“Where you least expect it”

Living with the aluminum and kaolin industry in the Brazilian Amazon

Filed under: Reports from the field
Photo by Alexander Panez

Photo by Alexander Panez

by Diana Aguiar, Alessandra Cardoso, and Marcela Vecchione

 

In the airport of Belém in the Amazonian state of Pará, Brazil, an advertisement of the French company Imerys states, “Where you least expect it. Kaolin is a mineral that is part of your day.” The ad tries to tell the story of the positive widespread presence of the mineral in our daily lives. Kaolin is a mineral used in the production of paper, toothpaste, cosmetics and other daily use products.

The sad irony is what the ad hides: how little the communities surrounded by kaolin’s presence in their rivers and soil feel positive about it.

Barcarena is a city close to Belém and is home to the biggest aluminum-industrial center in Latin America. The first industry established in the area was Albras-Alunorte (at the time a project of Japanese capital and of state-owned, now Brazilian-headquartered private corporation Vale) in 1984. The project was part of the global process of relocating polluting and energy-intensive industries to the South. More specifically, it was part of Japan’s decision–in the context of the 1970s oil crisis–to outsource the production of aluminum needed to feed its post-War industrial boom.

The Brazilian military regime embraced the opportunity to host aluminum processing in the Amazon, signing up to huge debts denominated in Japanese yen. It then took on the task of building the energy infrastructure needed for the industry to flourish. The Tucuruí megadam, built in the late 1970s in the Tocantins River, was inaugurated in 1984 and resulted in social and environmental disasters of great proportions. Since then, Tucuruí megadam has been providing energy to the aluminum industry at subsidized rates, below production costs.

Currently, the refinery Alunorte (Alumina do Norte S.A.) transforms a mineral abundant in the Amazon, bauxite, into alumina. The refinery’s owners are Norsk Hydro, whose main shareholders are the Norwegian state (34,3%), the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (6,81%), and several transnational financial corporations. The factory Albras (Alumínio Brasileiro S.A.) transforms Alunorte’s alumina into aluminum and is owned by Norsk Hydro (51%) and the Japanese consortium NAAC (Nippon Amazon Aluminum Co. Ltd) (49%). Industries in the region also include, amongst others, steel plant Usipar and kaolin processing Imerys Rio Capim Caulim S.A. and PPSA (Pará Pigmentos S.A.).

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations. As is widely known, the whole process of producing aluminum is water-and energy-intensive and is highly air-polluting. While the aluminum makes its way through global value chains, the devastation of the environment—which is the basis of the lives of the surrounding poor communities—remains. Three decades with the industrial center in Barcarena has meant a rampant population surge in the city due to labour-seeking migration and intense dislocation of traditional peoples and rural populations toward poor slum-like urban areas.

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations

The process of turning Barcarena into an industrial center started during the time of the military dictatorship but continued unabated in the era of post-democratization government planning. It turned the area into an important vector of several trade corridors (Trombetas-Baixo Amazonas, Carajás-Tocantins, Capim river valey, etc. with hydroways and pipelines transporting kaolin and bauxite). In recent years, continued industrialization has become part of the economic policy of ensuring continuous trade surplus through the exportation of commodities.

Social movements have continuously criticized the financial imperatives justifying this “development” model, its environmental devastation, and the role it plays in the increasing dispossession of communities. It was exactly this interconnection between the financialization of the global economy, the “development” policies it entails and its consequent territorial impacts that the Latin American “Financialization of Nature” workshop debated from 26 to 27 August 2015 in Belém do Pará, Brazil.

As part of the workshop process, two days before the meeting, groups of social activists, researchers and popular educators took part in caravans that visited communities in the region of Northeast Pará. The caravan we took part in was confronted with a reality of devastation and despair. We visited communities Acuí, Curuperé and Dom Manuel, all of which are facing disintegration of social ties and the never-ending expectation of compensation that could allow them to relocate to a healthy place.

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The Acui community, living in a permanent transitory state.  Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The Acuí community saw its population decrease from 160 to 70 families due to the hardship of living on their land. During our visit, they claimed to be expecting a solution to their situation for the past 12 years, living in a permanent transitory state, including not seeing reasons to make efforts to improve their houses or vegetable gardens due to constant promises that relocation is soon to come. According to them, their soil and bodies are contaminated with heavy metals and their health is jeopardized. They cannot drink water from streams or wells and are dependent on the delivery of water by trucks. Disbelief in any promise and feeling of abandonment by the state were common. We left the community with a deep sense of impotence, hoping to at least express our solidarity to their struggle.

