Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Brazil's bauxite industry is being challenged, reports Samuel Loewenberg in Porto Alegre.

Irish Times  05/20/05

One of the oldest clichés about the Left is that it quickly splinters into factions. But there is another dynamic that does not usually get mentioned, one that began some 10 years ago, as non-governmental organisations started to reach across borders and even disciplines.

One such example, and a core foundation of the World Social Forum, was when a broad range of groups rose up against the International Monetary Fund. For the first time, groups from labour, education, health, and environment came together in a common cause.

Now, with 500 meetings happening every day in this giant gathering of progressives, civil society advocates, and grassroots groups, that dynamic is being repeated in smaller, but no less significant, ways.

Think of it as a multinational for the Left. A case in point was a meeting on the topic of Brazil's massive bauxite mining industry. The panel brought together a collection of Brazilian miners, German trade unions, and American environmentalists.

Bauxite is the mineral that forms the basis of aluminium, of which the US is the world's biggest consumer. The extraction of the mineral can be devastating to rainforests, say environmentalists, and dangerous to the health of workers. This was highlighted by a recent industrial accident in a bauxite refinery in the Amazon region of Brazil.

The groups themselves might be expected to be antagonistic, with the Germans trying to stop their jobs from going overseas, the Brazilians resisting the paternalistic offer of help from the rich countries, and the environmentalists trying to convince the unions that growth could have negative consequences.

These differences do exist, but for now, at least, these disparate organisations see themselves as having a higher purpose, and it involves working together. Germany, for instance, has sent many union representatives to Porto Alegre to try and bridge the gap between rich and poor countries.

"We think in this age of globalisation we can no longer work only in one country," said Mr Dieter Eich, a representative of the Confederation of German Trade Unions. He said it was "not acceptable" for German companies to manufacture in the developing world using different standards than they do at home. "Why is a Brazilian lung not as protected as a German one?" he said.

The Brazilians seemed to welcome the assistance. At a minimum, they welcomed the chance to tell their story. "We want to be sure that the work we do will not harm us," said Manuel Paiva, the president of the workers union in the Barcarena region, where the recent toxic spill occurred. "We want to discuss how to have a mining industry that is not degrading to our homes and our land," he said.

Both the unions and the environmentalists are particularly concerned by a plan by the major aluminium companies - Brazilian mining firm CVRD, Norwegian-owned Hydro that is centered in Germany, and the American aluminium manufacturing giant Alcoa - to dramatically increase production.

That expansion would require building dams to power the energy-intensive refineries, said Mr Glenn Switkes, the Sao Paulo-based representative of the International Rivers Network, an American environmental organization. But convincing the Brazilian workers that dams were a threat to their communities and the environment was not easy.

For the Brazilian workers, jobs and health were at the top of the agenda. After listening to his presentation on the dangers of dams, the union leaders told him that he needed to convey his message directly to the villages. He was already behind, they said, as the mining companies had already made many attractive promises to the villagers.

"Meetings like this are great, but this is a speck in terms of what we need to do to reach the grassroots. It's a problem for lots of international organisations," said Mr Switkes.

German trade unionist Mr Eich was hopeful that the different groups from different nations had a lot to offer each other.

"For the Brazilian unions dealing with a German company, they are limited in how much pressure they can apply. But if the German unions also apply the pressure, it can have a lot of impact," he said.

By Sam Loewenberg