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LUIZ HAFERS: There are many, many people who have been murdered in Brazil. They are always trying to find bodies and corpses. We are not responsible for that.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, a visit inside Brazil.
FERNANDA GIANNASI: It’s a manual process and that’s very dangerous because people is touching the asbestos. It’s not a closed process. There are no ventilation. It’s not proper for that work. And the workers are not protected.
KEIITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. A growing number of countries around the world are banning asbestos mining and manufacturing because the fibers cause cancer. In the US asbestos manufacturing has virtually disappeared because of liability concerns. But the few remaining asbestos companies worldwide have redoubled to sell and manufacture asbestos in the Third World. As Common Ground special correspondent Reese Erlich discovered, asbestos is used in ways in Brazil that would never be tolerated in the US or Europe. He begins his report 30 miles outside Sao Paolo.
[sound of heavy machinery]
REESE ERLICH: Here at the Kubtoa clutch plate factory, workers tear open huge sacks of asbestos and pour it into a mixing vat. They are enveloped in a cloud of fibers. In another part of the factory a worker scoops asbestos from an open barrel and pours it into a gooey paste. A company engineer explains:
KUBTOA ENGINEER: [via a translator] He takes the paste mixed with asbestos and puts it on the clutch plate. The asbestos reduces the heat when the clutch plate is used in cars or trucks.
ERLICH: The workers are not wearing protective clothing and they breathe through thin surgical masks, which were only distributed minutes earlier. Fernanda Giannasi, who was inspecting this day for the Sao Paolo State Labor Ministry, says this company is committing massive violations of Brazil’s health and safety laws.
GIANNASI: It’s a manual process and that’s very dangerous because people is touching the asbestos. It’s not a closed process. There are no ventilation. People only wear disposable mask. There is no filter. It’s not proper for that work. And the workers are not protected.
ERLICH: Giannasi cites the company and gives managers 30 days to develop a clean up plan or she will close the factory.
GIANNASI: We could say that there is no controlled use there.
ERLICH: Giannasi says Kubtoa is typical of small and medium sized companies using asbestos. She says those companies are unwilling to pay for the protective clothing and ventilation systems required by law.
GIANNASI: In general the factories don’t follow the laws. And that we have two chances; are to close the factories and dismiss all these workers; or not to use asbestos. This is the point.
ERLICH: Giannasi and a growing number of Brazilians advocate the banning of asbestos, as has been done in 11 European countries. The pressure in Europe has been so great in fact that a number of large companies have gotten out of the asbestos business altogether. But those remaining see themselves in a war for survival and they’ve launched a major media campaign to get their views across. The French multinational Sangobain and the Brazilian owned Eterneit dominate the asbestos industry in Brazil. They say their factories are far safer than Kubtoa. Eterneit President Antonio Luis Aulicino says years ago companies used the more dangerous amphibole asbestos. But today, he says, they only use a far safer variety.
ANTONIO LUIS AULICINO: [via a translator] It’s important to distinguish between amphabol and crysatile asbestos. The fibers are very different and cause different reactions in the body. We know that crysatile has a very different composition that is more easily eliminated from the body.
ERLICH: While crysatile does indeed have a different shape and is more flexible it is still carcinogenic when inhaled. Fernanda Giannasi says there are no significant differences between the two types of asbestos, which are commonly referred to as white and blue asbestos.
GIANNASI: There is no reason to say, “Oh, but the white is less dangerous.” It’s like a joke to say, “What do you prefer? To die with asbestos cancer with, for white asbestos or blue asbestos?” It’s the same.
ERLICH: Scientists agree that any asbestos can cause serious diseases when breathed over a long enough period of time and in large enough quantities. But the illnesses often don’t show up for twenty years after the exposure. So the question is this: Can the industry control the amount of fibers flying around in the air so people don’t get sick. Former asbestos workers at an Eterne factory say, based on historic practice, the answer is a resounding no.
[sound of people speaking in Portuguese]
ERLICH: The fifteen workers gathered in this union hall all say they suffer from asbestosis or cancer from years of working at the Enterne cement factory in Osasco, just outside Sao Paolo. In Brazil asbestos is mixed into cement to make it stronger. It’s widely used in water pipes, corrugated roofing tiles, and water tanks. Walmir Domingos Felonta worked at the Enterne factory for 33 years.
