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Why Brazil fails to learn from its mining catastrophes

People light candles during a vigil after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

‘This really messes with you emotionally, because it makes you relive the day of 5 November, you know? It resurfaces with so much force,’ says Marino, his voice catching.

‘There is so much sadness and anger, because we see the neglect of what happened in Mariana is much bigger than we thought. The people who died in Mariana are nothing more than statistics today, they are just numbers.’

Marino D’Angelo Junho was one of those living downstream from the Fundão dam near the town of Mariana, also in Minas Gerais state, when it burst on 5 November 2015.

The collapse sent a tidal wave of mud along the 620km length of the River Doce and a plume of waste into the Atlantic Ocean some 17 days later. Nineteen people were killed in the immediate aftermath and communities comprising as many as 1.4 million people were affected.

Marino was working in his kitchen garden when his wife received a phone call telling her the dam had collapsed. They didn’t panic. The dam was 80km away in Fundão – how much harm could it do? They’d never even heard of it before. They didn’t know it contained over 56 million cubic metres of mining waste, or ‘tailings’, at an altitude of 1,200m above sea level. They didn’t know that fears had been frequently raised about whether it would hold.

Marino smelled and heard the surge of mud before he saw anything. ‘There was a terrible smell of oil, and an awful noise. I stayed inside for 10 minutes and when I tried to leave, I could not get out of the door of the living room of my house,’ he says.

‘What we expected was water but what arrived was something from another world. A monstrous brown wave.

‘The mud was a kind of concrete – a thick mix of mud and sand, a very destructive force that tore down bridges, trees and buildings – in a huge quantity.’

Marino still breaks down in tears when he recounts the story. He was a successful small-scale dairy farmer, with 70 cows, and president of the local milk producers’ association, while his wife grew fruit and vegetables on their land in the village of Paracatu de Cima.

‘The work of the companies is always to make people desist and despair,’ she says, to discourage affected communities from organising and to allow a speedy return to business as usual

He has gone from taking home R$10,000 (over $2,500) per month to surviving on a minimum-wage handout from the mining company of R$1,115. Most of his herd has been sold, because Marino has found it impossible to keep farming on the inferior land he has been allocated and because it’s now hard to find day labourers in the largely deserted village.

The experience of disaster has also had serious effects on Marino’s mental health. Before the dam broke, Marino says, he didn’t take any medication. ‘Now I’m on three anti-depressant medications and I’m diabetic. Before I was someone who had a good disposition for work. Today, if I do two days’ work I have to stop on the third, because I can’t take any more.’

His wife, Maria has lived all her life on the banks of the River Doce – once lush, now tainted with the unmistakeable rusty residue of mining waste. She has now developed a panic disorder.

The iron-ore mine was operated by Samarco, a joint enterprise between the UK-Australian firm BHP and Vale, the Brazilian company which operated the complex which failed last month. Evidence suggests that waste production had exceeded expectations, in part because the iron-ore was of lower quality than initially estimated, and also because production was increased to make up for declining iron prices on the world market.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Samarco set up the Renova Foundation with the stated aim of repairing the damage caused and compensating those affected.

Marino stands in front of an old school building in Paracatu de Baixo, Minas Gerais. Authorities have ordered the town closed.

But Marino and other victims say the organisation has forced many of those affected to fight simply to be recognised as atingidos (affected), with thousands of claims still outstanding. Renova, victims say, has refused to allow them to participate in decision-making processes, has failed to provide proper accountability for monies spent, and has sowed division and rivalry for compensation in affected communities, such as Marino’s.

Even those acknowledged as atingido have received very little – the small monthly stipend, often paid directly to the male head of the household while supposedly dependent women receive only a small fraction of that.

Three years on, no houses have been rebuilt and no full compensation settlements for livelihoods lost have yet been agreed, with the result that many affected are living in a state of limbo, unsure when – or if – a semblance of normality will return to their lives.

‘The crime wasn’t only on the 5th [of November 2015],’ Marino says. ‘It’s brought consequences for us every day of our lives. And as time passes, the consequences become worse.’

Marino predicts that, unless something changes, victims of what he calls the latest ‘Brumadinho crime’ - also in the will endure its effects for years because ‘the companies will torture the affected, take away their rights, and force them to live a life they don't want to live for an indeterminate amount of time’, for example by leaving them to languish in temporary accommodation.

A particular challenge of the Fundão collapse has been the difficulty uniting the diverse communities affected, who include farmers, mine workers, garimpeiros (gold panners), fishermen and indigenous communities. Marino credits an NGO, the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (Movement of People Affected by Dams), for initiating contact.

Like Marino, MAB activist Leticia Oliveira is pessimistic that justice will ever be served, laughing in disbelief when she describes the snail-like progress of the criminal trial. Although there are 21 accused and the trial is dealing with issues of great complexity, it is being overseen by a solitary judge and has been subject to repeated delays. Reports from the trial say that of the hundreds of witnesses, those for the defence vastly outnumber those for the prosecution.

The mining companies are so powerful, Leticia says, that even finding independent scientific labs to carry out reliable studies of the water quality of the River Doce is a challenge.

And she agrees that the Renova Foundation – whose governing panel is dominated by representatives of the mining companies – is anything but an independent arbiter of the repair and reparations process.

‘The work of the companies is always to make people desist and despair,’ she says, to discourage affected communities from organising and to allow a speedy return to business as usual.

Marino blames corruption in Brazilian corridors of power for failing to insist on meaningful safety standards when issuing operating licences, often despite the concerns and objections of local communities. The expansion of the dam complex responsible for the Brumadinho tragedy was approved in December, despite strong local opposition and frequently raised fears about its integrity.

On its website, MAB notes that ‘Vale SA was once a Brazilian [state] company, but in the 1990s it was privatised. What we see today is a superpowerful company that acts for the profit of shareholders but has no commitment to human life and the environment’.

Unless radical change is implemented as a matter of urgency, it warns, there is a real risk tragedy will once again repeat itself. According to a recent report by the National Water Agency (ANA) in December, the number of dams at serious risk of rupture jumped from 25 to 45 in the previous year. Many dams are simply not inspected on a regular basis, so even this figure may be an underestimate.

‘The impunity of Mariana's crime gives more space and opportunity for other crimes,’ said MAB’s Thiago Alves.

Jair Bolsonaro, the newly incumbent president, positioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader in his election campaign, but his handling of the Brumadinho tragedy will be a test of that claim.

Marino voted for him, rejecting the rival candidate from the Workers’ Party which he largely blames for the lax standards blighting the mining industry.

But many Brazilians will have little faith in Bolsonaro, the man who has attacked Brazil’s environmental agencies and threatened to do away with the environment ministry entirely, who pledged to cut red tape constricting mining companies, and whose environment minister was convicted of fraudulently backing a mining company when environment secretary of Sao Paulo state.

MAB is urging Brazilians to support the families affected by the Brumadinho rupture.

In a statement released to the International Peasants Movement, the MAB said: ‘We demand justice in this crime, that the deaths of people, animals, rivers and the environment do not go unpunished again.’


This article has been written as part of a collaborative research initiative between War on Want, Latin American Bureau and others, titled 'No Bonanza -  Mining and Community Resistance in Latin America.


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