Brazil aims to open indigenous reserves to mining: minister

BRASILIA (Reuters) - The government of Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is preparing an overhaul of mining sector regulations that will include opening up indigenous reserves to mining, the country’s mines and energy minister said.

Mining in indigenous reserves is currently prohibited.

Minister Bento Albuquerque said Brazil plans to overhaul mining rules to prevent future disasters such as the dam bursting at a Vale SA facility in January that killed hundreds and also allow for more economic growth in the sector, including of mineral exports.

“That legislative effort shall also include the regulation of the use of indigenous and other areas according to what the Brazilian federal constitution states,” Albuquerque said at an event in Washington, D.C. A video of the remarks were posted late on Thursday.

Brazil’s 1988 constitution states that mining can only be conducted in indigenous areas under rules approved by the country’s Congress that ensure the indigenous communities affected benefit.

But Congress never established such rules, effectively prohibiting mining in indigenous areas until such a law is passed. Albuquerque did not elaborate on efforts to open indigenous areas to mining.

Environmentalists and non-government organizations say that the indigenous are the best defenders of natural habitats and fear that Bolsonaro’s promise to bring economic development to reservations could drive environmental destruction.

About 13 percent of Brazil’s territory is set aside as indigenous reservations with much of it in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

“The Amazon is very important to the country. Not just in the respect of preserving the environment for the value it represents to the planet, but also in terms of its riches,” Albuquerque said. “The riches of the Amazon have to be explored in a rational and sustainable way that does not harm the environment.”

The government will also make laws more “severe and effective” to prevent disasters like the rupture of the tailings dam at the Vale facility in Brumadinho that buried hundreds of people in mining waste in January, he said.

That includes plans to overhaul Brazil’s decades old mining code. A similar effort by Bolsonaro’s predecessor Michel Temer failed last year.

The newly created regulator National Mining Agency (ANM) must be given more workers and funding to carry out oversight of mining operations, he said.

The accident in Brumadinho was not the result of a lack of legislation, he said.

“I don’t want to give a prejudgment, but I have no doubt whatsoever that if the legal framework had been complied with ... that accident would not have occurred.”

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Susan Thomas