LAB’s Tom Gatehouse talks to Rodrigo Péret from the Churches and Mining Network and Thiago Alves da Silva from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB)

Main image: The historic Estrada Real (the Royal Road built by the Portuguese crown in
the early 18th century) passes through Bento Rodrigues. One of the marks of the Estrada Real is surrounded by the devastation one month after the dam collapse. Photo: Nilmar Lage. All the photos in this article are taken from The River is Dead: The impact of the catastrophic failure of the Fundão tailings dam, a report prepared by London Mining Network, which can be viewed here.


Remember, remember, the fifth of November. But while in the UK people remember the failed attempt to blow up the House of Lords in 1605, in Brazil the date has a far more recent resonance.

A month after the collapse of the Fundao Dam Paracatu de Baixo is a scene of devastation. Photo: Nilmar Lage

On 5 November 2015, the Fundão tailings dam at the Germano mine complex collapsed near the town of Mariana in Minas Gerais. A tidal wave of toxic sludge was released, completely destroying the village of Bento Rodrigues, killing 19 people and leaving around 700 homeless. Forty-five million cubic metres of mine tailings flowed into the nearby River Doce and eventually reached the Atlantic Ocean, over 600km from the dam, with catastrophic effects for the river basin and the communities who live there, an area roughly the size of Austria. The episode is widely considered to be Brazil’s worst-ever environmental disaster and globally it is the biggest tailings dam failure of this kind. The long-term effects remain to be seen.

Two years on

“Two years after the disaster, there has been little improvement,” says Thiago Alves da Silva, from the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (MAB) [Movement of People Affected by Dams]. A journalist and activist, Da Silva is from the region and continues to work with communities affected.

A view over the tailings ponds near the Germano Mine, showing their size  and what is behind a tailings dam. Photo: Nilmar Lage

I met Da Silva and Rodrigo Péret, from the Rede Igrejas e Mineração (Churches and Mining Network), who were in London as guests of London Mining Network, for the AGM of the Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton . BHP is one of the parent companies of Samarco, the mining company responsible for the Fundão dam (the other being the Brazilian mining and logistics company Vale). “For those of us who work directly with the effects of mining and the role of the corporations,” says Péret, “participating in the assembly is extremely important, to carry out an analysis of their discourse and narrative.” But what exactly is the company discourse, after a disaster of this magnitude?

Pushing it into the past

They did address Mariana and Samarco directly in the AGM. But the way they talk about it, it’s as if it were something already a little way into the past. They’ve got other concerns now. –Rodrigo Péret

If the collapse of Fundão no longer seems like such a pressing concern for BHP, perhaps it’s because, thus far, Samarco seems to be successfully minimising its potential liabilities.

In the wake of the disaster, the company received 68 fines totalling nearly R$552 million from the Brazilian federal government and the governments of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, the two states affected. However, Samarco is appealing against 67 of the 68 fines and has begun to pay just one (in instalments), corresponding to 1% of the total value.

Meanwhile, the criminal case against 21 Samarco employees, including former company president Ricardo Vescovi, has stalled in the courts, with the defence alleging that recordings of telephone conversations used by the prosecution have exceeded the period permitted for use as evidence. If the allegations are proven, the case could be thrown out altogether.

Compensation: take it and keep quiet, or leave it…

Then there is the issue of compensation to the families affected. In August last year, Fundação Renova was created. The fruit of an agreement between Samarco, Vale, BHP and the Brazilian State, Renova’s stated mission is to oversee the recovery of the area affected by the disaster, as well as provide adequate compensation to the resident families, including resettlement of those who lost their homes.

Da Silva is sceptical about Renova’s stated mission.

For us, it’s just a way of getting the companies out of the firing line. —Thiago Alves da Silva (MAB)

He echoes the view held by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Brazil, which has criticised Renova as a kind of legal buffer protecting Samarco from the State and the communities affected. Indeed, Renova has been widely castigated for failing to involve the communities in its processes of compensation and resettlement.

Barra Longa – a small town above the Candonga Dam, where the waste flow flooded part of the centre of the town – the waste was removed from the centre of the town and dumped on the outskirts near a poorer part of town

The municipality of Governador Valadares is a case in point. The largest town along the River Doce, with a population of 280,000, Governador Valadares is located below the Baguari hydroelectric dam. Four days after the disaster, water contaminated with mine tailings had to be released from the dam, threatening the town’s already precarious water supply.

The next day a state of emergency was declared and thirteen days of chaos ensued. Schools were forced to close and water had to be brought in from towns located 50 to 70 km away. As a result, Renova is offering a standard sum of R$1000 per person (£231.81, as of 27/10) as compensation for disruption to water supply.

