An Anniversary to Remember
This month we mark the 15th anniversary of the ground-breaking Global Asbestos Congress 2000: Past, Present and Future [Congresso Mundial do Amianto: Passado, Presente e Futuro] (GAC 2000) which took place over four days (September 17-20, 2000) in Latin Americas asbestos heartland 1
GAC 2000 was held in Osasco, an industrial suburb of São Paulo, a municipality that was for decades the site of Latin Americas largest asbestos-cement industrial complex. Tens of thousands of Brazilians were exposed to asbestos fibers liberated by the operations of the Eternit asbestos factory; many of them died prematurely from asbestos-related diseases. In 1995, members of the workforce in collaboration with Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi decided to form an asbestos victims support group the Associação Brasileira dos Expostos ao Amianto [Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed] (ABREA).
In just a few short years, ABREA grew from a few members to an international force. During the 1999 meeting of the American Public Health Association, one of ABREAs co-founders Fernanda Giannasi suggested holding an event in Osasco to bring together asbestos victims, grassroots campaigners, international experts and people from asbestos-contaminated communities. This idea was revolutionary no one had ever attempted to convene an international meeting of individuals and communities affected by asbestos before. After a year of intense discussions, fund-raising efforts and logistical planning, GAC 2000 became a reality.
(Click here to enlarge picture)
While it is hard to accept that it is now the 15th anniversary of GAC 2000, what is even harder is remembering our friends who have died since then. ABREA members Aldo Vicentin (2008), Ruth Maria Nascimento (2008) and José Jesus Pessoa (the unforgettable Zé da Capa, 2005) and so many others have succumbed to asbestos injuries leaving family and friends to mourn their loss.
Commenting on the significance of GAC 2000, ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza said:
The GAC 2000 in Osasco brought us a new dimension in the struggle to ban asbestos. It was no longer a fight for national or local asbestos bans but a planetary struggle uniting citizens, activists, victims, politicians, unionists, students and common people eager to eliminate the greatest industrial killer of all time. We left the conference stronger and much more confident in our skill to transform an unfair global situation. Definitely, Osasco's meeting marked a sea change. We are sure that we still have a lot to do on this subject but we know that we can do it. Congratulations to all people that made this real and especially IBAS (International Ban Asbestos Secretariat) who believed in this project and remained true to its purpose.
Sugio Furuya, the leader of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, remembers GAC 2000 well:
The Japanese contingent at GAC 2000 was four people: myself, Mr. Fuyushi Nagakura and Drs. Shigeharu Nakachi and Yuji Natori. We were overwhelmed to meet so many asbestos victims, campaigners and global experts in Osasco and for the first time truly understood the nature of the worldwide struggle we were facing. The experience of attending GAC 2000 made us determined to organize a meeting in Japan that would bring this fight to Asia, a part of the world where asbestos use was increasing. We succeeded in doing this four years later and have, ever since, been working throughout Asia to ban asbestos.2
From left: Fuyushi Nagakura, Sugio Furuya, Barry Castleman (US), Dr Shigeharu Nakachi and Dr. Yuji Natori.
Sugio Furuya, at asbestos factory in Hanoi, Vietnam 2014 (photo courtesy of Dr Vu The Long).
Dr. Geoffrey Tweedale, one of Europes most eminent asbestos historians, echoed Mr. Furuyas remarks:
I was impressed by the organisation at the logistical feat of bringing so many individuals together from different parts of the world. Everyone was treated royally by the various hosts. The experience of visiting São Paulo (and later Rio de Janeiro) was uplifting, despite the abject poverty we saw on occasion. It was a different mix from the usual academic conference, which for me also made it notable: a chance to meet, besides academics and health professionals, activists, victims, trades unionists and Fernanda Giannasi, whose commitment and energy were infectious. As usual with big conferences, it was only possible to talk and get to know a relatively small number of the people. But the conference did have one notable outcome. I met Jock McCulloch there (previously we had only corresponded) and we went on to do the global book on asbestos, Defending the Indefensible. The various papers at the conference, which appeared on a CD as I recall, proved very useful to us.3
From the United States, the remarks of Gayla Benefield, from Libby, Montana, who has become something of a legend amongst global ban asbestos campaigners, are poignant. In an interview earlier this month, Gayla recalled her time in Osasco:
My trip to Brazil was instrumental in making the rest of the world aware of what had happened in the USA in the year 2000. In meeting so many people, it became apparent to me that we were not the only ones suffering the effects of asbestos. Each had their story, primarily stating that we as humans had been collateral damage to corporate greed
At the time that I went to Brazil, the locals here didnt understand not even our own doctors. But since then, the CARD Clinic has expanded into research and in the last year, our doctor, Brad Black travelled to Australia on a fact-finding trip and to share our knowledge.
