On 15 June, our first day at the organized Rio+20 events, a group of about 30 Friends of the Earth International delegates headed out on a bus to Santa Cruz, Pedra de Guaratiba, a community located just outside of Rio de Janeiro. Santa Cruz is one of seven communities surrounding Rio that will receive international guests as part of the Toxic Tour organized by Friends of the Earth, Justica Global, (Global Justice) Associacao Homens do Mar (Association of Ocean People) and twelve other organizations.
The 20,000 people living in Santa Cruz are being assaulted by industrial pollution caused by the steel multinational ThyssenKrupp Atlantic Steel Company (known as TKCSA in Brazil). Vale is a co-owner of the massive iron pellet producing plant. Since 2010 ThyssenKrupp has been processing these pellet inputs for the production of steel from iron ore sourced from Brazil using coal imported from China and charcoal made from Brazilian Eucalyptus grown on destructive plantations in the Amazon region. The damage caused by this kind of industrial activity is known to be so severe that the ThyssenKrupp- Vale project was rejected by highly-mobilized popular resistance in communities in Germany and in several other Brazilian states. This NIMBY (not in my back yard) saved these communities from what the Santa Cruz people call ecological terror to which they are now subjected. The carbon dioxide emitted by ThyssenKrupp has led to a 76 percent increase in Rio de Janeiro’s emissions.
ThyssenKrupp’s arrival in Santa Cruz was not welcomed. Members of the community have mounted fierce campaigns against it. Some have demanded that the company go. Other groups are demanding that the government and company relocate the people to a cleaner space. But because the village is sited on highly productive land at the edge of the Atlantic it is virtually impossible for the people to be re-located to a comparable site, given high costs of seafront land. Here is what we heard from some of the people of the village who are fighting the company and trying to protect their land, bodies and livelihoods.
Many of the women we spoke to explained that women in the community are having miscarriages. Children have breathing problems and many, many people have spots on their skin. These spots are quite visible on people’s faces; their skin looks dry and inflamed. The ‘silver rain’ that has caused diseases among the people was on display for us in little jars. Every morning these particles gather on surfaces in people’s homes and with every breath the soot and heavy metal particulate lodges in people’s lungs.
Fisherman Jacido Nasciemnto said that the 8000 fisher people in the area are now no longer to make a living. They know that the fish are toxic and feel bad for catching fish and selling them for people to eat because it will make the people sick.
“The company is killing us,” said Raimundo Alves, a retired carpenter and elder. He explained that his community used to be a clean place to live. Now that the company has come, people are sick and dying. Young women are selling sex to the company’s workers.
On the one hour drive from Rio to Santa Cruz we heard from Miguel Sa, an organizer with PACS, who provided us with background information on the struggle by the people of Santa Cruz. He told us that Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (National Bank for Economic and Social Development or BNDES) gave ThyssenKrupp construction loans for its operations in Santa Cruz. BNDES funds petrochemical projects in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and countries within Africa.
Sa also explained that the company has created divisions within in the community by paying off mostly men to undermine the resistance. Sa warned us that we might hear from some of these men as our bus drew up to the factory gates. Three or four young men shouted obscenities at us and behaved in a threatening manner but the attempt at intimidation passed without incident. However we could see for ourselves, from the dark clouds in the sky to the sick bodies before us, that the organizers in Santa Cruz and their allies have strong motivations to continue working to shut down this company permanently, along with its affiliates among oil, chemical and mining companies across the world so that they stop causing death in all of our backyards.