WALMIR DOMINGOS FELONTA: [via a translator] All of us, when we started at Eterne, we had to open the bags of asbestos and pour it into a mixing vat. The dust flew everywhere. It was an open-air operation. There were no kinds of protections.
ERLICH: Did anyone ever receive safety masks or other protection.
FELONTA: No. After 1980 the company started installing some filters and ventilation equipment. They gave us these disposable masks to wear but they weren’t the right kind for asbestos. They didn’t have filters.
ERLICH: Former Enterne worker Joao Bautista, worked 32 years at the factory and frequently breathed asbestos dust. After retirement he began to feel very strange.
JOAO BAUTISTA: [via a translator] I had a lot of aches and pains, headaches. I would get confused and forget things. I had stiff joints and difficulty breathing. But I didn’t know they were asbestos related problems. I thought they were just signs of old age.
ERLICH: A doctor told Momi he had asbestosis, a disease that makes breathing difficult and sometimes causes death. He and other Enterne workers formed a victim’s rights group. They say 45 workers have died and over 300 other were injured as a result of breathing asbestos at Enterne. The Osasco factory closed in 1993. The ex-Enterne workers are fighting to get worker’s compensation and for a ban on all asbestos. Osasco is now known as the asbestos victim capital of Brazil. City councilman Marcos Lopes Martins, champions the cause of the Enterne workers.
MARCOS LOPES MARTINS: [via a translator] We want to make a big campaign to educate about asbestos risks. I’m going to the poor communities to tell them, “Don’t use asbestos cement tanks to store water. Don’t use asbestos cement for the floors of your houses.” I’m trying to convince the mayor to make a big campaign about the risks of asbestos in this city. I don’t want the city to use asbestos in any public building. We want to spread this movement from Osasco to other parts of Brazil. We are in touch with other workers around the country.
[dog barking and kids playing]
ERLICH: As part of that campaign the Osasco City Council named this square, in a residential neighborhood, after the city’s first asbestos victim, Aquilino Dos Santos. His seven-year-old niece reads the plaza’s street sign dedicated to his memory.
NIECE OF AQUILINO DOS SANTOS: [reads the sign in Portuguese]
MARTINS: [via a translator] Adosantos worked at Enterne. We named this plaza after him as a symbol of the struggle to resist this cancerous substance.
ERLICH: Lopez said Enterne has made settlement offers to the Osasco workers but the money is pitifully inadequate.
MARTINS: [via a translator] In the US they pay asbestos victims $5 million; here in Brazil they are offering $7,500. Why do they think a worker’s life is so cheap in Brazil?
ERLICH: Enterne’s President Aracino says his company is willing to pay legitimate claims, although he won’t say how much. He also suggests that many workers may be faking their injuries. He had this reaction when asked about the case of Chiao Momi, whose doctor diagnosed him with asbestosis.
AULICINO: [via a translator] First of all, we think this person has to be investigated. We have to be certain that this person really has asbestosis. For that he has to undergo a lot of examinations. It requires examinations by four doctors. That’s our first reaction.
ERLICH: Aracino says that the Osasco began operations nearly 60 years ago. Back then no asbestos company knew the dangers of working with the fibers.
AULICINO: [via a translator] When Enterne started in 1940 we didn’t know to make safe use of asbestos. Nobody knew. At that time we tried to do our best. We wanted to give the workers some safety equipment but we had some cases of workers who didn’t want to use all the stuff we gave them.
ERLICH: Whatever problems may have existed in the past, say Aracino, today the industry strictly controls the use of asbestos. For example, as a result of inquiries by this reporter, the Brazilian Asbestos Association took air samples at the Kubtoa clutch plate factory, and found more than twice the legal limits of asbestos fibers in the air. The Association will no longer allow the sale of asbestos to Kubtoaa. To further illustrate the point, Aracino invites this reporter to visit his company’s asbestos mine in Minacu, a small town located 260 miles northeast of the national’s capital of Brasilia.
[sound of heavy machinery]
EDGAR MIQUELANTI: That’s a mine car. We’re going to do a little mining tour.
