(Tierramérica) – Brazilian and international environmental organisations and peasant farmer movements are taking aim at the forestry industry once again, this time accusing transnational corporation Stora Enso of illegally profiting from the production of wood pulp in the state of Bahia.
The accusations specifically target Veracel Celulosa, a joint venture between “two international leaders in the pulp and paper market” according to the company website – namely Brazil’s Fibria and the Swedish-Finnish forestry giant Stora Enso – which began industrial operations in the municipality of Eunápolis, in the south of the eastern state of Bahia, in 2005.
Veracel owns tree plantations in 10 municipalities in southern Bahia, a pulp mill, and its own port.
The organisations behind the accusations – the Center for Studies and Research for the Development of Southern Bahia (CEPEDES), Friends of the Earth International and the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), among others – maintain that Veracel’s violations of Brazilian law include common crimes, environmental crimes and labor law violations.
Since setting up operations in the region, the company has been guilty of infractions ranging “from environmental crimes to tax evasion, forgery of documents, and corruption of public servants, among others,” MST activist Marcelo Durão Fernandes told Tierramérica.
Women members of the MST organise frequent demonstrations and occupations of the company’s properties.
The Brazilian Public Ministry, an autonomous agency of federal public prosecutors, and the national environmental authority IBAMA have imposed fines on Veracel for the pollution of rivers and streams, stemming from the use of toxic agrochemicals, particularly herbicides, said Fernandes.
The MST leader blamed the intensive planting of eucalyptus trees for the depletion of water sources, erosion, and the rapid deforestation of the Mata Atlântica or Atlantic Forest, the vast forest biome that once stretched along the entire Atlantic coast and has now been reduced to seven percent of its original size after centuries of agriculture and livestock activities and urbanisation.
Veracel has also been denounced for establishing plantations in areas of high environmental risk, such as hills, riverbanks and conservation areas, as well as indigenous territories.
In addition, the company is accused of failing to respect the rights of workers. Over the last few years, more than 850 lawsuits have been filed against Veracel and its subcontractors in the labor court of Eunápolis, according to a statement issued by a group of non-governmental organisations on Apr. 21, the day after the Stora Enso general shareholders assembly in Helsinki.
The greatest expansion in tree plantations has taken place in the eastern states of Bahia and Espírito Santo and the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. According to 2009 figures, there were two million hectares of land in Brazil devoted to growing trees specifically for pulp and paper production, and exports in the sector totaled five billion dollars.
In 2008, the state public prosecutor’s office in Bahia called for the environmental permits granted to Veracel to plant eucalyptus trees to be revoked.
Eunápolis public prosecutor João da Silva Neto accused the company of obtaining the permits through “illicit means, from the corruption of officials from the licensing bodies to paying bribes to mayors and council members.”
The company was subsequently fined and ordered to remove the eucalyptus trees on plantations located in four different municipalities in Bahia, and to replace them with tree species native to the Atlantic Forest.
Legal proceedings have continued since that time.
According to Ivonete Gonçalves of CEPEDES, there are vast tracts of monoculture eucalyptus plantations established without environmental permits, which have led to the loss of biodiversity and the expulsion of thousands of peasant farmers from the region.
These factors have contributed to greater food insecurity, stressed Fernandes. As monoculture plantations of crops like soybeans, sugar cane and eucalyptus trees continue to expand in Brazil, there is increasingly less land available to grow staple food crops like rice, beans and cassava, he explained.
Gonçalves pointed to official census data and figures from the Union of Rural Workers of Eunápolis, which show that in 2002, there were eight crops grown in the region which provided jobs for around 30,000 people.
Today, Veracel, “which has taken over almost all of the arable land, employs 400 workers directly and another 2,500 indirectly, through subcontractors,” she said.
According to the company itself, in the 10 municipalities where it operates, Veracel occupies 6.1 percent of the total land area. In 2007, barely 5.3 percent of the land in these municipalities was used to grow food, it claims, adding that the most common use of land is for livestock raising, which accounts for 46.6 percent.
“Of all the land bought by Veracel, around 97 percent was used for cattle raising,” Veracel communications coordinator Débora Jorge stated in an email response.
Veracel ensures that “for every hectare planted with eucalyptus, we maintain one hectare protected, which represents almost 105,000 hectares in a state of protection,” she continued.
The company “does not deforest, and even respects a commitment not to plant in areas where native vegetation has been identified in primary forests or forests in a medium or advanced state of regeneration,” she added.
The Atlantic Forest Programme, created by the company in 1994, established a target in 2004 to restore 400 hectares of forest a year. By the end of 2010, 4,000 hectares had already been recovered, according to Jorge.
Veracel insists that it only uses chemical products that are duly authorised, and that through “modern integrated management of pests and diseases” it applies products with a low level of toxicity on a localised and specific basis.
Regarding the effects of eucalyptus on the water supply, “studies by the Forestry Research Institute of the Brazilian Silviculture Society show that eucalyptus plantations, when managed properly, consume the same amount of water as native forests,” said Jorge.
Although Veracel’s activities may have caused some people to move away from the region, official census figures “do not demonstrate a real shift of the population from the country to the cities,” she stated.
In terms of labor law infractions, Jorge noted that up until September 2010, complaints had been filed by 175 Veracel employees, while the other 766 corresponded to workers employed by companies that provide services to Veracel. The company itself was only designated as jointly responsible when the employers ordered to pay the workers did not fulfill their obligations, she added.
For her part, Gonçalves posed the question of who actually benefits from Veracel’s activities in Brazil. “That handful of workers and the politicians? Who are the real beneficiaries? Without a doubt, the Swedes and the Finns,” she said.
The pulp produced and 60 percent of the profits are sent abroad, and “we are left with the environmental liabilities of industrial monoculture plantations and the impoverishment of southern Bahia,” national MST leader João Pedro Stédile commented to Tierramérica.