For most people, the thought of Brazil evokes images of beautiful beaches, lush rainforests and vibrant carnivals. It has been a country that has captivated the imagination of Westerners since the Portuguese invaded centuries ago. What doesn’t come to mind is colonialism, institutional racism, ecological exploitation and corruption that lies at the core of Brazil’s heritage.
The recent dam collapses at Vale SA-operated mines in Córrego do Feijão (2019), and Bento Rodrigues (2015), should not be treated as isolated tragedies; rather they are symptoms of Brazil’s incredibly complex history and politics. But this isn’t just a story about institutional failures and environmental destruction; more it is a poignant example of defiance, collective action and the power of young people.
The latest collapse happened outside Brumadinho, a small metropolitan area of 33,000 people in the state of Minas Gerais - a state which is well-known in Brazil for creating the nation’s favourites like Pao de queijo (cheese bread) and Cachaça (Brasilian spirit). Minas Gerias translates to “general mining” - a stark reminder of the region’s history as the mineral reserves for colonial Portugal, the legacy of which is a landscape littered with mines.
You need not search too long or too hard to find evidence of just how mineral rich Minas Gerais' is - the soil is stained bright red by iron, which dominates the geology here, as it rusts and bleeds into the rivers, giving everything a burnt sienna dusting.
Not only is the region rich in minerals, it is also an important area for biodiversity, as it forms the border between two of the most diverse biomes on the planet; the Sahado and the Atlantic Rainforest. It is also the beginning of many major rivers, supplying water for both Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro. However, these rivers face severe threats, as waste from the mines pollutes the water, and livestock farming fragments the surrounding forests. For many in this impoverished region, participation in these destructive industries is a necessary evil - with mining and agriculture their only options for income.
Propaganda for the mining industry
Before the disaster, Brumadinho was known mostly for Inhotim; the world’s largest open-air museum. The impressive museum houses over 500 works of art by Brazilian and international artists within 5,000 acres of breath-taking botanical gardens and ponds that have been dyed green to mask the red from the iron in the water.
Situated in the grounds of Bernardo Paz, (a former mining business owner and convicted money launderer); Inhotim is, in reality, a giant propaganda piece for the mining industry, with much of the art featuring mined materials such as iron.
Since the Brumadinho disaster, few people have made the journey to Inhotim, causing some residents to fear that this will have an adverse long-term effect on the number of tourists visiting. As one of the most important employers in the area, a loss of business will have a knock-on effect for the residents.
The area is dominated by Vale - the region's number one employer, and the world's largest producer of iron, nickel, and cobalt. The local railroad that runs through the town centre was once a public line but now the only trains to come through are the giant wagons carrying the hordes of iron ore to Vale’s processing sites, day and night. The roads in and around Brumadinho are battered by the steady stream of trucks laden with ore as they drive to and from the mines, 24hrs a day.
It is difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate the importance and role that mining, and Vale has in the community here. Mining is the seam that binds the community together and everyone here has some connection to it. Vale has always held a venerated position here because the multitude of employee’ benefits made it a great place to work; but this positive picture has crumbled, as Marina from Colletivo Nos explains: “It was always my dream to work for Vale but now I know them as the people who killed my friends.”
The mining and ore extraction processes create a huge volume of liquid byproducts. This toxic waste - including arsenic and mercury - is stored in enormous tailing dams which rank amongst the largest engineered structures on earth. Dam 1 at the Córrego do Feijão mine was built in 1976 by Ferteco Mineração; constructed using the upstream method whereby the tailings themselves are used to build up the dam wall as it fills. Whilst a very common construction method it is the least safe. The same technique was used for the Bento Rodrigues dam in Mariana which collapsed in 2015. There are another 130 dams of this type in the country and all but four have been rated by the government as equally vulnerable, or worse. Even more alarming, at least 27 sit directly uphill from cities or towns, with more than 100,000 people living in especially risky areas if the dams fail.
At around midday the dam in Brumadinho burst, sending 12 million cubic metres of iron extraction waste downstream, destroying everything in its path including two more tailing dams. Among the first buildings destroyed was the cafeteria and the administrative buildings where many of the mine workers were having their lunch. More than 300 people are believed to have died, 20 of whom are still buried beneath the mud. With those who were found, the cause, as stated on their death certificates, simply says “an event in Brumadinho”.
