Amazon conservation groups have hailed a victory as the Brazilian government announced a U-turn on plans to open up swaths of the the world’s biggest forest to mining corporations.
President Michel Temer had sparked outrage in August when he announced a decree to abolish the Renca reserve, an area of 17,800 square miles – roughly the size of Switzerland – that is an important carbon sink and home to some of the world’s richest biodiversity.
But he has now been forced into a humiliating reversal after his move to carve up the area was blocked by a judge, condemned in the country’s congress as the “biggest attack on the Amazon in 50 years” and opposed by environmental campaigners, climate activists, the Catholic church and anthropologists.
Renca – an acronym for the National Reserve of Copper and Associates – was created by the military dictatorship in 1984 to stave off foreign interest in the area’s rich deposits of gold, copper, iron ore and other minerals.
The reserve spans the states of Amapá and Pará up to the remote national border with French Guiana and Suriname. It is home to several indigenous tribes, including the Aparai, Wayana and Wajapi.
The government insisted only 30% of the reserve would be opened up to mining. Indigenous territory and nature conservation parks would not be affected, it said.
However, critics said any move to legitimise mining in the area would result in road-building, deforestation and increased pressure on tribes and nature.
There are already fourteen illegal mines and eight landing strips for bush-pilots in Renca, according to Greenpeace, which says the problem would have grown worse if Temer had approved industrial-scale mineral extraction by domestic and international companies.
However, that risk is now eased by the new decree which “restores the conditions of the area, according to the document that instituted the reserve in 1984”, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
But the threat has not gone away. Temer and his cabinet are closely linked to mining and agribusiness industries that want to reduce protections for indigenous territory, the Amazon rainforest and other biomes.
In a statement announcing the reversal, the mining ministry left open the possibility of a fresh debate on the issue. “Brazil needs to grow and create jobs, attract mining investment and even tap the economic potential of the region,” it said.
Maurício Voivodic, the head of WWF Brasil, said the authorities should now think twice about pushing for development without consultation.
“The Brazilian government has finally realized it’s not acceptable to make decisions that affect the Amazon and its people without a broad and transparent public debate,” he said.
But the battle is far from over.
Carlos Rittl, executive secretary, Brazilian Climate Observatory, notes the continued risk to the Amazon from what he called an “unscrupulous partnership” with the “ruralista” caucus in which Temer is trying to weaken environmental and indigenous protections in exchange for congress votes that protect him from corruption investigations.
“This doesn’t save the forest as it might seem, nor does it improve the image of the president when it comes to his handling of society and the environment, warned Rittl.