ERLICH: Edgar Miquelanti, Operations Manager of the mine, starts up a company truck to show a visitor around. The Cana Brava asbestos open pit mine was carved out of previously uninhabited wilderness. Earth-moving equipment gouged a huge hole in the Earth and the hole gets wider as it gets deeper. This day workers pour explosives into the mine face and the resulting blast shakes loose the asbestos fibers lodged between the rocks.
[sound of a siren]
ERLICH: Miquelanti stops in front of a huge water truck.
MIQUELANTI: This is our truck that we use to control dust in the mine, inside the mine.
[someone speaks over public address system]
ERLICH: So this truck spreads the water to keep down the asbestos dust.
MIQUELANTI: Yes, yes. All the time. Twenty-four hours a day.
ERLICH: Miquelanti says the company goes to great lengths to protect workers’ health.
MIQUELANTI: We divided our place in two big areas, the mining area and the industrial area. Because the idea is to protect the industrial area of the excess of the fibers. For example, the idea is to separate the cars, trucks, all of the vehicles that work with the mine. The idea is to separate that fleet from the other fleet that works only with the new operations.
ERLICH: He says this kind of concern for safety continues after the sacks of asbestos leave the mind and end up at asbestos cement factories like the one owned by Enterne and Sangoban, located 80 miles of Sao Paolo.
[sound of heavy equipment]
ERLICH: Here at that factory, a technician operates a machine that applies pressure to asbestos cement roofing tiles in order to test their strength.
UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: Six hundred.
ERLICH: Six hundred kilos it broke at?
UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: Yeah.
ERLICH: This test graphically demonstrates that asbestos added to cement creates a very strong product. And company officials say they pay as much attention to worker safety as they do to product quality.
[sound of heavy machinery]
ERLICH: On the factory floor workers have little direct contact with the fibers. When the do they wear surgical masks that contain special filters. And the company regularly hoses down the grounds to control dust. Enterne President Aracino.
AULICINO: [via a translator] Our objectives in the factories and the asbestos mine is to banish all kinds of dust. We work with a lot of water, use the water to dampen the dust. That’s important in all our factories and mines. There has been an evolution in the relationship between workers and capital. Today the workers can speak out. If they see any dust they can stop production.
ERLICH: Even labor inspector Giannasi concedes that this plant is relatively safe.
GIANNASI: In the interior of this factory we, you can have more protection than the others. But when this product leaves the factory you can’t have control, what they, you do with this product. This is the point, because asbestos is a public health problem. And not only workers are in dangerous conditions. But the population in general. And the product is carcinogen. Outside the factory people are not protected.
ERLICH: And that’s a key issue. Even Enterne officials concede they have no control of how the asbestos-laced cement is used once it leaves the factory.
[sound of guitar music and a female singer ]
ERLICH: A woman sits in her home in this poor neighborhood near Sao Paolo singing and strumming a guitar. The roof of her shack consists of thin sheets of corrugated asbestos cement. She’s not likely to breathe asbestos fibers so long as the roofing tiles remain intact. But scientists say the material can become dangerous when the cement deteriorates or is otherwise disturbed.
[sound of people walking on crushed asbestos cement tiles]
ERLICH: Just outside her shanty, residents walk on crushed asbestos cement tiles spread on the muddy path like gravel. Asbestos fibers may well be released. Gabriel Paulo de Silva works for a local city councilman.
Gabriel Paulo Da Silva: [via a translator] Another favela nearby decided to help people here by donating some old asbestos cement roof tiles so they could walk on these muddy paths. We’re worried about it.
ERLICH: Fernando Giannasi and other critics argue that the day-to-day use of asbestos cement, along with plants like the Kubtoa clutch plate factory, show that asbestos use can’t really be controlled. They call for a total asbestos ban, and increasing numbers are doing just that. For their part, the asbestos companies say they operate safe factories and they shouldn’t be penalized for plants that break Brazilian safety laws. They also argue that they can’t be held responsible if people don’t properly use their products once they use the factory. This battle over asbestos is likely to go on for years with people’s lives hanging in the balance.
In Sao Paolo, I’m Reese Erlich for Common Ground.
