By Laura Madden, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Vale is the world’s largest producer of iron ore, and the second largest mining company in the world, and along with Petrobras, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro. On January 30th a fourth Vale Canada worker died within twelve months, prompting Vale to temporarily close all seven of its nickel mines in Sudbury, Ontario.
This just after on January 27th, Vale received the critical Public Eye award from The Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland, a dubious distinction it will share this year with Barclay’s Bank.
The NGOs cited human rights abuses, inhumane working conditions and the ruthless exploitation of nature. In rebuttal, Vale launched the website Vale Esclarece (Vale Clarifies).
It has been a tough few months with the maiden voyage of its Vale Beijing being halted due to cracks in the hull discovered while off the coast of Maranhão state. Heavy rains have also caused the company to lose about twenty percent of its January output of iron ore according to a Bloomberg report.
The Brazilian government then slapped Vale with “unfavorable rulings” on R$9.8 billion (US$5.5 billion) in unpaid taxes. While a huge number, the mining giant that employs approximately 130,000 people worldwide, lists an estimated R$106.5 billion (US$60.8 billion) in 2011 revenue.
“The profit margins of mining increased substantially in recent years, mainly driven by China’s growth,” says Ricardo Luiz Martins Soares, market analyst at Companhia Siderúrgica de Tubarão. “Vale’s export volumes for instance have been setting records every year.”
“Vale also holds much of the rail lines that carry [for example, iron ore] from the countryside to the ports,” Soares explains. “So even if some companies have mines in the countryside, the cost charged by Vale to transport [that iron ore] to ports is so high that prevents the export.”
In 1942, the Brazilian government nationalized mining activities and created Compahnia Vale do Rio Doce. The company became a privately-run company in the mid-1990s and is known today simply as Vale. The largest producer of iron ore and second largest of nickel, Vale has also begun to dabble in the fields of rare minerals and wind energy.
Another major player in the Brazilian mining industry is MMX, the iron ore producer controlled by billionaire Eike Batista. The EBX subsidiary mines iron ore deposits in Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul and abroad in Chile.
In January, it was reported the company refused a $2.3 billion takeover by Brazilian iron ore producer Ferrous who this year intends to export between three and four million tons.
“It is believed that there will be a slight decline and stagnation in prices of iron ore,” says Soares. “But this is speculation due to the start of production of some mines in 2012 and the beginning of increased productive capacity of some mining groups who have invested in steel expansion from 2009.”
Iron ore isn’t Brazil’s only valuable mineral. CBMM, a subsidiary of Grupo Moreira Salles, supplies 82 percent of the world’s demand for niobium products such as gas pipelines and other heavy steel items. Because of niobium’s hypoallergenic properties, it is also found in jewelry and medical devices like pacemakers.
Votorantim, miner of aluminum, nickel and zinc is Brazil’s largest diversified industrial conglomerate. In January, Votorantim announced that it will use proceeds from the sale of its stake in steelmaker Usiminas to expand its mining and cement output. Votorantim also owns Companhia Brasileira de Aluminio (CBA), a miner of aluminum’s main source, bauxite.