The country's last asbestos mining town needs to move its economy to a stronger footing, as the carcinogen is banned in a growing number of places - can the rare earths needed for a green transition come to the rescue?
* Brazil banned asbestos in 2017 but mining continues for export
* The country's last mine can no longer sustain Minaçu's economy
* Mining company and government urged to support local transition
By Fabio Teixeira
MINAÇU, Brazil, Jan 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the Brazilian town of Minaçu, it used to snow, locals like to tell visitors. But the white powder that covered the streets and roofs from 1967 through the late 1980s was far from harmless snowflakes. It was a dangerous carcinogen: asbestos.
The "snow" is a memory from when the town's chrysotile (white) asbestos mine lacked safety procedures to contain the powder and stop it spreading across the nearby urban area.
To many residents, those were the good old days, when the town of 28,500 in the central state of Goiás thrived and jobs were plentiful at Sama, the company that extracts asbestos from Cana Brava, a mine covering an area almost as large as Minaçu.
Asbestos is a fire-proof fiber used as a building material and in industrial products, but is also well-known as a substance that can cause cancer.
About 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases, the World Health Organization said in a 2014 paper, adding that local levels of asbestos-linked deaths only decline decades after its use ends.
Due to these health risks, asbestos is banned in about 60 countries.
Brazil imposed a ban in 2017, but a state law under dispute in the courts keeps the Cana Brava mine operational.
Minaçu is now at a crossroads. It is home to the last asbestos mine in Brazil - but the mineral no longer sustains the town, which has fallen on hard economic times.
At any point, a court decision could suspend the mining activity, as it did for 16 days last year, or end it for good.
Alongside a recent hiring boom, thanks to the development of a new rare earths mine in the region, some residents believe Minaçu should reinvent itself and move on from asbestos.
For others, without asbestos, the town is over.
"If Sama stops, the town stops," said Joaquim de Souza, 54, who lives near Minaçu's massive hill of asbestos tailings.
Between 1985 and 1991, Souza worked for Sama's contractors, bagging the white powder. Now his son works for Mineração Serra Verde, the rare earths mining company, which plans to provide elements for wind turbines, mobile phones and electric cars.
Souza believes Serra Verde is the future, but would not think twice before allowing his grandson to work at Sama when he grows up.
"There is no danger," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
'MOTHER OF MINAÇU'
After Brazil's Supreme Court ended asbestos use inside the country in 2017, locals protested in T-shirts with the slogan, "We defend chrysotile asbestos", according to Arthur Pires Amaral, an anthropology professor at Catalão Federal University.
Since 2019, when Goiás lawmakers passed a bill allowing continued asbestos mining for export purposes, all production has been shipped abroad.
That law is now being disputed in court by Brazil's National Association of Labor Prosecutors.
Asbestos is interwoven with Minaçu's identity. Businesses, streets, a river and even a government-run clinic are named after chrysotile asbestos - "amianto crisotila" in Portuguese.
Stones filled with asbestos fibers are used to mark key sites such as the town's entrance. Its upscale neighborhood - called Sama Village - has asbestos roofing in every house.
Many refer to Sama - which is owned by building materials company Eternit - as the "mother of Minaçu".
"It is a mother who cares, who feeds," said Amaral, who is due to publish a book on the town in February. "But it is also a perverse mother, who makes people sick, then turns her back on them."
Sama assists any workers who have had health issues due to proven asbestos exposure, Eternit said in a statement issued to the Thomson Reuters Foundation in response to questions.
"There are no reliable statistics on the number of workers exposed to chrysotile fibers who developed lung diseases in Brazil, as a large number of diagnoses proved to be wrong after carrying out a more accurate examination," Eternit added.
When the asbestos industry was strong in Minaçu, Sama funded cultural, religious and sporting events, and was a major political donor in 2012, electoral data shows.
