Tribal leaders worried as battle to open up the Amazon to mining rages

Agents of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources walk through a burnt area in a forest during "Operation Green Wave" to combat illegal logging in Apui. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

"This indigenous land is practically untouched, virgin, without deforestation and without issues with loggers"

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazilian tribal leader Cecília Awaeko Apalai is worried, with a battle raging over plans to open up swaths of Amazon forest to mining companies.

President Michel Temer this month issued a decree to abolish the Renca reserve, a 46,000 square km (17,800 sq miles) area protected for 33 years in the Amazon, although a court quickly blocked the move, saying this was not in his power.

But the decision has sparked outrage among environmentalists, political opponents and prompted a slew of court actions, fearing the court's intervention may just be a temporary reprieve with the attorney general appealing.

For the government argues opening up this mineral rich area is important to boost Brazil's weak economy as the Denmark-sized reserve contains copper, gold, and iron which has only been available to low-level state-owned mining - or illegal miners.

But Apalai, head of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Wayana Aparai-Apiwa, said the reserve is home to about 3,700 indigenous people from the Aparai, Akurio, Tiriyo, Wayana, and Waiapi tribes - and it has never faced such a threat before.

"This indigenous land is practically untouched, virgin, without deforestation and without issues with loggers. We don't raise cattle. We just fish and hunt. We use the land to survive," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We fear forest destruction and river contamination because there is only one river inside this indigenous reserve. It will also have a huge impact to our culture and traditions."

The government issued a decree last week to allow commercial mining on the land split between the northern states of Pará and Amapá, but insisted some areas of the reserve, including where indigenous people live, will remain off limits to mining.

"The objective of the measure is to attract new investments, generating wealth for the country and employment and income for society, always based on the precepts of sustainability," the government said in a statement at the time,


Opposition lawmaker Senator Randolfe Rodrigues called it the "biggest attack on the Amazon in the last 50 years" and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen was reported to have joined the campaign, accusing the government of selling off the Amazon.

The decree is being challenged in the courts with federal prosecutors in Amapa arguing it contradicts the constitution by endangering environmental preservation and violating the fundamental rights of traditional communities.

Brazil's influential Catholic hierarchy has joined forces with bishops in other Amazonian countries to oppose the decree, arguing it will increase deforestation, biodiversity losses and negatively impacts  people in the region.

Online campaign group Avaaz has gathered over 700,000 signatures so far on a public petition against the decree.

Ciro Campos, an analyst at the Socio-Environmental Institute, said before the decree only the government had the right to explore mineral resources in the area but now any mining company can file a request to work there.

"Renca represented extra protection against the exploitation of environmental resources in the area," Campos told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "There isn't any safeguard to protect what is in there anymore."

Marcio Sztutman, conservation manager at The Nature Conservancy in Brazil, said he feared the decree may be the first step towards opening up other protected areas to mining as the government seeks extra revenue amid the country's recession.

Temer, who came to power a year ago after the impeachment of his predecessor Dilma Rousseff, is trying to enact austerity cuts and market reforms to loosen up Brazil's stagnant economy.

Joaquim Corrêa de Souza Belo, head of National Council of Extractivist Populations, said mining activities are the main threat to the Amazon as this brought a flood of workers to the area along with slave labour, violence and prostitution.

"Deforestation is very serious issue, but to me mining is the most worrying threat, as it occurs in the entire Amazon, poisoning many basins with mercury," he said.

For Apalai the ongoing battle is another sign of the fragile situation of indigenous communities in that remote area, who already struggle against invasions by illegal miners.

"We are unattended. The government does not provide health and education assistance in this area. The excuse is the distance, the access. We are abandoned," she said.

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