[sound of guitar music]
MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: [with Brazilians guitar music and singing in the background] In Brazil only one percent of the population owns 44 percent of the agricultural land. The imbalance is a major source of rural unemployment. And the country’s current economic crisis is making rural poverty even worse. In response, some 60,000 peasants are occupying unused farmland, demanding that they receive small parcels under the country’s land reform program. In some cases, large landowners have reacted violently and some have turned to murder. Common Ground special correspondent Reese Erlich reports from San Jose dos Campos, 100 miles from Sao Paolo, where a group of families seized a parcel of land.
[sound of chicks chirping]
ERLICH: Landless peasants took over this unoccupied farm in November 1998 and now cal their encampment New Hope. They live in simple one-room structures made from wood poles covered with plastic sheeting. They’re starting to grow basic crops and raise baby chicks.
[sound of chicks chirping]
ERLICH: Maria Mardalena Fernandez Machado helped seize the land. She explains how she got involved with the organization called “The Landless Movement,” known by its Portuguese initials, MST.
MARIA MARDALENA FERNANDEZ MACHADO: [via a translator] My parents were small farmers. My mother later worked in a garment shop as a seamstress. Last year I was in a bus going along the highway when I saw an MST demonstration. I was curious and stopped to talk. Within 15 days I was here as part of the occupation.
ERLICH: Fernandez has found a sense of community among the rural and urban poor who have formed the New Hope encampment.
MACHADO: [via a translator] This is like a small city, so we have to work cooperatively. We all participate in farming some communal land, as well as growing our own crops. We plan to continue the communal land and to be as united as possible.
[sound of chickens]
ERLICH: She’s also learned a whole lot more about farming. The MST has no money to buy artificial fertilizers and pesticides so by necessity and by choice, the landless rely heavily on organic techniques.
MACHADO: [via a translator] We prefer to be as natural as possible. We use salt to protect some plants. We also use tobacco as a natural pesticide. We use compost for fertilizer. We grow onions but the chickens are taking care of the onions, unfortunately. We raise chickens and pigs. Whatever I can grow is welcome. When the government recognizes our claim to the land, each of us will get at least 10 hectares. We also expect the government to provide credit so we can buy seed, organic fertilizer, and other things we need.
[sound of people walking]
ERLICH: Walking down a road to show off the crops, New Hope encampment leader Joel de Silva Gama says the landless farmers have had a successful first harvest.
GAMA: [via a translator] When we first got here we planted those crops just for our own use. But now we’re giving friends some of the food, people who are in the same economic situation as us. We have a small river here. We have a big project planned to plant fruit and vegetables. We want to eat some ourselves, give some away, and sell the rest.
ERLICH: Under Brazil’s constitution the government can seize unused farmland. The landless movement uses this provision to organize land takeovers. Peasants peacefully occupy unused land and then pressure the government to include the seized areas in the land reform program. The government may eventually buy the land, give parcels to small farmers, and provide loans at subsidized rates. Gama says the MST only takes over land that isn’t being used. The owners have either bought it for a speculation or, as in the case of this land, were engaged in financial hanky-panky.
GAMA: [via a translator] The owner of this land got it from the Amazon Bank, but he didn’t pay for it. He’s been here for three years and didn’t pay them. So on September 16th, 1998 he got a letter saying in 50 days he would have to vacate the land for not making his payments. That’s why we call him a “so-called owner.”
ERLICH: The MST argues that this land perfectly fits the definition of unused land that should be distributed to peasants. But the current economic crisis facing Brazil means that the government has much less money to pay for land reform. Brazil has had to negotiate an austerity package with the US, multinational banks, and the international monetary fund. Gama says the IMF specifically pressured the Brazilian government to cut funds for land reform.
GAMA: [via a translator] The government cut nearly 50 percent out of its land reform budget under pressure from international institutions. The IMF doesn’t want us to spend money on helping subsistence farmers, so the government doesn’t have money to do it. The government’s land reform program used to give landless people food during the occupations. Right now they don’t give us food because of the budget cuts.
ERLICH: The administration of Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardozo argues that despite the country’s economic crisis, it has made progress with land reform. The government claims to have settled 288,000 landless families during the past four years, but Gama says those figures are suspect.
GAMA: [via a translator] Probably most of those families that the government claims it settled were already on the land. Cardozo just legalized their status. I don’t know many new families got land, but not more than 50,000. The land reform program is a failure.
