Fighting Vale and corporate capture in Brazil
Brazilian community lawyer Tchenna Maso talks about the challenges in taking on multinational corporations — and some of the victories along the way.
Tchenna Maso is a community lawyer and a member of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), a grassroots movement made up of affected communities leading struggles against mining operations and giant hydroelectric projects. She is also active in the the farmers movement, La Via Campesina, that fights for peasant rights and the rights of landless people in Brazil.
What experience do you have of working to challenge corporations?
In Brazil, we have been deeply affected by corporations. Our communities were strongly impacted by the privatisation of the electric sector, the increased role of private water firms such as Suez, and the building of dams by corporations. That is why MAB was created. Our focus on energy led to work on mining and struggle against giant mining firms such as Brazilian firm Vale and British-Australian BHP. They not only consume huge amounts of energy, they have also been responsible for terrible environmental disasters, such as the collapse of two dams storing toxic waste water in Mariana (2015) and Brumadinho (2019) which killed 270 people and displaced more than a million people. Similarly in my work with La Via Campesino, we are up against corporations such as Bayer and Monsanto. Corporations in Brazil shape everything - labour rights, public politics, poverty, access to land, even violence against women.
As an organizer, I work primarily with affected communities as the struggle for their rights. Our goal is to hold corporations to account and to support the realisation of the human rights of communities. This involves education on the corporation’s role, what rights people and communities have under the constitution, what the state owes to them. So in the case of Vale, we support them as they demand their rights from state bodies such as the Auditor, People’s Defender (Defensor del Pueblo) and Congress. It also involves education among the broader public, who know very little about how the concentration of power has not just led to terrible social and environmental abuses but also increase in prices.
This January , we won a significant victory against Vale, when the State Prosecutor's office of Minas Gerais charged 15 people with murder for the Brumadinho disaster. This was a very important decision because it also charges top directors of the Vale company and other companies involved in their operations, including the industry auditor and certifier Tüv Süd. This decision is a result of MAB resolving not to allow history to be repeated after the impunity of the case of Mariana.
What have you learnt about the nature of the corporation?
The biggest challenge as I have worked to challenge Vale and BHP is that there is no information over their financing or operations and no state control. So Vale is supposedly a Brazilian firm, but no-one outside the firm knows who all the investors are, how the corporation is structured through all their intermediaries, or all the work they are involved in. It’s not just communities who don’t know, government don’t know, not even the investors know what they are invested in. Corporations have become financialised and increasingly impermeable to pressure. That is why they are so difficult to challenge.
Vale is emblematic. It was a state firm, sold in 1994 to international capital. It used to be know for having a good reputation and good pay for workers. It was sold cheaply to banks such as Brudesco and then increasingly sold onto international investors. By the early 2000s, it was completely financialised, so we don’t even know who their directors let alone how to contact them. It is predominantly owned by about 400 investors including pension funds in New York stock exchange.
As it became more financialised, it moved into new mining areas, outsourced lots of work to subsidiaries and made working conditions increasingly precarious. But it is a corporation without a clear public face.
Why do they have so much power in Brazil and elsewhere?
In the past states ruled and corporations were subjects, but the capitalist model has concentrated power economically so corporations have now captured the state. The state has become managed by corporations, so Vale is now involved in governing Brazil. They don’t just control government but also our public space, our thinking, our emotions, our social networks. So while we do our best to expose the scandal of the Brumadinho disaster, Vale is spending millions advertising on TV to say everything is fine. And with a lack of critical education, a reduction in key community spaces such as unions or community organisations and with most folk having to work more than 8 hours a day for very little, we don’t have the arena or resources to show an alternative.
How do corporations exercise power?
In the case of Vale, at the same time as it became financialised, it also got more involved politically. In the state of Minas Gerais, they finance 60% of the political representatives. They also have great relations with members of the Supreme Court and the judicial system. And municipalities without alternatives are forced to turn to them for funding. They also have limitless money for propaganda nand have become one of the key sources of cultural funding such as concets, arts. They even have their own culture programme.
And within the company and its workers, they also wield influence in many regions, selling an idea that they are a family. Given that the costs of its operations are normally felt in other regions of the country, their workers do not always see the costs and don’t want to believe it either. Of course in regions where contamination is taking place, communities are much more combative.
What have been the best techniques or strategies for confronting corporate power and impunity?
The most effective strategy is to organise communities and with that collective power to build effective alliances with media, other organisations, political deputies, the People’s Defender (defensor del pueblo). These alliances have been key to create pressure on the judicial system to act efficiently and quickly, as we saw with the recent Public Prosecutor’s office charges being made in the week of the one year anniversary of the crime of Brumadinho.
The challenges is that while this can win victories, it does not fundamentally challenge the power of the corporations. They have the capacity to appropriate the struggles and continue winning.
This is what has happened with the struggle for compensation for the Brumadinho and Mariana disasters for example. While eventually we secured compensation, the companies put many obstacles in the way and worse of all have taken control of the distribution of resources, which means that the affected families are now dependent on them and thus coopted and demobilised. Without a strong state, it was left to the company to deliver on its own obligations.
It’s why it is critical to link our struggles with others at an international level, to work together and explore new forms of struggle against an architecture of impunity. The campaign for a Binding Treaty for example has been critical in bringing organisations together internationally and showing through our different experiences how states are not in the service of people. Even if the balance of forces is currently against us, the experience is pedagogic - it is building knowledge, relationships, articulations that will persevere.
We need to do more though - to build joint activities and unity that can really challenge the power of these corporations.
It also means effective work communications-wise to show why corporations are not just committing violations but also do not provide functioning services such as water and are affecting our very health. People cannot deny that corporate services are failing to deliver on their promises. And people are shocked when they learn about the health impacts of mining, agroindustry and so on.
What do you think should be the future of the corporation?
I do not believe it is possible to have a good transnational corporation. The model doesn’t work. All it does is concentrate power in fewer and fewer hands, and this is creating a crisis for our planet and for democracy and allowing a new wave of fascist leaders to come to power.
We have to look at alternatives. There are lots of different models that integrate autonomy, sovereignty and exchange for producing our food and other resources. Within MAB, we are working on alternative models. For example in our ‘Veredas Sol e Lares’ project in the very poor rural region of Vale do Jequitinhonha, we are working on a solar project to serve people displaced by a hydroelectric project who don’t have their own access to energy.
Most of all, we must use our imagination to show that different paths to development are possible. It is not the end of history, we must fight to define our history and address the profound challenges ahead of us; the climate crisis, the possibility of a new war, social distraction, a crisis of democracy. We need a new politics of life.