RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept. 7 – “No more Cubataos” is now the war cry of Brazilian environmentalists, who insist that Brazil’s main petrochemical center and most polluted city not become a model for other industrial districts.
The environmental movement is particularly strong in Cotia, 18 miles from Sao Paulo, and in Araucaria, 12 miles from Curitiba, the capital of the southern state of Parana.
Cotia is now one of the last green areas in the Sao Paulo metropolitan region, but it is now in danger of becoming yet another industrial center.
Cotia is known as the “city of roses,” because of its 50 flower-growing concerns. There are 1,239 different rural landholdings in Cotia, and only 115 small industries — an unusual phenomenon in the Sao Paulo region.
Mayor Mario Isaac Pires, with support from trade unions and business groups, is trying to attract large industry to Cotia, arguing that it will bring needed money and jobs to the area.
But neighborhood councils and many residents of Cotia have mobilized against the mayor’s initiative.
The opposition movement numbers an estimated 70,000 people, 50,000 of them in the urban area.
Three weeks ago, 15,000 people turned out to demonstrate against the industrialization project.
The conflict began last December, when the city council voted in favor of legislation creating industrial zones.
This would permit the installation of large companies in Cotia, which would presumably be attracted by low-cost land and proximity to the large market of Sao Paulo.
Environmentalists are rallying around another proposed law, which will go before the provincial legislature next month.
That draft would limit the land each factory occupies to 2,500 square meters and would impose restrictions on the newly arrived companies’ waste disposal.
Supporters of the industrialization plan are counterattacking by asserting that they have the support of lower-income people — anxious to find jobs — trade unions and workers in general.
They also charge that the environmentalists are members of the city’s richest classes and are defending the privileged few who have large houses, with gardens and swimming pools.
The pro-industrialization sector is thus attempting to make the ecological conflict into a class struggle, and they have already collected thousands of workers’ signatures on a petition defending the installation of large factories in Cotia.
The movement to protect Cotia’s environment, led by university professors, technicians, some city officials and students, has been active for several years.
In 1976, they prevented construction of the Sao Paulo International Airport in their municipality. That airport is now in the final stage of construction in Guarulhos, another municipality in the metropolitan region.
The environmentalists in Araucaria, a municipality of 50,000, have been less fortunate.
Seventy-four factories are now causing severe pollution there, and residents’ fears that their city will become another Cubatao have intensified with the births of two babies with hydroencephalia (brain deformation) and an increase in respiratory illnesses in recent months.
Cubatao, Brazil’s petrochemical center, is the so-called “valley of death,” located 42 miles from Sao Paulo.
The 23 large industries which operate there, including chemical plants, metal-working factories and oil refineries, have made the town a symbol of uncontrolled pollution.
In the last few years, the incidence of babies born without brains has risen high above the normal rate, and almost all the city’s residents suffer respiratory problems.
On Sept. 3, the government declared a state of emergency in Cubatao because the presence of solid particles in the air rose far above the legal limit of 875 micrograms per cubic meter.
Even that limit is more than ten times the maximum level considered normal by the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO).
Araucaria is now the most polluted city in Parana, a state which was almost exclusively agricultural until just a few years ago.
Until recently, Parana State’s biggest environmental problems were caused by excessive and uncontrolled use of agricultural chemicals.
Ten chemical factories, of which three produce fertilizer, are now the main source of pollution in the region.
In Cotia, the example of Araucaria is used as a major argument against industrializing the city, even though it would create jobs.
Industry in Araucaria employs only 4,760 people, and a new fertilizer factory, now under construction, will generate 1,000 new jobs.
The anti-pollution campaign in Araucaria is headed by Father Arivonil Vieira and agricultural engineer Reinaldo Staki, who runs the Environmental Defense Association.
Defending the increased industrialization, primarily as a source of tax income, Mayor Rogerio Campa argues that the population should not be alarmed at occasional cases of rare diseases.
But the fear of a new “Cubatao phenomenon” continues to draw increasing numbers of residents into the opposition movement.
Physician Jose Kersten says Araucaria “is not a Cubatao yet,” but it might not be long before it turns into one.