The Asbestos Institute Attacks Brazilian Campaigner
Canada, the world’s second biggest exporter of chrysotile (white asbestos), has been orchestrating the international campaign in support of asbestos for many years. Federal and state officials have consistently supported by deed and funding the domestic asbestos industry. Working closely with them has been the Asbestos Institute (AI), Quebec a body set up in the mid-1980s to "promote the safe use of asbestos in Canada and throughout the world." The AI has clearly failed to achieve its first objective as more than 95% of the asbestos Canada mines is exported, mostly to developing countries. It seems Canadian asbestos is too toxic for use at home. By some magical transformation, once it flows across the country’s borders, it becomes safe enough to be used in Latin America, the Far East and Asia.
Over the last twelve months, the momentum towards a global ban on asbestos has gathered speed. Some countries, such as Spain and Chile, have banned asbestos during this period, others such as Argentina and Malaysia are leaning towards the possibility of a ban. Until recently, asbestos was not an issue widely debated in India. When the Scientific Committee of the Indian Association of Occupational Health announced its plans for a symposium entitled: Banning Asbestos in India, threats of legal action were received from the Indian Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers’ Association and political pressure was exerted to have the programme changed. To protect the democratic rights of Indian colleagues, scientists, trade unionists, health inspectors, academics, campaigners, journalists and others expressed their concern to the Indian Ambassadors in their countries.
By some unknown route, the letter which was written to His Excellency Sir Shri M.P.M. Menon, the Ambassador of India to Brazil, by Ms. Fernanda Giannasi, a Labour Inspector in Brazil, got into AI hands. It can only be imagined with what glee Denis Hamel, the AI’s Director, received this document. Fernanda is well known internationally for her determination, courage and single-minded pursuit of a global asbestos ban and justice for asbestos victims. Her work and the respect with which she is held internationally resulted in her being made a member of the prestigious Collegium Ramazzini last year. She is a founding member of the Brazilian Asbestos Victims’ Group, the Coordinator of the Citizens’ Virtual Network for an Asbestos Ban in Latin America as well as an inspector for the Sao Paulo Labour Ministry. The AI and its supporters have no reason to love Ms. Giannasi.
On April 23, 2001, Denis Hamel wrote to Francisco Dornelles, Brazil’s Minister of Labour, in a transparent attempt to get Ms. Giannasi fired. He complained that the international chrysotile industry was being harassed by commercially-motivated anti-asbestos groups. He wrote "It has come to our attention that one of your inspectors, Mrs. Fernanda Giannasi… is using her position in your ministry to promote her views, which are, contrary to the state policy of your country. Presenting herself as an inspector for
your ministry, she recently wrote to the Ambassador of India in Brasilia, Sir Shri M.P.M. Menon, asking for his support to promote her views and the Asbestos Ban movement in India."
In fact, what Ms. Giannasi wrote to the Indian Ambassador was: "We are asking Your Excellency for your support in allowing citizens who are fighting for social and environmental justice to freely express themselves, throughout the world, and, in particular, in your country." The penultimate paragraph of Hamel’s letter is particularly revealing: "We wonder if this person (Ms. Giannasi) is officially mandated by your Ministry as a spokesperson on asbestos related matters…. (is it) part of her duties to invite foreign countries, buying Brazilian chrysotile fibres, to follow the European example and prohibit the use of this mineral? If this is not the case, we respectfully request that your ministry take the necessary measures so that Mrs. Giannasi no longer abuses her professional responsibilities to promote her personal activities."
AI officials have been implicated in many dubious exercises: holding spurious pro-chrysotile "scientific conferences," offering free trips plus spending money to foreign journalists who visit Canadian asbestos mines, pushing a Canadian Minister to intercede in the affairs of the Republic of Chile to prevent its President from signing the decree to ban asbestos (AI Director Clement Godbout told Canada’s International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew not to tolerate Chile’s "cavalier" attitude toward Canadian officials). However, this attempt to neutralise Ms. Giannasi, an effective and dedicated civil servant, illustrates what many have long suspected: there are no depths to which the asbestos industry will not sink.
Had this correspondence remained secret, who knows what would have happened? Fortunately, the letter became public. The outrage it stimulated worldwide resulted in an avalanche of letters, emails and faxes to Senor Dornelles. Michael Clapham, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, wrote to the Minister from London denouncing the AI’s "disgraceful act" and supporting Inspector Giannasi who "gained great respect not only for herself but for the work of the inspectorate in Brazil generally" when she spoke at a the House of Commons in 1998. Dr T K Joshi, Director of The Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health in New Delhi, India wrote: "Our colleague Fernanda Giannasi is doing just the type of work in fighting against asbestos, as any civilized right thinking person will. I would like to compliment your nation for having such a conscientious crusader for a righteous cause." Bob Ruers, a Member of the Senate of the State General of the Netherlands, told the Minister: "In my opinion the allegations made by the Canadian asbestos industry, organised by the Asbestos Institute, against Fernanda Giannasi are absolutely false and unfounded… We think she deserves everybody’s respect and admiration." From the United States, a letter arrived signed by ten professors, associate professors and doctors amongst which were The Director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, N.Y. and the Medical Director of the Mount Sinai - I.J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. This letter said: "We in the international
occupational health community hold Ms. Giannasi in very high regard for her enormous dedication to occupational health and to the protection of the Brazilian people from needless occupational hazards." Dr Philip J. Landrigan, the President of the Collegium Ramazzini, wrote: "Fernanda Giannasi has the courage and integrity to speak out on behalf of millions of workers throughout the world. We stand with her in her efforts to stem the epidemic of asbestos cancer that is sweeping the world." Communications were also received from Denmark, Belgium, Italy, England, Switzerland, Scotland, Croatia. A petition in support of Fernanda was signed by 100 delegates to the June 16 annual meeting of the French Asbestos Victims Group in Paris. On June 26, 2001 Early Day Motion Number 33 was signed by Members of Parliament which stated: "That this House is most concerned to learn that the Asbestos Institute of Canada, an organisation that promotes the Canadian asbestos industry… should write to the Brazilian Minister of Labour alleging that anti-asbestos campaigners are motivated by a commercial interest in its substitution, and specifically denouncing the work of Fernando (sic) Giannasi, a Brazilian labour inspector who has given evidence world wide to trade unions and community groups campaigning for an asbestos ban."
As of today, Ms. Giannasi is still hard at work in Sao Paulo. This year she has been nominated as Woman of the Year in Brazil.
September 27, 2001