Iron Dust and Socio-Economic Inequality in Brazil

Although at the macroeconomic level Brazil has done a remarkable job at improving its economic stability and standing in the world, it’s important to remember that not everybody benefits from the “success” of development and growth. Take the case of the residents of Piquiá de Baixo in the northeastern state of Maranhão:

At present some 500,000 tonnes of pig iron, an intermediate product in the process of steel refining, are produced annually in Piquiá de Baixo. Pig iron is produced in blast furnaces by smelting iron ore, using charcoal or coke as fuel and limestone as a purifying agent. […]

Local people in the small town, who live in modest dwellings with yards bordering on the grounds of the large steel plants, are suffering health problems from pollution.

As a result of the extremely poor quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink, more than 40 percent of the residents of Piquiá de Baixo suffer from respiratory illnesses, lung diseases and skin lesions, according to a study by the Reference Centre for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases at the Federal University of Maranhão.

The local population is demanding a transfer to a clean, safe place far away from the steel plants. The majority are farmers, who now can only work land over 200 km from their homes.

Though economic and social inequalities in Brazil have declined since the 1970s and 1980s, there are still very real disadvantages for broad swaths of Brazil’s population, including rural workers, the urban poor, and indigenous groups, among others. 

This of course is not the first time that Brazil has seen rapid economic development. The country attempted to transform its economy via import-substitution industrialization between the 1930s and 1950s, creating a national steel industry and completely transforming the city of Volta Redonda at the same time, a process that Oliver J. Dinius’s work has recently done a very good job of detailing. However, with import-substitution industrialization, it was not uncommon to see workers and local residents exercising some amount of power in negotiating their living and working conditions, given the Brazilian government’s paternalistic labor laws and the industries’ need for happy workers.

Today, however, things have changed substantially. While many worker-friendly labor laws remain in place, the market-friendly policies begun in the 1990s and continued under the administrations of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff have greatly reduced (if not totally eliminated) the ties between local populations and large industry. As a result, you have situations like Piquiá de Baixo, where

the community which has been settled there for over 50 years “is asking to be transferred due to the degree of environmental degradation and toxic pollution it is suffering.”

Danilo Chammas, the lawyer for the Piquiá de Baixo residents, concurred. He pointed out that the town already existed when the steel plants arrived 25 years ago. Now, “coexistence has become impossible, as the local people are forced to breathe iron ore dust mixed with charcoal every day,” he said.

“The families should have been relocated when the steelmaking complex was built; but a move is still the only alternative, and is urgently needed,” he told IPS.

Where in the Vargas era (1930-1954), there was an effort to improve the living conditions of workers and residents of towns where heavy industry was developing, today such attempts are virtually non-existent, due in no small part to the privatized nature of industry today versus the state-run industrialization processes of the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, Vale, the company responsible for the plant at  Piquiá de Baixo, was a state-owned company until 1997, when neoliberal president Fernando Henrique Cardoso privatized it as part of the wave of privatizations in Latin America in the 1990s. Thus, where once state initiative may have addressed the issue of residents’ living conditions at an earlier date, the private nature of production for Vale today has rendered such efforts nonexistent, and an entire town suffers in its health, its means to make a living, and its basic existence.

That the residents of Piquiá de Baixo are organizing and seem to have legitimate claims and legitimate legal aid is encouraging. Additionally, that they are not alone in their struggles may help them in the long run, for, as the article points out, “Similarly dire situations are occurring in many of Brazil’s mining towns, and a number of them are also organising protests.” Thus, this is a problem confronting many Brazilians, not just those in Piquiá de Baixo, and that broader problem may one day lead to a broader national push for the rights of poorer residents near heavy industry, either through legal and legislative means or through movements like the MST or the MLB. Nonetheless, such future possibilities do little to alleviate the situation confronting many Brazilians right now, and the case of Piquiá de Baixo serves as a powerful reminder that Brazil’s recent economic success still negatively affects many today.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Class and Classism in the Americas, Development in Latin America, Getúlio Vargas and the Brazilian Estado Novo (1930-1945), Health Issues in the Americas, Inequalities in the Americas, Labor in Latin America, Peasant Movements, Protests in Latin America. Bookmark the permalink.