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Refinaria Presidente Bernardes “Vale da Morte”, Cubatão, São Paulo, Brazil

In the late 1950s, the Brazilian government created an industrial center. Companies were invited to build factories without environmental restrictions. Due to this, Cubatão became one of the most polluted areas in the world.


During the 1960s, the municipality of Cubatão (São Paulo) developed into an important industrial park, mostly prompted by a strategically appealing location and the inauguration of Petrobrás “Presidente Artur Bernardes” oil refinery in 1955. The development of the industrial park, composed mostly by  metal and petrochemical companies, did not follow any sort of planning and norms, which led to an uncontrollable spread of contamination sources among the population and the surrounding Atlantic Forest and mangrove ecosystems. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Refinaria Presidente Bernardes “Vale da Morte”, Cubatão, São Paulo, Brazil
State or province: São Paulo
Location of conflict:Cubatão
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Mineral processing
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Chemical industries
Manufacturing activities
Oil and gas refining
Other industries
Specific commodities:Chemical products
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Em 1977, a emissão de componentes químicos tóxicos como monóxido de carbono, benzeno, óxidos de enxofre e nitrogênio, hidrocarbonetos e material particulado (partículas de poluentes suspensas no ar) liberados em Cubatão ultrapassava mil toneladas por dia. [1]

Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:600,000 -800,000
Start of the conflict:1970
Company names or state enterprises:Petróleo Brasileiro S.A (PETROBRAS) from Brazil - owner
Rhodia from France
Relevant government actors:The State’s Environmental Council; CETESB, Companhia Ambiental do Estado de São Paulo; ACPO, Associação de Combate aos Poluentes; CONSEMA, Conselho Estadual do Meio Ambiente.
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:“Associação das Vítimas de Poluição e das Más Condições de Vida de Cubatão” (AVPMCVC) (The Association of Contamination Victims and Inadequate Life Conditions of Cubatão);
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Trade unions
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Groundwater pollution or depletion, Global warming
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths
Potential: Accidents, Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Since the more critical years in the 1980s, pollution levels diminished significantly in Cubatão and with it, the danger for the population and the ecosystem. Nonetheless, current levels of air contaminants still pose some health threats: they are acceptable, though not the desired. At the same time, companies stall or directly avoid assuming urgent decontamination processes and taking responsibility for affected workers and population. Even when fined by a court, the companies often find ways to avoid payment by appealing these decisions. Finally, there’s the risk of new accidents which, together with the lack of accountability on security and decontamination measures, poses a considerable problem to the city’s inhabitants. Even if the situation has improved, the population is still far from seeing justice done.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

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A gestão ambiental do pólo industrial de Cubatão a partir do programa de controle da poluição iniciado em 1983: atores, instrumentos e indicadore
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Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Eles cresceram sob chuva ácida e hoje lutam como engenheiros pelo meio ambiente
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Mais de 3 décadas após ‘Vale da Morte’, Cubatão volta a lutar contra alta na poluição
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Cetesb aplica nova multa na empresa Rhodia de Cubatão
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Funcionários da Rhodia-Cubatão sofrem com negligência
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24 empresas são condenadas por poluir Cubatão
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“Vale da Morte” foi o símbolo de Cubatão
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Petrobrás deve pagar R$ 322 milhões por vazamento de óleo na Serra do Mar
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[1] BBC News Brasil - Mais de 3 décadas após ‘Vale da Morte’, Cubatão volta a lutar contra alta na poluição

Camilla Costa

10 março 2017
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A história da poluição em Cubatão e como a cidade deixou de ser o “Vale da Morte”
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Moradores de Cubatão temem se tornar as próximas vítimas da Vale
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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

VLI - Terminal Integrador Portuário Luiz Antonio Mesquita
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Cubatão – muito a se fazer
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Meta information
Contributor:ENVJustice Project
Last update01/04/2020
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