Brazil is a beautiful country, full of natural wonders. From its tropical forests, to its oceans, and savannahs, Brazil is home to arguably the largest concentrations of biodiversity in the world. And it is filled with some of the most wonderful and inspiring people I have had the pleasure of meeting in my capacity as United Nations (U.N.) Special Rapporteur.
I would like to thank the Government of Brazil for the invitation to conduct a country visit. I was appointed U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes in 2014, and since then expressed my strong interest to visit the country. I am grateful for this opportunity for frank and constructive discussions with the Federal and various State Governments, members of civil society including representatives of indigenous, Afro-Brazilian, and
quilombola communities, researchers and academics, human rights defenders, and companies.
My visit started in Brasilia, and involved travel to Belo Horizonte, Brumadinho, Imperatriz, Piquia de Baixo, Sao Luis, and Recife. In Brasilia, I met with representatives of the Federal Government, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Women Family and Human Rights, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply, Ministry of Justice and Public Security, Ministry of Mines and Energy, Ministry of Regional Development, and the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication.
I also had the occasion to meet with representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, including the Office of the Federal Prosecutor on the Rights of the Citizen (PFDC), the Federal Public Defender’s Office, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA), the National Mining Agency (ANM), the National Council for Human Rights, and the Federal Police. I was pleased to attend a public hearing convened by the Human Rights and Minorities Committee of the Chamber of Deputies of the National Congress of Brazil. I was glad to meet also with representatives of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, which I was pleased to learn contributes immensely under the Ministry of Health, to the promotion of the right to health among the Brazilian population.
I met with representatives of the Minas Gerais Secretariat of Environment, Secretariat of Health, State Attorney-General, State Civil Defence, Secretariat of Planning and Management, Public Defender’s Office, Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Legislative Assembly, as well as the Maranhao Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, Secretariat of Health, Office of the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Public Defender’s Office, and Public Prosecutor’s Office.
I was moved by the continuing struggle of civil society through the various networks, movements, activists, and human rights defenders that met with me – from the families that opened their homes to share their stories of challenges and successes in living a life with dignity. It is these people that the international human rights system aims to elevate, and whose resilience must be recognised and emulated.
At this final stage of my visit I am pleased to share my preliminary observations. A full report on the issues discussed during my visit will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September 2020.
Tailing dam disasters
On the 25th of January this year, the community of Brumadinho suffered a horrific tragedy. 272 people died when the Córrego do Feijão dam collapsed, releasing a torrent of 9.7 million cubic meters (m3) of mud upon them. Over 200 of the victims who died were employees of Vale S.A., eating lunch at the cafeteria located directly below the weakened tailing dam. From the experiences confided in me by the community, it is clear that the victims are not only the 272 mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives and unborn children who died. Far from it. The entire community has been victimized.
After 5 years of listening to communities whose rights have been abused by businesses, in my capacity as a UN Special Rapporteur, I have never seen or heard trauma to the extent of what this community is experiencing. To this day, surviving community members are suffering from extreme traumatic stress and related physical and psychological impacts. They are trying their best to support each other, however suicides have been reported. The surviving victims relive the trauma day after day, including the search and identification of deceased victims, most of whom had to be identified by body parts, add to the daily suffering and trauma. Eighteen of those missing still have not been found. As I have stated before, what happened in Brumadinho must be investigated as a crime.1 This is was not an accident. Like many inside and outside Brazil, I believe this disaster was “preventable and predictable.” However, in order to understand the depth of the crime in Brumadinho, we have to start with the disaster of the Fundão tailings dam.
In 2015, a tailing dam operated by Samarco, a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, broke and released a torrent of 43 million m3 of mud on unsuspecting victims, killing 18 and leaving one person still missing. Over 3,000,000 people living along 800 km of the Rio Doce were affected. The social, environmental and health impacts from this disaster continue to this day.
