Brazil's President Michel Temer on Thursday authorized via presidential decree that mining companies can now operate in the country's Renca National Reserve, an area of about 47,000 square kilometers — or bigger than either Switzerland or Belgium.
Created in February 1984, the reserve has seven conservation units and two indigenous lands (called Rio Paru D'Este and Waiãpi) inside its borders.
Although the reserve's name refers to copper, the area is rich in gold and other minerals like iron ore, platinum, nickel and manganese.
The move has sparked criticism from environmental groups, which fear the region's uncontrolled exploitation — including the logging that would accompany the mining — and a possible gold rush by both large mining companies and individuals, triggering pressure on indigenous lands and sparking social problems.
"We do not know any precedent that could generate so much environmental and social damage," Michel de Souza, public policy coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told BuzzFeed News.
"How will the material be disposed of?" he continued "An immense infrastructure would be necessary. How do you do search for minerals without overthrowing the forest?"
According to the text of the decree, the authorization for the area to be mined "does not detract from the application of specific legislation on the protection of native vegetation, nature conservation units, indigenous lands and border areas."
The government's justification for authorizing the mining activity is to avoid the shortage of strategic mineral resources for Brazil.
Souza, from the WWF, doubts this will actually be the case. "In recent times, there has not been a respect for environmental laws," he said. In addition, Souza continued, the government has taken other measures hostile to the environment without penalty.
The decree comes after the government reduced the area of the Jamanxim National Forest in July, in which conflicts between loggers and indigenous people became more frequent.
Also in July, a truck hauling pickup trucks that for inspection by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources was set on fire by criminals in the area.
"It's becoming a pattern and you see no shame at all," Souza said.
On Twitter, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen published an image in which she says: "I call on all Brazilians to say NO to the slowing of the protection of the Amazon." In another post, the top model said that protected areas are being destroyed "for private interests."