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The natural world, photographed by Sebastião Salgado – sponsored by a corporation that's despoiling the Amazon

Natural History Museum under fire for accepting cash from mining giant

The acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado says his images currently on display at the Natural History Museum seek to depict the “stunning mosaic of nature in all its unspoilt grandeur”.

But the museum is now under fire from environmentalists after accepting sponsorship for the exhibition from a mining giant accused of threatening landscapes similar to those captured by the Brazilian photojournalist.  In a 2012 poll conducted by corporate watchdogs, The Public Eye, the Brazilian mining company Vale was awarded the dubious distinction of being the company with the “most contempt for the environment and human rights” in the world.

The firm’s sponsorship of this summer’s Natural History Museum exhibition has generated anger amongst green campaigners, chiefly because of the company’s involvement in the controversial Belo Monte dam, with critics claiming it will flood about 500 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest and displace indigenous people like those depicted in Salgado’s Genesis exhibition.

“Vale has no business sponsoring an exhibit that reveres unspoiled nature, given the company’s environmental and human rights record in the Amazon, including the fact it is the largest private investor in Brazil’s Belo Monte dam,” Christian Poirier, a campaigner for Amazon Watch, told The Independent.  “This is greenwashing.”

But last night the Natural History Museum defended its decision.  “In accepting the sponsorship from Vale, the museum acknowledges both Vale’s positive commitment to sustainability initiatives through the Vale Fund for Sustainable Development and negative publicity in relation to its building of the Belo Monte dam,” said a spokesman. “The balance of human relationships with our planet is a central topic to the Salgado exhibition. We believe the challenge is to work responsibly to find a balance between use and protection of natural resources, and that Vale is working in a reputable way.”

Environmentalists disagree and have received celebrity backing in film director, James Cameron, who visited Brazil in 2010 and claimed a real-life Avatar battle was being played out between indigenous communities and construction firms building the dam.

Vale claims it has modified original construction plans to avoid flooding indigenous land, and says 5,000 families living “in conditions unfit for habitation at the banks of the waterways will be relocated to towns where they will have the infrastructure they need to live dignified lives”. Vale also highlights the benefits of the project, which has the potential to generate 11,233MW of renewable electricity a year and will compensate affected communities with $89m (£58m) a year.

The company has called the allegations by The Public Eye “serious” and “unsubstantiated”, and made clear it is only a minority shareholder holding a 9 per cent stake in the dam.

Speaking to The Independent, Sebastião Salgado acknowledged environmentalists’ concerns about corporations like Vale, but was quick to defend them. “The problem is not the oil companies or mining companies, but the system of life we’ve created.”