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Article On Toxic Us Battery 'recycling' In Brazil

United States

Ship of ills

Brazilians are being poisoned by used car batteries shipped from the US. And it's called 'recycling'. Marijane Lisboa reports on the growing resistance to a lethal piece of hypocrisy.

Bringing toxic waste to Brazil. Photo by Greenpeace/Hodson

Photo Credit: Greenpeace/Hudson

It's a sunny September day, a hot time of year in Brazil's North-East. A young woman and two youths are walking carefully up a hillside covered by creeping vegetation. Below runs a brook. In the distance lies a small town of humble dwellings with goats and chickens here and there.

On the top of the hill, half concealed, is a square-shaped construction. This is where the young people seem to be heading, in a roundabout way, crouching down every now and again, out of sight, then bobbing up again a bit further along. After a while they come back down the hill to where a car is waiting for them in a bend in the road. As the vehicle speeds off, the national anthem can be heard playing on its radio. It's Brazil's Independence Day.

Statistics on toxic exports

The young people belong to three different Brazilian environmental groups. What they have been doing is gathering samples of soil, sediments and liquid coming from a factory that recovers lead from used car batteries. The factory stands accused of poisoning its workers and the local environment with lead.

The environmentalists have also taken photographs of the backyard of the factory, Metalúrgica Bitury, with its mountains of broken batteries covered in lead dust. Exposed to the elements, it's not hard to imagine what happens to that lead dust when it rains and the rainwater flows into the brook. The three environmentalists have also collected a piece of battery on which is written the country of origin: the US.

When they arrive at Recife, capital of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, the environmentalists send the samples by plane to two different laboratories ­ one in São Paulo, the other to a Greenpeace laboratory in England. Two weeks later, the results of the analyses confirm their suspicions. The soil and the sediment collected in the bed of a small stream running down into the brook contain alarming concentrations of lead. It's 10 to 15 times the maximum permissible in the US.

Meanwhile a local trade union is accusing Metalúrgica Bitury of routinely dismissing workers without compensation when their blood tests reveal high levels of lead.

'I was forced to leave because I had lead in my brain. I can't even walk properly,' says 38-year-old Genivaldo Cavalcante da Silva, who worked with the company for nine years. 'I have three children to raise and big financial problems.' His predicament is shared by many others.

The rise in exports of hazardous waste is ruled solely by economics, at a terrible cost to Third World workers. It's much cheaper for companies in the North to export toxic substances to a developing country than to face the rising costs of managing the waste in their own countries, where public opinion is increasingly sensitive to pollution. Companies like Metalúrgica Bitury, in some parts of Latin America, Asia or Africa, will even pay for the North's toxic rubbish. They can afford to because they don't spend money on protecting the safety of their workers or protecting the environment.

And yet Brazil is a signatory to the Basel Convention which has approved a resolution to ban the export of hazardous waste from OECD countries to less developed countries. This prohibition, named the 'Basel Ban', is the culmination of a long struggle by environmentalists around the world, particularly Greenpeace. It aims to bring to an end the indecent and criminal practice of exporting the hazardous waste of industrialized countries to those that have neither the technology to process these wastes in a safe way, nor adequate legislation and government bodies effectively to bring their companies to order.

The ban on dumping such waste came into force in May 1994. But a ban on exporting hazardous wastes for 'recuperation' and 'recycling' is not to come into force until January 1998.

And here is the loophole some are keen to exploit.

Industrial lobbies have complained to the Ministry of Environment that the Basel Ban 'restricts the recycling sector'. Rich countries, they argue, should not be prohibited from exporting waste. It should be up to importing countries to impose controls on what they choose to import.

The Brazilian Environment Ministry has responded by trying to push through a resolution to make an exception for nine companies recycling lead batteries ­ including Acumuladores Moura, which belongs to the same group as Metalúrgica Bitury ­ and allow them to go on importing used batteries after 1998. It proved yet again how influential industrial lobbies are in the formation of environmental policies in fledgling, Third World democracies like Brazil.

On this occasion, however, they did not win.

One of the most positive results of democracy in Brazil ­ after 16 years of military dictatorship ­ has been the emergence of social movements to protect a wide range of interests, such as the environment, health, women and children.

When the Brazilian Minister of the Environment opened a meeting in October 1996 he was confronted with angry members of one such movement, the National Council for the Environment. On the wall of the entrance to the meeting room were photos of the backyard of Metalúrgica Bitury, with its piles of used batteries. Experts from environmental NGOs presented the evidence of lead pollution. And there were the testimonies of poisoned workers who had got the sack. Fearing a political furore the Ministry backed down, and suspended its resolution.

However, the danger is not out of sight. Businesses interested in importing batteries have grouped together and come up with a new joint petition to the Ministry of the Environment.

The group's objective is to obtain new government authorization to import used batteries from the US ­ the only industrialized country which has not ratified the Basel Convention. They argue that the US could export hazardous wastes to the Third World via a bilateral agreement.

However, all the specialists in environmental law who have analayzed the small print agree. Once the ban is extended in 1998 to cover recycling and recuperation, such deals will not be permissible.

Similar threats to the Basel Ban can be seen in other countries like India and the Philippines, where industrial sectors are exerting pressure to make exceptions for specific dangerous wastes.

The war against environmental injustice is far from won. If we want the Basel Ban to play an effective part in creating a global, environmental policy, we will have to remain vigilant. This is especially true in the newly industrialized countries such as Brazil and India, where industrial lobbies have such tremendous political force. And in the US, of course, which remains the chief rich-world culprit holding back from ratifying the Basel Convention. *

Marijane Lisboa teaches sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Pontifícia Universidad e Cátolica in São Paulo. She is Greenpeace Brazil's consultant on hazardous waste trade and clean production.

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Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997

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