This Fundão tailings dam disaster was also not an accident. Reports have indicated that the companies responsible for the 2015 disaster knew of the threats presented by the dam before it finally broke. Despite the risk of collapse, communities were uninformed and the emergency warning systems non-functioning. Instead of taking precautionary measures to protect the health of the local community from the wave of mud inundating their homes and communities, BHP, Samarco and Vale engaged in a campaign of defensive posturing, making unsubstantiated and unjustified claims that the mud was non-toxic.
Vale’s conduct leading up to the second collapse of one of their tailing dams beggars belief. While recent reports claim the cause was poor drainage and other such factors, reports from the Brazilian Congress and others suggest there were other factors at play.2
It is the State, not businesses, that has the primary obligation to protect human rights from business activities in Brazil. In both cases, the Government’s classification system did not identify the dams as being of high risk. I heard of efforts after the 2019 disaster by the Government to increase the frequency of inspections and reports from the company, as well as the relocation of communities at what the Government has categorized as high risk. These measures could and should have been taken long before any dam collapse.
Efforts are still insufficient to ensure that another catastrophic dam collapse does not happen. There are over 800 tailing dams, as well as numerous other non-mining dam structures. Estimates vary from less than 10 to over 40 tailing dams that are considered high-risk. Eleven months after the disaster in Brumadinho there still remain legislative and other measures that must be taken by the State to prevent a recurrence. The Government still largely relies on information provided by companies, which have lost credibility, about dam safety. Thus, I am deeply concerned that this is not the last dam collapse in Brazil. Neither the Government nor the companies have instilled confidence that a dam collapse will not recur.
And still, the disaster of these two tailing dams is only one of the challenges facing communities that have been brought to my attention during the course of my visit to Brazil.
Health and Environment
During the past two weeks, I learned of widespread exposures to many hazardous substances that are harming human health in Brazil. This includes an untold number of different hazardous substances contaminating the air of both rural and urban centers, some of which can be transmitted to unborn and newborn children. To this end, I was pleased to learn of the Government’s efforts to implement improved standards for vehicle emissions in the country in the coming years. I was also pleased to learn of efforts by the Ministry of Health and other Ministries to prevent mercury exposure thanks to Brazil’s ratification of the Minamata Convention. Mercury contamination by artisanal and small scale gold mining has devastated communities in Brazil for decades, including the indigenous Yanomami people. Extreme levels of mercury contamination have been recorded, with 56% - 90% exposed to dangerous levels in some communities, including women and children.
These pollutants are just a few of unknown thousands of hazardous substances that present grave risks to health, especially to the health of developing children. Everyone in Brazil has the right to be protected from exposure to hazardous substances. Based on the testimonies and studies provided, individuals and communities are facing grave violations and abuses of human rights to life, dignity, health and bodily integrity from toxic pollution. As in countries around the world, thousands of premature deaths in Brazil and millions of diseases and disabilities result from preventable exposures to toxic pollution and other hazardous substances and wastes, including the release of untreated sewage along sections of the north eastern beaches. However, many do not even know they are victims.
I was impressed by the level of energy that has mobilized against the widespread and increasing use of agrotoxics (i.e. pesticides) in Brazil. The country is one of the world’s largest consumers of pesticides, with the estimated usage per hectare being an underestimation. It continues to use several dozens of pesticides that have been banned in other countries and major foreign markets for health or environmental reasons. Most of the production of food and agriculture in Brazil is for export. Well-founded concerns exist that lower standards of protection from pesticides in the country persist to benefit a narrow set of private interests concerned with the export of agricultural commodities.
For years, grave human rights violations have been reported from Brazil regarding the widespread use of pesticides. I was troubled to hear, case after case, of the failure to respect legally required buffer zones to prevent the spraying of schools, houses and community centers by agri-business. I heard from a community of landless peasants who allege a repeated effort by local businesses to force their eviction by spraying of pesticides over their homes 2-3 times per month. Repeated cases were brought to my attention of children suffering traumatic sickness of pesticide poisoning being forced to flee from their schools to evade the toxic fumes. There is a consistent pattern of not providing advance notice of spraying or information about the chemicals used. The reported numbers of pesticide poisonings in Brazil are acknowledged to be a gross underestimation.
