The Multinational Monitor



Brazilians Try to Cage "The Beast"

Alcoa project threatens villagers

Sao Luis, Maranhao, Brazil is the setting - an enchanted island full of enchanting places. On the north, wide beaches full of sand dunes border the lukewarm waters of the Atlantic; at the southern tip, rivers and streams cut through villages, lush with vegetation; east to west, a mix of rural villages and urban barrios surround the city itself, a colonial gem of narrow streets, ceramic tile homes, and public squares.

The properties of most of the villagers are extensive and planted with abundant fruits and diverse greens. Nearby farms produce corn, beans, manioc root (a cereal), and sometimes rice. The rivers and streams cutting through and bordering the villages are full of shell and fresh water fish.

Into this setting storms Alcoa, a transnational company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., eager to exploit the advantages offered by the Brazilian government for industrial efforts linked to a giant minerals project.

Carajas, also known as The Great Carajas, is a government project projected to cover 10.5 million acres extending from the Serra ; dos Carajas in the state of Para through the north of the state of Goias and up through Maranhao to Sao Luis.

The mineral deposits found in Carajas are among the richest in the world, including iron ore, copper, bauxite, tin ore, coal, nickel, manganese, and gold.

The government's plan for development of this area is to open it to national and transnational companies for mining and refining, and to promote agribusiness projects in the more rural sections of the three states.

For the mining companies, fabulous infrastructural advantages are available, including a railroad complex linking Carajas to the seaport of Sao Luis, which is totally equipped for receiving deep sea vessels. Moreover, there are the extra advantages of an energy plant on the edge of Sao Luis, CHESF, and a new water supply from the river Itapecuru in the interior of the state of Maranhao to the city of Sao Luis.

About center island just on the edge of the railroad and almost facing the energy plant, only a few miles from the port, Alcoa has received rights from the Brazilian government to build an aluminum refinery and smelter complex. Together with the company's rights to mine bauxite in Carajas, this establishes Alcoa as a major industry in The Great Carajas project.

News of Alcoa's plans for a $1.3 billion smelter leaked in 1980 and immediately caused popular reaction in Sao Luis. The villagers pre-judged Alcoa's presence on the island as negative, calling it the "Wild Beast," a popular expression signifying disaster.

The villagers have two worries. First, they are concerned that Alcoa will force them off the ten thousand hectares of land that they occupy and till. Alcoa requested this land for its aluminum complex, which the local government swiftly - and some say, illegally - granted. The company has already begun to evict people, as construction began last fall.

"They're clearing the villages and the people have to abandon their homes," says one citizen of Sao Luis, opposed to Alcoa.

Second, villagers fear that Alcoa will ruin their environment. Alumnia refining and smelting creates air and liquid waste, and Alcoa's plant borders on the bathing, fishing and drinking water of the village.

"The Wild Beast is everywhere," says one villager. "The Wild Beast is the factory Alcoa - that's come to pollute our water and our plants."

In the name of progress and free enterprise, the environment of Sao Luis is at stake, the villagers claim:

  • Pollution of all breathing creatures - plants, animals, and humans - from the highly polluting fumes, resulting from the intense heat and chemical process needed to liquify the bauxite;
  • Pollution of the soil as the red mud waste filters through the sandy type soil mixed with clay - Alcoa proposes building artificial "red lakes" for burying the residue, which equals one ton of waste for every ton refined;
  • Pollution of waters as waste eventually gets to them and, consequently, pollution of the fish, the daily fare of the poor.

In the name of progress and free enterprise, new swelling of the city will occur, villagers of Sao Luis fear. The rural families who live on Alcoa's ten thousand hectares may have no choice but to migrate to the edge of the city or to the already overpopulated bairros.

"With the arrival of this industry of aluminum, everything will get worse," claims one of the leaders of the local opposition to Alcoa. "It'll get worse in every way, because they'll take the poor's home from them, they'll take food out of our mouths, because they'll pollute the island's water, the rivers and streams."

Concerned citizen of Sao Luis have begun to organize protests against Alcoa over the past year. They have founded a group called the "Committee for the Defense of the Island," which has conducted a survey and some demonstrations.

"With the problem of Alcoa confronting us," says one of the leaders of the Committee, "we surveyed 10 villages, visiting the families and asking them what they thought of Alcoa. Everyone thought Alcoa bad news, that it brings us only harm, obliging families to leave their village without a place to go."

The Committee for the Defense of the Island has been actively working on three aspects of the Alcoa case:

  • Arguing that Alcoa's claims to, and the government's granting of, ten thousand hectares of state land are illegal, since the land deal did not pass through the state legislative body, as required by law.
  • Supporting the rights of the villagers in their demands for land and sufficient monetary remuneration for their homes and properties.
  • Monitoring the presence of Alcoa on the island with regard to workers' conditions and pollution."

The Committee has held numerous demonstrations to bring their demands to the attention of the government and Alcoa. After lobbying from the villagers, political opposition leaders have taken up the cry. The Committee, however, foresees a long battle ahead with Alcoa.

"Many people have participated in protests against Alcoa." says the Committee leader. "We just have to continue to meet and keep on discussing our problems, we have to get together with other villages, and we have to keep fighting to defend our island."

This piece was written by a member of the Committee for the Defense of the Island, who requested anonymity because of the present wave of repression in Brazil.

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