After Mariana in 2015, now comes Brumadinho in 2019. Another environmental disaster has struck Brazil—yet another tragedy tied to mining activities. As of late Sunday, 58 people were confirmed dead when another damn owned by Vale burst, burying workers and nearby residents in a wall of mud. At least 300 people are missing, many of those presumed dead.
The Minas Gerais state has always been the heart of mining exploitation in Brazil: its name literally means “General Mines,” and mining forms the core of its economy. The Rio Doce cuts a path through its landscape, but the river valley also bears the heavy marks of environmental devastation from the numerous mineral extraction plants and the construction of industrial dams. Open-air mines are scattered all over the river basin, which also features the largest industrial complex for the production of steel in Latin America.
Greenpeace Brazil said in a statement on their website: “[This new disaster] is a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and the mining companies responsible for the tragedy with Samarco Dam, in Mariana, also controlled by Vale. … Minerals are a finite resource that must be exploited strategically and under a strict licensing and inspection regime.”
“Cases like these are not accidents, but environmental crimes that should be investigated, punished, and reparations made,” Greenpeace added.
The socio-environmental disaster at Brumadinho is yet another foreseeable tragedy, as the population of the town had formed a committee that had been sounding the alarm for the past 10 years against the advance of mining activities in the area, organizing numerous protest activities. Despite the local protests, last December the State Council on Environmental Policy authorized an expansion by 88 percent of the two mines of Brumadinho and Sarzedo. In addition, another crucial factor was that moderate seismic activity had been recorded in the region over the past few months, which caused alarm among the population and led to repeated calls for the dams be checked.
According to the Environment Ministry, the failure of the dam, built in 1976, led to a flood by around 15 million cubic meters of mud and iron residues, which poured into the Rio Paraopeba after destroying the mine’s buildings and swallowing up entire neighborhoods of the city along the way. The president of Vale claimed that it was an “unexpected and unexplained” collapse, and that in August 2018 the company had obtained a certification of the dam’s stability. Vale is the leading Brazilian mining group, with a strong international presence that makes it the largest manufacturer and largest exporter of iron ore in the world. The company was originally set up with public capital in the mid-20th century, before being privatized in 1997. It is currently owned by Brazilian banks and international capital.
Over the past decades, local territories, populations and workers have been paying a high price because of the mining activities carried out by Vale in Brazil. In 2012, at the Davos Forum, The Berne Declaration, an international environmentalist NGO, awarded Vale with the title of “Worst Company in the World” due to the fact that their activities fail to respect the environment, local communities and human rights. A Brazilian court ordered the mining company to pay $27 million in damages to the Kayapo and Xikrin indigenous communities for having polluted the waters of the river Catete in northern Brazil, causing serious ill effects on the health of the inhabitants.
We are witnessing the return of the infamous “extractive capitalism,“ dominated by multinational corporations which exploit natural resources and produce environmental and social devastation. This is the form that mining activity in Brazil has been taking on more and more. This model of “extractivism” is not limited to mining, but is being applied for all natural resources. However, mining has become its most savage and predatory manifestation.
At the Davos Forum, Bolsonaro boasted that “Brazil is the country that respects the environment the most”—all the while announcing laws that will reduce the extent of environmental controls in order to boost the economy. With that, he announced nothing else than more preventable tragedies.