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Mining in indigenous territories and the RENCA Amazon reserve, Amapá - Pará, Brazil


In 2017 Brazil’s then-president Temer, in one of several recent assaults on environmental legislation and indigenous rights, announced that the ‘National Reserve of Copper and Associates’ (RENCA), an area of more than 46,000 square kilometers in the eastern Amazon, divided between the States of Amapá and Pará, will be opened for commercial mining. This encountered an immediate international outcry and, despite being temporarily stopped by the Federal Court, mining is now on the advance as some parts of a new mining code were already rushed through in 2018, threatening not only the area of RENCA but also large parts of the Amazon and its indigenous population.

RENCA comprises an area of tropical rainforests larger than Denmark that is home to the Aparai, Wayana and Wajãpi indigenous groups. It has one of the highest biodiversities and concentrations of endangered mammals on the planet and one of the lowest deforestation rates in the whole Amazon (0.3 percent). It also contains large reserves of gold, manganese, iron, tantalum and copper that have increasingly attracted global commercial interest over the last years as companies from at least four countries have applied for mining exploration concessions at Brazil’s National Mining Production Department (DNPM). Almost two third of the applications however come from subsidiaries of the Brazilian Vale group. In addition, thousands of illegal miners (garimpeiros) are believed to operate within the area. RENCA was originally created at the end of the military regime to secure resources from foreign exploitation and to maintain state-control over eventual mining operations, which (after the Federal Decree No. 89,404 of 1984) could only be carried out exclusively by the state-owned Mineral Resources Research Company, while with the issued decree it would be opened to private actors and international investments. The decree especially appeals to international mining companies, some of which, as BBC Brasil reported, have already discussed the plans with the government months before the decree was released. What makes the legal situation more complicated and triggers a further legislative debate (see below) is that also with the abolition of the RENCA status, 95 percent of the area would remain protected by seven conservation units and two indigenous territories. However, four of the conservation areas are classified as “units of sustainable use” and would thus allow mining with a proper management plan, whereas the other three conservation units had – so far - full protection. Within indigenous territories, commercial mining remained – so far – practically blocked by Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, which allows the use of concessions for explorations, surface mining and the exploitation of the subsoil only with a special decree issued by the Congress and after formally consulting the affected communities (in accordance with the ILO Convention 169). Back then, this signified a major success for indigenous populations who had long been (and are still) struggling for land demarcation and autonomy after, among others, suffering from destructive mining operations through garimpeiros in their territories. Reacting to immediate critique when announcing RENCA’s abolition, Brazil’s governments reassured that mining would ‘only’ take place in 30 percent of the area and that, besides bringing growth, international investment and increasing employment in the mining sector to the region, commercial mining would moreover encounter illegal mining activities, as garimpeiros already widely operate in the area beyond the control of the State. [1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

The RENCA decree was confronted with opposition of a broad alliance of international environmental NGOs, Brazilian civil society organizations, celebrities, artists, researchers, Catholic institutions, indigenous organizations and communities, and the political opposition. Critics argued that commercial mining in the area would trigger deforestation, a loss in biodiversity and impacts on the global climate and create land conflict, cultural damage and immediate threats to the communities which have so far lived in relative isolation – even through indirect impacts, in case that the governments’ appeasements to only mine the non-protected part of the area hold true. Critics however point to the recent attempts to undermine socio-environmental legislation (see below), the lack of transparency and public discussion and the government’s recent ignoring of constitutional procedures and environmental safeguards, which let assume that it seems also willing to access protected reserves once mining has progressed in the area. Other critique concerned the inability of public authorities to prevent illegal mining, even under the current conditions that put the area under protection. For example, Greenpeace revealed the presence of 14 garimpos (illegal mining operations) and eight illegal landing strips used by these – in just one of the conservation areas within RENCA. They also argue that as commercial large-scale mining would take place profoundly under surface and thus not automatically replace but rather complement (or even attract, as other cases in Pará indicate) illegal garimpeiro activities that mine the surface layer. Other opponents called the abolished RENCA decree the “biggest attack on the Amazon in the last 50 years”, a “catastrophe that could lead to a gold rush with irreversible damage”, “a blasphemy of Brazilian democracy”, “a selling out of the Amazon” and an “aggression against traditional and indigenous cultures” that would only yield minimal benefits to the local people. [1][2][3][4][7][9][10][11][12][13]

