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Brazil on a tragic, poisonous path: UN expert

Portuguese version below

GENEVA / BRASILIA (13 December 2019) – Brazil is on a tragic path of dismantling already weakened institutions that were set up to protect people and the environment, a UN human rights expert has warned.

"I would like to thank the Government of Brazil for the invitation to conduct a visit and the frank and open discussions over the past two weeks," said Baskut Tuncak, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics, releasing his preliminary findings after a two-week visit to Brazil.

"In the wake of a series of horrific environmental crimes, from deadly tailing dam collapses to an epidemic of poisonings by pesticides, one would expect to see the country enact the strictest environmental and occupational controls for hazardous substances and waste. 

"Instead the opposite is true. The country is regressing, enabled by a malignant sense of impunity among perpetrators who poison the public, take their lands and destroy their environment."

The Special Rapporteur highlighted the collapse of two tailing dams in 2015 and 2019. The first was operated by a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton: its collapse killed 18 people and impacted the lives of more than three million others, including indigenous and traditional communities.  The second, involving one of the same companies, Vale, killed nearly 300 people.

"After years of denial by the Government and the firms involved, the impacts of exposure to the toxic mud from the 2015 disaster are now visible and continue to be linked to health problems, and yet the companies continue to abuse their influence to prevent health and safety information from seeing the light of day," the Special Rapporteur said. 

"Brazil is disregarding its constitutional obligation to protect human rights from exposure to toxic substances and hazardous wastes. It is eliminating crucial ministries, restricting funding for essential functions, eliminating key programs, curtailing civic space, and failing to enforce existing laws and judicial decisions to protect human rights from toxic exposures.

"In the same breath it is criminalising and attacking people who are bravely fighting to defend their rights to life, health and balance environment, among other human rights recognised under the Constitution of Brazil.

"Brazil continues to permit the use of dozens of highly hazardous pesticides that have long been banned by numerous other countries. The Government's actions and inactions have unleashed a catastrophic wave of toxic pesticides, deforestation and mining that will poison generations unless swift action is taken to put Brazil on a path toward sustainable development." 

Tuncak also highlighted a sharp spike in deforestation and the number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon and savannah, allegedly influenced by signals from the Government encouraging changes in land use to accelerate growth in food and agricultural production as well as mining. 

"Many of the problems illustrate a long-standing disregard for human rights and common decency by companies in Brazil," he said.

"The community of Piquiá de Baixo has been poisoned for decades.  While progress has been made towards relocating this resilient community to homes where they can live in dignity, the Government's chaotic policies and budgetary cuts threaten to leave this community to further endure the abuse of their rights by Vale, Viena Siderúrgica and Gusa Nordeste indefinitely.

"For decades, Brazil has helped to world to devise solutions to crucial environmental and human rights concerns through the brilliant work of civil society and academic researchers. It's disheartening to see authorities dismantling so many channels of collaboration and even trying to criminalise these actors. A radical shift in the relation between Government and civil society is crucial to improve the difficult scenario I observed."

The Special Rapporteur will present his full conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2020.


Mr. Baskut Tuncak is the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights country page: Brazil

For more information and media requests please contact:

In Brazil (during the visit): Ms. Angela Pires Terto (apires@ohchr.org) or Mr. Alvin Gachie (+41 79 444 41 87; agachie@ohchr.org)

In Geneva after the visit Mr. Alvin Gachie (+41 22 917 99 71; agachie@ohchr.org), or Ms Lilit Nikoghosyan (+41 22 917 9936, lnikoghosyan@ohchr.org) or write to srtoxics@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact:

Mr. Jeremy Laurence (+41 22 917 9383 / jlaurence@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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