I am now a widow, my husband died of asbestosis in January 2015, retired from activities and Boards; but recently, I have been appointed to a committee within our state to refine the regulation of asbestos and cleanup. It seems to have come full circle. We are finally recognizing within our state the effects of asbestos exposure in homes and workplaces and attempting to bring our own standards up to date. Ironically, Montana was the biggest exporter of tremolite laden products and they finally figured it out! Now, asbestos is as common a word as mesothelioma. I feel that I had a great part in bringing this forth, but anyone could have done it
This summer, four of my five children were diagnosed with asbestos-related disease, but because of my work, there will be treatment and possibly a cure for their generation and future generations to come.
My invitation to come to Brazil gave me the courage to continue my fight. It wasnt just our problem here in Libby, but worldwide. Such a learning experience! I will never forget it or the wonderful people that I met there.
In a touching tribute, South Africas Dr. Sophia Kisting highlighted the hospitality and generosity of the hosts and described the significance of the trip in some detail:
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 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... 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.4
Of paramount importance were the new relationships forged at GAC 2000 between asbestos victims’ activists and trade unionists. One such was an enduring, informal alliance between IBAS and the BWI (Building and Woodworkers International) union. That year the BWI had launched a comprehensive Global Health and Safety Programme that included a new Global Ban Asbestos Campaign, which was to lead to a plethora of initiatives in following years, including: international and regional BWI conferences; training seminars in many different countries; and worldwide petitions and protests, particularly on International Workers Memorial Day each April 28. They had also sent a large delegation to the Osasco Conference. In an interview with Fiona Murie, Global Director Health and Safety and Construction of the BWI, she detailed the input unions had to GAC 2000:
“More than sixty delegates from twenty countries attended the trade union round-table. Unions represented included Brazil's CONTICOM/CUT, CISSOR and FENATEST/CNTC, the Canadian Autoworkers Union, the UK'S General and Municipal Boilermakers' Union, and Italy's CGIL. One delegate commented that this was a classic example of how trade unionists can network internationally in order that real goals could be achieved. General Secretaries of unions discussed with rank and file members practical solutions to this major problem. The trade unionists agreed on a statement that highlighted: the need for a global ban, the role of unions in protecting their members from exposure to asbestos, the role of unions in obtaining compensation for the injured and raising awareness of the asbestos hazard, the need for international links and the importance of a ‘just transition’ policy to protect the income, employment and welfare of workers and communities affected by job losses.
The congress gave the union delegates a profound sense of cohesion as an international labour movement response to asbestos, and of solidarity with the victims’ support groups. The bonds formed between us in Osasco are still uniting us today and, with the ongoing support of the sympathetic experts we met there, we are an unstoppable force that will one day achieve our common goal: an end to the deadly trade in asbestos and to the terrible consequences it inflicts on our people.”
GAC 2000 was inspirational for those of us fortunate enough to have attended it, as can be seen by the comments above. It marked a new beginning of the global campaign to ban asbestos and obtain justice for asbestos victims. For the first time, hundreds of asbestos victims and campaigners from scores of countries met with trade unionists, politicians, doctors and other experts to explore the possibilities for future collaboration.
The worlds first asbestos congress showed us the latent power of the virtual citizens global network; it demonstrated that from diversity comes strength and from decentralization comes ideas. New strategies were born out of the confluence of information and experiences of network members; our tactics continue to evolve in response to the ever-increasing information flow. The pioneering efforts of ABREA and its supporters were fundamental in laying the groundwork which underpins all that has been achieved since GAC 2000. On the anniversary of that historic event, we honor the memories of those murdered by the asbestos profiteers and pay tribute to the vision of the GAC 2000 pioneers.
September 22, 2015
2 Kazan-Allen L. Global Asbestos Congress 2004. February 11, 2005.
3 Agenda and collection of papers from the Global Asbestos Congress 2000.
4 Kisting, S. Beauty, the Wonder and the Solidarity of Osasco 15 years on! September 21, 2015.