Brazilian communities affected by the aluminum industry gathered in the city of Sao Luiz in the northern state of Maranhao at the end of March to discuss the environmental and health impacts of bauxite mining and aluminum refining. The gathering was organized by the Brazilian NGO Carajas Forum which monitors the social and environmental impact of major development projects in the region.
Sao Luiz is the headquarters of the Alumar consortium, one of the big conglomerates producing aluminum in Maranhao and the neighboring state of Para.
Aluminum began to be produced in this region in the late 1970s as part of the Grande Carajas scheme, a massive development project to extract minerals like iron and aluminum from the Amazon region. The construction of the Tucurui dam across the Tocantins river, which has generated electricity for the aluminum industry since it was inaugurated in 1984, led to the forced relocation of around 20,000 families in the region.
A number of the families were never compensated for the resettlement, said participants at the Sao Luiz meeting. Local communities now complain that they are plagued by mosquitoes that breed in the dam reservoir. Upstream from the dam, the Tocantins River is so polluted as to make fishing impossible, creating problems for the families living on the riverbanks.
Today the bauxite mining operations leave behind “red sludge” waste that has a high concentration of caustic soda. The red sludge is deposited in pools which are buried once full. Community groups argue that the waste filters into and contaminates waterways and groundwater.
Among the problems caused by bauxite mining in the region of Oriximina, in the state of Para, are the logging of large tracts of woodland, the contamination of lakes, rivers and streams, oil spills from boats and air pollution from bauxite dust and machinery exhaust fumes.
Aluminum workers also complain that the industry has a poor health and safety record. Union representatives complained of cancer, lung disease, skin rashes, nausea, caustic soda burns, chronic back pain, damaged eyesight, osteoporosis, excessive vibrations, noise and heat, contamination by dust, and a reduction of white blood cells caused by benzene intoxication. Jose de Ribamar Ferreira, head of the Union of Metallurgical Workers of Maranhao, says that the companies, however, refuse to admit the existence of such problems in order to avoid paying higher wages which should result from the high risk level and unsanitary conditions.
One of the main decisions to come out of the gathering was the formation of a commission to discuss initiatives for the creation of a Reference Center on Worker’s Health in Sao Luiz.
The NGOs also demanded participation by the government and companies in cleaning up polluted areas, improved monitoring of waste management, the creation of funds to encourage family farming, fishing and other sustainable activities in the region, and environmental education programs with the participation of civil society.
“Speaking Out Against Aluminum Giants” By Adalberto Wodianer
Marcondes, Inter Press Service, March 31, 1999.
“Protesters Occupy Offices Of The Brazilian Power Company In Tucurui, Para State” Oxfam Action Alert, August 9, 1991.
“Bound in Misery and Iron,” Survival International, 1987.