In addition to the numerous cases of acute poisonings, I am concerned by the health impacts linked to chronic exposure to pesticides in Brazil. Research from Brazil reveals increased cases of congenital malformations, severe skin irritation and respiratory problems, various forms of cancers and neurodevelopmental problems associated with pesticide exposure. Other related impacts include Parkinson’s disease (paraquat) and a reduction in intelligence by children (chlorpyrifos), pesticides which are now banned by in Europe. I heard from one farmer who was chronically exposed to pesticides for over 20 years, starting from childhood. Now she has been in and out of hospitals with various serious health conditions, including [polyneuropathy], for the past 5 years. Pediatricians around the world have described childhood exposure to pesticides, including those in use in Brazil, as being a ‘silent pandemic.’ Recent studies by Government authorities revealed pesticide residues in 23% of agricultural produce, and 75% of water in certain areas. While the Government concludes that the levels of contamination in food and water do not present a health risk, this is a broad generalization that deviates from the findings of US and EU regulators regarding certain pesticides.
Children and women of reproductive age are among those particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposures. Analytical studies demonstrate DNA damage in rural workers occupationally exposed to pesticides, in Central Brazil. It is this type of DNA damage that is the invisible harm of toxic exposures, which can lead to many diseases and disabilities later in life. It is a misperception that the harm of exposure to toxics occurs when a disease manifests and this can be accurately predicted through risk assessments. The damage occurs much sooner than when a disease or disability presents itself, at the time of exposure.
I was pleased to learn of the actions such as the programme on Health Surveillance of Populations Exposed to Pesticides (VISPEA) and establishment of reference centers targeted at workers’ health, especially in agricultural families. However, concerns were raised of a flood of new pesticide products into the market in Brazil. Reports received indicate that 439 new pesticide formulations were permitted for use in 2019, and 422 in 2018, with over 30% of these containing active ingredients banned in foreign jurisdictions such as the European Union. While the Federal Government denied that there was a weakening of standards and a portion of these are not available for sale, state government representatives voiced concern that this represented a challenge for monitoring the use of these pesticides. Concerns were also raised regarding the weakening of hazard communication, declassifying pesticides linked to diseases and other health impacts from chronic exposures as not being highly hazardous.
Right to information
Victims often face inordinate challenges in establishing that health impacts are due to their exposure to hazardous substances. This was an issue that was common in nearly all of the cases brought to my attention. Companies continue to deny causal linkages, block access to information and engineer uncertainty, leaving victims struggling with intense anger, frustration, stress and anxiety.
The Mariana disaster is a case in point. From the outset, the companies insisted that the tailing waste was non-toxic and did not present a health risk. After evidence emerged of the presence of elevated levels of toxic elements in the mud and calls were made for precaution to be taken3, the companies and Government continued to insist the waste was non-toxic without any shred of evidence of their own. It took weeks before any evidence miraculously discovered and offered by the companies to substantiate their claim that the mud was not toxic.
Studies have shown elevated levels of heavy metals in hair, urine, cells of affected community members. For the past four years, local community members consistently complain of skin irritation and other health impacts that started after the mining disaster. I heard testimony from the mother of a very young girl exposed to the toxic mud and developed brain swelling and gastrointestinal problems. She has spent several years of fighting with Renova to get the care and acknowledgement her daughter’s needs.
As part of the agreement to provide a remedy for the victims of the Mariana disaster, health and environmental studies were to be conducted by approved authorities. Environmental impacts have shown that in some areas there are elevated levels of contaminants in fish that could be due to the mud. In the case of health impact assessments, the studies were contracted to be performed by Ambios based on the methodologies of the Ministry of Health. Assessments were performed for 3 communities. However, Renova retained the right to the information contained in the reports and has resisted disclosure of the information. The first two studies were released only after significant efforts to disclose. The third report still has not been made public. Renova has blocked access to the studies. The efforts to block access to information has continued to take an enormous toll on the mental health of the community.
