LAB’s Tom Gatehouse talks to those affected by recent tailings dams disasters in Brazil
On 25 January last year, a massive tailings dam collapsed at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine near Brumadinho in the state of Minas Gerais, in Brazil’s traditional mining heartlands. 11.7 million cubic metres of toxic mud went cascading down the valley at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, burying the workers’ canteen below the mine along with several nearby homes and a guesthouse.
The force of the deluge was such that victims’ bodies were torn apart. 272 people were killed; 11 bodies are yet to be recovered. Firefighters continue to comb the rusty sprawl of mining waste in search of them.
One year on and the town’s wounds are still raw.
‘Where before I had seen peace in the town and trust between people, in a town where almost everyone knows each other, what came to dominate was pain,’ says Marcela Rodrigues, a member of the Movimento Aguas e Serras, an environmental group which has been fighting the mining industry in the region for the last decade.
‘That’s what we see today in Brumadinho. Even if you haven’t lost anyone, everyone knows of someone who died – a relative of one of your friends, or perhaps just someone you’d say hello to at the bakery,’ she says.
One of those who lost their lives was Marcela’s father, Denílson. A worker at the mine, he was in the canteen at the time of the dam failure. ‘He’d gone into work to do safety training that same day,’ she sighs. ‘Nearly a month later we found two pieces of his body.’ He was just 49.
Vale showed no interest
The Córrego do Feijão mine is run by Vale S.A., the world’s largest iron ore producer and one of Brazil’s richest and most powerful companies. Marcela and others affected are highly critical of the way they have been treated by Vale since the disaster.
‘The company does nothing to help. It invests a lot of money in false propaganda, claiming that there are x number of psychologists working in the area. But when you talk to people, you find out that their children have to share an hour’s therapy at school with five other kids,’ she says.
‘We’re talking about children who’ve seen body parts being transported over their houses by helicopter, who’ve lost family members, who have no idea what’s going on.’
Vale offered Marcela just eight sessions with a psychologist. ‘Even then I had to fight for the right to have them with my own therapist,’ she explains.
‘They wanted to assign me a psychologist – as happened with my brother – who turned up at the house and started to justify the dam collapse! He said that we could have lost our dad in any other set of circumstances.’
Another of those affected is Vagner Diniz, a manager in the IT sector from São Paulo. Vagner’s son Luiz, daughter Camila and daughter-in-law Fernanda were in Brumadinho visiting Instituto Inhotim, a large open-air art gallery and botanic garden located just outside town. Luiz, Camila and Fernanda were staying in the guesthouse that was buried beneath the torrent of mining waste.
Yet Vale never even attempted to contact Vagner and his wife Elena in the aftermath of the disaster.
‘Vale never showed any interest in talking to us,’ he says. ‘They never contacted us. Four months later we decided to take them to court. My children were not Vale workers. They were not an outsourced company’s workers. They didn’t belong to a community in Brumadinho affected by the mud. We thought, ‘We are forgotten.’ And so we went to court.’
Vagner and his family are demanding not only financial reparations from the company, but also what he calls ‘moral reparation’. ‘We asked for Vale to recognise that they were guilty, they committed a crime,’ he explains.
‘We demanded that Vale build a memorial in every Vale office around the world with a picture of the people who died. And we also demanded a minute’s silence before the beginning of every Vale AGM. To ask for moral reparations, for us, is a way of Vale never forgetting what happened.’
A judge in Minas Gerais obliged Vale to pay Vagner and his family compensation – albeit just 20% of the sum requested – but rejected their request for moral reparations, on the grounds that such a demand should come from the affected as a collective.
War of attrition
Vale’s treatment of the affected in Brumadinho has clear and recent precedent. In 2015, the Fundão tailings dam collapsed at the Complexo de Germano, an iron ore operation near the village of Bento Rodrigues, located in the municipality of Mariana, just 86 km from Brumadinho.
Nineteen people were killed and around 700 left homeless, while the tsunami of toxic sludge flowed into the nearby River Doce and ended up polluting an area roughly the size of Austria. While the number of deaths was lower than at Brumadinho, the Fundão dam was several times larger and the environmental consequences of its collapse have been far more severe.
Samarco, the mine operator, was a joint venture between Vale and the Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP.
Letícia Aleixo works for Cáritas, an aid agency linked to the Catholic Church, which has been coordinating a system of technical assistance in Mariana, aiming to ensure that those affected obtain fair compensation and resettlement, as well as helping them with tasks such as reading and interpreting legal documents, and liaising with local public services to ensure that victims receive the support they need.
In 2016, Samarco was obliged by the courts to provide the funds for this system. Yet, with this second disaster, Vale is resisting it.
‘In the court hearings for Brumadinho, what they’re arguing is that technical assistance for the communities is unnecessary because Vale has already paid 50% of the compensation it owes. By this, they basically mean compensation for the fatalities,’ says Letícia.
