The Beauty, the Wonder and the Solidarity of Osasco 15 years on!
It is 15 years since that most dramatic gathering in Osasco, Brazil where asbestos workers and their families as well as asbestos activists, concerned government members, asbestos researchers and care givers came to share their life experiences. Participants from at least 30 different countries shared unbelievable stories of pain and suffering inflicted on workers and their families by international and local asbestos companies. These companies, often supported by governments, as was the case in apartheid South Africa, valued profit above basic human rights and above the equality of all human beings by treating the health and safety as well as the compensation of workers in developing countries to be of lesser importance. Amazingly, through a spirit of common humanity and in support of international solidarity people from developed and developing countries came together to enable access to social justice for asbestos exposed workers and communities.
For us in South Africa it was most uplifting to be hosted so graciously by the people of Brazil. Under the capable leadership and coordination of Fernanda Giannasi from Brazil and Laurie Kazan Allen from the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat the participation of several South Africans in this first global asbestos event in Brazil was made possible. For South Africans, just about six years into our change from the cruel divisions of apartheid, it was a glimpse of the possibilities of a constitutional democracy to help redress the crippling inequalities and divisions of the past. Those affected by asbestos from different countries could share their life stories and hopes for a better world for their children.
What an amazing opportunity the people of Brazil and the international caring community presented to South Africa, just emerging from the ravages imposed by the heinous system of apartheid which the world classified as a crime against humanity. Our new Parliament under President Nelson Mandela had organised the first ever parliamentary asbestos summit in 1998 and we nurtured hopes for social justice and an end to asbestos exposure. The 1998 Summit brought together communities from all over South Africa affected by exposure to different types of asbestos. South Africa is the only country to have mined all three commercial types of asbestos: crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and chrysotile (white) asbestos.
Asbestos is now a banned substance in South Africa. However, the destructive legacy left by the asbestos mining companies, the extensive use of asbestos in homes, schools and public buildings as well as intense environmental contamination of huge tracts of land is still borne mostly by poor rural communities.
The visit to Osasco in 2000 provided an opportunity for South Africans to not only exhibit photographs revealing an epidemic of asbestos diseases amongst people exploited by foreign and local companies but also for them to share real life stories of workers and families who worked at asbestos mines in South Africa. They could express their hopes for an asbestos free future for their children and the fears of developing asbestos diseases they carried throughout their lives. They could share their experiences openly because they were amongst workers and families who themselves were exposed and knew the risks understood what they were going through. Amongst the most poignant moments of the Osasco Conference was when Brazilian and South African asbestos mine workers shared their experiences and the pain of having lost loved ones and fellow workers to diseases that many of them knew they already carried in their lungs.
I had the opportunity in October 2014 to visit and interview community members exposed to environmental contamination by crocidolite asbestos. They were used to seeing fellow community members who worked in the mines die of the fast cancer, but were now witnessing young people who had not worked in the mines dying from that same cancer.
Fearing for their children, they are now organising to find ways to protect them from the fast cancer. It is abundantly clear that our international solidarity, our south-south collaboration and our north-south collaboration must continue and be strengthened to enable us to address the ongoing challenges presented by the hazard of asbestos and teach us to work for a more equal, more just and sustainable world.
We would like to once again express our deep appreciation for having had the opportunity to be part of the wonder of Osasco and it remains our fervent wish to host at a future date a similar meeting here in South Africa with local and international support.
With the asbestos workers of Osasco and those who participated in Osasco we echo: Venceremos. Obrigada. We shall overcome. Thank you.
September 21, 2015
1 Dr. Kisting is the Executive Director of the National Institute for Occupational Health, Johannesburg, South Africa.