With some of the largest forest fires in decades and a burst dam resulting in the country’s worst environmental disaster to date, it has rarely been as evident as in the last few months that Brazil’s environment is under stress. Often “natural” disasters have man-made causes at their roots, and economic activity has clearly been largely responsible for the recent calamities.
Between September and November, a fire raged in the Araribóia indigenous reserve in Maranhão. By the time it was under control, the blaze had destroyed 220,000 hectares, over a half of the reserve. Shortly later, an on-going fire broke out in the reserve of Alto Turiaçu e Caru, also in Maranhão, which is home to an uncontacted tribe. In both cases, queimadas (burning after land clearance) by illegal loggers is widely considered the cause. Local indigenous rights groups stress that the fires are a tactic by loggers, through which they aim to scare tribes, forcing them from their territories.
While further south in Bahia, the famed national park of Cha[ada Diamantina suffered one of the country’s worst fires this century. It has been estimated that the area could take 30 years to recover. While the exact cause of the blaze remains unknown, it is likely to have been caused by humans and the authorities have launched a criminal investigation.
About the same time, the widely reported Mariana dam destruction occurred in the state of Minas Gerais. A sea of iron ore waste – which looked like mud to the naked eye – swept away parts of the town of Mariana, leaving hundreds homeless and killing at least 13 people. The deluge has since gushed down the Rio Doce, through the state of Espirito Santo, contaminating water supplies and killing over nine tonnes of fish. After polluting the entire river, the sludge finally spilled into the Atlantic Ocean.
The extent of the damage, particularly for the long term, remains unknown. The company behind the dam, Samarco, a joint venture between Brazil’s Vale and Australia’s BHP Billiton, insists that the waste isn’t toxic. Environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, has suggested it will take at least a decade for the affected areas to recuperate. Others warn that the damage is permanent. In reality, it’s too early to tell.
What also remains uncertain is the extent to which Samarco, and its ultimate owners, will be punished. In Brazil, where large-scale extractive industries rarely have to pay for the damage they cause, activists are right to be concerned. Vale was state-owned until 1997 yet, despite privatisation, ties between the industrial giant and the country’s politicians remain inappropriately close.
In the initial aftermath, Brazilian authorities issued Samarco with a timid “preliminary” fine of R$250 million (£43 million). A few weeks later, the state and federal governments filed a lawsuit against Vale and BHP for damages that they have initially estimated at R$20 billion (£3.5 billion). Even this figure is considered inadequate by many, and concerns have already been raised as to how much the companies will end up paying, once they have taken full advantage of legal loopholes.
Ironically, while not one of Samarco’s representatives has been detained, five protesters, who threw mud inside congress following the disaster, have been arrested for environmental crimes. The inadequacy of the official response has not gone unnoticed abroad, with a UN spokesperson commenting that that neither the scale of the public debate nor the amount of information provided by the authorities were “proportional to the scale of the disaster”. Once again, the Brazilian government has demonstrated that it is big business that controls the state, rather than vice versa.
One would hope that at least lessons can be learned from disasters like Mariana, and policies improved. It has emerged, for instance, that the National Department of Minerals Research (DNPM), a branch of the environment ministry charged with monitoring dams such as that in Mariana, has been starved of resources. In 2014, the department carried out checks on less than a quarter of all registered dams.
In recent years there have been calls for the creation of an independent regulatory body for the extractive sector, along with a much-needed new mining code. Brazil’s current code is painfully out-dated and has received little alteration since it was compiled almost 50 years ago, during the military dictatorship.
This might seem a good moment to expedite the new mining code, which has been stalled in Congress since 2013. Indeed, in the wake of the Mariana disaster, President Rousseff has spoken a great about the need for a regulatory overhaul of the extractive sector.
But, with the present Congress so skewed to the right and dominated by lobbies, the reform might fall well short of what is needed. A large number of members of the commission tasked with the creation of the new code reportedly receive hefty political campaign donations from several mining companies. Few expect the commission to come up with any changes that could hurt the interests of the mining companies.
Indeed, regulations are being weakened, rather than strengthened. At the end of November a national development commission approved fast track environmental licensing for projects considered to be of “national interest”. These reportedly include energy-generating projects, airports, ports, highways and communications links. Senators believe that reducing the environmental red-tape will encourage foreign investment; others argue it will simply leave Brazil even more vulnerable to further disasters.
It is disappointing that even following plummeting commodity prices and the serious environmental devastation that is being caused by the current emphasis on the export of primary products, the Brazilian government still refuses to consider alternatives. With extractive industries at their least lucrative in decades, both economists and environmentalists have suggested that the government should be rethinking its strategy and coming up with far more environmentally and economically sustainable policies that would serve the country’s interests much better in the future.
Addendum: The land of the Awá Indians is burning. Survival International has published an urgent action. Access it here and add your name to their petition.