The collapse of two dams has caused one of the greatest environmental disasters that has ever occurred in Brazil and in the world. It was not an accident.
On 5 November 2015, sixty two million cubic metres of mudflow thick with toxic mining waste, spilled from the collapse of two dams and engulfed and devastated Bento Rodrigues, a district in the municipality of Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais. The dams are owned by the mining company Samarco, a joint venture between top iron ore miners Brazil’s Vale SA and Australia’s BHP.
That was just the beginning of a tragedy foretold, which has quickly become the largest environmental disaster in Brazilian history and one of the largest industrial crimes in the world. The mining company, in order to save costs at the expense of safety, failed to take account of the expert report commissioned in 2013 that had already highlighted the fragility of these structures. While being aware of the fragility, the company increased the pressure on dams in order to get more profits in times of crisis. In fact, despite the fact that the price of iron, which is the main revenue source for the company, has fallen by 76 percent since 2009, Samarco has continued to gain huge profits by increasing the iron ore production of 56 percent in four years. In just a few minutes from the dam collapse, Bento Rodrigues was destroyed, and its inhabitants, who are estimated to be about 600, lost their homes, their village and their history, and those who could not escape also lost their lives. Seventeen people were reported dead, and an uncertain number remains missing.
The flood also reached other regions, and contaminated water continued to flow into North Gualaxo River, Carmel River and Rio Doce and spread over adjacent lands. In less than three weeks, tailings travelled more than 700 kilometers, passing through the dozens of coastal villages of the States of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, heading toward the Atlantic Ocean. The stain of mud is now reaching the Abrolhos archipelago, a nature reserve where access to people is forbidden in order to preserve the ecosystem, with the sole exception of an island where visitor land access is limited to daytime hours.
The multinationals Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton have killed the Rio Doce and its river system, one of the most important of Brazil. No fine will ever compensate for the destruction of villages, rivers, fish, animals, of the tens of thousands of trees and plants, and for the destruction of entire ecosystems that provided water, food and livelihood to hundreds of thousands of people.
The catastrophe also affected the ancestral lands of the Krenak indigenous people. “Watu and Kwen” (they murdered the Rio Doce): their voice of grief speaks. ‘Watu’, is the real name of the river which was the water source of the reserve where this tribe has lived, suffering looting and abuses. Three centuries ago the conquistadores sailed down the river to plunder the precious metals of those lands, bringing death and desolation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the railway, which was built to transport minerals and the coffee from the plantations, divided their territory again.
The death of the river has been perhaps, to date, the worst attack against the livelihood of the Krenak people, and it was caused by dams and other works which in recent decades have been built throughout their territory. These people never stopped struggling against the abuses perpetrated in their land and they still continue to do so. The death of the Watu river was a catastrophe to this tribe “The fish are dead and so are all the medical herbs we picked up along its banks. We used to teach children to swim in the river, we danced and invoked the rain along its banks. Now we can’t even get close to it”, said Laurita Charuk, 72, a leader of the Krenak tribe. “This is painful… when we found out that the mining company was responsible for the disaster, we blocked a railway line run by Vale in protest at the destruction caused. No amount of money can compensate the destruction of the Watu river”.
The total evaluation of damages is still unclear. According to Samarco, 1300 people were directly impacted by the disaster. According to the authorities of Minas Gerais instead, they amount to more than one million, taking into account the population of 35 settlements, in that State alone. The collapse of the dams has cut off drinking water, which was supplied by the river, for at least 500,000 people. The mud, which contains high levels of toxic heavy metals, is thick and settled in the bights of the river in such a way that it is difficult to foresee how long it will take and whether it will be possible to completely clean it up. In the meantime, the deadly deluge continues to flow and to impact on the environment.
Amazingly, the mining companies, to date, still declare that the causes of the ‘accident’ of the dams are ‘unknown’. It’s shocking the way they insist in calling a crime which was perpetrated with full knowledge of the facts an ‘accident’. Mining companies act according to the industrial model of production and consumption, which is based on aggressive exploitation of resources, and they are aware of the risks it implies and of their consequences that most of the times affect the poor and most vulnerable. Rivers have always been a source of life, that is why peoples settled down along their banks. The resources and ecosystems which are essential to the livelihood of many are often spoiled for the profits of a tiny minority. A few weeks after the tragedy in Mariana, torrential floods devastated vast areas of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil; they were not ‘natural disasters’ either, but preventable tragedies.
The social movements and organizations of these countries reported that what was a natural phenomenon had turned into a disaster because of the aggressive exploitation and uncontrolled extraction of resources as well as because of the construction of dams. Needless to say that deforestation, due to the implementation of areas for transgenic soy monocultures, as well as for monocultures of pine and eucalyptus, along with an intensive use of agrotoxics, is also responsible for these catastrophes. The abuse of natural resources led to the destruction of ecosystems,and the high erosion has made the soil become waterproof thus impeding water absorption.
The environmental devastation is never an accident: it is an integral part of the industrial model of production and consumption. The criminal abuse of ecosystems is expected to increase. We have no other alternative than calling this modus operandi into question, while proposing practicable alternatives and supporting the local communities that never gave up fighting to protect the ecosystems that guarantee our livelihood. (G.F.)