COP21. President Dilma Rousseff promises not to let a deadly iron mine disaster undermine the country’s ambitious environmental commitments in Paris.

Brazil’s toxic sludge problem

An environmental disaster of incalculable proportions, comparable to that of Fukushima, began in Brazil on Nov. 5 at an iron mine owned by the company Samarco. In Mariana, a town in the southeast of the country, two wastewater dams broke, unleashing a flood of toxic sludge that buried the population of Bento Rodrigues, 20 minutes from Mariana, caused 17 deaths and injured 75. Twelve people are still missing, and about 500 are displaced. More than 250,000 people lost their supply of drinking water.

The more than 50 million cubic meters of waste polluted the Doce River and flowed downstream, from the rainforest to the Atlantic, where the toxins filtered into the ocean. On Nov. 24, new alarms sounded about the possible rupture of two other dams in Mariana that would be even more devastating.

Samarco — whose partners are Vale, the largest mining company in Brazil, which was privatized 18 years ago, and the Australian BHP Billiton, one of the largest in the world — after having denied the toxicity of the sludge, has now agreed to pay $260 million for cleanup and compensation. The Brazilian government considers this “only a first installment,” given that the damages are incalculable.

“Reducing the cost of mining eliminates environmental and labor protections,” the unionist Marcio Zonta, of the National Movement for Popular Sovereignty Against Mining, or MAM, told il manifesto recently. According to a report in Brasil de Fato newspaper, Samarco had prepared an emergency plan in 2009 that, had it been applied, would have prevented the tragedy.

MAM is part of Via Campesina Brasil and fights against big mining companies in Latin America. South America is one of the regions with the largest mineral reserves in the world and therefore particularly attractive to those seeking profit from the growing global demand for iron, gold and nickel over the last decade. Multinationals bypass the sovereignty of governments and people, polluting and colonizing territories and economies. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the infringements will be even worse.

When I met Zonta in São Paolo, he explained the Mariana disaster and criticized the new mining code being debated in Congress. “It is a body of law basically tailored to large companies,” he said. “The opinions of the people and the miners, who often die before age 45, have not been heard.” Mining, he said, “is a national issue that requires a global approach. Everyone says it, but the people continue to carry the weight of the privatizations of the ‘90s. Instead, [the companies] are the only ones to decide where to dig and why.” Mariana, he said, was “a disaster waiting to happen, a structural disaster that requires a large mobilization to enable workers to regain control.”

On Nov. 25, four young members of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement ended up in prison for protesting before Congress against Vale and the mining code. The kids had staged a performance art using water and clay to represent the flow of mud and had smeared it against a wall, then cleaned it. The charge against them is grotesque: “environmental crime.”

“The Doce River traverses many communities between the state of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo,” Zonta said. “Toxic substances have destroyed flora and fauna, the fishing economy and polluted the coast of Espirito Santo. It will take many years before the recovery plan announced by Dilma Rousseff will have any effect.”

The government has put together what it calls “Operation Noah’s Ark,” relying on the participation of environmental groups and experts. But you can hardly save the land animals, fish and turtles, already at risk of extinction. And the soil will remain infertile for many years. The toxic sludge has polluted more than 40 miles of coastline, rich in fish and a popular tourist destination preferred by surfers. The U.N. said the measures taken by the government are “clearly insufficient.”

The Mariana disaster “will not diminish the weight of Brazil on climate negotiations,” José Antonio Marcondes, the Brazilian foreign ministry’s environment secretary, told reporters at COP21. “It was a tragic accident that has nothing to do with the climate. We are now working to remedy it.”

At the Paris conference, Brazil is bringing “an ambitious contribution,” presented by President Rousseff, accompanied by Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira and Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira. The president outlined the country’s objectives on Sept. 27, ahead of the U.N. General Assembly: to reduce CO2 emissions by 37 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, an effort that could rise to 43 percent by 2030. To accomplish this, the country has promised to increase renewable energy production — including hydraulic power — to 45 percent of total energy coverage. This would be well above the global average of 13 percent.

Given that forests help offset greenhouse gas emissions, Rousseff has also promised to end illegal logging in the Amazon within the decade. By 2025, Brazil also plans to recover about 12 million hectares of degraded land. After the Mariana disaster, they will have to redouble their efforts.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!