BRASILIA, Aug 25 (Reuters) - President Michel Temer defended his opening of a vast Amazon area to mining, responding to criticism from lawmakers, environmental groups and supermodel Gisele Bundchen that it threatened the world's largest rainforest.
Earlier this week, Temer abolished the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca) that had protected roughly 17,800 square miles (46,000 square km), an area larger than Denmark, from mining since 1984.
The reserve in northern Amapá and Pará is thought to be rich in copper, gold, iron ore and other minerals. Preserving the rainforest is seen as vital to countering climate change, given the Amazon's role in soaking up carbon emissions, environmentalists say.
If mining is allowed to go forward, it could cause the biggest ever legally sanctioned destruction of the Amazon, Randolfe Rodrigues, a senator from Amapá state, told Reuters.
Temer's office issued a statement late Thursday saying these concerns were overstated and allowing legal mining there would help combat illegal exploration.
"Renca is not a paradise, as some would wrongly like to make it appear," the statement said.
"Today, unfortunately, the territories of the original Renca are subject to the degradation caused by illegal gold miners, which besides plundering national wealth, are destroying nature and polluting waterways with mercury."
Rodrigues, of the opposition Rede party led by former presidential candidate and environment minister Marina Silva, has proposed a measure in the Senate to block the president's decree. He hopes to rally public support for the measure and plans to file public interest lawsuits with federal courts in Amapá and Pará states to block the decree from being executed.
Renca was established by decree, making it difficult to argue Temer abolishing the area by decree was unconstitutional, said Izabella Pardinho, an environmental lawyer at Bichara Advogados based in Rio de Janeiro. Other legal grounds could support a case in the public interest, she said.
"Shame! They are auctioning our Amazon! We cannot destroy protected areas for private interests," Bundchen wrote in a tweet.
In June, Temer said in a tweet to Bundchen he would veto a measure to separately reduce protections of a different national forest after she criticized the move. He later supported a compromise to reduce the protected area by a lesser amount than originally proposed.
Temer's office said any mining would need to comply with strict federal licensing requirements that provide environmental protection.
The abolition of Renca does not lift other protections for native vegetation, nature conservation areas and indigenous land in the area.
According to a 2010 government report, 69 percent of the Renca area in Amapá state is subject to other protections.
Merely allowing mining near protected areas could generate conflict and put them under threat, WWF and Greenpeace said in statements.
"The measure will accelerate the arrival of infrastructure and people for mining activities in areas of native forest, reproducing in the region the same lack of governance that permits the advance of deforestation and land grabs (elsewhere) in the Amazon," Greenpeace said.
(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Andrew Hay)