About three weeks ago, on November 5, a dam burst in the district of Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. In a matter of hours, approximately 60 million cubic metres of red thick mud of iron ore waste reached the small village of Bento Rodrigues and later, Paracatu. Eventually the mud made its way to one of the most important rivers in the southeast region of Brazil, the Rio Doce, travelling for over 500 km and reaching the coast of the state of Espírito Santo last week weekend. The dam belonged to the mining company Samarco, a joint venture between Brazilian Vale and Australian BHP.
Described as “the worst mining accident in Brazil’s history” by the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama, the damage caused by this disaster is still hard to calculate. So far, at least 11 people were confirmed killed while 15 are still missing. Bento Rodrigues, a village 250 years old with circa 600 inhabitants, and Paracatu, 100 years old and home to 70 families were both completely destroyed, buried by the mudflow. Having lost their houses, lands, and livelihood, these people are now hosted in Mariana, while Samarco is building 700 houses for the victims.
Once the mud reached the Rio Doce, it also immediately impacted on the provision of water to half a million people in 9 cities in the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. The city of Governador Valadares declared state of public calamity, having to interrupt the provision of water from the Rio Doce, as tests indicated that the level of iron concentrated in the water was 10 thousand times higher than what was tolerable for consumption. The huge amount of solid residues made impossible any water treatment in the short run. The situation led the city’s population to despair; causing mutiny to get access to all available bottled water in the shops.
Further laboratory analyses taken in different parts of the river found that the water now contained heavy metals such as lead, aluminium, iron, copper, barium, boron and even mercury, making its use impossible, even for irrigation. The ‘death’ of the Rio Doce directly affected the populations living close to the river and whose livelihoods depended on it, including indigenous population. Needless to say, all this has a major impact in the fauna and flora of the affected area. A quick look at YouTube shows numerous videos of the drama lived by animals caught in the mud and dying trapped and asphyxiated.
The long-term effects of the disaster still need to be properly estimated. So far, the only agreement is that any recovery of the affected land and the Rio Doce will take years, in fact decades (some say 100 years to recover the Rio Doce). As the mud has just reached the Atlantic coast, we don’t even know yet how much it will spread into the Ocean. All we know is that thousands of people will have to find other means of livelihood, many will have to move, leaving behind their land, and also their history, even their identity in some cases.
For days the press reported that the causes of the ‘accident’ were unknown. Samarco referred to the occurrence of small earthquakes just before the disaster. But according to the centre of seismology of the University of San Paulo, the stronger of these tremors had magnitude 2.6 degrees, and took place about 5km from the barrage. As noted by specialists, below 3 degrees these movements are imperceptible and could only damage a structure that was already fragile and unstable.
Nearly two weeks after the disaster, Samarco’s director of operations and infrastructure publicly affirmed that “It is not the case to apologize to the population of Mariana”; instead, it is time to focus on the victim’s assistance and keep investigating the causes that led to the ‘accident’.
Well, let’s clarify a few things about the ‘accident’. Samarco has officially stated that it has always complied with the security norms related to its activities. In one of its report, it states having spent R$88.3 million in environment risk management in 2014, besides an extra R$80 million to increase security and a total of 1356 hours training of its employees.
Yet, it is also the case that in the last 19 years Samarco had 23 judicial notices from environmental agencies of the state of Minas Gerais precisely on this domain. In 2005 and 2007 two infractions were related to irregularities in the same dam that later collapsed. Also, in 2013, the Federal Public Ministry issued a statement warning about the risks posed by the dam that collapsed.
In spite of this, in 2014, there was a huge increase in Samarco’s activities carried in the region, with a production of an additional 9.5 million yearly tonnes of iron ore that year. Obviously, this means more waste to be poured into the dams (for every ton of processed ore, nearly the same amount of waste is produced). No mention was made regarding increasing the capacity of the existing dams. What we know is that 11 days after the dam burst, Samarco admitted that two other dams, next to the one that burst, were at risk of collapsing as well and urgent measures were taken to prevent another tragedy.
Bizarre vs. rational responses…
Now picture this: when the dam burst, Samarco had no siren or alarm system to inform the population about it! They had to call people in the community to inform them about the ‘accident’. Following the destruction of the villages the victims wanted to go back there to try and rescue any person and animals who may have survived, as well as try to get any belongings that were left. However, Samarco, invoking the concern with people’ security’, forbade any access to the village, which sparked strong feelings among local people. In fact, local activists questioned the decision, asking how come the one party who caused the disaster was the only one to have access to the site.
Oddly enough, considering the extent of the catastrophe, it took president Dilma 7 days to visit the devastated area. Perhaps less surprisingly, the governor of Minas Gerais Fernando Pimentel stated in an interview that “We have to be solidary both with the enterprise (Samarco), which is also a victim, and the population and the workers”. Seriously??!!
In the meantime, the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais started an investigation to identify the causes of the accident. More emphatically, both the state prosecutor and the republic sub-prosecutor agreed that ‘a dam does not burst randomly’ and that there were several flaws in the way Samarco responded to the accident. Judicial actions have been taken and Samarco got R$300 million blocked as a guarantee that it will cover the damages to the victims of the disaster.
While the waste was making its way to the sea, the federal justice in the state of Espírito Santo also demanded Samarco to take urgent measures to contain the mudflow, fixing a R$10 million fine for each day of non compliance of the decision. In practice, no efficient measure was taken and the attempts to ‘block’ and ‘contain’ the disaster have proved useless. As I write, the toxic waste is now spreading through the Brazilian coast…
What is really the problem?
