Fluoride Action Network

Speaking out against aluminum giants

Source: Inter Press Service | March 31st, 1999 | by Adalberto Wodianer Marcondes
Location: Brazil
Industry type: Aluminum Industry

More than 60 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) came together in this northern Brazilian city to discuss the impact on human health and the environment of bauxite mining and the production of aluminum by multinational consortiums in the country’s Amazon jungle region.

Cancer and a long list of other occupational hazards, the contamination of waterways, air pollution, the clear-cutting of large tracts of woodland, oil spills, and the forced relocation of thousands of families were among the concerns raised at a recent gathering here.

The meeting, ”International Dialogue on Aluminum: Global Accountability From Extraction to Consumption”, was designed to provide a voice to grassroots organisations that are normally ignored by business and authorities, said German pastor Wilfried Steen.

The gathering was organised last week by the Brazilian NGO Carajas Forum – concerned with the social and environmental impact of major development projects in the region – with the support of Germany’s Joint Church and Development Conference (GKKE), which links Catholic and Protestant church groups.

Steen, one of the heads of GKKE, described the meet as a success, because it allowed dozens of representatives of community groups and trade unions with scarce funding to come together and pinpoint the common denominators in their demands.

The gathering took place in Sao Luiz, the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Maranhao and the headquarters of the Alumar consortium, one of the big conglomerates producing aluminum in the Amazon state of Maranhao and the neighbouring state of Para.

GKKE said it hoped the debate would continue, but with the participation of the companies in question, which declined to attend the gathering.

Although invited, the firms excused themselves in a brief letter from the
Brazilian Association of the Aluminum Industry (ABAL), signed by the
association’s chairman, Adjarma Azevedo.

According to ABAL, discussions of the issues at hand should take part with ”the effective participation and official representation of the government and the relevant government bodies, which are public policy-makers and promoters of regional development.”

But the government bodies that were also invited declined to send
representatives, based on the argument that company delegates would not be attending.

Aluminum began to be produced in Brazil’s Amazon jungle region in the late 1970s. Production in the area is dominated by three large consortiums – Alunorte, Albras and Alumar – made up of local firms and transnational corporations.

Alunorte is comprised of Vale do Rio Doce – Brazil’s largest mining company – Mineracao Rio do Norte, Compania Brasileira de Aluminio and Japan’s Nippon Amazon Aluminium.

Vale do Rio Doce and Nippon Amazon Aluminium also hold shares in Albras, while the U.S. Alcoa and Reynolds, Canada’s Alcan and the Royal Dutch-Shell Group form part of Alumar.

The companies were drawn to the region by tax incentives and cheap energy, subsidised by the government, when Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship (1964-85) and development projects were imposed without the views of the affected communities being taken into account.

A new law stimulates exports by exonerating all export-oriented production – 80 percent of the total output of the companies in question – from paying state taxes. The ‘Kandir Law’ reduced the taxes paid to the state of Maranhao by Alumar from around 22 million dollars a year to less than five million.

Nevertheless, the aluminum consortiums pay less taxes – and bring more money into the local economy – than any other sector. They also consume more electricity than the cities of Sao Luiz and Belem – the capital of the state of Para.

Thus, they enjoy enormous economic and political clout in the region.

”We have often established dialogue with the companies, but we have never been able to discuss the issues that we consider important,” said one community leader.

Delegates from the town of Barcarena, in the state of Para, where a large part of the bauxite used in the production of aluminum is extracted, complained that the companies refused to discuss the possibility of cleaning up rivers and land they pollute.

Jose Mauricio Macedo, director of Environment and Work Security in Alumar, said that although his firm was open to hearing the complaints of community groups, there were no adequate channels through which the groups could voice their concerns.

The NGOs meeting last week in Sao Luiz protested the lack of oversight of the activities of the companies, which they blamed largely on shortcomings of the bodies in charge of monitoring the firms.

”The governments of the region have no way to carry out the technical
analyses of any of the processes involved in the production of aluminum, and they accept the declarations of the companies as the absolute truth,” said a Secretariat of the Environment official.

The construction of the Tucurui dam across the Tocantins river, which
generates electricity for the aluminum industry, led to the forced
relocation of around 20,000 families, with the consequent cultural disintegration and loss of a sense of rootedness.

According to the NGOs, a number of the families were never indemnified.

Trees and vegetation were not removed before the land was flooded, which led to even heavier environmental impact. And the courses of riverbeds in the region were significantly altered to allow rivers to be plied by barges hauling bauxite.

The companies, meanwhile, argue that they use the latest technology to prevent risks to the environment, such as those linked to the so-called ”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, local representatives explained.

For four years, trade unionist Carlos Cardoso has been protesting a series of irregularities posing serious occupational hazards for workers of the Albras consortium. A former company employee, Cardoso was dismissed, rehired on a court order and sacked once again.

The participants heard details of the health risks presented at each stage of the process, from the mining and washing of bauxite to the production of aluminum.

The widespread and profound ignorance of the health hazards faced by workers was mentioned, as well as the high levels of alcoholism among employees of every section, and the inadequate safety equipment used by workers.

Among the health hazards mentioned were 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.

The companies, however, refuse to admit the existence of such problems in order to avoid paying higher wages due to high risk level and unsanitary conditions, said Jose de Ribamar Ferreira, head of the Union of Metallurgical workers of Maranhao.

Although Alumar representative Mauricio Macedo told IPS that the production process posed no risks to the health of workers or local residents, he presented no evidence to substantiate that claim.

”Before Alumar set up shop here, local unions were inexpressive, and now they want to take up work-related sickness as their standard,” he complained.

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 Centre 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 programmes with the participation of civil society.

The working groups set up are to submit their demands to the federal and state governments, the companies in question and international organisations that can help to build a constructive dialogue between all the concerned parties.