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Brazilian Farmers and Finnish Workers Push Back Against Mega-Forestry Firm

Displaced Finnish factory workers and landless peasants in Brazil have become unlikely allies in a struggle for livelihoods.
 
 
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Displaced Finnish factory workers and landless peasants in Brazil have become unlikely allies in a struggle for livelihoods. They are both fighting the Finnish-Swedish forestry giant Stora Enso.

Stora Enso has acquired 2,500 hectares of land in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the south of Brazil, reportedly to cultivate fast-growing eucalyptus trees for paper production. This will force out peasant farmers from their land, thereby jeopardizing food production, campaigners say.

The company is also at the receiving end of public anger in Finland after it closed down a pulp factory this year. The company laid off 200 workers in the small northern Finnish city Kemijärvi.

Brazilian land rights activists say Stora Enso will exacerbate food insecurity because it plans to divert agricultural land to cultivating eucalyptus.

"With the global rise in food prices, the use of land for cultivating monocultures and soy for cattle is counterproductive," Ulysses Campos, coordinator of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil told IPS on a visit to Finland.

"The Brazilian government is to a large extent an accomplice in spreading the cultivation of monoculture plantations, but they are selling it as if eucalyptus would be something very good for the Brazilian economy," he said.

MST says that Stora Enso is currently in violation of a 29-year-old law that forbids foreign companies from owning land within 150 kilometers of Brazil's border. The area in Rio Grande do Sul where the company is said to have acquired the land is close to Uruguay.

In order to circumvent the law, Campos said Stora Enso has set up proxy companies in Brazil which then acquire the land for Stora Enso. One of the companies, he said, is Azenglever Agropecuária.

Ulla Paajanen-Sainio, vice-president for investor relations and financial communications at Stora Enso denied that Stora Enso is doing anything illegal.

"It is not our view that we have done anything illegal, and we are relying on Brazilian legal advice to proceed further with this," she told IPS. Azenglever Agropecuária, she said, is owned by two Brazilians who are local employees of Stora Enso. She said the Finnish-Swedish company is providing the equity.

But Stora Enso, she said, has no formal ties to the Brazilian company. "In any case, after acquiring the land, permission is required from the local authorities as to whether we can start using the land for the purpose for which it was acquired."

Stora Enso has not yet taken a decision on whether the land acquired in Rio Grand de Sul would be used to plant eucalyptus or some other species, Paajanen-Sainio said.

This position has not pacified campaigners.

"Even if Stora Enso were operating legally in Brazil, we would still be opposed to it because the logic of taking away land from food production for monoculture plantations is illegal and immoral," said Campos.

Paajanen-Sainio dismissed the charge, saying that agricultural land in Brazil far exceeds that for plantations.

In March this year 900 land rights activists of the rights group Via Campesina, mainly women, occupied Taruma estate to protest against acquisition of land by the company. They were forcibly removed by local police.

According to Campos, Stora Enso is negotiating with the Brazilian government to acquire 10,000 more hectares in the area for cultivating eucalyptus.

One adverse consequence of planting eucalyptus is that it enhances ownership in the hands of a few because companies usually buy large tracts of land, Campos said. Eucalyptus cultivation also involves the use of large quantities of chemicals which pollute water sources in the area, he said.

According to Campos, the area where Stora Enso is operating has enormous underground water reserves, with the potential of providing water for the country for the next 300 years.

But since eucalyptus trees consume a large amount of water -- a single tree consumes about 30 litres a day -- there is fear that if allowed to advance, eucalyptus plantations would deplete ground water resources.

Stora Enso has run into other issues back home.

The government, which owns a majority 37 percent share of the company, refused to intervene when the management announced closure of the Kemjärvi pulp factory earlier this year.

"Unfortunately there is now a right-wing government in Finland, and its policy has been to not intervene in state-owned companies," said Juha Pikkarainen, leader of Massaliike, a group of displaced factory workers formed to oppose closure of the Kemijärvi pulp factory.

More than 100 workers who have not moved to other factories elsewhere in the south of Finland to look for jobs will remain unemployed, Pikkarainen told IPS.

"But the biggest losers are forest owners in the area who can no longer have a market for their timber. Millions of euros sacrificed in forestry investment go down the drain," he said.

 
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