This article first appeared in Comboni Missions magazine spring 2018/19
by: Kathleen M. Carroll
Mining giant Vale just unleashed the largest environmental disaster ever in Brazil. Again.
On January 25, 2019, a massive mining dam collapsed in south central Brazil, devastating the nearby community of Brumadinho. The dam was 280 feet tall—just slightly shorter than the Statue of Liberty—and nearly a half-mile wide. The dirt structure liquefied, releasing a torrent of mud and debris so powerful that the town in the valley below was all but erased. The death toll continues to mount with 186 confirmed dead and the 122 missing presumed to be so. “It is easier to count the living than the dead,” one rescue worker said.
The company responsible for this disaster, Vale, is the world’s largest producer of nickel and iron ore. It has a reputation for aggressive business practices and disregard for legal and environmental regulation. In 2012, one nonprofit described Vale as the corporation with the most “contempt for the environment and human rights” in the world.
Still, few were surprised at the calamity. In 2015, the Samarco dam failure decimated the Doce River basin. An entire town was buried, a river polluted all the way to the ocean (and beyond), and 19 lives lost when a dam owned by a subsidiary of Vale, BHP, collapsed. At the time, it was the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history. In terms of body count alone, the Brumadinho disaster is ten times worse.
The legal consequences are just beginning. In mid-February, eight employees of Vale were arrested on charges of murder. If it sounds as though the government is taking a harsh approach, don’t be fooled. Twenty-two officials were charged in the Samarco disaster; none have been sentenced. On the civil side, Vale and BHP brokered a court settlement in late 2018. Vale has yet to balance its fines against nearly $36 billion in revenue for the past year. Company officers left the courtroom with plans to begin another, bigger dam in the same area within the week.
Mining is the principal industry in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil (the name itself means “general mines”). It is an economic powerhouse and the source of livelihood for most of the area’s residents. This is the reason many elected officials cite for what might appear to be laxity in enforcing safety regulations.
Another reason may be that more than two-thirds of the congressional representatives from Minas Gerais received donations from Vale. Public pressure following the 2015 disaster forced legislators to create an Extraordinary Commission on Dams, but an investigation by Al- Jazeera revealed that “more than half of the legislators appointed to the commission had either received substantial campaign donations from mining companies or were facing corruption charges for their previous actions in office.”
The alliance between government representatives and the mining companies that finance them casts a shadow on the hope that corporate officials will be held accountable or that the victims of either crisis will be compensated. But the darkness does not end there.
According to a report published by the New York Times, “There are 87 mining dams in Brazil built like the one that failed. And all but four of them have been rated by the government as equally vulnerable, or worse. Even more alarming, at least 27 similarly built dams sit directly uphill from cities or towns, with more than 100,000 people living in especially risky areas if they failed.”
The residents of Minas Gerais, have little choice. The despoiled environment eliminates other traditional means of support, such as farming, fishing, or forestry. For many, the only jobs available are in the mines. At best, they can expect low pay, hard labor, and health-compromising conditions. At worst, another Samarco, another Brumadinho. Whether slowly or all at once, mining will kill them.