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FORTY years ago, Boliden, a Swedish multinational metals, mining and smelting company, sold nearly 200,000 tonnes of smelter sludge rich in mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals to the Chilean reprocessing company Promel. The latter dumped most of it next to a row of houses in Arica in northern Chile.
Over the years, this community of low-income families swelled until it surrounded the site of contamination. A generation of children grew up playing in the sludge. In 1999, the Chilean government struck an uneasy peace with those affected by this avoidable catastrophe. Promel no longer exists. Families closest to the site have been evacuated.
Swedish film-maker Lars Edman returns to the country of his birth and the site of his 2010 Toxic Playground documentary for a follow-up. Arica concentrates on the legal case against Boliden, whose due diligence on toxic materials has come under serious question. Boliden denies responsibility, saying it followed applicable regulations and believed the waste would be processed safely. Any negligence, it argues, is attributable to Promel and the Chilean authorities.
The chief protagonist of Edman’s first film was Rolf Svedberg, Boliden’s former head of environmental issues. It was his site visit and report that green-lit the sale and transport of what Boliden’s legal team calls “material of negative value”.
Brought face to face with the consequences of that decision, and hosted by a community riddled with cancer and congenital conditions, Svedberg’s distress was visible. A decade on, though, he has the legal case to think of, not to mention his current role as a judge at Sweden’s environmental supreme court.
Boliden’s legal consultants bring in experts who assemble arcane explanations and a ludicrous wind-tunnel experiment to show that living next to tailings containing 17 per cent arsenic couldn’t possibly have affected anyone’s health. Opposing them are 800 plaintiffs (out of a community of 18,000) armed with a few urine tests from 2011 and evidence that would be overwhelming were it not so frustratingly anecdotal.
One interviewee, Elia, points out houses from her gate. “The lady who lived in the house with the bars,” she says, “sold the house and died of cancer. Next door is Dani Ticona. She had aggressive cancer in her head and died too. And her son’s wife had a baby who died…”
Boliden’s team performs a familiar trick, sowing doubt by suggesting that lab and field science are the same thing, with identical standards of proof. If the company had to address average consumers rather than Arica’s low-income residents, it would long since have saved money and its reputation by owning the problem. But Boliden deals with corporations and governments. Its image rests on problem-free operations; it pays to stay silent.
In the end, the community loses, but in 2021 the UN sent experts into Arica. Their findings shamed both the company and the Swedish government.
Law is a rhetorical art. We like to think justice can be scientifically determined, but that is to misunderstand science and the law. Tragedy, poverty, blame and shame cannot be reduced to numbers. Protest, eloquence and argument are as essential for justice as they were in the making of this elegiac film.