By Erik Hagen
Published in English 9 December 2009.
Yolanda Schütter Back was born and raised in the little Brazilian village of São Paulo Dos Pinheiros. This quiet settlement consists of twenty houses, a newly renovated church, a primary school, and a road junction. There is scarcely any through traffic, other than the occasional truck with vegetables or timber on its way to the state capital.
The village’s centre is a bridge that crosses the river Rio Braço do Norte.
Just 600 metres upstream from the little village the fertiliser companies Yara and Bunge are planning to construct a dam through the joint-venture company IFC. The dam is to block the river course of one of the tributaries and dam up all the waste matter from the phosphate extraction.
The construction is part of the phosphate production that the two companies are planning to establish further up the river.
Read more about the phosphate plans here.
Yolanda fears that erosion in the area will cause the dam to burst. The possibility of dam collapse was one of the points that a federal judge brought up when the project’s environmental authorisation was withdrawn.
During the flooding in 2008 the river overflowed its banks. The frothing water rose many metres, all the way up to Yolanda’s house, where it carried away her vegetable garden and parts of the foundation wall. During the same flood, hillsides, bridges, and roads in the whole state collapsed. When Norwatch visited the area in October, the reconstruction work had finally been completed. The flood had left its mark all over the region.
“Only we who live here know the force of the river,” she told Norwatch.
Since IFC was granted the environmental authorisation, Yolanda says she no longer can sleep at night.
“It’s like having a rope around your neck. If they place the dam here, we shall always worry. It is very difficult. Some people say that perhaps we should sell and move. But it would never be the way it is here. It is so peaceful here,” Yolanda said.
The families affected are not supposed to have received any compensation and have no other choice than to remain.
“Many believe that the project will be good for us. Most of us here are nevertheless against it, but they are afraid to speak up,” she related.
She did not mention that the peaceful road in front of her home would become an artery for heavy-vehicle traffic. Eighty-six trucks will drive right past her house twice daily, from 6 o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock in the evening, filled with fertiliser and raw materials.
Worried Business and Industry
Further downstream, too, people are worried about the project. The Braço do Norte river, which runs past her house, meanders through several other communities on its way out to the Atlantic Ocean. For one of the communities the river is its most important source of water.
“It is possible that the phosphate mine can become a big problem for us. It may affect the water in the river, which already is not very good. The whole region utilises this river – the villages, the farms and industry,” recounted Elton Heidemann in Braço do Norte, one of the communities further downstream.
“The mine is located where our river has its source. If there is an accident, it could damage the whole region,” according to Heidemann, who is the vice-chairman of the local business and industry confederation Associação Empresarial de Braço do Norte.
Saulo Weiss, mayor of Anitápolis, the community where the plant will be located, welcomes the project. He asserts that the large community is sparsely populated and that they need the income that the project will provide.
According to IFC’s web pages, the community will receive 1.65 million Brazilizan reales in yearly income tax from the project.
“The project is important first and foremost to create jobs and income for our community. It has been studied thoroughly. Their product is important for the national economy,” Weiss told Norwatch.
“Today this is a question of the global food crisis. And this is an essential product to remedy the crisis. We understand that this mineral can only be found in a few places, and our population has been waiting for 30 years to start this industry.
“We have observed that the environmental authorities are very strict with regard to authorisations for projects. We also understand that the company and the authorities are not minimising the risk and are preoccupied with ensuring that nothing will occur,” he told Norwatch.
“No Reason for Worry”
Yara claims that the neighbours have no reason to fear a dam collapse.
“No; on the basis of the detailed preliminary studies carried out, there should be no reason for fear. The dam will satisfy strict safety demands set by the authorities, and it has been the object of a comprehensive preliminary study, in which respected professional experts from Brazil have participated. An international independent third party has moreover carried out a review of the project and will inspect the finished plant,” Yara’s Chief Communications Officer, Atle Skredderberget, told Norwatch.