Thursday, 15 November 2012

Wiping the Iron Dust Off Their Feet in Small Brazilian Town

by Fabiola Ortiz

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 26 2012 (IPS) - The 380 families living in Piquiá de Baixo, a small town in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão, are fed up with having to endure high levels of pollution from nearby steelworks in their water, air and soil.

Clouds of iron dust hang over Piquiá de Baixo. Credit: Courtesy of Piquiá de Baixo Residents' Association

Clouds of iron dust hang over Piquiá de Baixo. Credit: Courtesy of Piquiá de Baixo Residents' Association

The town takes its name from the piquiá tree, a species highly valued for its wood, which has become extinct in the area where five steel plants have been operating for the past 25 years, headed by Brazilian mining giant Vale.

At present some 500,000 tonnes of pig iron, an intermediate product in the process of steel refining, are produced annually in Piquiá de Baixo. Pig iron is produced in blast furnaces by smelting iron ore, using charcoal or coke as fuel and limestone as a purifying agent.

The steel industry in the municipality of Açailândia, where the town is located, depends on supplies from Vale’s iron ore mines. The pig iron is transported to Atlantic ocean ports near São Luis, the state capital, 500 km away.

Local people in the small town, who live in modest dwellings with yards bordering on the grounds of the large steel plants, are suffering health problems from pollution.

As a result of the extremely poor quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink, more than 40 percent of the residents of Piquiá de Baixo suffer from respiratory illnesses, lung diseases and skin lesions, according to a study by the Reference Centre for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases at the Federal University of Maranhão.

The local population is demanding a transfer to a clean, safe place far away from the steel plants. The majority are farmers, who now can only work land over 200 km from their homes.

Similarly dire situations are occurring in many of Brazil’s mining towns, and a number of them are also organising protests.

Edvard Dantas Cardeal, 68, is the president of the Piquiá de Baixo Residents’ Association, whose members are affected by the smoke, soot and residues generated by the 70 smelting furnaces in the area.

“We are in danger, because we live next to five steel mills. In addition, Vale has a railway station just 300 metres from our homes, where every day hundreds of tonnes of iron ore are transported across our town, 24 hours a day,” he told IPS.

The hazardous living conditions in Piquiá de Baixo are highlighted in the Relatório de Insustentabilidade da Vale 2012 (Report on Vale’s Unsustainability, 2012), launched Apr. 18 in Rio de Janeiro by the International Network of People Affected by Vale, which includes 30 social movements in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Mozambique, some of the countries where the mining company operates.

Andressa Caldas, head of Justiça Global (Global Justice), an NGO working for human rights, told IPS that the situation in Açailândia is emblematic, because the community which has been settled there for over 50 years “is asking to be transferred due to the degree of environmental degradation and toxic pollution it is suffering.”

Danilo Chammas, the lawyer for the Piquiá de Baixo residents, concurred. He pointed out that the town already existed when the steel plants arrived 25 years ago. Now, “coexistence has become impossible, as the local people are forced to breathe iron ore dust mixed with charcoal every day,” he said.

“The families should have been relocated when the steelmaking complex was built; but a move is still the only alternative, and is urgently needed,” he told IPS.

Chammas said the residents are demanding “a greater commitment by Vale to the local people; and the company should contribute resources toward the building of a new settlement far away from the pollution.”

According to the Report on Vale’s Unsustainability, the company “refuses to make reparations for the harm caused these people, or to cover the cost of their resettlement.”

Cardeal also said his community’s demand is a matter of utmost urgency, as they cannot stay there any longer, because of the serious risk of further deterioration in public health.

“We cannot stand it any longer; the steel mills pollute the river that flows through the town, and all we can do is ask God to get us out of this place,” he said.

IPS was able to confirm that land a good distance from the steel mills was expropriated in July 2011 by the municipal government of Açailândia to relocate the affected families. The former owner of the land appealed the decision, but the issue was resolved in favour of the expropriation on Mar. 20 by a Maranhao court.

Cardeal and Chammas travelled to Rio de Janeiro in an attempt to meet with representatives of the Vale consortium, which was privatised in 1997.

“We came in the spirit of dialogue, to give Vale the opportunity to clean up its image, tarnished by its link with the pig iron industries, many of which promote slave and child labour,” Chammas said.
Vale’s press office declined to comment to IPS about the matter, although later it issued a communiqué in response to the Report on Vale’s Unsustainability.

“Vale respectfully receives all suggestions and complaints referring to its operations. We are aware that mining activity has an impact, and therefore we work in association with communities and governments to find solutions that guarantee people’s safety, as well as harmonious and healthy coexistence,” the statement says.