ERLICH: Luiz Hafers, President of the Brazilian Farmers Association, which represents large farmers, is generally supportive of the land reform program. He says, while the budget has been inadequate, the program has been positive.
HAFERS: Can you imagining settling 300,000 families? One-and-a-half million people? This is an enormous job. And of course it’s being underdone. But it’s being done. Now, I wouldn’t say that it’s perfect. But I think it’s decent.
[sound of guitar music and singing]
ERLICH: The landless movement faces even more serious problems than government cutbacks. In December 1998 two MST organizers were murdered in San Jose dos Campos. Medical reports showed that one man had been beaten, slashed with a sharp instrument, and then killed. Another was shot execution-style. Jose Oliveira, is an attorney hired by the family of one of the murdered men.
JOSE OLIVEIRA: [via a translator] According to the police medical reports there are indications that the killings were done by professionals and planned ahead of time. One of the victims was tied up and shot in the head at very close range. The gun was against his head. The murder wasn’t done by just one person. It was a group.
ERLICH: Lima has spoken with police and witnesses. He suspects the police are covering up the murders by not pursuing the logical culprits, the large landowners opposed to the MST.
OLIVEIRA: [via a translator] Why didn’t the police chief ask the landowner’s workers to come in for interviews? There had been a conflict between his farm workers and the MST. In the days before the murders the landowner had shot videos of the MST leaders. Why? In the days just before the murder the police, accompanied by a landowner, stopped one of the men who was later murdered. Why haven’t the police followed up any of that information.
ERLICH: In an interview with this reporter, San Jose dos Campos Police Chief Carlos Eduardo Silveira Martins, went to great lengths to suggest that the murders were the result of an internal feud within the MST. Silveira declined to be tape recorded, but he said the land owners all have alibis for the night of the murder. New Hope encampment leader Gama says, however, it’s unlikely that the landowners personally committed the murders. He thinks they directed others to do the actual killing.
GAMA: [via a translator] I think the police or the private security were responsible; someone who was working for the landowners. They are the only ones who had the skills to carry out an assassination like this.
ERLICH: Brazilian Farmers Association President Hafers scoffs at such a notion.
HAFERS: There are many, many people who have been murdered in Brazil. They are always trying to find bodies and corpses. We are not responsible for that. And they fight within themselves also.
ERLICH: Hafers says that he urges farmers not to take the law into their own hands no matter how great the provocation from landless peasants.
HAFERS: I insist adamantly, there’s this, it is within the law. We have to keep. Even if it takes a long time, even if we think that we are being damaged by this. We should not get into the temptation of acting on ourselves. This will play into the hands of our enemies.
ERLICH: But he concedes that some farmers have violently attacked members of the encampments.
HAFERS: Well, you have to understand that it’s very, very comfortable for me here in Sao Paolo, speaking about the law. And it’s not that comfortable if people are invading your farm. And so I don’t agree with them, but I understand them.
[sound of guitar music and singing]
ERLICH: At the New Hope encampment two peasants sing the MST anthem supporting the struggle for land. The murder of the MST organizers, far from intimidating the landless, has elicited sympathy. Food and clothing, along with declarations of political support, are flooding in from churches and unions. Even Farmers Association President Hafers acknowledges that the MST has broad-based support.
HAFERS: The poor, to whom this movement, MST, has given hope, wants dignity, wants land. It’s a good cause with the wrong intentions. And the best way to settle this is to tend to the good causes: getting jobs, giving land, helping these people, who are asking one, just one thing: to work. Nothing more than that.
ERLICH: Encampment leader Gama says the landless plan some dramatic political action.
GAMA: [via a translator] We don’t know how long it will take to get the government to make this part of the land reform program. This government doesn’t really want to do it. We can speed up the process by taking over some public buildings or otherwise putting pressure on the government. We’ll do whatever it takes to get this encampment legally recognized and to get our land.
ERLICH: In San Jose dos Campos, Brazil, I’m Reese Erlich for Common Ground.
[sound of guitar music and singing]
PORTER: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, please write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Be sure to refer to program No. 9918. To order by credit card you can call us at 319·264·1500. Transcripts are available on our web site. Go to commongroundradio.org. Our e-mail address is [email protected]. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. B.J. Leiderman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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