The city of Cubatão', in São Paulo State, Brazil, was castigated in the country’s press in the late 1970s as the “valley of death” because of the extreme industrial pollution of its water, air, and soils that had occurred under decades of military dictatorship. Poor people lived in the midst of toxic waste dumps in an area also prone to natural disasters. In 1983 the state environmental protection agency (CETESB) initiated a pollution control program that significantly reduced pollution levels in less than 10 years. The agency managed to challenge the privileged position of entrenched industrial interests and make industrialists bear most of the costs of pollution control.
How was this achieved? A citizens’ association of “victims of pollution and bad living conditions” (APVM) focused the public debate on the human toll of pollution and attracted widespread support for reform. While the program was advanced by high-level support for environmental improvement in the state government and aided by international opinion, three changes at the national level in the early 1980s were key: the transition to democracy that allowed the emergence of independent social activism, free elections at the state level, and the elimination of media censorship.
In executing the program, CETESB relied on a suitable legislative framework and its status as the only agency with both the mandate and expertise for pollution control in the state. Still, the environmental clean-up of Cubatão was possible only after changes in the political rules of the game meant that progressive bureaucrats could ally with informed citizens to challenge the powerful economic elite that had stymied previous reform efforts. The experience of APVM forged a collective identity among victimized residents that moved them to act and set new terms for a collaborative relationship between the citizens and economic powers of the city.