A eucalyptus plantation, the first phase in the controversial paper industry.
Crédito: Photo Stock
Courts the Battleground for Fight Against Brazil’s Paper Mills
Por Clarinha Glock
The massive resistance against building up an international-scale paper industry in Brazil has shifted to the judicial arena.
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Sep 8 (Tierramérica).- The battle against the wood pulp industry has intensified in the Brazilian courts, especially in those states where eucalyptus plantations have expanded most: Bahia and Espírito Santo in the east and Rio Grande do Sul in the south.
In Rio Grande do Sul, five environmental groups joined forces last month in filing a lawsuit against the president of the state environmental protection foundation (FEPAM), Ana Maria Pellini, who they accuse of “moral harassment” in exerting pressure on officials in processes where the paper industry held an interest.
The charges refer to threats and unjustified demotions of technicians who refused to modify the criteria used in Environmental Zoning for Silviculture, in the licensing for building dams and in the four-fold expansion of the pulp factory of Aracruz, Brazil’s largest such mill, controlled by the family groups Lorentzen, of Norwegian origin, and Safra, of Lebanon.
“They want to impose an environmental dictatorship, and we reject that control,”said Pellini in reaction, denying the accusations and underscoring that when she took over the post she found 12,000 environmental permit requests awaiting evaluation so had to launch the FEPAM emergency plan.
Rio Grande do Sul Environment Minister Carlos Brenner de Moraes, defended his subordinate and the investments in tree plantations, which will reach 10.7 billion reais (6.55 billion dollars) over the 2007-2011 period.
“Every million reais represents 76 jobs,” he argued.
The lawsuits in this state in Brazil’s far south are aimed primarily at irregularities in the environmental permits and agreements for which environmental impact studies are carried out.
“We demand more restrictions, because the recently approved environmental zoning offers little protection,” explained Annelise Steigleder, the environmental prosecutor for Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul.
In Bahia, a state in Brazil’s Northeast region, the state prosecutor’s office has asked the courts to annul environmental permits to plant eucalyptus trees, obtained by the pulp mill Veracel, created in a partnership between Aracruz and the Swedish-Finnish firm Stora Enso.
The company used “illicit means, ranging from corruption of officials of licensing bodies to bribes of mayors and council members,” said João da Silva Neto, coordinator of the environmental prosecutor’s office in Eunápolis, a town south of Bahia. Veracel also obtained through irregular channels the quality certificates needed to ensure exports, he added.
After 15 years in the courts, the outcome of the first lawsuit filed by the public ministry against Veracel came in July. It was a fine of 20 million reais (12.3 million dollars), responding to denunciations of non-governmental organizations like the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace and Brazil’s own SOS Mata Atlântica.
The company was fined and ordered to remove eucalyptus trees from an area covering 96,000 hectares -- distributed among four municipalities of Bahia -- and reforest them with tree species native to the Atlantic Forest, the ecosystem affected.
Veracel filed for a suspension of the sentence because the legal assessment conducted in the period of the complaint of "alleged irregularities and deforestation" on 64 hectares did not find environmental harm, company president Antonio Sergio Alípio told Tierramérica.
The ruling "surprised us because the area in question had a permit from the state environmental agency and the support of IBAMA (Brazilian Environmental Institute), and furthermore the company recovered the original forest beyond the area required by law," he said.
The government prosecutor's office, however, understood that there were errors in the environmental impact study and that IBAMA was negligent in the case.
In Espírito Santo, a highly deforested state on the eastern coast, Sebastião Ribeiro Filho, attorney for the Alert Network Against the Green Desert, launched the first citizen action against Aracruz in 2001, when the company obtained the permit for its mill.
The courts suspended work on it for nearly a year as a result of a complaint filed by the Federal Public Ministry for the lack of an environmental study and report, which are required by law. The company signed an agreement pledging to comply with the requirements and thus was allowed to continue construction, but now faces other lawsuits for deforestation and violations of indigenous rights.
Aracruz is also under fire for channeling some of the Doce River to supply water to one of its pulp mills.
"The company obtained resources from the city government -- without having an environmental impact study -- to divert water from the Doce River to the Riacho, the main source of water for its mills," just when one of its former directors was serving as development secretary for the state government, Ribeiro Filho told Tierramérica.
The city government justified the operation, saying the diversion was aimed at improving the supply of water to the residents of two nearby neighborhoods.
Civil society does not have the financial conditions to challenge companies like this in the courts, lamented Ribeiro. "It is a battle of David against Goliath," he said.
The legal cases under way in different areas of Brazil are the product of society's increased awareness, lessons learned from the harm caused by eucalyptus monoculture, like rural exodus and unemployment, as well as the environmental disasters, Ivonete Gonçalves, of the Research Center for the Development of Southern Bahia, told Tierramérica.
"Sixteen years ago in southern Bahia we monitored the pulp mills that committed crimes like planting eucalyptus in areas of permanent preservation, dumping toxins in rivers, and the government was complicit and negligent," she said.
Those who oppose this industry in Brazil are now fighting for transparency in October's municipal elections, rejecting candidates whose campaigns are financed by any of the paper companies.
"By supporting a candidate, Aracruz is contributing to the process of strengthening the citizenry, in which all social actors should necessarily participate in democratic processes," the company's press office told Tierramérica.
The president of Veracel argued that his company participated in electoral campaigns always in compliance with the law and after broad discussion, given that one of its partners, the Stora Enso group, comes from countries with stricter laws: Sweden and Finland.
"Furthermore, Veracel joined the Global Compact" promoted by the United Nations to build corporate social responsibility, made commitments to fight corruption, "and, because it wants to be a reference point for sustainability, it cannot commit any slip-ups," said Alípio.
* IPS correspondent.