Brazil: Piquiá’s fight against mining destruction



The lives of over 1000 people are at risk in Piquiá de Baixo, a slum in the northern Brazilian town of Açailândia, due to the massive pollution and deforestation caused by iron and steel extraction.

The local community, which consists of 1,100 people or 380 families, agreed to relocate five kilometres away from the companies responsible for huge environmental damage.

They already have a piece of land to rebuild the new neighbourhood, with the authorisation of the federal government. However, it is the mayor of Açailândia, Gleide Santos, who has to give the project the final green light and so far she has refused to do so.

That is why the Piquiá community, together with the International Alliance of Inhabitants, has launched a worldwide campaign to put pressure on Mayor Santos and on the Maranhão State Governor Roseanna Sarney, to give the final go-ahead for the resettlement plans.

How can they live there?

Father Dario Bossi is a Comboni missionary who has been supporting the struggle of the Piquiá community for four years now.

“The campaign for the resettlement of the community out of the industrial district started seven years ago but its causes have much deeper and older roots, dating back to 1987, when five iron and steel industries opened their plants in the area,” he told Equal Times.

“One plant was closed, but the four remaining companies have logged virtually all the Amazonian forest that surrounded the district.

“Trees were cut firstly as they needed coal to feed the 30-metre-tall furnaces that work around the clock to melt the raw mineral and make the so-called ‘pig iron’, mainly exported to the US and increasingly to China.

“Now coal is less used, but forests are still being destroyed to grow eucalyptus, also used as fuel for the furnaces,” says Father Dario.

The logging of the Amazonian forest is only part of the problem: Piquiá’s inhabitants have had to cope, for a quarter of a century, with huge CO2 and pollutant emissions coming from chimneys installed right in their backyard.

This has resulted in serious health problems and premature deaths for the local population due to respiratory problems and a high incidence of certain types of cancer.

“On top of the smoke and particulate matter coming from the refining process, the Piquiá people have to bear pollution from the lorries used to transport the iron and those carried out by the wind blowing from the surrounding mountains”, adds the Comboni missionary.

“Besides, water from local rivers is used to cool down the plants and is released back at a very high temperature and full of heavy metals, hugely damaging the ecosystem.”

In a study conducted two years ago by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), 65 per cent of Piquiá inhabitants stated that they experience constant fever and 70 per cent constantly suffer with a sore throat.

“When we go there to hold our campaign meeting we always come back with burning skin and running noses, we feel dirty when we leave that area. And we are only there for a couple of hours. Can you imagine what it feels like for those who live in the district?” Father Dario wonders.

The mining business

Piquiá de Baixo is just one of the many areas affected by the presence of iron and steel corporations active in mining in Maranhão, one of the poorest states in Brazil.

A 900km-long railway line is used by the longest freight train in the world – which at 4km long, is made up of 330 carriages and four locomotives – to carry the extracted mineral from the mines to the port of São Luis, the biggest commercial port in Latin America.

The train needs two kilometres to come to a halt, and an average of one person a month dies along the track, as the railway is unprotected for most of its route.

The biggest mining company in the area is Vale, which operates in 38 countries and was voted the world’s worst multinational company in 2012, in terms of its environmental and social impact, according to Swiss-based sustainable development group, the Berne Declaration.

The revenues that iron and steel industries are making in this area are huge, between 50 and 60 million US dollars a day. For a ton of refined iron they can earn up to 140 US dollars when the whole extraction and refining process costs them only 17 dollars.

The role of the trade unions

The campaign for the Piquiá resettlement has yielded results. A housing and urban project for the new community has already been developed and federal funds have been secured.

But the Açailândia municipality has to play its part and give the authorisation for the relocation to actually happen.

However, local administrators are hesitating as they do not want to invest money in building a school or a clinic, and they are still negotiating the compensation for the former land owner.

The campaign also managed to draw support from the local trade union association representing the iron and steel workers.

Two years ago those workers went on strike for better pay and better working hours but then they decided to support the Piquiá community and embedded its environmental issues into the workers’ demands.

The support of the workers has been fundamental to the recent progress made by the campaign.

However, “the clock to save Piquiá de Baixo is ticking,” says Father Dario. “We really hope that the Mayor will finally take action.”