Maria do Socorro explains in graphic detail the spate of ailments affecting newborns in her remote community in the Amazon: her grandson died after being born with his intestines outside his body, while others were missing organs or had undeveloped bones.
For the 56-year-old community leader, there is little doubt about the cause of these illnesses. She said the rainforest town had for years suffered from toxic waste pollution from the local operations of Norwegian aluminium producer Norsk Hydro.
Long a simmering environmental scandal in Brazil, the allegations were brought on to the international stage this month when Socorro’s community sued the Norwegian giant in a Dutch court, seeking damages for claims that “the incorrect disposal of toxic waste” from operations in the area had caused a variety of health ailments, polluted the rainforest and destroyed economic opportunities.
“We cannot have future generations because the children are born and then die. Whole families are contaminated,” said Socorro from the Barcarena township in the northern state of Pará.
The case — filed just days before the UK’s top court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell could face legal action in London brought by thousands of Nigerian villagers over alleged pollution — is the latest international trial pitting large, resource-hungry companies against impoverished rural communities.
It also comes amid mounting pressure on companies to abide by strict environmental standards, a push being spearheaded visibly by Scandinavian investors.
“If business can be global, why can’t justice? These companies have businesses everywhere, but then when they do something wrong they want to smother the possibility of people getting compensation,” said Pedro Martins, partner at law firm PGMBM, which is representing 40,000 alleged victims bringing the suit against Norsk Hydro.
“International corporations have different standards for how they do business in the northern and southern hemispheres as if life in the southern hemisphere does not have the same value.”
Through local entities, Norsk Hydro runs three facilities — a bauxite mine, a refinery and a smelter — in Pará, a vast Amazonian state that is a flashpoint for illegal deforestation, gold mining and land-grabbing.
The company said it would respond to the request before the court in the Netherlands, where its subsidiaries controlling the local entities at issue are headquartered. It denied that in 2018 pollutants from its facilities spilled over during heavy rains and polluted nearby rivers and earth. The company declined to comment further.
A source close to the company said, however, that it did “not see the [health] effects that have been claimed. The actual impact is hard to see and there aren’t any studies showing that.”
A combination of poor sanitary conditions and the tropical climate could be behind many of the health issues, he added: “There are a lot of feelings and not so many things relating to actual facts.”
Locals say bauxite, lead and aluminium pollution have turned the region’s rivers red. A study from the Evandro Chagas Institute, a Brazilian public health body, found in 2018 that the region’s waters were so polluted with industrial waste from the Norsk Hydro facilities that they “cannot be used for recreation, fishing, or human consumption”.
Like many Amazonian communities, much of the Barcarena township depends heavily on fishing and farming for survival, work that they now say is impossible.
“I invite these Norwegians to come and bathe in our waters. I challenge them. They have good water there in Norway. Our wealth just goes there,” said Socorro, who heads Cainquiama, a group representing mainly indigenous people and quilombolas — the descendants of runaway slaves.
Nearly all of the claimants in the suit have complained about chronic pain, hair loss and skin conditions. The suit also contains claims in relation to birth defects, such as those that have affected Socorro’s grandson, who was born with gastroschisis — a hole in the abdominal wall.
“Studies around the world have shown the effects [of toxic metals] on pregnant women, foetuses and children at birth,” said Marcelo de Oliveira Lima, a public health researcher at the Chagas institute. “But our studies so far did not go deep enough to show the [connection]. Other studies are still being done.”
The case is a sensitive one for Norwegian investors and the government, which owns a 34 per cent stake in Norsk Hydro. Oslo has long attempted to hold Brasília to account for the environmental destruction of the Amazon, even publishing its own data on deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.
“There seem to be quite some dispute about the facts in this case and in particular about the actual harm of the spill to local environment and whether the company is somehow to blame by neglecting important safety measures,” said Jeanett Bergan, head of responsible investments at the KLP pension fund, Norway’s largest pension provider.
“We know Norsk Hydro as a responsible corporate actor when doing businesses abroad. I do not think [this case] will damage the credibility of Norwegian actors.”
Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here
Martins, the lawyer leading the group action, said they brought the case in the Netherlands because of the inertia of the Brazilian court system. He believes the case can reach a verdict in 18 or 24 months.
Brazil is no stranger to environmental disasters. This month, miner Vale agreed to a $7bn settlement with authorities over a dam breach in 2019 in the Brumadinho township that killed hundreds of people and polluted vast tracts of lands with industrial sludge.
BHP was sued in a British court over a dam failure in Brazil’s Mariana township in 2015 that left 19 dead. The case was thrown out because parallel proceedings were taking place in Brazil.
“The Hydro case draws attention for having caused significant environmental damage,” said Luiz Eduardo Rielli, director of sustainability consultancy Novi. “After three years, what I care most about is: What lessons have been learned? How can we ensure that new damages do not occur?”
Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo and Carolina Pulice in São Paulo