MAB argues that the process is too unilateral and has created an unfair “take it or leave it” scenario for residents. Unsettled by the disruption to their lives and routines, unsure of what their rights are, and often unable to afford legal assistance, many people in the region are opting for the former out of fear of ending up with nothing at all.

Offering blanket compensation like this is also an effective means of reducing cases against Samarco in the courts. At the start of 2017, there were over 40,000 civil cases filed against Samarco relating to disruption to water supply. Whoever accepts the compensation from Renova must withdraw their case, though in some of the cases which have been ruled on, the company has been ordered to pay out sums far higher than those on offer. So far, Renova has paid out just R$154.4 million ($47.4 million) in compensation. Meanwhile, BHP Billiton reported profits of $4.2 billion in the first half of 2017.

Identifying the victims

There is also ongoing wrangling over the definition of those affected by the disaster. In Mariana, there are still at least 700 families waiting to be registered; Renova puts the figure at 514. While in the wider region there are likely to be close to 16,000 families affected, a study commissioned by the Public Prosecutor’s Office suggested that Renova had registered just 30% of them by April this year.

The registration process has been criticised for being bureaucratic and focusing too narrowly on material losses, with little consideration to how cultures, traditions and ways of life have been affected by the disaster.

It’s the company that decides who was affected. —Thiago Alves da Silva (MAB).

“The State,” he continues, “doesn’t have a say. This is true of families from Mariana, to fishing communities at the mouth of the River Doce.” For Péret, who has extensive experience working with communities affected by mining, this is something he has seen before. “The first method of dividing communities, and this is common to all the companies, is to ensure that all negotiations are conducted individually,” he says.

The aim is to break the possibility of community initiative and thinking in common, to divide the community between those directly affected and those who weren’t. –Rodrigo Perét

They can’t even build nine houses

Da Silva is also angry that so little progress has been made on resettling those who lost their homes. At the time of writing, this work has yet to begin. “The companies gave themselves a deadline of 2019 to finish the work, but they didn’t say when they would start it,” he says. “That’s true of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira, a tiny hamlet of nine houses, a church, a community centre and one street. It’s unthinkable that BHP Billiton, which put on this event today, can’t build nine houses.”

A month after the collapse of the Fundao Dam, just the roof of a house is showing above the mud in Paracatu de Baixo.
Photo: Nilmar Lage

The longer the process is dragged out, the less likely it appears the families will be properly resettled. Two years on from the disaster, they are still living in temporary accommodation in Mariana. “This is good for the company, because in the end the families give up on resettlement,” says Da Silva.

They lose hope, start to integrate in the city, and end up asking for financial compensation rather than resettlement. This is much cheaper for the company and means they avoid long-term compensation processes. —Thiago Alves da Silva (MAB)

I ask the two men what has changed since the controversial ousting of Dilma Rousseff last year and the rise to power of Michel Temer. “In the context of mining, Temer has had a big impact,” says Péret. “There has been an attack on the whole institutional structure of human rights. This has been accompanied by relaxation of environmental legislation and licensing processes.”

In other words, in the wake of a disaster which has highlighted in dramatic fashion the need for tougher regulation of industries with major environmental impacts, the Temer administration has done precisely the opposite.

Péret and Da Silva also cite the recent attempt by the government to abolish the Renca environmental reserve in the Amazon region, which would have opened the area up to mining. In the face of pressure from the international community, environmental groups and Brazilian celebrities such as the musician Caetano Veloso and the model Gisele Bündchen, Temer rowed back on the decision – for now.

Less regulation, more risk

This does not bode well for the future though, especially given current trends in mining. Improvements in technology and processing have allowed for excavation of lower grade deposits, meaning that larger tailings dams are required. Larger dams are necessarily riskier: not only are the consequences of a potential failure worse, but due to the increased stress on the dam, such failures are more likely.

There are three such mega dams – three times the size of Fundão – currently being planned for the same region of Brazil. And with the government apparently committed to attracting foreign investment and slashing regulation wherever possible, the notion that these dams might be built according to the best environmental standards looks improbable. “It’s a very delicate moment,” admits Péret.

Faith in politics in Brazil is virtually at an all-time low, following nearly four years of ongoing corruption revelations which go all the way up to the President himself. The decision of Congress not to refer Temer to the Supreme Court – when the allegations against him are far more serious than those for which Rousseff was impeached – has further damaged the credibility of the system.

Temer’s approval ratings stand at 3% – a record low – and in the absence of any political legitimacy or popular support, he seems willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto power, whether carving up the Amazon for the mining sector or reducing fines imposed on those accused of environmental crimes.

“Our institutions have become perverted,” says Péret. “Within the context of a global economic crisis and our own political crisis, this gives companies more power, because they seem like great investors.” In such a climate, it’s hard to see Samarco ever being fully held to account for its crimes.

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