Hydro’s aluminium: yet another case of poisoning the Amazon Rainforest

Approximately 11,000 people, primarily belonging to indigenous communities of Brazil, as well as environmental protection organisations and indigenous rights activists, have taken legal action against the Norwegian company Hydro and its  refinery “Alunorte”, for the devastating bauxite mining (from which aluminium is produced) taking place in the Barcarena region at the Amazon River basin. 

The issue has been known for several years but the legal dispute, as well as the point of view of the locals, have only recently been highlighted in a Bloomberg report titled ‘The Human Cost of Going Green’. According to the report, the increased demand for aluminium is linked to the production of ‘green’ automobiles by companies such as Ford, which purchase this metal from that region. 

The Mining Process

The journalists who conducted the research describe the mining process as follows: firstly, in order to start building a mine, substantial forested areas need to be cleared. Sizeable excavations are then made, and the ore is extracted and transported to nearby processing facilities with ships via the Amazon River. The ore is separated from the soil and other materials in a process which generates significant amounts of toxic waste. The process of separating the ore produces millions of tons of waste ‘bountiful’ in heavy metals which are stored in ponds around the facilities.  From there, the waste seeps into the soil and the river waters, ultimately affecting the local ecosystem as a whole. 

Residents say that nothing can grow on the land where they once cultivated mango trees and other agricultural products that provided them with a living. They also report that there is a significant decrease in river fish populations, which used to be another major source of income for the locals. The situation reached a breaking point after the waste storing ponds overflowed in 2018, following heavy rainfalls that hit the region.

Simone Pereira, a researcher at the Federal University of Para, explains that the waste that ends up in the river waters on a daily basis, includes such a variety of chemical elements that it effectively contains the entire periodic table! These elements impact the entire local ecosystem, the food chain, and ultimately the residents, who have no other way of surviving than to drink and irrigate their crops with this toxic mixture.

Heavy Metals and their impacts on Human Health

The negative impacts of this extensive pollution on human health are evident from medical checks. Of note, most of the locals cannot afford specialised medical tests and have to rely on the basic government-funded health screenings. Nonetheless, most of the locals show high concentrations of heavy metals in their system, in some cases well above the permissible limits. As a result, some experience various health problems, including digestive and respiratory system dysfunctions, while an increase in infant mortality and genetic mutations has also been noted.

Among the demands of the residents in their legal dispute with the Norwegian company is for the latter to bear the cost associated with screenings and medical care of those whose health, living environment and livelihoods have been dramatically affected by mining activities and the subsequent pollution created. 

The main hinderance faced by the legal and scientific teams representing the locals in this battle is the Norwegian company’s refusal to allow access to its facilities, protocols and materials used in the process used to separate minerals. While it is relatively straightforward to prove that the water and soil are contaminated with specific toxic elements, linking them to the company’s mining activities is impossible as the government scandalously allows the company’s officials to deny access to this crucial information. 

Hydro claims compliance with the regulations while Ford claims ignorance

Instead of allowing researchers to determine their ‘innocence’, the mining company Hydro simply claims compliance with all safety and environmental protection regulations. 

On the other hand, Ford, which sources aluminium, initially, and in response to the research published by Bloomberg, denied knowledge of the origin of the raw materials it uses in its production systems, but later committed to conducting its own investigation on the matter. Obviously, it is quite unlikely that a multinational company the size of Ford has no idea under what conditions the raw materials it purchases are produced. 

It is clear that  as intense capitalist competition increases, so will the demand for minerals and thus, this type of destruction will further expand. Recently, Ford has dramatically increased its requirements for aluminium which (as described in the report) is much lighter that the steel used in older vehicle models. This allows electric cars to function using less energy and therefore be more attractive in the rapidly developing global ‘green’ market. 

This new trend poses an additional risk to the environment rather than providing a viable solution to the issue of air pollution. Not only because  ‘green’ vehicle batteries are primarily charged with electricity generated from fossil fuels, but also because the construction of the batteries themselves require the utilisation of large quantities of metals. These metals are primarily mined in African, South American and Asian countries using methods that leave behind irreparable damage to local ecosystems and water sources while causing a dramatic decline in the living standards and overall health of local populations. 

The Amazon Rainforest is in mortal danger 

What is currently happening in Barcarena is just one of the countless examples of mass deforestation, pollution and loss of biodiversity occurring in one of the planet’s most important ecosystems. From multinational food production companies that are clearing forests to plant soybeans and corn for animal feed, to mining operations that poison the soil and water sources in search of gold, bauxite and other minerals, the Amazon and the indigenous communities living around it are in mortal danger. 

International solidarity with the movements defending the Amazon rainforest is becoming increasingly important, as small communities, lacking necessary resources, and often isolated from the rest of the world, find themselves trying to fight against powerful multinational corporations. Solidarity is necessary for more than one reasons: their struggle is not limited to defending the forest, their livelihoods and their way of life but is directly linked to the future of the entire planet. 

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