Asbestos is classified as a carcinogenic substance by the World Health Organization (WHO) over 45 years ago, completely banned in Europe since 2005, and forbidden in over 60 countries and five Brazilian states. But the 32,000 inhabitants of the town of Minaçu apparently have yet to receive the memo. Located in the north of the state of Goiás, some 365 kilometers from the capital Brasília, this municipality was born, grew, and continues to rely on asbestos to sustain its economy.
Minaçu is home to the only asbestos factory in Latin America — the third-largest in the world, smaller than plants in China and Russia. With its non-stop production, it is responsible for 13 percent of all the asbestos sold around the world, and half of what is consumed in Brazil.[restricted]
As was once the case in most of the world, asbestos is mixed with cement and used largely in the construction of roofs and water tanks, with an estimated 50 percent of Brazilian homes containing asbestos.
The use of asbestos in buildings is a result of its excellent electric insulation and heat resistance, but inhaling asbestos fibers can provoke lung cancer in humans, leading it to be outlawed in large parts of the globe.
Indeed, the production and sale of asbestos in Brazil were prohibited by a Supreme Court decision in 2017. However, mining company Sama — controlled by concrete firm Eternit, which runs the Minaçu plant — managed to obtain an injunction to continue production until the court decision was published and made unappealable, which occurred in 2019.
But one month after Sama was forced to close and fire its 400 employees last year, Goiás Governor Ronaldo Caiado sanctioned a state law permitting the extraction of asbestos in Goiás, even though the production, sale, and use of products containing the minerals is outlawed nationwide. The local legislation stated that the extracted asbestos could only be used for export, following international transport standards.
Soon after, Sama went straight back to work in Minaçu, initially claiming it only intended to process the 24,000 tons of asbestos stockpiled at the time of the federal ban.
“A severe offense”
The National Association of Labor Prosecutors (ANPT), which went to court against the state of Goiás to contest the 2019 law, classified the local legislation as “a severe offense” against the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. “It’s unthinkable for a law deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court to simply come back to life. Though the Goiás law exists, the federal declaration of unconstitutionality comes long before this,” said the ANPT, in a statement.
“The asbestos industry had a period of little over a year, until February 2019, to unload its stocks, terminate contracts, and all of this was tolerated by the Supreme Court by way of an injunction from Justice Rosa Weber. There is no longer any leeway for the exploitation of asbestos,” added the association.
Asbestos mining firm donated millions to politicians
Sama began work on the Cana Brava mine in Minaçu in 1967 when the surrounding town did not even exist. Since then, the company has been at the center of social life in the municipality, as well as having a notable presence in the politics and economy of the state of Goiás.
Sama pumped millions of reais into election campaigns at all levels of government and, in return, elected officials have fought the mining firm’s corner in legislative issues. The prime example of this is Governor Caiado himself, who received BRL 300,000 (USD 55,000) from the company for his race for a Senate seat in 2014. The funds were passed through state branches of the Democratas political party — which Mr. Caiado controls in Goiás.
In that same year, Sama gave BRL 2.3 million (over USD 420,000) to politicians from a wide array of parties, on all ends of the spectrum. When added to the total donations made in 2010, the company donated the amount of BRL 3.8 million to various candidates, not just in Goiás.
A study carried out by University of São Paulo geography Ph.D. Fábio de Macedo Tristão showed that Sama invested BRL 1.2 million over 2004, 2008, and 2012 in the campaigns of candidates for mayor and councilor in five cities: Minaçu, Goiânia, and Anápolis in Goiás; Poções and Bom Jesus da Serra in the northeastern state of Bahia, where the company operated over 50 years ago.
A subsidiary of the Eternit group since the 1990s, Sama is accused of causing the sickness and death of employees in Goiás and the Northeast of Brazil, where it was operational between the 1940s and 1960s. The firm was sentenced to pay BRL 500 million in damages after having left residues which contaminated an undetermined number of people in the towns of Bom Jesus da Lapa, Caetano, and Poções, in the state of Bahia.
In turn, until the beginning of the 2000s, Eternit was controlled by French group Saint-Gobain, which sold the company as soon as asbestos was made illegal in France. Since then, Eternit has been under the control of notable individual investors such as Lírio Parisotto — the owner of a fortune estimated at over USD 1.4 billion — Luiz Barsi — with speculated wealth in shares of BRL 1 billion — and Victor Adler, who is one of the leading individual investors in Banco do Brasil. Messrs. Barsi and Adler retain almost 20 percent of the company’s shares.
Rare-earth elements the new solution
While Sama and Eternit are playing for time with the morose Brazilian court system, the town of Minaçu is seeking new alternatives to save its economy. The state of Goiás granted a series of environmental licenses to mining research firm Serra Verde Pesquisa e Mineração, which will explore the presence of rare-earth minerals in the municipality.
“As of now, the company may hire staff. That is one of the demands I always make, of serving the local labor force. We are responding quickly to the needs of the population of Minaçu, and I owe this to the government’s team, which has taken the cause onboard,” said Governor Caiado.
The final step was taken on May 21, with the authorization to remove local vegetation in the region where the company will set up its facilities. Said vegetation will be “replaced with care and following recommendations from the Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development.”
“The ore that is extracted from Minaçu will once again create jobs, income, and quality of life for the local population. With complete respect for the environment, ensuring citizens will have access to jobs, which is the greatest social program in the world,” Mr. Caiado reinforced.
Serra Verde Pesquisa e Mineração has promised to invest around BRL 580 million in the region, creating over 1,500 direct jobs and 6,000 indirect positions. The company applied for licenses in 2013 and was expected to begin operations in 2017, which did not occur. Previously, the firm had already invested USD 70 million in the region, for research about the minerals present in Minaçu.
Rare-earth elements are a group of 17 chemicals used in the industry which can be utilized in various forms, such as producing high-power magnets for wind turbines and electric cars, catalysts for the oil industry, medical equipment, lasers, and superconductors.
The announcement that Serra Verde would be allowed to set up in Minaçu took place immediately after the Sama plant was closed. Governor Caiado made a point of visiting the municipality and handed over the licenses in person.
Now, Brazil has a chance to stand out on the international scene, with the rare-earth element deposits in Minaçu being among the largest in the world — competing with China. In this process, Serra Verde has an important quality: its techniques of exploitation and extraction can obtain the elements without harming the surrounding environment, as promised by the company and the Goiás government.[/restricted]