Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro unveiled a controversial bill on Wednesday that would allow commercial mining on protected indigenous lands, delivering on a campaign promise that has shocked tribal leaders and environmentalists.
The bill to regulate mining including oil and gas projects, as well as hydroelectric dams, on indigenous reservations for the first time, will be sent to Congress this week. Brazil’s constitution currently does not rule out mining on reservations, but does not allow it because it has not been regulated.
“This is a big step forward, but it will face pressure from environmentalists,” Bolsonaro said in a speech.
Bolsonaro has long railed against Brazil’s indigenous people for occupying too much land, 13% of the country, and hindering economic development of untold mineral resources hidden there, from gold and diamonds to niobium and rare earths.
But leaders of most of Brazil’s 300 tribes oppose mining on their reservations and say that allowing commercial mining would undermine their communities and wipe out their cultures already threatened by increasing invasions by illegal loggers and wildcat miners.
Environmentalists who see the indigenous communities as the best guardians of Brazil’s tropical forests warn that mining will speed up deforestation.
The proposal includes provisions to consult indigenous communities and would require Congressional approval for any mining or hydroelectric power generation project. Government officials have said, however, that indigenous communities would not have the right to veto projects once authorized by Congress.
Adriano Trindade, Brazilian attorney specializing in mining from Pinheiro Neto Advogados, noted the tender proceeding will only apply to areas that had been previously subject to exploration or exploitation rights, which for some reason have expired or were terminated.
“It will not apply to areas deemed as free, which will remain subject to the first-come, first-served system,” Trindade said.
The expert added that Bolsonaro’s bill brings an important transitional provision — the fresh regulatory framework for tender proceedings is valid for new bids only.
Bolsonaro also separately plans to allow large-scale commercial agriculture on indigenous reservations, some of which already have soy plantations even though they are not allowed under current environmental laws.