By Harald Eraker
The accusations against Aracruz Celulose come from residents in Sao Jorge, a thirty minutes drive from the town San Mateus in the northern part of the Brazilian state Espirito Santo. The inhabitants in Sao Jorge are quilombos - descendants of African slaves who were brought to the Brazilian plantations about 200 years ago.
24 people, young and old included, live in Sao Jorge. The families own about 1000 m2 of land, where they live and grow some food for their livelyhood.
Sao Jorge is surrounded by Aracruz Celulose's eucalyptus plantations. But they have a tense relationship with their neighbouring cellulose giant.
- Killed our sons
To NorWatch, the quilombos claim that three of their sons died in 1994 after they had eaten windfallen fruit which was soaked in chemicals that were spilled on the ground from a tank which the Lorentzen-company had placed on their property.
- Without asking us, Cortec, a company which Aracruz had hired, placed a huge tank with chemicals under some of our fruit trees. We were informed that the tank contained the pesticide RoundUp which was to be used on the eucalyptus plantations, but nobody told us whether the chemicals were dangerous. The tank was left there for about a month, and workers came here all the time to fill RoundUp from the tank into their portable atomizers. But while they filled them up, chemicals were spilled onto the ground where the windfall was lying, says Erisvaldo de Jesus.
His son, Wando de Jesus, Wanderson Ayres Valentim and Jerry Adriane Valentim, were 5, 12 and 25 years old when they died in August-September 1994. The families of the boys say that they had stomach pains and headaches, followed by vomiting, after they ate the windfallen fruit. Their conditions worsened, and it did not take long before they were dead.
- I have never experienced anything like this, says 70-year-old Maria Eusebio Valentim.
A fourth boy, the then 14-year-old Edivando Valentim de Jesus, ate the same windfallen fruit and became ill. But his parents say that his mother gave him herbal medicine which saved his life. Edivando is still troubled by headaches and other pains which are related to the poisoning, according to the quilombos. But every time they take him to the doctor, it is rejected that this has anything to do with the incident in 1994.
"About a year after Wando's death, I was looked up by an employee of Aracruz Celulose when I visited San Mateus. He offered me 5,000 rials (approximately 5,000 US$) to stop inquiring about Wando's death. But I refused to take the money. I want to know the truth about my son's death."
Erisvaldo de Jesus, the deceased Wando's father
- After the deaths, two doctors visited us; Dr. Antonio Jose Bassini and Dr. Ericson. They told us that our boys did not die from poisoning, but Dr. Ericson told us that we should move away from here because it is dangerous to live her, says Erisvaldo de Jesus.
The quilombos in Sao Jorge do not trust the doctors' explanations. They say that Dr. Ericson has close ties with Aracruz Celulose, while Dr. Bassini was actually head of the health and security department of the Lorentzen-company at the time.
The families say that their demands for compensation and an independent investigation on the cause of death have been refused. The police, who were urged by the forest workers' trade union (SINTRAL) to come to Sao Jorge, said that there was nothing they could do because they did not have any proof.
The deceased boys' families also tell that they have tried to get lawyers to take the case, but that they did not succeed in this.
Head of environment and information in Aracruz Celulose, Carlos Roxo, confirms that the company was accused of causing the deaths in 1994. But he refuses that the deaths were caused by poisoning by the company's pesticide.
- When we were informed about the allegations, we immediately sent a team of experts to the area, led by Dr. Antonio Jose Bassini, who was head of our health and security department at that time. Their conclusion, which was the same as that of local doctors, was that the cause of death had nothing to do with chemical poisoning, says Roxo.
According to Aracruz Celulose's summary of the boys' death certificates, the two youngest died from acute poisoning. For Wanderson, it was allegedly a case of blood poisoning, and for Wando it was a heart infection and inflammation of the brain. Jerry's cause of death, on the other hand, was pancreas inflammation caused by alcoholism.
"The most interesting document, from a toxicological point of view, is the toxicological report (doc. 4) about Wando Valentin de Jesus. He died on 14 September 1994, the autopsy was carried out on 15 September 1994, and the results of the toxicological analysis were presented the same day, on 15 September 1994. This indicates that the toxicological examination which was carried out was not very comprehensive. In addition, analyses which could have revealed whether glyfosate was present in the samples, were not carried out."
Professor dr. med. Jørg Mørland at the National Institute of Forensic Toxicology
Wanderson's and Wando's families tell us that they do not have their sons' death certificates because the doctor took them. Jerry's mother, however, shows us her son's death certificate. Everybody in Sao Jorge is upset about its conclusion, which says that alcohol abuse is the cause of his death. They strongly refuse that he had alcohol problems.
