper and Associates Reserve (Renca), which may have disastrous consequences for the precious and irreplaceable ecosystem.
The decree opens up 47,000 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest to the private sector for iron ore exploration and extraction.
Mineral exploration in this area in the north of the country, which is roughly the size of Denmark and rich in iron, gold, manganese and nickel ore, was previously 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.
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"The reserve that was closed was not an environmental reserve. It was a mineral reserve. Within this reserve, there are conservation units and indigenous areas. The area marked for exploration does not exceed 20% [of the total area]. The environmental issue overrides all 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, which is the number one export destination for iron ore mined in the region.
In response to a global outcry, on August 28 the Brazilian government drafted a new decree clarifying that mining will not be allowed in the conservation zones and indigenous areas of the former Amazonian reserve. But environmentalists say that the new rules do not eliminate risks to 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 Filho, whose appointment by the government was interpreted by green groups as an attempt to appease environmentalists 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 environment reserve will have to comply with certain rules. They will be required to submit environmental control plans that account for sustainable economic development, rehabilitation of degraded areas and containment of potential damage.
Furthermore, it creates an advisory body, the Committee to Monitor the Environmental Areas of the Defunct Renca, which will meet 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, say environmentalists. They argue 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 was recently 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 (EverythingfortheAmazon) in an attempt to preserve the 60% of the forest that lies within Brazilian territory.
This article was originally published by Diálogo Chino and is republished here with permission.