Please help

Despite the known risks, Shell opened a chemical plant in Brazil. The effects were dramatic. What can Shell do to help the victims?

Jurriaan Kamp and Tijn Touber | March 2003 issue
A story about the global economy. It begins 50 years ago after World War Two. The chemical industry is quickly making one discovery after another – artificial fertiliser, pesticides – that will ‘put an end to world hunger forever’. The chemical sector is at the root of an encouraging green revolution. Shell plays a leading role in the production of aldrin, endrin and dieldrin. The first protests in the 1960s from the incipient environmental movement are aimed at these extremely toxic chemicals. The United States quickly bans production in 1970. The Netherlands and European Community follow ten years later.
While the so-called ‘drins’ are a topic of discussion in Europe and the U.S., Shell opens a factory to produce these chemicals in Brazil. In 1990 Brazil also bans the production of this agricultural poison. But that’s not the end of the story. Aldrin, endrin and dieldrin belong to the ‘dirty dozen’, the 12 most poisonous chemicals that are accumulating in the food chain and will continue to pollute the environment for at least 100 years to come, because they do not decompose. Small amounts of these chemicals disrupt the ability of fish to reproduce. Birds die and people contract nerve disorders, hormonal disturbances and cancer. In other words, even when production stops, the health threat remains.
On the grounds of the Shell factory in Paulinia, 120 kilometres north-west of São Paulo, these poisonous chemicals have leaked into the soil and the ground water. Ten years ago, Shell informed the town of Paulinia that the soil around the factory was polluted. The authorities did nothing. They waited until 2001, 15 years after the contamination began, to tell the townspeople that the soil and ground water were polluted. Since then, Shell has been delivering drinking water in tanks to the some 300 families, most of them farmers, living in the polluted area. Fresh vegetables are also delivered daily and Shell has promised to clean up the polluted soil.
Is that the end of a sad story? Unfortunately not. While Shell does accept responsibility for the pollution, it also says that it has not been established whether it poses a threat to the health of the inhabitants of the area around the factory. ‘If there is proof that our products have caused harm then we will immediately take responsibility for it. That is our global policy,’ a Shell official said. The message is clear, but the catch is the word ‘proof’. Shell has conducted blood tests among the inhabitants. According to the oil giant, the levels of toxins present in their blood are not harmful. Other tests show quite the opposite.
Meanwhile, a lot of people are sick. Cancerous growths, lung diseases, intestinal disorders, children with neurological defects leading to learning disabilities. Prove that these problems are the result of the poison.
Cases involving this type of liability can be tied up in court for years. And it is clear who will pay the price of a legal battle: 300 poor and sick Brazilian families. People who need medical help now, not later.
January 2003. We meet with the representatives of the 300 families in Porto Alegre, Brazil. They have come to the World Social Forum – a 1,500 kilometre bus trip – seeking recognition for their plight. These farmers do not speak English. A representative of an environmental group translates their story. Their scrapbook reflects the back and forth discussion regarding their health. The proud men are resolved to fight for their families. They want to move and they want compensation for their medical expenses so they can seek treatment.
In the meantime, Shell and the local authorities are holding talks to establish the level of damages. Involvement in this case is not limited to Brazil. There are also people at Shell’s head office in The Hague and in several laboratories working on the case. Discussions with Shell have revealed that the company is truly concerned about the issue. But the will to help the families involved also creates a dilemma that well illustrates the injustice that has crept into international relations.
Shell first wants to study and establish the facts. Only then, based on those facts, should liability be determined. As a spokesman puts it: ‘We are not arguing that there is a problem, but we want to establish exactly what the problem is and how it affects those involved.’ A fair and understandable stance. Shell is active in many countries. If the multinational accepts liability before the inquiry and any legal procedures have been completed, it could trigger a possible avalanche of claims that might even topple a giant like Shell. That reality restricts Shell’s goodwill.
It is a familiar story in the world economy. Individuals – often poor people in developing countries – suffer the damaging effects of the dealings of large, multinational corporations. Then the often logical legal proceedings that follow, stand in the way of a fast, adequate reaction to those effects. How often does this type of thing happen? It’s enough to drive one to despair. Could it change? And would this involve international agreements and treaties?
After our discussion, the two farmers walk away and we continue to talk with the representative of the environmental group. Suddenly one of the two men turns, his eyes penetrating, as he utters the only two English words he knows: Please help.
To be continued…

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