After the deaths, Wando's father, Erisvaldo de Jesus, tried to discuss his son's death with the Aracruz-doctor Dr. Bassini several times. But he was rejected each time.
- About a year after Wando's death, I was looked up by an employee of Aracruz Celulose when I visited San Mateus. He offered me 5,000 rials (approximately 5,000 US$) to stop inquiring about Wando's death. But I refused to take the money. I want to know the truth about my son's death, says de Jesus.
The quilombos in Sao Jorge are convinced that their sons were poisoned. They do not believe that the chemicals in the tank were not a health hazard.
- If the chemicals were not hazardous, why did the workers wear masks, gloves and covering protective equipment, the quilombos ask.
Trade union leader Esmeraldo from SINTRAL and Marcelo Calavans from the environmental organisation FASE are also critical towards the lack of independent investigations of the deaths, and the Lorentzen-company's role in the case.
After NorWatch's visit to Sao Jorge, they have tried to resume the case. According to Calavans, the local health authorities carried out investigations in connection with the alleged poisoning.
- But when Esmeraldo from SINTRAL recently checked the case with the health authorities, he was told that they no longer had the case documents, says Calavans.
The autopsy reports are missing
Since our visit with the quilombos last spring, NorWatch has tried to find out what documents exist, and what investigations have been carried out in the case. The main point is whether autopsies have been carried out on the quilombo boys.
According to the pathological department of Ullevål Hospital in Oslo, it is impossible to state the cause of death the way it is done in the death certificates which Aracruz Celulose has sent, without carrying out autopsies.
However, after repeated inquiries to Carlos Roxo of the Lorentzen-company, NorWatch has only received the autopsy report of the youngest boy, Wando Valentim de Jesus. According to the report, Wando's cause of death was not chemical poisoning.
NorWatch recently asked the National Institute of Forensic Toxicology (SRI) in Oslo to examine the death certificates and the single autopsy report.
Poisoning cannot be ruled out
Professor dr. med. Jørg Mørland at SRI points out that RoundUp contains glyfosate, which can cause life threatening poisoning if 0.5 ml concentrated glyfosate is consumed per kg. body weight. Mørland continues that even if serious accidental poisoning is considered to be rare, "lethal poisoning of children after accidental consumption of glyfosate has been reported".
Even if the two death certificates and the one autopsy report concludes that poisoning was not the cause of death, they contain, according to Mørland, "factors which are not incompatible with glyfosate poisoning".
SRI's main criticism is that the autopsy report shows that "analyses which could have proven whether glyfosate was present in the samples were not carried out."
Therefore, according to Mørland, based on the documents it can not be ruled out that glyfosate was present. He also points out that the fact that the results of the toxicological analyses were presented on the very same day of the autopsy indicates that they were not very extensive.
"When we were informed about the allegations, we immediately sent a team of experts to the area, led by Dr. Antonio Jose Bassini, who was head of our health and security department at that time. Their conclusion, which was the same as that of local doctors, was that the cause of death had nothing to do with chemical poisoning."
Head of environment and information in Aracruz Celulose, Carlos Roxo
Was the RoundUp tank moved?
According to Mørland, a logical continuation of the case would be to carry out a new analysis of the autopsy material with regard to glyfosate. Ideally, autopsy material from legal documents shall be kept for several years in forensic laboratories.
But, as previously mentioned, NorWatch's contacts in Brasil have been met by closed doors when looking for documentation from the authorities in this case.
In the latest correspondence with Aracruz Celulose concerning the case, Carlos Roxo suddenly claims that the RoundUp tank was only placed in Sao Jorge for one day, not for a month, as the quilombos say. Roxo refers to the company's control books, which allegedly say that the work of spraying the plantations in the area was carried out on 22 June 1994, and was completed at 16.48 hours. Then the tank was moved to another place where it was kept safely.
But NorWatch's request to see the control books is refused on the grounds that they are internal documents which are considered confidential by the company.
Aracruz Celulose in Brazil
Through the holding company Lorentzen Empreendimentos (owned 60% by the Lorentzen family and 20% by DnB), the two Norwegian investors control 28% of the A-shares in Aracruz Celulose S.A., of which Erling Lorentzen is chairman of the board. Storebrand's Environmental Fund has also invested one million US$ in Aracruz Celulose. The company is the world's largest producer of bleached short-fibre cellulose. It controls 200,000 hectares of land, of which 135,000 hectares are planted with fast-growing eucalyptus trees, the raw material in the cellulose production.
Norwatch Newsletter 8/99