Due to the way people died, (some in groups with their colleagues, others on their own working), the search efforts went through phases of finding victims in the mud. During the first three days, very few bodies were found but then, there was a flurry of discoveries. As many people were being discovered at once, the funerals were conducted at a rapid pace, just one day after being found and identified, families and friends were given just 15 minutes to see their loved one(s) and bid them farewell. The rate of discoveries since that first week has rapidly declined.
The cause of the collapse has still not been confirmed, although a state official told the Reuters Press Agency that all evidence suggested the dam burst was caused by liquefaction - a process by which a solid material such as sand loses strength and stiffness and turns to liquid. This is the same process that led to the 2015 dam collapse in Mariana.
Documents have emerged subsequently that suggest Vale knew the dam needed reinforcements as early as 2009 however, instead of doing the repair work Vale simply took the dam out of operation in 2016.
Instruments used to measure the dam’s pressure had not detected any problems. And tragically, the alarm system installed by Vale in the villages to warn of any risks did not go off. There was no warning and those that survived ran for their lives after hearing the noise; which one waitress described as “a terrifyingly loud rush of water that came out of nowhere.” The café in which she works is 2km from the dam itself but narrowly escaped the mud by just 50m.
An avalanche of mud
As the avalanche of mud raced through the valley at speeds up to 80mph (120kmh) (watch it here), it not only destroyed much of the mines’ infrastructure and buildings but also parts of the nearby villages, Córrego do Feijão and Parque das Cachoeiras, as well as vast areas of agricultural land. Heavy rainfall three days after the initial event caused the mud to travel further causing far more damage than the initial collapse. An area equivalent to 100 football fields now lies beneath a thick layer of mud, which in some areas is more than 15m deep; many people not only lost their loved ones but also their homes and their livelihoods.
On 15th May 2019, movement had been detected on the slope of the tailings dam at the Gongo Soco Mine in Barão de Cocais, Minas Gerais, a mine which has been inactive since 2016. This has placed Vale and the surrounding area in a state of high alert, with officials conducting numerous evacuation drills and preparing the residents for all eventualities.
Vale has started to construct a basin and barriers to limit the flow of the tailings waste, although how effective this will be is unclear. The risk here is high as the collapse of the Gongo Soco dam could act as a trigger for a breach of the Sul Superior Dam which is just 1.5km away and at-risk level 3. The first concerns of a collapse here were raised in February of this year, triggering the evacuation of more than 400 residents in high-risk areas of Barão de Cocais. A further 6,000 residents are being updated of any updates and risks.
Since the movement both the slope of the Gongo Soco mine and the Sul Superior Dam are being monitored 24 hours a day and the forecast of when part of the slope will slip is being reviewed daily. However, Vale argues that there is no technical data that can confirm whether the eventual slippage will trigger a breach of the dam.
In a hearing held on March 21 in Minas Gerais, Vale presented a timeline to start registrations and process the emergency indemnification payments for all residents of Brumadinho and municipalities within a 1km radius of the Paraopeba riverbed (from Brumadinho to the Retiro de Baixo dam)
Vale reports that to date more than 14.000 payments have been made. Vale has been required by the Government to make payments of one minimum wage per adult, 50% of the minimum wage per adolescent, and 25% of the minimum wage per child, for a period of 12 months. Additionally, the families in the Córrego do Feijão and Parque da Cachoeira communities will receive a basket of staple food and household products every month for 12 months.
These emergency payments do not come without controversy; for many people here it is difficult to accept this money due to their pride and lack of trust in Vale. One big issue is the process of registration. Many of the people affected are illiterate and unable to complete the form themselves. It costs 700 reais to have someone else fill it in; a cost that many cannot afford. Vale was made to ensure that the process of acceptance will take no more than 10 days, however if there is a mistake this will take another 10 days to sort. But for the farmers who lost an entire harvest they were just weeks away from and those who require medication a delay of 10-20 days is just too long.
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