By Erik Hagen
Published in English 9 December 2009.
Environmental organisations and the local population with whom Norwatch has spoken are anxious about two aspects of Yara’s plans for phosphate production in a forest area by Anitápolis in southern Brazil .
First of all, this entails that protected rain forest areas must be torn up or be placed under stone masses and water. Some of these areas consist of rain forest worthy of preservation and other forest areas in the process of returning to their original state.
Even though the largest part of the project area already has been levelled to the ground by Yara’s predecessors and by smallholders, 82 hectares of protected forest must nevertheless be removed through the project. A couple of hundred hectares of forest that is in the process of returning to the original state will also be removed.
Second, the project will dam up the river Rio dos Pinheiros, which flows out into the larger watercourse Braço do Norte. Environmental organisations, residents and communities further downstream are worried about discharges or accidents could harm their most important water source. The dam’s closest neighbours live only 600 metres downstream. (See separate article.)
Thorough Environmental Analysis
Yara explained in a letter to its owners in the Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry (NHD) dated 14 July 2009 that they had had made use of twenty independent experts in a survey of the environmental effects of the project. These experts have “spent around 20,000 hours preparing 18 books with more than 2,500 pages on this issue”. Throught this work, the project obtained the environmental authorisation, Yara wrote to NHD.
IFC’s total area covers 1760 hectares . Of this, the project itself constitutes 360 hectares , according to the company. They have also bought 1400 hectares of forest that they are planning to preserve for the future. This arrangement, which in Brazil goes by the designation “compensation”, is common in such megaprojects in the country. By buying up forest worthy of preservation in one area, one compensates for the destruction of irreplaceable forest in another area.
Endangered Rain Forest
“Only 7% of the original Atlantic rain forest remains,” according to Daniel B. Falkenberg , Professor of Botany at the federal university in the Santa Catarina state capital, Florianópolis.
He explained that the remaining forest areas in Santa Catarina are larger than in the other states along the coast. Formerly the forest extended all along the coast of Brazil and up into the mountains and the plains in the interior.
“But tree felling is now taking place faster here than in other places. Now there are only small fragments left,” he said.
When we showed him the list of species existing in the forest area, he confirmed that all of them are endangered according to the Brazilian authorities.
“They are constructing the dam in one of the most important areas, halfway between two parks, ” Falkenberg said.
According to the company’s own environmental study, there are several endangered animal and plant species on the property.
Among other things, there are four endangered tree species. The environmental analysis also revealed that several endangered wildcats use the area, such as the tiger cat, the ocelot, and the puma. The photograph of the tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus) on the right was taken inside the property, as part of the environmental study.
The analysis also showed that the property is utilised by the Vinaceous-breasted Amazon, an endangered parrot, and in 2005 a previously unknown frog species, Cycloramphus sp (aff. Bolitoglossus), was discovered. The photograph of the frog below was taken inside the company’s area.
But the project nevertheless entails “no danger at all of extermination of plant or animal species in the region”, according to IFC’s Brazilian web pages.
“A milestone,” Yara wrote to its owners in NHD in reference to the authorisation they had received.
The organisation Montanha Viva has called the project plans “an ecologic catastrophe”.
“The whole concept of mining operations is in conflict with sustainability,” Zeller said; he is critical of companies like Yara and Bunge, which refer to their businesses as sustainable.
“What will happen in 30 years, when the activities are completed? Do you think that the rain forest and the endangered species will suddenly reappear?”
This past summer Zeller sent a letter to the Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International Development, Erik Solheim, with concerns about the project. The letter was forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to NHD.
On the basis of the official correspondence to which Norwatch has obtained access, it is clear that NHD, which is the main owner of the company, has not attempted to check whether these concerns are correct.
“Do you have any information and/or comments that you can send me about this project? It might be a good idea for us to keep some information on standby in case there are further statements or publicity in the media about this,” NHD’s Ownership Department wrote to Yara, in correspondence to which Norwatch has obtained access.
There is no further indication in the mail registry that NHD has checked whether there is any reason for the concerns voiced by the Brazilian organisation. The letter to Solheim was answered by the Norwegian Embassy in Brazil .
“Without knowing the details about the project Yara and Bunge are trying to establish in Santa Catarina, the Embassy assumes that this is an undertaking that requires an environmental licencing or other types of approval. Therefore, the competent Brazilian licensing agency will have to decide whether the project is within the existing regulations or not,” the Embassy answered.