Brazil's rocky road to becoming a world power

Development at the expense of health

medico's support to partners in emerging nations is a question of strategy. In Brazil, two new projects were added in 2012. Both are fighting – symbolically as well – for the significance of human and civil rights in prevailing growth models. By Katja Maurer

Since independence, Brazil has dreamed of becoming a world power. This ambition is apparent in large-scale projects, from Brasilia (the capital created in an empty semidesert), through the skyscrapers of Rio de Janeiro, to the ongoing clearing of the primeval forest in settlement or cultivation projects. Currently ranking sixth in the global list of economically developed nations, Brazil seems for the first time to have achieved its goal. Since left-wing presidents first took office, the creed of development, outweighing all ecological and social concerns, has been accompanied by successful social programmes. The numbers vary, but up to 30 million people have emerged from extreme poverty since the election of the leftist social democratic President Lula in 2003. The increase in consumption has created many permanent jobs. Programmes such as 'electricity for all' are actually often reaching even the furthest corners of the country. This is not just arbitrary charity, but public infrastructure which can bring rights to all.

Struggles against environmental and health damage

Despite this development, medico international expanded its support to local partners in Brazil in 2012. Besides support to the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) and training Waiapi Indians as health promoters in the Amazonas region, there are now two more partners. The first is the Movimento Paulo Jackson (Paul Jackson Movement, named after an environmental activist from Caetité whose death is unexplained) from Bahia, a group of environmental activists who have joined with the Catholic community in the small town of Caetité to oppose the massive environmental and health damage from the local uranium mine. The second is PACS (Institute for Political Alternatives in South America), a grassroots-oriented think tank of sociologists who are supporting initiatives by residents of the marginalised city district of Santa Cruz, some 60 km from the centre of Rio.

These initiatives are opposing the consequences for health and the environment of a steelworks, which is 80% owned by the German company ThyssenKrupp. In both cases the rights of the local population and employees in the establishments involved are being violated for the benefit of private sector interests. These are typical conflicts on Brazil's development path, involving the importance of human and civil rights, including the right to health. If medico is correct in its assumption that this right can only be achieved globally, this kind of networking with partners in emerging countries is a strategic undertaking.

Brazil's Brokdorf

There are good reasons for calling Caetité the Brokdorf* of Brazil, given the conflicts over uranium mining. Here, 800 km or 12 hours by road from the nearest major city, Salvador da Bahia, a remote small town is fighting the danger of radioactive contamination from an openly operated uranium mine. The state operator's assumption that environmental and health standards could be covertly bypassed proved false, again thanks to the internationalisation of the conflict. Caetité is a regular meeting place for nuclear power opponents from Namibia, France and Canada, who come to share information and collect data on actual hazards. medico promotes this form of systematic public education on potential injury to health. The people of Caetité have now gained another partner. The Catholic Brazilian Conference of Bishops decided in April 2013 to look in more detail at the debate on nuclear power from the point of view of 'life' (not “economics”). This put the focus of political and theological discussion on whether Brazil needs nuclear power and uranium mining at all. Another issue is the question of military demands for atomic weapons for submarines in the Brazilian navy. The remote town of Caetité could become a central stage for this debate, like Brokdorf* before it.

The constellation around the ThyssenKrupp steel mill complex in the bay of Rio is similar to that in Caetité, with a marginalised community which originally lived from fishing, and saw its home and health traded away for promises of well-paid jobs. The scandal has gone on for years. In 2006, the German company ThyssenKrupp started building the plant. The dedication ceremony in 2010 was attended by Lula, the Brazilian President at that time. This was supposed to be one of the most modern steel plants, with plans to export all over the world, primarily to China. The desire for a modern industrial location with qualified jobs was matched by ThyssenKrupp's expectations of huge profits. For its part, the local population dreamt of a better life – but the dream vanished even before the steel plant was completed. First, 8,000 fishers lost their livelihoods, because construction of the plant polluted the bay. The protest by the fishermen attracted worldwide attention. They even appeared at the ThyssenKrupp shareholders' meeting.

German-Brazilian nightmare

When the plant started operations in 2010, all the other promises were broken. There was hardly any work for the local population, because they were not qualified enough. The environmental damage caused by the steel mill was and is so immense that the plant was repeatedly closed down temporarily. The Brazilian ThyssenKrupp subsidiary TKCSA had to pay penalties in the millions for the environmental and health fallout. The retrofitting required as a result has added enormously to the costs. A further problem was the collapse of the steel market. Instead of the healthy profits forecast by McKinsey, ThyssenKrupp found itself with a disaster on its hands. The German company is now trying to sell the steel plant as quickly as possible. Where do the health damage to the population and the loss of livelihood by the fishers fit into all this? They have no place in the sales plans. For the Brazilian courts, it is unclear whether there will be negotiations on paying meaningful compensation. Despite all the repair and retrofit work, there are still repeated serious accidents, leading to clouds of dust impacting the whole region. Claims that these are only graphite dust have been refuted by laboratory tests.

medico is assisting local partners in a health mapping process which lists the many health issues that have arisen around the steel plant. The main concern here is to protect the interests of the local population in the event of a sale. The fight against the environmental pollution by the steel plant has already shown that double standards with regard to environmental and health rights will not be simply accepted. The two projects being promoted are playing a major role in the international debate and the emergence of a transnational public. The hope is that they will contribute towards making human rights standards apply everywhere.

In 2012 medico provided support of € 48,299 (including Climate Alliance) for the health promotion projects and training for the Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil.

* German village near a nuclear power plant in Germany, scene of strong protests for many years, decommissioning of the plant is now scheduled

Published: 31. May 2013

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