Another mobilizing and directly affected group was the Wajãpi community, located in one of the indigenous territories within RENCA in the isolated North of Amapá. They live in relative isolation and in close relationship with the nature which is largely untouched. In an open letter they criticized the plans for posing a danger to nature and their tradition, as well as to all the other indigenous groups in the region. Mining would not bring benefits to them but only serve the interests of a powerful lobby, lead to conflict and attract other economic activities. In fact, they have also historically faced logging invasions, leading to diseases and almost their distinction, whereas recently illegal gold mining is on the rise. Left alone by the state, they have organized themselves in an association to preserve their culture and defend the territory, declaring to be also ready to fight mining companies at all cost. Given the recent government’s infringements of indigenous rights, they do not believe that preserved areas will not be touched. However, also if mining would only take place outside their territory, they would face indirect threats such as polluted water, advancing deforestation and road construction, and invasions an associated influx of settlers and gold searchers, and an increase crime and violence - possibly directly against the indigenous populations, as recent incidents in the Amazon have shockingly shown. [14] [15a] [15b][15c]

All these public protests, including international media attention and social media campaigns, put the government under pressure. This was followed by a political confrontation through the Federal Public Ministry of Amapá which filed a public civic action against the decree, pointing out that the government has put the protected areas within RENCA at risk and violated constitutional procedure that foresees to first seek approval from the Congress as well as the indigenous right to prior consultation (in accordance with ILO Convention 169). It moreover argued that despite RENCA’s official function (to control and monopolize access to mineral resources), it has de facto protected the area in a strong way, whereas with the abolition of RENCA the area risks to suffer from various socio-ecological impacts that risk the lives of the local indigenous population and could lead to an ecocide, which can be internationally sanctioned. As a consequence, the decree was temporarily suspended by the Federal Court for being unconstitutional. The government then announced to appeal the verdict and issued an updated decree but, confronted with continued international media coverage and a negative response from the Congress (although not yet officially consulted), it abolished the decree completely, assumingly to avoid more public controversy. This was celebrated by the mobilizing organizations as a small success for social and environmental justice against the ongoing policies that threaten indigenous people and the Amazon. At the same time, Brazil’s government announced that it will find a solution for mining in the region that guarantees the preservation of the area. [6][7][16][17]

Until before the elections in 2018, the government continued to bring forward the new mining code and issued two decrees which, as it communicated, will bring higher compensations for nearby affected municipalities, more rigid environmental requirements and a new National Mining Agency to replace the DNPM. However, the Public Prosecutor's Office of Amapá, political opposition and organizations like Greenpeace criticized that the new legislation would now allow exploitation in restricted areas in the case of 'national economic interest' as long as it does not contradict with the original purpose of the protection. Thus, in case of RENCA, the Federal Government could grant concessions for all minerals but copper which, as critics argue, would create an exploitation regime without formally abolishing the protected area. The new legislation would thus be a strange and disguised way to reintroduce the decree of 2017 with less media attention and was again made without any discussion with society, which, as Greenpeace feared, could lead to a new gold rush as problems of illegal mining in the area, even in conservation units, remain unsolved. [18][19][20][21]

What remains unclear and highly controversial is how far attempts to further cut down on social and indigenous rights will be carried on, perhaps even with new legitimacy and rigidity through the new government (as e.g. the elections campaign of the new president Bolsonaro lets assume) or with more indirect strategies (as e.g. the most recent circumventing of the RENCA protection have shown), and to what extent local courts and civil society mobilization will be able to halt measures that threat constitutional rights.

Particularly under the Temer government Brazil experienced a wave of legislative initiatives and governmental policies that have put the Amazon and its indigenous people under pressure, following an elite-driven growth and economic development strategy to exploit the Amazon’s potential for commercial mining and industrial agriculture. This resulted not least from the powerful influence of Brazil’s ruralist congressional caucus that represents the interests of agribusiness and the timber, mining and energy industries. Since its controversial presidential takeover in 2016, the Temer cabinet aimed to secure its power by serving these economic elites to which it was closely affiliated, while indigenous and environmentalist voices were subsequently marginalized and seen as “obstacles” (as Brazil’s agricultural minister formulated it). This, as numbers of 2017 show, has also led to a surge in violence against indigenous communities, environmental activists and social movements while a number of legislative initiatives that undermine socio-environmental rights were further pushed forward or even realized by the government. [4] [5] [12][16][22][23][24] [25][26] One of the key issues at stake is commercial mining in indigenous territories which – although so far vastly prohibited (see above) - has undergone longstanding lobbying from powerful elites, the mining sector and the DNPM, resulting in proposals for a regularization of commercial mining in all protected areas, while environmental responsibility would moreover shift toward the companies themselves. For example, the proposed draft bills PL 1610/1996 is slowly advancing through the Congress and would allow mining in indigenous territories without any regard for villages and areas of ecological, cultural or spiritual importance. It would leave indigenous peoples without veto right, and out mining interests over biodiversity protection and the traditional uses of land by indigenous peoples. Other legislative initiatives advanced under the last government are the weakening of the forest code that facilitates regularization of unauthorized land use and incentivizes further land grabbing and deforestation, the stop of the agrarian reform program, land reforms in favor of large landholders, the reduction of a conservation unit (the Jimanxim National Park) per provisional measure, the revoked creation of an indigenous territory that had already been guaranteed, a range of bills that put the demarcation of indigenous territories in question and put all power to the Congress (e.g. the proposed amendment PEC-215) or undermine environmental impact assessments (e.g. PEC-65), a proposed facilitated access for the agribusiness to permanently ‘rent’ land within indigenous territories (‘Portaria 68’), an offensive against quilombola land rights, radical budget cuts for regulatory and law enforcement institutions related to environmental and indigenous affairs (e.g. the indigenous agency FUNAI, the environmental agency IBAMA, and the agency for agrarian reform and land questions INCRA). [5][8][22] [23][24][25][27][28][29][30]

