In November, two mining dams ruptured releasing enormous amounts of toxic waste into the River Doce, South-East Brazil. Entire villages disappeared, vegetation and wildlife were destroyed, and 18 people were killed. Experts say damages will have consequences for decades and call it the biggest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.
In February the responsible mining companies reached an agreement to pay US$5.1bn in damages to the Brazilian government. But Greenpeace among others are criticising the agreement, calling it an insult to the hundreds of people whose lives have been destroyed, while new evidence is found that problems at the mine goes back almost 10 years.
The tragedy occurred around 4pm in the rural village of Bento Rodrigues, near the city of Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais on 5th November. Two tailing dams, built to contain waste from a local iron ore mine, suddenly collapsed, releasing 62 million cubic metres of toxic mining waste. The sludge surged through the village in a wave several metres high, instantly destroying houses, animals and nature.
A local woman was driving through the village on her motorbike honking and yelling that the dam had burst and that people should get out. But 18 did not survive. Among those were a five-year old boy who was last was seen floating on a mattress on the mud stream. His body was never found.
“This is one of the biggest environmental disasters of all times, especially concerning environmental losses and social damage (…) Doce River will feel its consequences for decades,” Fabiana Alves, Climate and Energy Campaigner from Greenpeace Brazil explained to the Argentina Independent.
The sludge of mining waste, containing arsenic, lead, chromium and a variety of other heavy metals, spread along the 853km Doce River system, contaminating everything in its path. Leaving behind nothing but a brown trail of heavy mud, the toxic waste eventually found its way to the Atlantic Ocean.
“This mud wave has killed anything that was alive in these water systems,” Marilene Ramos, head of Brazilian Environment Authority, told the Australian programme Four Corners.
At least 1,500 hectares of vegetation and wildlife have been destroyed but the full extent of the damages are, even five months after, still unknown to the authorities.
Besides the 18 people that were killed, hundreds more have been displaced due to damage from the sludge. And for indigenous communities like the Krenak, who depend on the river and its natural environment to survive and to keep traditional culture alive, the disaster has caused major damages.
“My people live close to Rio Doce, the river is a sacred entity for us and provides food. One of the main characteristics of the Krenak community is that we hunt our fish,” Douglas Krenak, leader of the indigenous community, explained, adding that all living creatures in the river died as a consequence of the toxic spill. “The disaster did not affect just the sustainability of the community; the cultural side was also very affected.”
The indigenous Krenak community consists of around 400 people and covers almost 5,000 hectares. The members mostly lives off of fishing and are completely dependent on the nature to survive.
“It is very hard to quantify this kind of thing. How can you measure a crime against biodiversity? There is no money that will pay this; the river will never be the same. (…) Many living creatures and endemic microorganisms have died and it is not possible to recreate them in a lab. It will not be the same river,” said Krenak.
The iron ore mine was operated by Samarco, a joint venture between Australian BHP Billiton and the Brazilian mining giant Vale SA, who each own 50% of the company.
On 24th February the companies reached an agreement with the Brazilian government to pay US$5.1bn in damages caused by the spill.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff talked in positive terms about the agreement at the signing. “We are making history with this accord,” Rousseff said according to media outlets. “There will be complete restoration of socio-economic conditions and of the affected environment. And I want to emphasise: there will be no financial limits until there is full reparation. We want to build a new life on the ruins,” she said.
However, the agreement is being highly criticised by Greenpeace and other groups for not being transparent and not involving the people actually affected by the collapse.
“[The agreement] gives mining companies the power to set the value of the indemnities directly to those affected, and this can be better for the enterprise, since there is no collective force,” says Alves, from Greenpeace Brazil.
“[The agreement] was very arbitrary, because there was no representation of civil society. It was just the government and the company – no fishermen, no riverside inhabitants, no neighbourhood associations, no indigenous representative,” complained indigenous leader Douglas Krenak.
“The money that was put together is being used by the government and by the company; it is not being channlled to the affected population. The government is investing in new cars, research facilities, and the company created an alert and prevention system. The company caused the disaster and is “generating” an income to fix its own problem. This is what we are fighting against, this money needs to be distributed to the people that were affected, not the company.”
There are also questions about the safety controls at the mine before the accident.
The last inspection of the tailing lakes allegedly took place in July 2015, where Samarco concluded that the dams were in “safe conditions.”
Australian investigative journalism programme Four Corners found evidence of problems at the mine dating back almost a decade to the beginning of its construction in 2007, and asked “How did BHP — which had two of its own executives on the Samarco board — not know of the ongoing problems with the dam?” BHP’s chief executive, Andrew Mackenzie, told Four Corners said he was unable to comment until an investigation into communication at the mine was concluded.
Others have also raised concerns about security checks at the mine. “A dam doesn’t break by chance,” prosecutor with the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais, Carlos Eduardo Pinto said. “There is repeated, continual negligence in the actions of a company owned by Vale and BHP.”
In February, Brazilian police charged six of Samarco’s top executives and one contractor with “qualified homicide,” essentially involuntary manslaughter, over the deaths of those killed as a consequence of the dams bursting.
Mining is one of the largest industries in South America, where many countries are leading producers of different mineral resources.
Mining companies, mostly large multinational companies, claim their operations in South America are safe due to the precautions they take, but the Bento Rodrigues disaster is not an isolated event on the continent.
In 2010 a mine collapse in Chile left 33 people trapped 2,300 feet underground for 69 days. The mine was operated by San Esteban Mining Company, which was fined 42 times between 2004 and 2010 for breaching safety regulations. The mining industry is one of the most important sector in the Chilean economy, and an average of 34 people per year have died in mining accidents in Chile since 2000.
Less than two months before the dam collapse in Brazil, over one million litres of cyanide solution were released into the Potrerillos River from the Veladero mine operated by Canada’s Barrick Gold in Argentina’s San Juan province. In 2013, Barrick was also fined US$16 million for environmental offences at the Pascua-Lama mine on the Chilean-Argentinean border.
As the number of disasters climbs and concerns over environmental damage grow, mining is drawing protests and strikes throughout South America, in particular from social groups living near a mine or dam site, indigenous communities fighting for a right to safe homes, and environmental groups fighting to protect wildlife, natural resources and drinking water.
“We are protesting, gathering signatures… The population in Minas Gerais is more conscious nowadays, they are mobilising, blocking rail tracks, going out on the streets, trying to establish a dialogue with the government and companies to make them understand how many people were affected and need help,” Douglas Krenak explains.
Yet on the other side of the debate lies the promise of jobs in rural towns near mining sites. Only a few weeks ago Samarco’s CEO announced that the mine will re-open by the start of the fourth quarter. This decision followed protests in Mariana where people demanded the mine to re-open because of the major rise in unemployment after the mine was closed.
While the people of Mariana are still struggling to get access to clean drinking water, build up new homes from the ground and seek remedy for something that is hardly possible, attention seems to be elsewhere.
Five months after the biggest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history, the government and both national and international media are focused on the Rousseff’s impeachment threat, mega-corruption scandals, and recession in Latin America’s largest economy.
Even though Mariana is a tiny spot on the map of the majestic country, the disaster is far from over for the people in the area.. Douglas Krenak explains: “The affected will keep suffering – public health is precarious, the social system is precarious, we are heading to the bottom, this tragedy is creating problems now and will create more in the future.”
Additional reporting by Bruna Gala.