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  • Rich D'Amaru

In the Amazon, A Catastrophic Gold Rush Looms

This article by Chris Feliciano Arnold was originally posted here.

CONCORD, Calif. — Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, is willing to sacrifice millions of acres of rain forest in pursuit of a 16th-century boondoggle: fortunes of gold in the Amazon.

In August, Mr. Temer signed a decree to open a rain forest reserve — an area larger than Denmark — to commercial mining, threatening decades of progress on environmental protection and indigenous rights in the Amazon. The approximately 17,800-square-mile National Reserve of Copper and Associates, or Renca, which straddles the northern states of Pará and Amapá, was created by Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1984 to guard mineral resources from foreign exploitation as the country staggered toward democracy.

Today the reserve is a patchwork of conservation areas and indigenous lands. Its protected status has deterred the runaway development rampant elsewhere in the Amazon that has squelched biodiversity, destroyed indigenous communities and reduced millions of acres of rain forest to pastureland.

During Brazil’s last gold rush, in the 1980s, thousands of Yanomami people lost their land — and their lives — to the government-sponsored invasion of “garimpeiros” (prospectors) who exposed tribes to disease, alcohol, drugs and prostitution. The federal government is now investigating the suspected slaughter of more than 10 members of an isolated tribe on the border with Perú by miners who boasted at a bar of cutting up the dead, including women and children, and disposing of their remains in the river.

Like his counterpart in the United States, Donald Trump, Mr. Temer treats environmental regulations like red tape. By opening roughly 30 percent of Renca to mining exploration, the decree sets a dangerous precedent by dissolving a longstanding federal barrier to development, leaving other protected areas within and beyond the reserve exposed to potential to research and exploration. Randolfe Rodrigues, an opposition senator from Amapá State, called the decree “the biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years.”

For decades, Brazilian policy makers have looked at the rain forest as a source of future mineral, timber, oil and agricultural wealth, and little in the country’s history suggests that the government can steward sustainable development in the planet’s largest forest and watershed.

In the 1970s, the Trans-Amazonian Highway project cut a 2,500-mile-long road across the Amazon Basin, promising to open the unexplored interior to settlement. Thousands of indigenous people were killed or forced to move, few settlers heard the call, and generations later the route is a largely unpaved thread connecting small towns with few economic opportunities.

Another project from the twilight of the military regime, the Belo Monte Hydroelectric dam, was resurrected in this century as a solution to Brazil’s energy woes. The megaproject redirected the flow of one of the Amazon’s largest tributaries to generate energy for development and mining projects, displacing thousands of indigenous people and other residents in the path of the floodwaters. Tribes in the area protested vigorously for years, only to be pacified with emergency aid programs so poorly managed that a federal prosecutor charged the government with “ethnocide.”

In the years since Renca was established, ranchers throughout the Amazon have slashed and burned their way deeper into the forest with impunity. The Amazon frontier has become a South American Wild West where land barons feud over property, extort judges and politicians with threats of violence, and abuse workers in conditions akin to slavery. Over time, a powerful lobby of ranchers, loggers, land speculators and mining companies has consolidated its political power, forming a pivotal congressional bloc — the ruralistas — who recently intervened to shield Mr. Temer from a federal corruption investigation.

Mr. Temer is asking Brazilians to forget that history and trust in assurances that mining in Renca won’t harm the environment and indigenous people, but mine operators’ records in places like Minas Gerais State do not inspire confidence. In 2015, Brazil suffered what is regarded as the worst environmental disaster in its history when an iron ore tailings dam in Minas Gerais failed, killing 17 people and poisoning the region’s most important river with tons of toxic orange sludge that will take years to clean.

Large-scale mining efforts are even riskier in the Amazon where so-called greenfield projects require the construction of roads, railways and hydroelectric dams that worsen deforestation, pollute the water supply and destroy plant and animal life. According to data collected by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a scientific organization working for the sustainable development of the Amazon, Renca is home to one of the highest concentrations of endangered mammals in the rainforest.

According to Mr. Temer, though, “It’s no paradise.” His administration is quick to point to the presence of illegal loggers and miners in the reserve who are “plundering the nation’s wealth” and polluting the water supply with mercury. They claim that legal operations will push out prospectors, but history shows that prospectors will be drawn like mosquitoes to the allure of fresh veins.

The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, a group of Catholic clergy members in the region, calls the decree “a blasphemy of Brazilian democracy,” warning against “increased land conflicts, uncontrolled aggression against cultures and lifestyles of indigenous and traditional communities, with large tax exemptions but minimum benefits for the people of the region.”

Responding to worldwide outcry, the Temer administration tried to make its decree more palatable, but a federal judge suspended the opening of the reserve, saying the move would require congressional approval. Now the proposal is open for public comment. Unfortunately the decree is but one of many attacks on environmental regulations in Brazil.

Three current bills under consideration could open more than 12 million acres (five million hectares) of protected forest over the next eight years. Mr. Temer has proposed a new mining code that shifts the responsibility for monitoring environmental standards away from the government and toward the companies themselves. Another catastrophic proposal would open all land within Brazil’s protected border zone — a territory the size of Alaska — to foreign mining investment, bringing bulldozers and new waves of prospectors to the refuge of some of the world’s last isolated tribes.

The Amazon is a natural wonder enshrined in the Brazilian Constitution as part of the national patrimony. Its future is critical to Brazil, South America and the planet. It is also a region in chaos where local, state and federal governments struggle to deliver basic health and sanitation services, let alone regulate international mining operations.

If Mr. Temer wants to stimulate economic development in the region, he should solicit foreign investors to repair and expand its public infrastructure so that the Amazon and its people can live up to their remarkable potential in fields like biotechnology, health care and sustainable fishing and agriculture. To accelerate mining in the Amazon in 2017 would only refresh the cycle of pillage, boom and bust that has plagued the world’s largest forest since the first marauders arrived in search of El Dorado.

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