It started with the boom of a dam bursting – in a split second the whole structure seemed to implode. A tsunami of mud, trees, buses, trailers and buildings swept miles downstream, filling a river valley and killing most people and animals in its path. Since then, a deep silence has haunted the city of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais, southeast Brazil.
The state fire department has counted 157 bodies. More than 180 people are still missing, presumed dead.
The Brumadinho dam collapse of January 25 was by far the worst disaster of its kind in Brazil’s history. Now the industrial powerhouse of South America is wrestling with a question. Can it ever force the industries that thrive on its prodigious natural wealth to weigh people and the environment in the balance, with profit?
The dead were mothers, fathers, children. Some were farmers, many worked in iron ore mines like the one whose waste was piled behind the Brumadinho dam. Most were from the state where I was born, from families like mine. And it wasn’t just lives that were destroyed, but trust as well.
This wasn’t the first time. Three years ago, 130 miles away in the city of Mariana, another dam burst, killing 19 people and poisoning the river after which Vale SA, the company involved in both tragedies, is named.
Day after day, Brazilians have watched in astonishment as more videos of the Brumadinho disaster emerge – more stories of loss, more revelations about the company’s disregard for basic safety. Brumadinho has become a shorthand for the close and lethal relationship between the mining industry and government at all levels.
According to Folha de Sao Paulo, one of the country’s leading newspapers, Vale knew a dam collapse would destroy many of its own facilities, including offices and a cafe where many employees were having lunch as it gave way.
Last year, prosecutors produced evidence that a Vale subsidiary knew of concerns over the Mariana dam six months before it collapsed, and yet did nothing. The company denied the charges but the lessons of Mariana were not learnt.
Less than a month after that tragedy, in 2015, the Minas Gerais state legislature approved a relaxation of its mining laws. Last year a bill aimed at tightening rules on mining licences was defeated despite being championed by public prosecutors, environmental groups and 60,000 signatures of support. A local newspaper found that in 2014, the last year companies were allowed to donate directly to local political candidates, seven in ten members of the state legislature had received donations from mining companies.
Maria Teresa Corujo, a public representative on several state oversight committees, wept as she told me she was waiting for the results of an investigation into Vale.
“If they confirm that the dam was not stable and the company didn’t care, this is worse than anything I’ve ever seen,” she said. Two months ago she was the only member of a state mining committee to oppose expanding activities at the Brumadinho mine. At that meeting the dam’s threat level was downgraded, and licences were granted for more work in the area with no further need for safety checks.
Fabio Schvartsman, its chief executive, has halted work on ten dams being built in the same way as the one at Brumadinho (nine more have already been decommissioned). These dams are cheap to build because they use mining waste rather than earth and rocks, but they are less safe.
Hundreds of similar structures are scattered across Minas Gerais and neighbouring southern states; each one a reminder of the curse of natural wealth, Brazilian style, and a disaster waiting to happen. Assuming the missing are eventually added to the dead, more than twice as many will have died in Brumadinho as in Aberfan in Wales, where 116 children and 28 adults died under a collapsing slag heap in 1966.
That day was a turning point for industrial regulation in Britain. Few believe such a turning point has come yet for Brazil, although Vale is in full damage-limitation mode. A state judge has frozen assets worth £2.3bn, citing experts who said sensors could have been installed to warn of strains on the dam structure. She also ordered the arrest of five people who had certified its safety, including three Vale employees.
These five have already been released, as fears of another tragedy spread across the state. People in the historic city of Congonhas, a Unesco world heritage site thanks to its rococo church and religious sculptures, fear their town could be next. Like Brumadinho and Mariana, Congonhas depends on tourism as well as mining.
Minas Gerais means “general mines”, a name that originated in the plundering of its natural resources when Brazil was a Portuguese possession. These mines gave gold and diamonds to the world, and now ship millions of tonnes of iron ore each year to China.
In a 2017 Vale published a report on its activities in Minas Gerais from which two things stand out. The first is its slogan: “É bom pra Vale quando é bom pra todo mundo” – “When it’s good for everyone, it’s good for Vale”.
Then, towards the end, it mentions that the company has been cutting costs. Since Brumadinho, this admission has deepened anger over Vale’s constant drive to satisfy shareholders, described by some as a new colonialism. But the local picture is more nuanced. Some communities depend so heavily on mining that three years after the Mariana disaster victims are being called profiteers simply for seeking compensation. Raquel Oliveira, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, says victims and their relatives are even blamed for the mine’s temporary closure.
In Mariana, Vale has reportedly put pressure on towns to drop lawsuits and settle for basic compensation. In Brumadinho there are reports that emergency workers searching for bodies are not receiving full pay because the state is in crisis, while mining firms enjoy tax breaks as payback for supporting key political figures.
Under the new regime of President Jair Bolsonaro, activists fear things could get worse. One of his election promises was to relax environmental standards. He has backed down from a threat to absorb the environment ministry into the ministry of agriculture, but has made the latter responsible for land claimed by native Brazilians – which used to be the remit of the more sympathetic indigenous affairs agency.
The new president has also refused to host the 2019 UN climate change conference because of plans to create a conservation corridor in the Amazon. Conflicts over land have already given Brazil the dubious distinction of being the world’s lowest-ranked country for the number of environmentalists murdered in 2017, according to Global Witness.
Bolsonaro’s new environment minister, Ricardo Salles, has been accused of profiting from mining companies while Sao Paulo state environment secretary. As for Bolsonaro himself, he has flown over the disaster scene without landing and asked six ministers to supervise the government response.
Brazil’s environmental protection agency has fined Vale the equivalent of £52m for the Brumadinho collapse. Its Samarco subsidiary, a joint venture with the British-Australian mining giant BHP, has been fined £73m over the Mariana disaster, but the company has challenged the fine in court and hasn’t yet paid a penny. None of the 21 Samarco executives sued over the tragedy has yet been brought to trial.
Bolsonaro’s new committee says it aims to update dam regulations. It has recommended an immediate inspection of all dams that pose a potential threat. But the national mining agency has 35 employees to oversee 790 mining dams, so most inspectors are hired by mining companies.
Alessandra Cardoso, from the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies, a think tank that scrutinises the federal budget, says funds earmarked to oversee 200 different mining activities amounted to just £125m last year, which was then halved to help reduce the deficit.
“People are saying you can’t blame this administration,” she says. “But [regulation] is a problem for the Brazilian state and now it’s a problem for Bolsonaro’s administration.”
Without more regulation and transparency, Brazil’s environment and people will always take second place to commercial interests. “There is a daily tragedy of air and soil pollution, basic sanitation and pesticides,” says Luis Barreto, president of Abrampa, an organisation of environmental lawyers. “In the Amazon, the greatest threats are mining, hydro-electric power plants and the advance of agribusiness.”
To this list Brumadinho has added dams, merely the latest symptom of an abusive relationship between Brazilian industry and its environment. This is not a relationship that can be abandoned; it has to be fixed.