"(Sama) chose the mayors, the councilors - and dominated the church. You had priests and pastors defending asbestos during services," said Amaral.
In Minaçu, it may be taboo to disparage Sama publicly - but thousands have quietly signed settlements with the company.
As far back as 2002, Sama had done more than 3,000 out-of-court deals where it agreed to make pay-outs or provide health insurance to former employees, labor prosecutors claimed in an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2020.
The company is also under fire in legal cases filed by individuals and non-profits, as well as by both federal and labor prosecutors.
Olivia, who asked for her real name not to be used because she fears repercussions from the local community, sued for damages relating to the death of her father, a Sama employee from 1982 to 1994, who died of lung cancer 14 years later.
"Even with a medical report saying (the cancer) was caused by asbestos, justice hasn't been done," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We were able to prove it, but the lawsuit is ongoing."
A Goiás labor court in November ordered Eternit to pay for regular medical exams for all former mine employees for the next 30 years and the medical fees of any worker who develops health issues "likely to be associated with exposure to asbestos".
ABREA, a Brazilian association of people exposed to asbestos, is also suing Sama. Its founder, Fernanda Giannasi, has campaigned against asbestos since 1995 and has seen many of its members die from asbestos-related illnesses, she said.
"When they pass away, for me it's a loss as if it were someone in my family," said Giannasi, a retired labor inspector.
But in Minaçu, many still deny asbestos is harmful.
"Most of the workers there smoked. Then they started to get sick from the cigarettes and accused Sama, (saying) it was asbestos," said Minaçu councilman Wedney Divino de Miranda.
In the first nine months of 2021, Eternit's asbestos exports grew 165% from the same period in 2020, its financial statements show. Of the company's R$833 million ($151.08 million) in net revenue, R$197 million was earned from asbestos.
Sama is the world's third-largest chrysotile asbestos producer and has shipped it to more than 150 countries, the company website says.
Eternit's statement said those countries include the United States, China, Russia, Germany, India, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Brazilian asbestos endangers workers abroad who handle the mineral, said Linda Reinstein, founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a U.S.-based non-profit.
"Most people ... don't understand that exposure and death continue today," she said.
Without a domestic market, Sama no longer generates enough tax revenue or jobs to meet Minaçu's needs, Mayor Carlos Leréia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As a congressman, he was a staunch defender of asbestos. As mayor, he said Sama still has a role to play in the local economy, but Minaçu must also develop other industries like tourism.
Leréia is wary of depending too much on Serra Verde, the rare minerals company, as he believes it will stop generating jobs once the mine is operational.
In its construction phase, the Serra Verde mine has created about 1,600 jobs, its executive vice-president Luciano Borges said during an online presentation last September.
When operational, the mine will employ about 700 people from nearby towns including Minaçu, he added.
Serra Verde declined a request for interview.
Sama, meanwhile, employs about 375 people directly and 60 more through contractors, according to Eternit.
PAYING FOR TRANSITION
Minaçu's situation is not unique. Once a major producer, the Canadian town of Asbestos changed its name in 2020 to move away from the stigma, and is now trying to diversify its economy.
The cost of transitioning to safer and more sustainable economic models should fall on those who profited from asbestos, said Laurie Kazan-Allen of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, a UK-based non-profit.
In Minaçu's case, that means Eternit, the Goiás state authorities and the Brazilian government should help the town chart an alternative future, she said.
Asked how long it plans to keep on exploiting asbestos, Eternit said that would "depend on ongoing lawsuits". In the meantime, it is starting to rebrand as a producer of solar-power roof tiles, saying it considers itself "a sustainable company".
But the solar tiles are not made in Minaçu, meaning they cannot directly replace asbestos employment there.
Kazan-Allen said Eternit should set aside money every year to rehabilitate Minaçu when the time comes.
"It has to be a collective effort, and they have to explore the options. Because sooner or later, the mine will shut down," she said.
($1 = 5.5137 reais)
(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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