Mile after mile on Brazil’s Highway 222 is lined with eucalyptus groves where rain forest once stood. These fast-growing trees are planted to feed the hundreds of charcoal camps that pepper the deforested landscape.
The charcoal is a primary ingredient to make pig iron, a low-grade steel that is used in automobiles and appliances, among other products. Conditions for workers are harsh: toxic smoke, no safety equipment and meager pay, about $20 per day in the camp I visited.
The charcoal is created in clay and brick ovens and then transported via truck to the small village of Pequia, once a beautiful and bucolic place. There it is combined with iron in the massive smelting factories that were built around the village. Pollution is extreme and constant.
The mills operate 24 hours per day. Health problems are chronic among the 100 or so families living there and the river where they play and bathe is polluted. Brazil has found economic prosperity in feeding the appetites of China, India and the United States for natural resources. In fact, 90% of the pig iron made at Pequia is bound for America. But the costs are high for many Brazilians living in the shadow of this economic colossus.