RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has issued two decrees to drive gold prospecting with a focus on the Amazon rainforest, according to the texts published recently in the official gazette.
The Program to Support Development of Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining created by one decree aims to strengthen policies and stimulate best practices, according to the text. The Amazon "will be the priority region for the development of works," it says.
The other alters existing laws and regulations, for example requiring the nation's mining regulator to establish simplified criteria for the analysis of permit requests for prospecting.
The measures spurred anger from environmental and Indigenous rights groups, which warned they would exacerbate the illegal destruction of the world's largest tropical rainforest and pollution of its waterways with mercury, used to separate gold.
"They run opposite to what the federal government should be doing," Larissa Rodrigues, portfolio manager for an environmental think tank Choices Institute, said by phone. "There is enormous illegality circulating in the chain that is measurable. The government should be concerned about controlling that chain and not giving more stimulus to it."
Bolsonaro has been an outspoken champion of mining the Amazon since his presidential campaign in 2018, promising to unearth the rainforest's vast mineral wealth. In doing so, he garnered vast support from prospectors. He is widely expected to run for reelection in October.
Nongovernment organizations have been sounding the alarm about how both the president's comments and the reduction of environmental oversight during his term have emboldened illegal miners and spurred a gold rush, wreaking vast damage where they work.
But Bolsonaro, the son of a prospector himself, has been unmoved. He characterizes prospecting as one of the few alternatives available to people living in a vast, poor region with few opportunities.
"Prospecting represents elevated potential for the generation of wealth and income for a population of hundreds of thousands of people," according to a statement from the secretary general of the presidency.
An Associated Press investigation last month found that illegal landing strips and unauthorized airplanes have helped prospectors carry out tons of gold mined on Indigenous lands. The gold ends up in the hands of brokers, some of whom are under investigation by authorities for receiving gold from illegal mining -- facilitated by a widespread lack of traceability. The gold is refined in Sao Paulo before becoming part of the global supply chain.
Rodrigues' Choices Institute released a study earlier this month that found 229 tons of gold with indications of illegality were sold from 2015 to 2020, or roughly half of national production -- most of which originated in the Amazon. The study was based on the analysis of more than 40,000 sale records and satellite images of production sites.
Rodrigues added that the simplification of the mining regulator's permit process could usher in a wave of new requests or clearing of the agency's backlog of requests, causing "complete lack of control."
One of the decrees creates a multiagency commission charged with developing policies to foment what it terms "artisanal mining," and which it says will be sustainable.
However, most gold prospecting in the Amazon is far from artisanal, employing generators and heavy machinery for digging trenches and dredging rivers.
Beto Marubo, an Indigenous leader in the Javari Valley, a remote region of Brazil bordering Peru, said on Twitter that the decree represents "another incentive for the destruction of the rivers, the forests, the life in our communities."