Information about hazardous substances is a human right.4 The right to information is an essential enabler for the realization of many other human rights. The communities affected by the Mariana disaster have the right to know. International law repeatedly recognizes that health and safety information should never be confidential. In this regard, it is of utmost importance that all of the studies performed by Ambios be made public. The problematic clause giving Renova ownership of these studies should be rendered unenforceable by law, and Ambios allowed to continue its work.
These concerns are not limited to the Mariana disaster. Firefighters responding to the disaster in Brumadhino were reported to have elevated levels of various toxic substances after spending extended time in the mud searching for victims. Concern was raised that Vale still has control and ownership of various health and safety related studies that relate to the toxicity of the mud, such as those of search dogs.
From many of the other communities I met, I also heard repeated concerns over lack of transparency and monitoring by the government. For example, in the case of the oil spill along the north eastern coast, concerns were raised that the information is not being provided or is unreliable regarding the safety of the fish and shellfish consumed by local fisherfolk, because of concerns for the local economies of the North Eastern coast, in particular the tourism and real estate industry. While the Government maintains a website regarding its response, concerned researchers and community members were unable to locate studies on food safety and allege that capacity does not exist in Brazil to adequately examine the fish and shellfish to ensure that they are in fact safe for consumption.
As in other parts of the world, an active and independent scientific community is critical for the provision of accurate information on hazardous substances and their impact. Over the years, Brazil has developed important advances thanks to the work of universities, independent scientists, and the work of research foundations such as Fiocruz. However, I am concerned that budgetary restrictions and other measures may further restrict the capacity of independent scientists, who are human rights defenders in their own right, to generating the necessary information about various impacts on human health and the environment from toxic pollution in Brazil.
Another key concern in Brazil is the integrity of data used to assess the risks. A year after Brumadinho and four years after Mariana, the Government continues to rely heavily on unreliable information provided from mining companies regarding the structural integrity of tailing dams in the country. While inspections and monitoring activities by public officials has increased, this data from companies continues to underpin much of the risk categorization of dams. Nearly one year after the disaster of Brumadinho, the necessary legislation and other measures to help ensure dam safety have not been taken.
Another serious gap persists in the monitoring of pesticide use. Monitoring agricultural workers is insufficient, particularly regarding their actual use on millions of properties in Brazil and regarding systems to attribute pesticide exposure to associated diseases and disabilities. In this regard I do recognize the efforts to strengthen the capacity of healthcare workers to recognize symptoms of pesticide poisoning and epidemiological surveillance. Monitoring of pesticides in water only extends to the presence of 27 pesticides, although the Government plans to increase the number in the future.
There are other monitoring gaps, such as with respect to air pollution from various sources ranging from forest fires to vehicles to factories (noting again the Government’s plans for bringing new stations online). In general, I left with the impression that the Government’s monitoring and inspection capacity is desperately lacking, and it is concerning that the Government appears to have insufficient and in some States no capacity to verify the data provided by companies as a result of their self-monitoring processes. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that information is available, accessible and reliable.
Brazil’s public prosecutors and public defenders have played a heroic role in defending the rights of victims to an effective remedy. Although they are part of the Government, the greater engagement by the Federal Government is needed to ensure that victims have access to an effective remedy for the grave injustices being perpetrated by irresponsible business enterprises in Brazil.
The struggle of the people of Piquia de Baixo, suffering from the impacts of iron transportation and steel processing literally in their back-yards, represents one of the most audacious cases of a cohort of companies operating with complete disrespect for human rights, and at the same time an incredible story of a community continuing to fight for their human rights. The community has allegedly suffered respiratory diseases, extreme dust, blinding fumes, noise, burns from searing hot waste and caustic chemicals, among other impacts from the steel production facility that invaded their peaceful community over three decades ago.
