The company that couldn’t

Neuhausen am Rheinfall is a municipality in the Canton of Schaffhausen just south of the cantonal capital, Schaffhausen.

It has a population of nearly 11,000 people.

Despite its location beside the Rhine Falls, Neuhausen is primarily an industrial city.

“We came along a filthy street between forges and mills right through to the Falls. What an approach to such a cataract! The small Rhine Falls are almost smothered by the spirit of industry.”
(James Fenimore Cooper) (1841 – 1903)

Neuhausen is home to a number of manufacturing firms.

Some of the best-known are:

– the playing card company of AG Müller, now owned by Belgian company Cartamundi. AGM produces among other things, the Swiss national card game, Jass.
(See The Cards We’re Dealt.)

– the cotton wool factory IVF Hartmann AG

– the packaging company SIG

– the Rio Tinto Alcan Group on the site of the former Alusuisse factory.

Alusuisse was a Swiss industrial group founded as Aluminium Industrie Aktien in 1898 in Zurich, Switzerland.

In 1886 Paul-Louis-Toussaint Héroult and Charles Martin Hall independently discovered a process for producing metallic aluminium from aluminium ore by electrolysis (Hall–Héroult process).

In 1889 Paul-Louis-Toussaint Héroult, Gustave Naville, Georg Neher, and Peter Emil Huber established a company Aluminium Industrie Aktien Gesellschaft (AIAG) in Zurich, Switzerland to extract aluminium, creating the first aluminium production plant in Europe.

It established plants in Neuhausen am Rheinfall in 1888, in Rheinfelden, Germany in 1898 and in Lend, Austria in 1899.

They tried convincing the authorities that building an aluminium plant including a turbine house and a dam 230 metres long, thus effectively destroying the Rhine Falls, was a good idea.

Public protest and government intervention prevented the move.

In 1899 the company started to invest in the Valais region of Switzerland, which was rich in hydropower resources.

From the 1900s it became a significant employer in the Valais Canton through its aluminum production activities.

The company built a plant in Chippis (1908) using hydropower from the river Navisence.

The market for their aluminium did not meet expectations and the company began to use some of the electrical production for nitric acid manufacture (Birkeland–Eyde process).

During the Great Depression the company sold electricity from its plants to municipal customers.

A rolling mill was established in Sierre in 1929.

The company became a major employer in the Valais region, employing over 3,000 in 1942, by 1970 approximately 2,000 people were employed by Alusuisse in the Canton.

In the 1950s, the company acquired a concession to 30% of the flow from the dam built at the Lac de Moiry, and constructed a factory at Ernen.

During the 1960s, the company began to license its aluminium production technology.

A factory in Steg was established in 1962.

They helped to establish Koninklijke Hoogovens’ first aluminium smelter in 1967.

In the late 1960s, the company also became involved in another contentious public issue, through its joint venture with Nabalco, which was developing a bauxite deposit in northern Australia on land claimed by the indigenous people of that area, which would lead to the Gove Land Rights Case.

In December 1968, the Yolngu people living in Yirrkala, who were the traditional owners of the Gove Peninsula in Arnhem Land, obtained writs in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory against the Nabalco Corporation, which had secured a twelve-year bauxite mining lease from the Federal Government.

Their goal was to establish in law their rightful claim to their homelands.

The Yolngu people claimed they enjoyed legal and sovereign rights over their land and sought declarations to occupy the land free from interference pursuant to their native title rights.

The Yolngu people had petitioned the Australian House of Representatives in August 1963 with a bark petition after the government sold part of the Arnhem Land reserve on 13 March of that year to a bauxite mining company.

The government had not consulted the traditional owners at the time.

Yolngu applicants asserted before the Court that since time immemorial, they held a “communal native title” that had not been validly extinguished, or acquired under the Lands Acquisition Act 1955, and should be recognized as an enforceable proprietary right.

The lengthy legal battle culminated in 1971.

Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, (the “Gove land rights case”), was the first litigation on native title in Australia.

The decision of Justice Richard Blackburn ruled against the claimants on a number of issues of law and fact, rejecting the doctrine of aboriginal title recognizing that in the law of the time of British colonisation of Australia there was a distinction between settled colonies, where the land, being “desert and uncultivated”, was claimed by right of occupancy, and conquered or ceded colonies.

The term “desert and uncultivated” included territory in which resided “uncivilized inhabitants in a primitive state of society”.

The decision noted that the Crown had the power to extinguish native title, if it existed.

The issue of terra nullius, later raised in Mabo v Queensland, was not contemplated in this decision.

Although Milirrpum was not appealed beyond the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, it was overruled by the High Court of Australia two decades later in Mabo v Queensland.

Blackburn, in a confidential memorandum to the government and opposition, opined that a system of Aboriginal land rights was “morally right and socially expedient”.

The judgement concludes:

“I cannot help being specially conscious that for the plaintiffs it is a matter in which their personal feelings are involved.”

Milirrpum led to the establishment of the Woodward Royal Commission and the eventual recognition of Aboriginal Land rights in the Northern Territory.

In 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam drew up the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976, which was later passed by the conservative Fraser Government on 9 December 1976.

Alusuisse lost millions.

The Gove Land dispute would lead to worldwide attention to the question of native land rights.

A byproduct of the aluminium production process, Fluorine became the subject of a pollution scandal (guerre du fluor) after its public reporting in the 1970s.

The Valais citizens had tolerated Alusuisse for a long time…

The monks of the Benedictine Convent of Gerondes complained bitterly about the constant noise from the nearby plant causing many a night of insomnia.

Teeth and bones of local livestock were becoming increasingly brown and brittle.

Cows were producing less milk.

Thousands of pine trees bore no needles.

Tons of orchards and fields would bear no yield.

Often what did result was scabby, ugly and unpalatable.

Harvests produced 750 tonnes where once 7,000 tonnes was customary.

In 1975, the Valais citizenry had enough and let their discontent show.

Alusuisse responded by saying that only bad weather was responsible.

The resulting “guerre du fluor” / the Fluorine War would result in Alusuisse receiving a lot of negative publicity and paying out millions of francs in damages.

Their troubles would also draw the world’s attention to the problems of aluminium production worldwide.

As well, it would draw attention to the environmental damages of uncontrolled industry.

In 1974, the company took over the Swiss-German company Lonza (founded 1897), which specialised in hydropower, construction, and electrochemical industrial production.

In 1990, the company became Alusuisse-Lonza Holding AG.

In 1999, the chemical production interests were split off to form the chemical company Lonza Group.

The company’s aluminium production reached its maximum in 1980 at over 800,000 tonnes.

During the 1980s, the company restructured, closing outdated plants, and downsized, and modernised its semi-finished aluminium production facilities.

In 1997, the company employed 31,000 of which only 5,800 were Swiss.

The company was renamed Algroup in 1998.

By the end of the twentieth century, the company had become an international firm with interests in aluminium production, packaging, and chemicals (through the firm Lonza acquired 1974, divested 1999) and employed over 30,000 worldwide (1997).

The group was acquired by and merged into Alcan on 18 October 2000.

Being Europe’s first aluminium company, Alusuisse is a source of national Swiss pride, but perhaps its disappearance should not be mourned, for it was a company that couldn’t keep out of hot water, couldn’t keep out of controversy.

I can’t help but wonder how many companies, some the source of great national pride, still continue to destroy the natural environment, still continue to ignore native populations, all in the name of profits.

What don’t we know?

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