The controversies around RENCA and mining in indigenous territories are thus one of several venues in which current socio-environmental conflicts take place, confronting indigenous populations and the Amazon with numerous measures and legislative initiatives that serve the dominating ruralist interest to boost economic development without adequate social and environmental considerations. Despite repressions, Brazil has seen numerous mass demonstrations in major cities against these government measures and the country’s general political turn against its indigenous population and environmental protection. Particularly strong mobilization throughout the country came from Brazil’s indigenous movement that campaigned for “Demarcação Já!” and “terra livre” and indigenous organizations such as APIB, often also backed by other civil society organizations and environmental and feminist movements. This has led to a broader civil society movement that e.g. recently launched the “#resista” campaign (based on an open letter against government measures signed by human rights, environmental and indigenous organizations). The Comitê Nacional em Defesa dos Territórios Frente à Mineração has moreover emerged as submovement against proposed amendments of the mining code that would allow commercial mining in indigenous lands, uniting about 110 NGOs, syndicates and social movements. [1][4] [5][12][22][23] [25][29][30]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Mining in indigenous territories and the RENCA Amazon reserve, Amapá - Pará, Brazil
State or province:Pará / Amapá
Location of conflict:Oriximiná
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific commodities:Land
Iron ore

Project Details and Actors

Project details

RENCA (46,000 sq km) comprises the following protected areas: Parque Nacional Montanhas do Tumucumaque, Florestas Estaduais do Paru e do Amapá, Reserva Biológica de Maicuru, Estação Ecológica do Jari, Reserva Extrativista Rio Cajari, Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável do Rio Iratapuru; as well as the indigenous territories of Indígenas Waiãpi and Rio Paru d’Este.

Project area:4,600,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:min. 3,700 (not much data available)
Start of the conflict:21/08/2017
Company names or state enterprises:Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Naturais (CPRM) from Brazil - So far used to have mining research monopoly in RENCA
Vale (Vale) from Brazil
Relevant government actors:Brazilian government & MME (Ministério das Minas e Energia)
Federal Court & Public Prosecutor's Office of Amapá
National Mining Production Department & National Mining Agency
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Association of Indigenous Peoples of Wayana Aparai-Apiwa (APIWA)
Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Apib)
Mobilização Nacional Indígena
Comitê Nacional em Defesa dos Territórios Frente à Mineração
Catholic Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network
Instituto Socioambiental
Amazon Watch

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Aparai, Wayana and Wajãpi indigenous groups
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsPotential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Conflict outcome / response:Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Project temporarily suspended
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The mobilization against the 2017 signed decree was effective and has forced the government to make a step back. In addition, a broad, diverse movement has emerged to encounter the ruralist attempts to change socio-environmental legislation. As the RENCA case and other venues of this broader struggle show, the economic elites are powerful and may circumvent such resistance by creatively interpreting constitutional law and increasingly pushing through a number of adverse legislative changes while marginalizing opposing voices.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

28. Loebens, G. (2015): Mining: a devastating threat. CIMI Report “Violence against the Indigenous Peoples in Brazil”.

29. Da Silva, L.; de Souza Filho, C. (2013): Country Report: Brazil. The Current State of Socioenvironmental Law in Brazil: The New Forest Code, Megaprojects and Threats to Traditional Lands.