‘But who can say yet who has and hasn’t been affected? We know which families lost people killed in the disaster. But we don’t know who’s unable to work, who has no water, who’s been taken ill. There’s a lot of damage. They want to have control: who’s to be compensated, how much, and when.’
Vale also cut a deal with the courts, under which it agreed to pay the value of a monthly minimum wage to every resident of Brumadinho and other affected communities as a form of emergency relief, lasting for a year.
In November this was renewed for another ten months for those living in neighbourhoods directly affected, between 10,000 and 15,000 people. For the rest – an estimated 98,000 people – the aid will be reduced by 50%. This money will also be subtracted from any eventual collective settlement.
While the aid has helped those who, for example, were employed at the Córrego do Feijão complex and haven’t worked since the dam failure, it has also created problems.
‘There are many who want justice, who fight for justice. They want from Vale more effective measures to rehabilitate the city. They don’t want this kind of pocket money every month,’ says Vagner. ‘There is a division in the city: those who are living this euphoria, because there’s a lot of money flowing, and those who want justice.’
In Mariana, unlike other affected municipalities in the Rio Doce basin, Cáritas is responsible for registering those affected by the disaster and recording their losses. Elsewhere, it’s the job of the Fundação Renova, an organisation set up to oversee reparations following an agreement by Samarco, its parent companies and the Brazilian state.
Renova has been much criticised by the affected, who see it as an instrument which the companies are using to remove themselves from the firing line and reduce their liabilities. And even in Mariana, Renova has still been obstructing the process.
‘The company looks at a register [of losses] and refuses to consider anything – because they’re not the ones who compiled it,’ says Letícia.
‘They make their own proposal, and it doesn’t matter if we’ve got a pile of documents this high: maps, social cartography, interviews, recordings, inventories. It’s no use. Renova just hires a mediator who pushes their own proposal and tells people that if they don’t accept, they’ll have to go to court, which will take ages, and they may not even get a favourable outcome.’
In Mariana and the other towns in the River Doce basin it has been a war of attrition. Company strategy has been to delay the process of reparation and resettlement, hoping that the affected will eventually cave in and accept a payoff determined by Renova.
More than four years after a disaster caused by two companies which report annual profits in the billions of dollars, none of those who were made homeless have been resettled.
‘Everyone in Mariana is depressed,’ says Letícia. ‘People just want their houses back. They’ve all fallen out with each other. People have no strength left to refuse any money; they want whatever handout they can get.’
No lessons learned
According to the Brazilian government’s own data, there are 87 upstream tailings dams – the same type that failed in Mariana and Brumadinho – throughout the country, all but four of which have the same safety rating as the Brumadinho dam.
An analysis by The New York Times has found that 27 of these dams sit directly uphill from towns and cities – meaning the lives of more than 100,000 people may be in danger.
Mônica dos Santos is a former resident of Bento Rodrigues, one of the two villages destroyed when the Fundão dam failed in 2015.
‘There are a lot of dams which are like ticking time bombs,’ she says. ‘The 300 people who died in Mariana and Brumadinho will be small fry compared to the communities below some of these other dams.’
Yet lessons are still not being learned. Since 2015, the tendency in Brazil has not been to reinforce environmental standards, but to weaken them – and especially since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. His administration has been gutting government bodies responsible for environmental protection.
In October, Samarco was granted permission by environmental regulators in Minas Gerais to restart operations at the Complexo de Germano, though the company has so far paid just R$72 million (£13 million) of the R$301.6 million (£54.8 million) of fines imposed on it by the Brazilian authorities.
Conservationists and indigenous groups also look set to face a major battle this year, with Bolsonaro unveiling a bill on Wednesday which would permit extractive operations such as mining, oil and gas projects on protected indigenous lands.
A more responsible and properly regulated mining sector in Brazil seems ever more unlikely – despite recent legal developments in the Brumadinho case.
Just days before the first anniversary of the disaster, prosecutors for the state of Minas Gerais charged 16 senior officials of Vale and TÜV Süd – the German multinational which attested to the safety of the dam just four months before the collapse – with homicide and environmental crimes.
Those indicted include Fabio Schvartsman, Vale CEO at the time of the disaster.
‘It would be symbolic, if someone high ranking went to jail,’ says Letícia. ‘But that doesn’t solve things. People have the feeling that someone has been punished, but if it hadn’t been that particular president in charge it would have been someone else and things would’ve unfolded in exactly the same way.’
With Brazil unlikely to make the necessary structural changes – at least in the current political climate – the future for communities living downhill from tailings dams looks uncertain.
‘With everyone we talked to, we’ve been very clear: it will happen again,’ says Mônica. ‘Bento wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last. And Brumadinho won’t be the last. It will happen again.’