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The Curuperé community. the living expression of living with kaolin, “where you least expect it.” Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The second visited community, Curuperé, was the living expression of the tragedy of having kaolin as part of your day “where you least expect it”. The stream that served the community was constantly contaminated by infiltrations of kaolin – and heavy metals associated with its industrial processing – from Imerys tailings dams for the past ten years. Where 60 families lived, only 3 remain, now dependent on trucks to deliver water and facing corporate allegations that the land belongs to the corporation. As stories of dispossession usually go, those people saw their territories invaded by the industrial dump of a production process that has nothing to do with their needs and ways of living.

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Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town. Photos by Cíntia Barenho

 

The situation is similar in Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town that saw its population decrease from 164 to 8 families. The families that left before compensation did so due to the impossibility of living in such an environment. The ones that stayed say they have nowhere to go while they await compensation. Imerys claims it has bought the land where these people have been living for decades—taking advantage of the irregularity of land access and ownership—and hence refuses to pay compensation. The community is landlocked by industrial plants in one side and an Imerys tailings dam on the other. Piles of coke used in aluminum processing could be seen meters away from the houses. Even during our short stay, breathing the air caused discomfort.

The three communities, along with several others in the region, have been facing the huge impacts of mineral processing industries with little support from the state. The first serious kaolin leak happened in June 2007. 200,000 m2 of white material discolored 19 km of the river, compromising its use and affecting the water wells. At the time, the factory was fined with 2,6 million Brazilian reals and shut down for a month. According to studies made of the soil, the leaked material had high concentration of iron, aluminum, zinc and cadmium—these accumulate in the body and may cause degenerative diseases, hepatic dysfunctions, immunological deficiencies, and dementia.

Later that year the Prosecutors Office of the state of Pará and Imerys signed an extrajudicial memorandum of understanding. The TAC (Termo de Ajustamento de Conduta) included commitments to not throw any more toxic substance in the environment, to build up a plan for reparation of the area (including repopulation of native fauna) and restructuring the tailings dams. The financial compensation included 463,000 Brazilian reals in collective moral damage to be given to local associations and 4 million for the state as compensation for environmental damages and to finance projects to improve peoples lives. However, since then, leaks have continued to happen and communities claim that no reparation of their situation or the environment has occurred.

Meanwhile, just outside of the Imerys factory, a big sign affirms proudly that the “company benefited from tax incentives to production” by the Superitendência para o Desenvolvimento da Amazônia (SUDAM) linked to the National Integration Ministry. Tax incentives in the Amazon, especially in its Eastern portion, have, for a long time, been a factor of social and territorial disruption. In the state of Pará, incentives at times included 100% tax exemption on the circulation of goods and services that are part of the value chain, such as electricity and fuel.

This has happened in conjunction with an increase of state debt at the provincial level, deepening of ecological debt (disproportionately concentrated upon affected communities), and inadequate distribution of wealth in the affected municipalities.

The Federal government helps to aggravate the problem by stimulating the so-called “tax war” among states that want to attract companies to their territories allegedly to create jobs and improve their revenue. In this way, it is not just a problem of development pushed by the capital, but also a matter of the way the contested regional and sustainable development model is being driven by sub-national units over and against community development. In Barcarena, for example, the provincial government has played a central role in promoting and reproducing a “development” model that jeopardizes the lives and cultures of local communities.

Shortly after the caravan left Pará, Norsk Hydro announced it is bringing Norwegian pop band A-ha to play in Barcarena. This type of propaganda, as much as the Imerys advertisement is part of a set of corporate tactics designed to build a narrative that disguises the crude reality lived by the communities we visited.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment. Many of them asked for our help to disseminate the struggles they are going through and the systematic impunity these corporations enjoy. This article is our modest attempt to do so.

Diana Aguiar is part of the National Advisory Group of Brazilian social organization FASE. She has a M.A. in International Relations from PUC-Rio and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree at the IPPUR/UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). Her research is on the role of transnational capital and the state in accumulation by dispossession processes related to megadams projects in the Amazon basin. 

Marcela Vecchione is Adjunct Professor at the High Level Amazonian Studies Center at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. She holds a PhD in Political Science/International Relations from McMaster University where she completed her studies on Indigenous Peoples political and historical articulations across borders within the Pan-Amazon region. Marcela`s current research focuses on land use and changes in land use in the Amazon basin and how this affects life projects by shaping resistance within and beyond the rain forest.

Alessandra Cardoso is Policy Advisor at INESC. She holds a Masters Degree in Economic Development from the Federal University of Uberlandia, and is pursuing her PhD in Applied Economics – Development and Environment, at Unicamp. Alessandra is responsible for developing the “Investments and rights in the Amazon” initiative.