LAB, based in London, analyses the mining industry in Latin America


14 November 2012

Dear LAB supporter and friend,
This year has seen a seemingly endless tide of bad news about mining from every continent on the globe: reckless use of toxic chemicals; contamination and threats to the environment; draining or diversion of lakes and rivers; voracious demand for energy; construction of roads and railways to the detriment of vulnerable ecosystems; bitter and sometimes lethal labour conflicts; co-option of police and security forces to protect company facilities; the long-lasting social costs of wild-west style mining camps and towns. 
Notable, however, in many of the news stories has been the active role played by local communities, no longer willing to be passive bystanders in processes that threaten their future, nor to accept at face value the promises of jobs and development. Nowhere has this protest been more marked than in Latin America.
In a masterly overview for LAB of the deepening contradictions involved in mining development, Luis Claps, The Editor of Mines and Communities takes an extensive sweep through the Region, charting the numerous mining projects and the problems and conflicts they create. Read more. Luis’ article contains links to detailed news stories published on LAB was also assisted in preparing this newsletter by London Mining Network, whose own excellent newsletter includes numerous reports from Latin America.
An idea of the scale of mining operations is given by an interactive map of the operations of Canadian mining companies just in Central America. Read more.
Of course, mining is only one (although arguably the most destructive) of the ‘extractive industries’. There is keen debate throughout Latin America, especially in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Venezuela, about the dilemma confronting progressive governments for whom licensing of extraction appears to offer the only means of fulfilling their promises of social programmes in health, education and family support—the so-called ‘brown left’ option. Earlier this year the Uruguayan commentator Eduardo Gudynas gave an interview on this topic to the Spanish journal ECOS. Read more. Similar questions are posed by Raúl Zibechi, who asks: “Will Latin America be the new Middle East?” Read more. LAB will return to this topic in the coming months and we hope to dedicate a newsletter soon to the wider issues of extraction.
In Argentina, communities in Tinogasta, Catamarca province, have been mounting a selective blockade of the highways leading to major mining developments in the area. They have formulated a ‘Plan Cerro Negro’ to pursue a blockade that has attracted nationwide support. Read more. An interview with a local activist gives an idea of how local residents feel about the mining company, Minera Alumbrera (jointly owned by Xstrata, Goldcorp and Yamana Gold), and the progress of the blockade. Read more.
In Colombia, mining projects, like almost every aspect of life in the countryside, have been implicated in the country’s interminable and bloody civil war. Behind the combatants stand the companies that provide equipment, transport, guards, armaments and the incentives to seize and exploit land and mineral rights. Patrick Kane of War on Want, has examined the role played by the City of London in financing some of these. Read more. Mining sector publications can sound positively euphoric about development possibilities, particularly in the Middle Cauca region. Read more. However, key to resolving conflicts with communities remains a process of genuine consultation. Small (artisanal) and medium-scale projects can offer better and ultimately less destructive potential than the mega-projects beloved of government and the multi-national lenders. Read more.
In Peru, communities around the town of Espinar took to the streets in May to complain about the activities of Swiss mining firm XStrata which runs a huge copper mine at Tintaya, which it took over from BHP Billiton in 2006.  Despite clashes with police which left two dead and over 100 injured, negotiations have resumed. The company has made some commitment to financing social projects and maintaining meaningful dialogue with community leaders. Read more. In the north of the country, however, Monterrico Metals, listed on the London Metals Exchange, but owned since 2007 by Chinese  mining giant Zijin Mining Group, chose to settle out of court for a very modest sum judged sufficient to divide and disarm its opponents. Read more.
Meanwhile, there is a lively debate about the relative demerits of large-scale and artisanal mining. The latter is often blamed by environmentalists for the indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals, total lack of provision for restoring ravaged landscape and poor safety record. A detailed report from Peru Support Group weighs up the pros and cons. Read more.
Mining conflicts are often presented as simple bilateral confrontations between victims (workers, trade unions, communities, ethnic groups) and perpetrators (the mining companies, corrupt local officials, distant national governments, security forces). Reality, however, is often much more complex. In Bolivia, short-sighted government policies have had the unintended consequence of pitting mining employees and their trade union against small-scale co-operative producers (Read more). This has provoked sharp discussion on the left. Read more.
Become a LAB Partner
Latin America Bureau (LAB) is extending a cordial invitation to NGOs, CSOs and others in the Region (as well as Aid Agencies, Campaigns, Human Rights and Solidarity groups concerned with the Region) to become LAB Partners. LAB will list Partners, with a brief Profile of each, where they work, their objectives, contact details, website links, etc., on the Partners Page of LAB's website (
There is no cost. The Partner simply completes a very brief survey and signs the agreement. LAB will then add them to the listing of LAB Partners.
As our work develops, we hope to publish links to websites and articles with news of the Partners' work and campaigns; to launch discussions and blogs through which the Partners can communicate with one another; to provide training material and skills to help Partners to improve their communication skills; and to build an e-Library of links to articles and reports on campaigns and themes of common interest.
To become a LAB Partner, simply click the appropriate link below and complete the Survey and Agreement: 

Forthcoming Events
The annual trade union-sponsored conference on Latin America has established itself as a fixture in the London solidarity calendar.  This year’s conference on December 12 includes a workshop by LAB editors Sue Branford and Francis McDonagh on 'New Threats to the Brazilian Amazon'. 
Best wishes
The LAB team