While important steps have begun toward resettling the community as part of their right to an effective remedy, concern is raised regarding the Minha Casa Minha Vida program and the Federal Budget, on both of which the resettlement depends. Urgent attention is needed to ensure consistent and prompt contributions from the Government and companies involved to fulfil the wishes of the community members that chose to be removed from an unquestionably toxic living environment which they have been forced to endure for decades.
In the case of Mariana, the Renova Foundation has been a profound disappointment since its inception in providing an effective remedy. The victims of both the Mariana and Brumadinho disasters feel that the perpetrators of these crimes have largely been handed the role of judge and jury in deciding what will be the remedy provided.
Part of the right to an effective remedy is access to health care. The Unified Public Health system in Brazil offers a notable avenue to help realize this aspect of an effective remedy for the population in Brazil without the need to establish causation. Yet, it is facing challenges in reaching the most vulnerable. Health care is only one aspect of an effective remedy for toxic exposures.
No remedy is truly effective if it does not prevent recurrence of violations. There appears to be a strong reluctance to eliminate hazardous substances or production processes, let alone certain corporations, that repeatedly result in violations. Eliminating the hazard is the best means of reducing risk.
An important driver for non-recurrence is accountability. Criminal and civil sanctions must be available and significant enough to encourage responsible conduct. I am concerned that the sanctions on individuals and businesses leave many actors responsible with a well-founded sense of impunity. Across many of the cases brought to the attention of the mandate, was the absence of compensation for the pain and suffering endured by victims. For illegal burning of forests, the fines levied are a mere 5000 reals (1250 USD) per hectare. In the case of the Mariana disaster, the criminal charges were dismissed.
The cruel impacts of hazardous substances and wastes are often unjustly externalized on the most vulnerable. Just as the exposures to toxic substances are often invisible, so too is the pain and suffering of victims that results. There appears a pattern in Brazil of income, race, ethnicity and other social factors in cases of harmful exposures to hazardous substances. Indigenous communities and Afro-Brazilian communities are most often reported to be victims of spraying by pesticides. For example systematic pulverisations by airplanes regularly happen against the indigenous people, e.g. at Matto Grosso de Sul, Vareinhi Caiowas, with the target of forcing them out of their lands.
I observed that greater attention needs to be paid to inequalities, such an income, as a determinant of the toxic threats facing communities. For example, while efforts on vehicular air pollution are moving forward, the question of what is being done to address air pollution ‘hotspots,’ in poor and rural settings is unaddressed. As many of the worst impacts of air pollution are concentrated and localized, it is essential to reduce levels in these areas, which are from my observations, areas of lower income in rural and sub-urban settings.
Indigenous peoples have a special relationship with their lands and natural resources, and therefore suffer most acutely from the expansion of agribusiness and extractives being intensified in their lands. While I was encouraged to hear of bills that may make free, prior and informed consent a legal requirement in certain states, I am specifically concerned with the tendency to ignore the profound impacts of economic expansion of rights of indigenous peoples who rely on the environment and biodiversity.
The situation of the Yanomami people, contaminated by mercury pollution from artisanal and small-scale gold mining or ‘garimpo’ activities on their lands serves as an example whereby their claims to lands rich in gold and other precious metals, their rights to life and health are disregarded, and discrimination is levelled on them on the basis of their ethnic and social origin. The arguments of the Government of bringing jobs and economic activities to indigenous peoples is not only disingenuous, but also proves that their rights, including their cultural rights, are not being respected.
I observed various instances were Afro-Brazilians appear discriminated against, for example through the experiences of Barra Longa, where in the aftermath of the Mariana disaster, approximately 30,000 tons of tailing waste was intentionally moved and disposed in a lower-income section that is predominantly Afro-Brazilian, instead of more affluent communities.
Many workers in Brazil continue to be exposed to unhealthy levels of hazardous substances, at far greater rates than the average population. I was pleased to hear that in May the Supreme Court of Brazil revoked a poorly drafted revision of labor law, reaffirming full prohibition of pregnant and lactating women to unhealthy works conditions. Brazil has not ratified any of the major ILO conventions for occupational health. I was particularly concerned to hear of cases of children using pesticides in agriculture in Brazil, including one as young as 7 years of age, which constitutes one of the worst forms of child labor.
