In August President Michel Temer abolished the environmental Renca Reserve, one of the major preservation measures in the Amazon, the Renca Reserve is an area rich in fauna and flora, that spans 17,800 sq km from the border of the Para and Amapa states up to the national border with French Guiana and Suriname. It is approximately the size of Switzerland and was barred for commercial purposes to mineral companies, road-builders and workers. Temer stated that the reserve was abolished to attract foreign investment. Renca–a Portuguese language acronym for the National Reserve of Copper and Associates–was created by the military dictatorship in 1984 to keep out foreign interests in the area’s rich deposits of gold, copper, iron ore and other minerals.
Following the surprise announcement, environmentalists, climate activists, the Catholic Church and scientists anthropologists and other groups launched a worldwide campaign to protest the Brazilian president’s decision. A month later, Temer was forced to reverse its decision. A Brazilian court blocked the decision, saying that Temer exceeded his authority with the decree. Members of the national Congress called the move the “biggest attack on the Amazon in 50 years”.
With only 3% of population’s approval and embroiled in corruption scandals, Temer is one of the least-respected nation leaders around the globe. He is perceived as an enemy by environment organizations and indigenous leaders due to policies that favor the “ruralistas” (big farmers) and business tycoons.
Maria Cecilia Manzoli Turatti, anthropologist Professor at Fundação Escola de Sociologia e Política de São Paulo (FESPSP) stated that after ousting Dilma Rousseff and being carried to power with the support of the Agricultural Parliamentary Front (FPA-Frente Parlamentar Agropecuária) “started to ask for their part in the bargain made to stage the coup d’état that was portrayed as an impeachment in 2006”.
Turatti, asserted that Temer’s allies are historical enemies of the traditional Brazilian communities of quilombolas (descendants of slaves), peasants and Indigenous people and of environmental preservation. Their attitude is to eliminate environmental protections and open up the jungle for exploitation for economic interests, especially agribusiness, mining and large infrastructure projects such as transmission lines, naval ports, roads and hydroelectric plants.
Christian Poirier, program director of the U.S.-based non-governmental organization, Amazon Watch, told the Americas Program that Temer’s decision to abolish Renca demonstrated the lengths the current Brazilian government will go “to please the economic and political actors, principally the ruralistas, that have kept it in the power”. The environmentalist warned that abolishing Renca would represent a major threat for the entire ecosystem, including rivers, communities and animal species.
Greenpeace revealed in a press release the Guardian that there are already 14 illegal mines and eight landing strips for bush-pilots operating in the reserve. According to Poirier, Brazil’s policies on indigenous and environmental reserves should be a major concern on the global level. “It is certainly an international matter considering the fact that global mining firms are the most likely to operate in the Renca reserve, generating massive profits with very little benefit for Brazilian society. Additionally, the grave impacts caused by industrial mining upon Renca’s vast forests could seriously exacerbate climate change, with global implications”.
Indigenous people’s worst nightmare
“No one likes indigenous people in Brazil”, former Brazilian President Janio Quadros once said to Brazilian jungle explorer and indigenous rights activist Orlando Villas-Bôas when the latter was fighting to get reserves for native people. The quote sums up the relationship between the natives and the Brazilian society and institutions.
The RENCA Reserve is not the only environmental conservation area in the sights of the Temer government. For years, the Brazilian government has stated it wanted to open up the Tapajós basin – an area the size of France – to facilitate trade routes with China and infrastructure projects. Backed by European and Chinese capital, the current plans would turn the river into the world’s biggest grain canal by building 49 dams on the Tapajós and its tributaries. The plan puts the indigenous community of Munduruku on red alert. China is already a major player in infrastructure in Africa and other places and seeks to make further inroads into South America.
The ruralistas and other conservative groups are pressing for proposal called the Temporal Occupational Mark (Marco Temporal de Ocupação) or “cut-off date”. The measure would reduce indigenous rights by allowing traditional communities to only have rights to their lands if they occupied the same land on October 5, 1988, when the Brazilian Constitution was promulgated,. according to the 2009 reading of Judge Carlos Ayres Britto when he and his colleague and supporter Carlos Alberto Menez Direito were judges in the Supreme Federal Tribunal. For the ruralistas the measure should be extended to the quilombolas.
“Trying to set an arbitrary date to mark and recognize traditional and indigenous lands points to an abysmal lack of understanding of the sociocultural aspects of the links between these people and their lands marked by identity and genealogy as also ritualized ancestral roots that obey different temporal logics aside from the country’s history based in violent expropriation of lands taken from peasants, indigenous and traditional groups”, Turatti asserted.
As a result of Temer’s systematic actions against the rights of indigenous people and their traditional lands, last August 48 organizations sent a document to the UN and to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights denouncing a series of legal actions violating their rights. It noted the government’s refusal to dialogue with their groups on the key issues such as the Marco Zero Temporal, the weakening of FUNAI – the governmental agency for indigenous issues – and the dismantling conservation areas.
Attacks on indigenous communities are not new. “The Dilma Rousseff government was highly antagonist toward indigenous people in its support of the Belo Monte dam and its almost complete freeze on indigenous land demarcation”, explained Poirier. The battle for environmental and indigenous rights is deeply rooted in Brazilian society. The Renca ruling staves off this last attacks but organizations in defense of these rights and the environment expect to have to continue to fight.