In 1972 the Norwegian group Borregaard set up a pulp mill in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, a few kilometres away from the City of Porto Alegre, (municipality of Guaiba), on the banks of the river Guaiba. This mill was to close down in 1975 as a result of public pressure against the contamination it was causing. That same year it was purchased by the Klabin Company, and reopened under the name of Riocell.
The mill used elemental chlorine to bleach the pulp, generating considerable contamination of the Guaiba River that supplied drinking water to the city of Porto Alegre. However, the State was obliged to carry out works to decontaminate the river basin with public funds obtained through an IDB loan of 170 million dollars.
In 2002, the company changed the method used to bleach the pulp and started using the Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) process (see WRM Bulletin No. 83). The following year, 2003, Riocell was purchased by Aracruz Celulose S.A. The mill produces bleached pulp for export and is supplied with raw material from the 40 thousand hectare plantations of eucalyptus it possesses in a range of 85 kilometres round the installations, which Aracruz also acquired when it purchased the mill.
Aracruz Celulose S.A. is also the owner, in the State of Espirito Santo, of the largest bleached eucalyptus pulp mill in the world, with a capacity to produce 2 million tons annually. The enterprise was established encroaching on the rights of the local Tupinikim and Guarani indigenous peoples as it occupies the ancestral lands of these communities. Since then they have been waging a long struggle against the company (see WRM Bulletin No. 13).
In 2004, the company made major investments in Rio Grande do Sul in the Unidad Guaiba (ex Riocell) mill to revamp it. While opening new and large facilities at the end of July, the company launched a forestry programme in the State of Rio Grande do Sul to step up the eucalyptus plantations. Presently the mill is able to produce 400,000 tons of bleached pulp per year.
In the framework of the World Social Forum, the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) organized a visit to the mill in order to investigate on site the impacts it has had at the local level.
A group of 27 representatives of various organizations from some ten countries from all over the world took part in this experience, deploying themselves in the area surrounding the mill, where they talked to the neighbours and visited the location to check conditions.
At the end, the participants shared both the testimonies they received and their own impressions. The unanimous opinion was that the situation around the mill --formerly a picturesque resort known as “Alegria” (Joy)-- is now deplorable: the general impression is certainly not that of a village of outstanding prosperity, the surroundings of the mill are dusty and the coast is an oily and abandoned mire bordering murky waters which, near the mill, are hot. According to the neighbours, dead fish may be seen floating in the waters.
From the interviews with the neighbours it appears that they are obliged to live in the midst of persistent noise 24 hours a day from the constant traffic of trucks that alters their sleeping habits and in some cases, ends in nervous disorders. They must also put up with a strong bad smell that has even damaged their social relationship with people from other areas who are not used to it. The high rate of allergies --especially among children-- mainly affecting the respiratory system was also pointed out.
Regarding employment, they stated that when the mill was built and also when some extension works were carried out, employment rose. However most of the labour was brought in from the Brazilian northeast and once the building was finished, direct jobs ceased and outsourced jobs dropped. The mill is only good for those who have jobs there, they say, and these are not many. The social differences are big. Furthermore, artisan fishing --an important source of local labour-- has been seriously damaged as the fish started to taste bad and people stopped buying it. The fisher-people now have to go much further away, near the sea, to seek their prey.
Another of the effects they reported was a permanent fall of a white powder that mainly damages vehicles.
Obviously the presence of visitors was noticed by the company, which is surrounded by a high wire-netting fence. Very soon a van with security guards started to circulate very slowly, stopping from time to time to stare at the visitors directly and inquisitively, who were spread out in groups, talking here and there with the people of the neighbourhood.
Some neighbours remembered enjoying the place when it was a beautiful resort with clear water visited by small boats full of people from the neighbouring city of Porto Alegre. Later, with the paper mill, “development” disembarked. Empty promises were made, leaving them full of smoke, powder, noise and smell. Scant jobs. Certainly there will be many people who now have “saudades” (nostalgia) for the old Alegria (Joy).
By Raquel Núñez, World Rainforest Movement (WRM), e-mail: email@example.com