By Nadia Pontes
SAO PAULO, Brazil, Feb 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A bill to reduce the size of four Amazon conservation reserves in Brazil and eliminate another may be related to proposals by mining industries to begin work in those areas, investigators from a conservation organisation say.
"We noticed that the majority of those exploitation requests are within the limits of the conservation units that the new bill wants to cut," said Mariana Ferreira, the science coordinator for WWF-Brazil, a non-governmental environmental protection organisation.
The national bill, proposed by legislators from Amazonas state, aims to eliminate the Campos de Manicore Environmental Protection Area and reduce the size of Acari National Park, the Manicore Biological Reserve and the Urupadi and Aripuana national forests.
The protected areas were created last year, before the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in August.
But "even after the creation of those conservation units in 2016, the mining industry didn't stop requesting official licenses to exploit minerals within the protected areas", said Ricardo Mello, coordinator of the Amazon programme at WWF-Brazil.
The more-than-20-page bill describes the conservation areas proposed for reduction or elimination only as geographic coordinates, without maps, and does not provide a reason for the change, WWF-Brazil said.
But maps created from the coordinates by the conservation organisation show that proposals to begin mining – particularly for gold, but also for diamonds and niobium, used in steel and superconductors – have been filed with the government in all the areas, the NGO said.
The mining proposals are available from a national database of requests by industry for mineral prospecting and extraction.
In Acari National Park alone, about 40 requests for prospecting or mining minerals, mainly gold, have been filed, WWF-Brazil said. Some have already been authorised, according to the organisation. According to President Michel Temer's chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, the proposed cuts to conservation areas are being analyzed within the Ministry of Environment.
However Jose Sarney Filho, the country's environment minister, has indicated he is against the changes.
"The minister is against the project because any change in conservation units demands technical advice from the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, an agency linked to the Ministry of Environment," the ministry replied via email, when asked for comment.
Brazil's forests are under pressure not only from mining but also expansion of agriculture, creation of large dams and timber harvesting.
Data from the National Institute for Space Research shows that the amount of forest lost in the five locations in the proposed bill has jumped from 27 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2015.
The new protected areas were designated last year to create "shields" on the frontline of expansion of timber cutting and agribusiness industries in the Amazon. All contain endangered species, researches say.
"There are worrying signs of a movement to reduce protected areas in the Amazon," climatologist Carlos Nobre, of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The increase in deforestation over the last two years is part of this worrying trend of diminishing forest protection," he said.
Philip Fearnside, who has been studying the Amazon for more than three decades, said it is clear mining companies want to limit the area that is put off limits.
"There are bills under discussion that aim to block the creation of protected areas where ores could also be found. We are talking about the interests of a very powerful group, which involves a lot of money," said Fearnside, who works at the National Institute of Amazonian Research.
A reduction of protected areas in the Amazon may also jeopardize commitments made by the Brazilian government to reduce climate change as part of the Paris Agreement, Nobre pointed out.
"These commitments demand a continuous effort to cut deforestation. And this will not happen if the shield of protected areas is weakened, as they were created to curb the disorderly expansion of the agricultural frontier," he said. (Reporting by Nadia Pontes; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)