3 days ago, a public march took place in Mariana. The reason: many people wanted to show their support to Samarco. Their point was that of course the company needs to be held accountable for the disaster; however, they don’t want it to be shut off permanently, as the city is dependent on the revenues coming from mining — not only the jobs provided by Samarco, but also all the services (shops, rents, ‘everything’…).
Personally, I don’t know what is more sad: the disaster or the fact that so many people believe that there is only one possible way to handle the local economy. Minas Gerais’ history is based on mining activities since colonial times. If this has provided some kind of revenue to the state, it has also been responsible for slavery, environmental degradation and a series of social problems.
Now lets’ just think for a moment: who gets what from mining? And why is Minas Gerais dependent on mining? Let me stress that Minas Gerais’ political landscape is severely affected by corruption (unfortunately an endemic problem in Brazil). As in June this year, 39 mayors were facing lawsuits because of corruption. Mariana alone had numerous exchange of mayors over the last few years, some staying in charge as little as 15 days! Yes, 15 days! Of course one cannot blame Samarco for governmental embezzlement, but the point is that the expansion of mining and corruption may feed each other, while deviating resources that should be used for alternative models of development and sustainable growth in the region.
The point is, if Samarco is responsible for this disaster, so is the political environment that allowed its activities to take place the way they did. In fact, this very year, the government of Minas Gerais approved a law project (No. 2946) to accelerate the concession of environmental licenses in the mining sector. Note that the state of Minas Gerais already has more than 700 dams of ore waste! Do we need more? And the big question: where will this waste go in the long run? How will it affect the soil and the possibility of economic diversification in the region?
But the problem is not restricted to Minas Gerais. Corporate interests have highly informed political dynamics in Brazil. Last year (election year), all major parties received a huge amount of money from Vale and its subsidiary companies. The total amount ‘donated’ by Vale to political parties was 48.85 million, over 50% higher than the valued disbursed in 2014. The right-wing PMDB alone received nearly half of the total amount (R$ 23.55 million). And guess what, the PMDB currently controls the mining sector in Brazil, indicating the minister of Mining and Energy as well as most chiefs of the Departments of National Mineral Production.
The PT (party of president Dilma) received a total of R$ 8.25 million, and even small left wing parties received donations from Vale, the notable exception being the radical left-wing PSOL (see report with details of campaign donations here). That said, how strange it is that the external commission created to monitor the Samarco tragedy is composed mostly of members belonging to the parties financed by Vale?
Trapped in a vicious circle of structural violence
In a 1969 article, Johan Galtung stated that violence is “the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is”. He added:
“…the potential level of realization is that which is possible with a given level of insight and resources. If insight and/or resources are monopolized by a group or class or are used for other purposes, then the actual level falls below the potential level, and violence is present in the system.”
There is no doubt that the Samarco disaster was avoidable. And when I say this, I do not mean that the dam needed to be safer, that improved means of containing the mudflow needed to be put in place, or anything like that. I mean that better ways of generating social and economic development could have been implemented for a long time. If a political system allows corporate interests to determine the path of a country’s economic development, this system is not democratic. It is a privatized political system that responds to the interests of a rich minority. A state that is concerned with its population would invest in diversification and sustainability, in human security and education.
You may say, ‘yeah, but who votes for these politicians…?’ Someone once said that each country has the politicians their people deserve. In my understanding, this is inaccurate. Where inequality is huge, when education is handicapped, and where the press is monopolised by political interests, it is very difficult for people to have access to accurate information. In fact, and unsurprisingly, freedom of press has become worse in Brazil as the political tensions have increased in the last couple of years. Today, the country is considered only ‘partly free’ according to the 2015 Freedom House assessment, and violence against journalists has been on the rise.
Let me be clear, I don’t’ want to minimise the importance of the mining sector and the many benefits derived from the use of mineral resources in the advancement of technology and improved infrastructure in our world. However, I would like to highlight two issues. First, at the local level, the problems caused by mining may easily outweigh its benefits (including forced displacement of populations and environmental degradation). This brings an issue of justice and fairness regarding the use of mineral resources. Second, the increase of mining activities in recent years is directly linked to global patterns of consumption. As I see it, we consumers are all responsible for this trend. The question we should ask ourselves is: do I really need to change my mobile phone every 2-3 years? Do I need to buy the latest version of an iPad and throw away my ‘old’ one? Do I need to change my car as often as I can afford? More importantly, where does all this trash go at the end of the day and what are the implications for future generations?
(Neo)Liberals would say it’s not only about consumption, but also about job creation. I beg to disagree. Human beings are gifted with immense creative potential and we should never limit our ability to come up with alternative systems where a ‘job’ will not necessarily entail environmental destruction. I truly believe we can do better!
For live updates about the disaster (in Portuguese): http://cobertura.brasildefato.com.br/ and #BentoFala https://www.facebook.com/groups/528010130687236/530800353741547/?notif_t=group_activity
How to help? Currently aid can be channeled to local organizations and groups in the region. Financial help can be made directly to the bank accounts of the municipal council of Mariana. More info: http://www.buzzfeed.com/alexandreorrico/ajudar-vitimas-do-desastre-em-mariana#.ipp88rrX2