Brazil: Pandemic Disproportionately Impacts Communities Affected by Corporate Pollution and Neglected by the State

Press release
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Piquiá de Baixo, Açailandia, Paris, 27 April 2020 - After decades of suffering the consequences of pollution and irreversible damage to their health and the environment caused by steel and coal companies, workers and communities like Piquiá de Baixo are today in a situation of particular vulnerability to the Covid-19 pandemic. The State’s historical neglect of communities in this situation not only makes them more prone to contagion, but also to suffer drastic consequences on their health, which has already been damaged by exposure to pollution.

Brazil has become the largest epicenter of Covid-19 contamination in Latin America, aggravated by the negligence of Jair Bolsonaro’s government in its management of the crisis. The authorities irresponsibly downplayed the dangers of COVID, sowing discord and increasing instability. This attitude seriously threatens the lives of the most vulnerable communities such as Piquiá de Baixo, which has been affected for decades by industrial pollution.

Despite the health crisis, companies such as Viena Siderúrgica and Aço Verde Brasil, which are part of the distribution chain of Vale S.A., continue to operate as usual, putting the lives of hundreds of vulnerable people at risk. The inhabitants of Piquiá de Baixo suffer from major chronic respiratory diseases that make the young and the elderly extremely vulnerable to the pandemic. Despite being aware of the serious risks they themselves have caused, until now, companies have not adopted adequate prevention and assistance measures for their workers and the inhabitants of Piquiá, as they continue to operate. For its part, Gusa Nordeste has dismissed several hundred workers, leaving them in uncertain conditions, with serious health problems and in the midst of an unfinished resettlement.

The Federal Government, continues, as it has done for decades, to fail to ensure adequate health benefits and even to contravene WHO recommendations. It is now urgent to ensure access to care and preventive material and accessible medical care. Otherwise, the spread of COVID-19 among workers and community members would be a death sentence.

"The right to life and health cannot be sacrificed to the economic interests and thirst for profit of companies. The environment has already been sacrificed for decades, and this has had an irreversible impact on health. Companies cannot wash their hands of their responsibility in the current situation. Even more so if they consider closing down activities, who will repair the people affected and rehabilitate the environment?"

Maria Isabel Cubides - Globalization and Human Rights Program Officer - FIDH

This critical situation has been aggravated in recent weeks as a result of violent flooding of houses in the community of Piquiá de Baixo following the breakage of several fish-farming dumps, displacing 253 people and destroying their belongings and at least 25 houses. Currently 17 families remain homeless.

“The community of Piquiá de Baixo cannot be condemned to live in a permanent state of calamity. The solutions that the community itself has courageously and insistently presented to the public authorities and companies have been dismantled. We require rigorous measures to guarantee the right to health.”

Danilo Chammas, Justiça nos Trilhos

Piquiá is an emblematic case of the need to balance and protect the rights to health and work. The decisions taken by most companies have privileged profit at the expense of the destruction of the environment and human health. If the necessary measures were taken, the disjunctive of work vs. health, and environmental preservation vs. economic benefits would be surmounted.

We call on the authorities to guarantee access to health care and materials, the immediate shelter of families affected by the floods, and to ensure the continuation and acceleration of relocation.

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