Whats Going on at Brazils Supreme Court?
Brazilians are used to long delays in the litigation process. Asbestos victims, many of who are living on borrowed time, do not have the luxury of waiting for justice to be done and yet, the legal process grinds on exceedingly slowly for some and, for the lucky ones, just a little bit faster.
In tandem with the long struggle for personal justice is the national quest for eliminating the causes of these injuries: the mining, processing and use of asbestos. Asbestos victims, trade unionists, politicians, legal and medical advisors, and civil society activists have campaigned for years to shut down the asbestos industry. The last asbestos mine in Brazil is still in production; under an unconstitutional state law in contravention of a Supreme Court ruling (2017), thousands of tonnes of asbestos are mined and exported every year.
According to the official agenda of the Supreme Court (STF), the case over the illegality of this state law was due to be discussed at the beginning of this month (November 2023). This didnt happen; there was no explanation just an announcement that there had been an indefinite postponement. Kicking this decision into the long grass means that asbestos production at the SAMA mine, owned by Eternit SA, can continue indefinitely.
Campaigners, many of who had been active on the asbestos frontline for decades, were dumbfounded, with Eliezer João de Souza, President of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA), saying:
The question for the STF judges was simple. Having previously agreed that the asbestos industry should be shut down to protect the lives of Brazilian citizens, all they had to resolve was whether the ban would be effective immediately or in a years time. The postponement, which is a decision not to decide, is an unconscionable act. The STF is a revered institution which held firm in the face of insurrectionists supporting former President Bolsonaro. One has to wonder why the Courts bravery failed when confronting the asbestos lobby.1
State Deputy Carlos Mince, second from left, in discussion with ABREA Co-Founder Engineer Fernanda Giannasi at asbestos meeting in Rio de Janeiro on November 7, 2023. Photo courtesy of ABREA.
Echoing the sentiments of ABREAS President, Carlos Minc former Minister of Environment in the Rio de Janeiro State Government and now a State Deputy for Rio de Janeiro is also disheartened by the news from Brasilia saying:
I see with great concern, sadness and revulsion another postponement of the Supreme Court regarding the issue of asbestos mining in Minaçu and also the export of asbestos.
I am the author of the first state banishment law of asbestos, in Rio de Janeiro, which, thanks to the pressure of the workers, began to be fulfilled with the removal of asbestos from the trains of the subway (METRÔ) and the state Petrobras refinery. From the time we proposed our law until the judgment of the Supreme Court in 2017, it was 16 years. The federal law that allowed the controlled use of asbestos had to be declared unconstitutional for state laws to be valid. This victory in the STF was won six years ago.
Now we had one more postponement. It is known that asbestos kills and that it is the biggest cause of occupational cancer in Brazil, but it is permitted for asbestos mining workers to continue to contaminate themselves and for this killer mineral to be exported to other countries to also cause diseases and deaths.
It seems to me that in this case, economic interests outweigh science and health. This issue needs to be clarified by the STF as a matter of priority; this failure of the Court to act will perpetuate diseases and deaths and not the implementation of safer technologies and the provision of safer conditions for workers, both of which are fundamental to secure the human rights not only of Brazilians but also of people wherever Brazilian asbestos is being sent.2
November 13, 2023
1 Email from Eliezer João de Souza. November 7, 2023.
2 Email from Carlos MInc. November 7, 2023.