The Welsh village of Aberfan and the tiny settlement of Bento Rodrigues, in southern Brazil, are on opposite sides of the world, but they are united by tragedy. Both victims of the worst mining-related disasters in recent history, albeit almost 50 years apart, the two towns tell the same tale of greed, negligence and contempt for working-class lives.
This Sunday, 5 November, marks eight years since Bento Rodrigues was destroyed by a wave of toxic mud unleashed by the collapse of the Fundão tailing mine in Mariana. Nineteen people were killed and hundreds lost their homes. At least 45 million cubic metres of waste crashed its way 600 kilometres down the Rio Doce eventually spilling into the Atlantic in the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.
Eight years on, the communities affected are still waiting for justice. The dam, owned by Samarco – a joint venture between Anglo-Australian BHP and Brazilian iron ore producer Vale – is now up and running again, yet many survivors remain displaced and have not received compensation.
It’s a story that’s all too familiar to the people of Aberfan, a former coal mining village in the Taff Valley. On 21 October 1966, a spoil heap owned by the National Coal Board (NCB) collapsed onto the village, ploughing into the Pantglas primary school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
It was a sequence of events that bears uncanny resemblance to the Fundão dam failure. Both the NCB and BHP – the world’s biggest mining firm by market value – oversaw negligent tipping practices, causing disasters that were entirely avoidable. In the wake of the disaster, both companies fiercely denied any role in the loss of life that ensued.
The children killed in the disaster were the grandchildren of the miners who, for the past 50 years, had transported waste from Merthyr Vale colliery to the top of Merthyr Mountain. This method of waste disposal was convenient and cheap. It required little investment and no monitoring or assessment.
Seven enormous slag heaps slowly grew adjacent to Pantglas and towered above the village. Although residents had voiced concerns about the conditions to the NCB before the disaster, the board’s chairman, Lord Alfred Robins, attributed the disaster to ‘natural factors’. A public inquiry later found the board to be culpable of negligence.
Despite this, Robins and the rest of the board kept their jobs. No one was sent to prison and families were offered meagre compensation. The villagers’ pleas for the removal of the remaining tips were dismissed as an irrational extravagance.
It took two years of organized struggle for the British government to accede to their demands with the last of the slag shovelled away in 1971, five years after the disaster.
In Brazil, two generations later, it would seem that history is repeating itself. The official report into the Samarco disaster concluded that the dam was left in a ‘precarious state of stability’ given that a portion of the dam was constructed on waste from the iron ore mine.
In the years since the Fundão dam collapse there has been only minimal progress in resettling and compensating affected communities and in repairing environmental damage in the Rio Doce valley. Many of the villagers whose homes were swept away that tragic day are still dispersed as promised new homes have not all been built. According to local NGOs, 85 per cent of families are still displaced, while the majority of Bento Rodrigues remains uninhabitable. They feel neglected and exhausted.
For the people who continue to live by the polluted river, the tragedy has destroyed everything: their homes, their jobs and their peace of mind. The waste poisoned the river, wiping out fish stocks and local fishers’ traditional livelihoods with it, while dairy farmers could no longer sustain their cattle without clean water.
Locals cannot even bathe or swim in the river due to the risk of developing rashes. The rupture with their way of life has generated an identity crisis, traumatizing the local people.
It is clear to the population that this was not an accident, but a crime that could have been prevented. This fuels a strong sense of injustice, exacerbated by BHP’s bumper profits, failures to properly fund research into the environmental impact of the mining waste and attempts to greenwash its image. While claiming to be a sustainable firm with a key role to play in a future, greener, economy, BHP mines continue to inflict environmental destruction around the world.
Fed up with the slow pace of progress for reparations in Brazil, survivors are now taking their fight to the UK.
BHP, whose HQ was based in London until recently, is facing claims for compensation by more than 720,000 Brazilians, amounting to $43.9 billion in the largest group claim in English and Welsh history. The case will be heard in London’s High Court in October 2024. BHP denies liability.
In their search for justice, the affected communities are also forging alliances to recover what was lost, including beyond Brazil’s borders.
On Monday, Brazilian campaigners Leticia Oliveira and Paula Goes, from the organization Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), hosted by London Mining Network, will visit Aberfan to speak to some of the remaining survivors of the disaster.
Occurring 49 years apart, almost exactly to the day, and with approximately 5,600 miles between them, the tragedies at Aberfan and Mariana now unite two communities. Together they aim to build links of solidarity and learn lessons from each other to hold mine owners to account for their crimes against communities forced to live in the shadow of mines, whether coal, iron or other resources.
Although many Aberfan survivors died without ever seeing the NCB held accountable for the disaster, the tragedy did precipitate immediate changes to environmental policy in Britain, making colliery tips around the country safer. But these lessons have not been learned by corporations like BHP. Indeed, BHP has hidden behind its subsidiaries to evade regulations and secure impunity.
Those who have learned most from the past are the communities and campaigners who are saddled with the clean-up operations. Let us hope that the links between Mariana and Aberfan can help Brazilian victims in their fight for justice.