For years, artisanal fishers in Brazil have faced many challenges, including systemic discrimination with the alleged purpose of driving them from potentially valuable coastal areas for tourism and other industries. From the testimonies of the fisherfolk impacted by the mysterious oil spill, there has been an exacerbation of violations the rights of artisanal fishers in the area. Many in the community allege to have been denied access to economic support from the Government, and to have been sickened and suffering from exposure to the toxic oil that they voluntarily cleaned for extended periods without protection or training. Also concerning are the reports of gender-based discrimination in the failure to recognize [General Fisheries Register (Registro Geral da Pesca – RGP] women workers in the fishing industry as eligible for economic support, including single mothers whose livelihood has been erased by the disaster.
Brazil was a leader in the constitutional recognition of environmental rights. Brazil’s Constitution enshrined a number of fundamental human rights relating to State’s duty to protect people and the environment. Read together, Brazil’s Government has the obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right of everyone in Brazil to a healthy environment and a duty to prevent exposure to toxic pollution5.
A good example of the application of these constitutional provisions is the Brazilian Supreme Court decision to ban asbestos. It is estimated that 3,000,000 people suffer from diseases caused by asbestos exposure in Brazil. While one mine has ceased operations, it remains uncertain if and when the other existing mine will stop extraction, as it allegedly aims to ship its product to markets that are experiencing a boom in the use of this substance for which there is no safe level of exposure, according to the Brazilian courts.
Brazil’s current economic model is largely dependent on consumption, production and exports. It is unsettling to witness what appears to be a trend towards development at any cost – through indiscriminate up-scaling of projects, and the seemingly misguided belief that development of indigenous peoples’ lands and eradicating poverty without adequate safeguards for human rights, is indeed sustainable. For example, I was startled to learn of the Government’s objective to produce one-third of the world’s food by 2025. Without a robust plan for sustainability, the consequences for the population in Brazil would be disastrous. Further decimation of the Amazon forest and savannahs, a sharp increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, acceleration of catastrophic climatic changes and extinction of biodiversity, the elimination of indigenous cultures, increased rates of diseases and disabilities from toxic exposures and the further loss of water resources are but a few of the consequences. Of course, this has global repercussions; but, Brazilians should not be misled by the false narrative opposing global governance in the name of national development.
There is a deeply concerning trend in Brazil of systematically dismantling environmental, labor, health and social governance structures over the past year. Key ministries have disappeared, with their responsibilities transferred to authorities with conflicting objectives. Relevant councils have been eliminated, while others have been retained but only after eliminating positions for civil society participation. Programs to promote alternatives to chemical-intensive agriculture have been eliminated. Budgets have been reduced, frozen or rendered inaccessible for critical functions aimed at protecting the health and environment of communities. Laws have been proposed to expand the extraction of natural resources from the lands of indigenous peoples. Promised protections of environmental and occupational health have been shelved and the role of labour inspectors diminished. All of which is quite shocking after a disaster such as the one in Brumadinho at the beginning of the year.
These changes in the governance structure of the country have sent a strong signal to perpetrators of environmental crimes, from illegal mining to deforestation. According to the Brazilian Space Agency the number of forest fires in the Amazon spiked by over 80% and the rate of deforestation increased by approximately 30%. The “flexibilization” of legislation and de-regulation of pesticides was also repeatedly brought to my attention. In 2018, myself and other independent experts of the UN raised concerns about the threats of a recurrent pesticide bill, i.e. the “poison package,” for rights of agricultural communities, workers and the general public.6 While the bill has changed since last year, it continues to remain a concern.
