The Veracel pulp mill is located in the south of the Brazilian state of Bahia, some 45 kilometres from the coast, on the border between the municipalities of Eunapolis and Belmonte. Veracel is a corporation in which the Swedish-Finnish group Stora Enso and the Brazilian Aracruz group have equal shares, today managing one of the world’s largest eucalyptus plantation and industrialization projects.
As from the end of the eighties, gigantic monoculture tree plantations and pulp mills started to be set up in the Southern Cone of South America, occupying vast stretches of land in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil. This is the implementation of a strategic decision taken by the main timber and paper market groups from Sweden, Finland, Spain, the United States, Brazil and Chile.
While dozens of factories that had been producing 100, 200 and 300 thousand tons of pulp per year were being closed down in the North, mills producing a million tons per year were being set up in the South, with their corresponding plantations, invading vast areas of native ecosystems and other land formerly used for traditional farming in the region and causing the consequent social impacts.
An example of this model and its negative social and environmental impacts are the Veracel plantations and pulp mill. The plantations were started in 1991 and the pulp mill in September 2005. One hundred and sixty four thousand hectares belonging to Veracel and another similar area contracted with local farmers are given over to massive eucalyptus plantations in order to feed a pulp production amounting to 900,000 tons per year.
On launching its activities through costly advertising campaigns, Veracel committed itself to preserve the Mata Atlântica forest, affirming that its plantations were ecologically sustainable, that it would provide tens of thousands of jobs and implement major social works. However, as the project advanced the promises became fewer and fewer and presently they do not correspond to the actual situation.
The scope and speed of the expansion of this monoculture plantation generated considerable changes in the living conditions in the area. Between 1991 and 2002 rural migration reached 59.4 per cent and small farmers disappeared. Some of those evicted decided to struggle for their right to a plot of land while others moved to the nearest large city, Eunápolis, which has some 100,000 inhabitants.
In 2005 after serious conflicts with the police and armed bands, 515 families organized by the Movement of the Landless (MST) achieved their objective but some 1570 other families lodging in camps set up along the highways in the area continue to demand land. In the meanwhile those who went to the city were unable to find employment and are now part of the rising urban social emergency.
"Here we have the refuse produced by the presence of Veracel. What has most increased is criminality, child prostitution, poverty, hunger, the number of people imprisoned, robberies, murders,” affirms Jodenilton Bastos, a journalist who constantly receives requests for food and clothing for the unemployed through two daily programmes on the Eunapolis Rádio Ativa.
The promises of employment and welfare made by Veracel underwent a progressive reduction as time went by. They started by announcing the creation of 40,000 jobs, this figure later dropped to 20,000, then to 10,000 in the mill and 3,000 in rural tasks. Now the mill employs some 300 workers, mostly from outside the region as they cannot find specialized workers in the area.
The state of social emergency in the region is that of extreme hunger. The SOS Vida home in Eunapolis, directed by Sister Terezinha Biase cares for up to 50 children. "They arrive here weighing 50 to 60 percent less than normal. They stay here from three to eight months, until their lives are no longer at risk”, she explained. The home relies on voluntary donations as it receives no economic assistance either from the public sector or from private companies.
The situation in Eunápolis is becoming more serious because Veracel is abandoning programmes for direct assistance to the population. A project for a soup kitchen and educational care for 100 children from a poor neighbourhood was closed by the company after it had used it to obtain financial endorsement. The parents of the children denounced that Veracel dressed them especially to receive visitors from abroad and take their photos.
Something similar happened with the preservation of the Mata Atlântica forest, the sustainability of monoculture eucalyptus plantations and non-contamination of water courses and air from the pulp mill. The Promoters (Public Prosecutors) of the Public Ministry of Eunapolis have launched various court cases against Veracel but Justice is slow and the public powers act in complicity with the company.
João Alves Da Silva Neto, Public Prosecutor for Eunápolis told us that "Our legal system is one of the slowest. They take advantage of this slowness and implement their action,” referring to Veracel. "They use corrupt practices. The executive and legislative are in the hands of economic powers that exert more and more pressure to increase the plantations.”
In 1993, the Public Prosecutor for the Republic accepted civil action against Veracruz, a predecessor of Veracel, for felling hundreds of hectares of Mata Atlântica forest. The company did not halt its activities and started occupying traditional farming areas, planting beyond the limits established by local legislation. The law is simply ignored or changed in agreement with the municipal or state government.
For some years now, various civil bodies in the area have been complaining about the irregular activities of plantation and pulp mill companies. In 2005, following a public hearing, the Public Prosecutor demanded that Veracel remove its plantations over a radius of 10 kilometres in the buffer zones of the National Park Conservation Units, in accordance with Brazilian legal requirements.
According to agronomist Mónica Leite, a specialist in fruit-growing, this region "was very prosperous, it had a good rainfall and a certain balance, there was a lot of forest. My father was a farmer, he planted a lot (…) and there were no diseases. Fifteen years ago fruit growing here was marvellous; there were enormous plantations of papaya, graviola and guava. But all this is ending with the arrival of Veracel".
The small cattle-farmer, José Marinho Damaceno suffers from the consequences of the discharge of Veracel effluents opposite his house, on the other side of the Jequitinhonha River. The strong smell of rotten cabbage gives him headaches and irritated eyes and each time it happens he has to abandon his farm. Damaceno knows that sooner or later he will have to leave his land definitively and sell it as best he can.
The typical fish of the Jequitinhonha River, the snook, has practically disappeared. As a remedy, Veracel introduced another fish, the pintado that further pushed the snook to extinction and is itself also disappearing. Civil bodies have stated their concern over the pulp mill’s emissions, which is apparently using ECF bleaching technology, but no data is available – it is the company itself that carries out its own monitoring.
Source: Research carried out in situ by the Uruguayan journalist Victor L. Bacchetta (email@example.com) with the support of the Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas para o Desenvolvimento do Extremo Sul da Bahía (CEPEDES) which has been carrying out activities in the city of Eunápolis since 1991. A full version of this report -in Spanish- is available at: http://www.guayubira.org.uy/celulosa/Veracel.html