2. BBC (2017): Brazil opens vast Amazon reserve to mining. 24.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

3. Ventura, M.; Carneiro, L. (2017): Exploração mineral na Amazônia pode levar a disputas judiciais, 24.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

4. Arnold, C. (2017): In the Amazon, a Catastrophic Gold Rush Looms. 18.09.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

13. Greenpeace (2017): Greenpeace denuncia garimpos ilegais na Renca. 19.09.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

7. Greenpeace (2017): Vitória! Após pressão, Temer revoga decreto que extingue a Renca. 25.09.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

8. Instituto Socioambiental (2016): Pretensões Minerárias na Amazônia Legal. Terras Indígenas no Brasil (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

23. Lang, C. (2015): Não a PEC 215! Proposed change to Brazil’s constitution would leave indigenous peoples “in the hands of the multinational corporations”., 15.07.2015. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

9. Instituto Socioambiental (2017): (Enc)Renca! 30.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

10. G1 Globo (2017): Extinção de reserva é "ataque à Amazônia", dizem ativistas. 25.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

1. Senra, R. (2017): Mineradoras canadenses souberam de extinção de reserva na Amazônia 5 meses antes do anúncio oficial. 26.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

5. Gonzalez, A. (2017): 'Revogar a Renca nem é o problema em si', diz ambientalista. 25.08.2017.(Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

18. Mazui, G. (2018): Temer assina decretos que modificam regras do setor de mineração. G1 Globo Online, 12.06.2018. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

15a. Jiménez, C. (2017): Povo Wajãpi, uma barreira indígena contra a mineração na Amazônia. El País Brasil, 11.09.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

19. Pacheco, J. (2018): Greenpeace avalia que decreto federal pode provocar 'corrida do ouro'. G1 Globo Online, 20.06.2018 (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

21. Girardi, G. (2018): Novo decreto de mineração reabre possibilidade de exploração da Renca. Estadão, 14.06.2018. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

22. Poirier, C. (2017): Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement: resolute in times of crisis. 05.07.2015. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

24. Branford, S.; Torres, M. (2017): Brazil 2017: environmental and indigenous rollbacks, rising violence. Mongabay, 27.12.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

27. CAIMBRN (2015): Mineração em Terra Indígena. Portal Coordenadoria das Associações Indígenas do Médio e Baixo Rio Negro (CAIMBRN), 20 August, 2015. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

25. Amazon Watch (2017): Civil Society Organizations Unite in Resistance Against Brazil's Attacks on Environmental and Indigenous Rights Protections. 10.05.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

26. Kimbrough, L. (2018): Ruralists in Brazilian congress put nation’s protected areas at risk. Mongabay, 14.08.2018. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

16. Aljazeera (2017): Brazil court suspends mining on Amazon's Renca reserve. 20.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

30. Instituto Socioambiental (2017): Ato reúne parlamentares e ambientalistas contra retrocessos do governo Temer. 30.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

20. G1 Globo (2018): MPF fala em 'disfarce' e avalia que decreto federal pode abrir exploração na Renca. 16.06.2018. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

6. Jiménez, C. (2017): Renca: Temer revoga polêmico decreto que ameaça reservas da Amazônia. El País Brasil, 26.09.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

15b. Survival International (2017): Brazil: Tribe defy miners – “Our life depends on the life of the earth and the forest”. 31.10.2017.

11. Sulivan, Z. (2017): Mining activity causing nearly 10 percent of Amazon deforestation. 02.11.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

14. Embury-Dennis, T. (2017): Isolated Amazon tribe vows to fight international mining companies 'until the last of us is dead'. Indepentent, 25.10.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

15c. Mendes, K. (2017): Tribal leaders worried as battle to open up the Amazon to mining rages. Reuters Online, 01.09.2017.

17. Martins, H. (2017): MPF pede suspensão dos efeitos do decreto que extingue Reserva Nacional do Cobre, A Critica, 29.08.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

12. Poirier,C. (2017): After Deafening Global Outcry, the Brazilian Government Retreats on Plan to Permit Mining in Massive Amazonian Reserve. Amazon Watch, 01.09.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Povo Wajãpi, uma barreira indígena contra a mineração na Amazônia | Brasil

Renca: A realidade do garimpo ilegal

New Amazon Threat? Mining Deforestation

Youtube Channel of Mobilização Nacional Indígena

Renca: Greenpeace denuncia garimpos e pistas de pousos ilegais

Meta information

Contributor:Max Stoisser
Last update18/08/2019




President Temer signing decrees (Source: Globo Online / Marcos Corrêa/PR)


RENCA and its nine protected areas


An illegal garimpo within RENCA, detected by Greenpeace (Source: Fábio Nascimento / Greenpeace)


A Greenpeace protest in Rio after the RENCA abolition (Source: Maria Adelaide Silva / Alamy Stock Photo)


Image by the Comitê Nacional em Defesa - movement, campaigning against the influence of the mining lobby