Another example is the stalled enactment of necessary protections from non-agricultural industrial chemicals. Brazil’s richness of oil, gas, minerals and rare earths, as well as biodiversity, has led to large-scale expansion in industrial chemical production since 2000. Yet, Brazil lags behind OECD members and most emerging economies when it comes to enacting necessary, comprehensive protections from industrial chemicals, despite being home to one of the largest chemical industries in the world, which is closely linked to the upstream input of raw materials from State-owned petroleum giant Petrobras. After a change in administration, a multi-year project to enact comprehensive chemical legislation in Brazil was abruptly stopped, potentially prolonging the unsafe and unnecessary exposures of people in Brazil and their children to old fashioned toxic chemicals. It appears that Brazil’s Unified Public Health care system and individuals bear the significant cost for externalized health impacts of private interests.
The right to be protected from toxic exposures appears to be secondary at best to the supremacy of the economy, which remains strongly coupled to consumption and production, including highly toxic inputs and outputs.
The Government of Brazil does not appear to recognize this in its efforts to dismantle laws and institutions built over many decades and places itself deeper and deeper in the receiving end of externalized costs of foreign consumption production. Brazil’s current model of development is not just short-sighted, it is systematically skewed in favor of a few business interests – such as wealthy owners of agribusinesses inside Brazil and manufacturers of highly hazardous pesticides that export to Brazil products forbidden from use in where they are based. And, in my view, these efforts disrespect the Constitution of Brazil.
Crimes and punishment
An important aspect of Brazil’s Constitution is the recognition of corporate environmental crimes. In the space of my two weeks in Brazil, I heard of many environmental crimes. Despite the requirements of the Constitution, there is a reluctance of authorities to convict criminals, particularly corporate entitles and executives of these crimes. There is an absence of criminal charges for illegal forest fires, illegal mining operations, illegal logging activities and the illegal spraying of communities with toxic pesticides, in some cases allegedly to force eviction.
The lack of accountability only emboldens criminal conduct, particularly when there are grave violations of the right to life of many in Brazil, ranging from the innocent employees of Vale to those who bravely stand to defend their rights. For example, Zé Maria de Tomé, a local community member in Chapada do Apodi, Ceará, fought bravely to put an end to aerial spraying of pesticides and its health and environmental impacts. The practice was allegedly used as a ‘chemical weapon’ to evict peasants from areas where agribusiness interests claim. On April 21, 2010, he was brutally murdered, shot 20 to 25 times. There remains a deep suspicion that elements of the powerful agribusiness industry ordered his assassination, yet the justice process remains inconclusive.
Brazil was recently ranked as the deadliest country for environmental defenders, and regularly ranks among the deadliest. Affected communities are caught in a lethal catch-22: either risk death from exposure to toxic pollution, or risk death for defending their right to a healthy environment. I take note of affirmations made that the number of deaths of human rights defenders has decreased. However, I am not convinced this is true and serious concern remains that attacks, intimidation, and threats have increased.
I heard reports of peasant, indigenous, and
quilombola leadership being murdered – including 71 murders of local farm leadership in Brazil from 2018. In the words of the community representative who presented the account, “the bullets are back”. Not only is there physical violence, but the silent violence of intimidation, threats and harassment that appears to be specifically targeted towards driving people from their land and violating various other rights. There remains resilience among peasants, indigenous peoples and
quilombolas in agitating for their rights, and further efforts are required to ensure realization of their rights. I heard from the Pataxó de Brumadinho indigenous people in the Naô Xohã village of troubling reports in solidarity with other indigenous communities, who decried the violation of their right to water through contamination of the Paraopeba River. In their capacity as “defenders of the lungs of Brazil”, tehy are being subjected to rape, and other physical attacks as they continue to defend the environment, the rivers and lakes, and the right to breathe clean air.
While in the State of Maranhão, I received news of a nearby shooting of four indigenous leaders after leaving a meeting involving FUNAI and Electrobras, two of whom died. The psychological impacts of these attacks only compound the mental and physical health impacts of the nearby industry imposed upon the community. These attacks have brutal effects not only for the defenders directly affected but the entire communities they represent, they force them into silence and only aggravate an environment of fear and deep deprivation of basic rights protections. I remain deeply concerned of the safety and security of the local community members in Piquia de Baixo and others fighting to defend their lands and their rights in Brazil.
While the Government has a program for the protection of human rights defenders, absent is an effort to address the root causes, such as unchecked and unsustainable consumption and production, and perceived impunity of organized criminals. There is a dire need not only to protect people under threat but also reduce the factors that are leading to these threats, attacks, and killings.
There now exists a perverse situation in Brazil where those working to defend against environmental crimes are labelled as totally unreliable or even criminals by representatives of the Government. I was troubled by the reported increase of criminalization of human rights defenders and civil society groups. The recent case of four firefighters, who were arrested while working to prevent the illegal destruction of the Amazon is emblematic. These defenders were charged and detained for days on questionable charges by the police. Their arrest was followed by the raid of the offices of an internationally recognized civil society organization for their environmental work in the protection of the Amazon, where their computers were confiscated.
There also exists a systematic pattern of discrediting members of civil society, through slanderand labelling of certain environmentalists as terrorists. Brave individuals are blamed for the oil spill in the North East or setting of forest fires. These individuals, communities, organization and networks are under preemptive attack, strategically designed to limit the ability of anyone to stand in the way of the Government’s objectives for unsustainable extraction of natural resources and agribusiness. When the truth is tested, revelations that there was a lack of evidence do little to overcome the chilling effect of these allegations. While seemingly absurd, there also appears to be a strategy of distraction and cover for the advancement of the actual perpetrators and other unrelated objectives serving private interests.
I salute the resilience and honorable struggle of the various individual activists and civil society organizations and movements – not only those that I met with but all those in the fight to claim not only their rights, but the rights of all. In the same breath I condemn the murders, intimidation, threats, attacks, and violations endured by so many who are risking so much to defend their rights in Brazil.
Brazil has immense capabilities as an economic heavyweight in the region to make concrete positive advancements to promote human rights, to protect individuals and communities from toxic exposures, and most importantly to ensure a truly sustainable path towards development.
At this preliminary stage, these are some of the issues that I expect to analyze in my report to the Human Rights Council in September 2020. Specific recommendations will be provided in that forthcoming report. But there is no need for the Government to delay taking necessary measures to address some of the concerns raised. For example, the Government, Vale and other companies implicated must ensure the necessary resources are made available as promised for the Piquia de Baixo community’s resettlement. The Government should also ratify the Escazu Agreement to better implement the right to information and the protection of environmental defenders, strengthen the capacity of its environmental and health institutions, address the shrinking of civic space, and identify opportunities to ban or restrict toxic chemicals, particularly those already banned or restricted in foreign jurisdictions.
Although I have tried to reflect the Government’s good practices, the gravity of the current situation in Brazil has left me with a heavy heart. It was not long ago that the landmark Rio Declaration, was produced in Brazil in hopes of advancing sustainable development. While progress has been made around the world, it is inescapable that Brazil is currently on a steep path of regression, heading towards an increasingly toxic future.
There exists an urgent need for the human rights of many vulnerable groups to be respected, protected, and fulfilled from the threats posed by toxic substances and hazardous wastes in Brazil. I believe that Brazil has the technical, legal and financial capacity to not only make this transition, but to go beyond all of its human rights obligations when it comes to protecting people and the environment from toxic pollution.
Never has there been a more decisive moment for Brazil. It will need courage, leadership and determination – which I urge Brazil’s Government and industry to embrace. I sincerely hope that the tide will turn – that Brazil will return to the path of sustainable development – with human rights and environmental rights at its heart.
2/ Vale refused to discuss anything in the lead up to the disaster on 25th of January during the mission. The role of Vale and their German consultants in this disaster will be examined more closely in my upcoming report of 2020.
3/ Brazilian mine disaster: “This is not the time for defensive posturing” – UN rights experts, Nov 2015,
SR Toxics 2015 thematic report to the Human Rights Council on “the right to information” (A/HRC/30/40).
5/ Thematic report of SR Toxics to GA, 2019,
6/ OL BRA 5/2018 of 13 June 2018,
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