Since the disaster, many groups have come forward to support the victims and affected communities. Many of them are grassroots organisations set up by locals wanting to help as much as possible; receiving no government funding and only working with donations. These groups play a vital role in the disaster relief here as neither the Government nor mining company have the trust of the communities.
The grassroots organising in the wake of the collapse is a hopeful example of communities mobilising to help one another. The main groups are led by young men and women, who are juggling the coordination of these efforts whilst studying at the university in Belo Horizonte. This balancing act has led to some key members developing severe mental health issues. Whilst the groups have a long term vision of community regeneration, at the moment, efforts are still focused on the immediate emergency response.
One of the youngest groups is Amigos de Brumadinho (The Friends of Brumadinho) which was set up on the day of the disaster by Gabriel Vilaca and Gabriel Parreiras; two friends who decided they wanted to use their time, energy and money to support the victims and help during the search efforts. Since then they have been taking vast quantities of donations to support more than 1,500 people, providing vital rations of food, water, hygiene products and clothing.
Over the past four months, they have been able to bring communities together to start supporting both victims of the dam collapse and the hidden vulnerable people, with both donations and home improvements. Through public donations and personal finances, the group has started renting a building for its headquarters from where volunteers will run educational workshops, provide accommodation for volunteers, run community events and disseminate donations.
In May 2019 one of the largest music festivals in Brazil, MECAInhotim, was held at Inhotim to bring awareness of the struggles here and to aid in the healing process. A platform was given to local residents, including Gabriel Vilaca, to discuss their mourning and healing process with festival goers and artists as well as to raise awareness as to what must happen next. As Junio César, member of Amigos de Brumadinho and Tour Guide at Inhotim explains “this festival has helped us to breathe again. It is a regeneration of the city. It is like wishing a happy new year for Brumadinho to renew these energies.”
Another group that has been providing vital support to the victims is Collectivo Nos, a collective of 80 individuals, established just three months before the disaster in response to Bolsanaro’s election. Collectivo Nos was formed as a platform to discuss politics and to create actions for social change in Brumadinho. In order to be as effective as possible, the group, which is coordinated by Marina Oliveira, has been connected to the local church which has allowed them to use their space to store donations and utilise their resources. Many of their efforts have been focused around getting donations and support to the land-based victims and the indigenous communities; groups which were already marginalised before the disaster.
These philanthropic endeavours are muddied by politics, as some indigenous groups have been excluded from receiving donations by those who support Brazil’s current right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro. Groups such as the MST (Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement) which occupies land, fighting for social/ economic justice and human rights for rural workers have been demonised by Bolsonaro who has called for a purge of what he called left-wing terrorist outlaws. More than 60% of residents in Brumadinho voted for Bolsonaro. This has meant that these communities are struggling to receive essential food and water donations.
Many of these struggles have already been experienced before. In November 2015, the tailings dam at the Bento Rodriguez mine collapsed and caused damage along the whole length of the Rio Doce river, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. After this disaster, the Fundacao Renova was established by a Transaction Term and Adjustment of Conduct (TTAC), signed in March 2016, to be the legal entity responsible for repairing and compensating the damages caused by the rupture. Renova is responding to the disasters through the execution of 42 programmes and projects. Their efforts focus mainly around resettlement, the payment of indemnities, handling of waste and the revitalization of the Rio Doce catchment area.
A greenwashing machine?
In Mariana the avalanche of mud took the lives of 19 people and completely destroyed two communities and damaged a significant area of another. Renova's resettlement program has the mission of restoring the ways of life and organization of these communities that have lost their homes. Until the villages and properties are rebuilt, they all have housing expenses funded by the Renova Foundation. To date, over R$1.3 billion has been paid in severance payments and emergency financial aid throughout the region impacted by the rupture of the Fundão dam. Nonetheless, there remains very little trust of Renova with reparations seen by the local communities as propaganda for, and greenwashing machine by the mining companies. Renova is now also working in Brumadinho to support the response efforts.
The victims from Mariana disaster are still going through legal battles; the latest lawsuit - a class action - was filed as recently as November 2018 at the UK High Court in Liverpool by UK-based SPG Law on behalf of 240,000 individuals, 24 municipal governments, 11,000 businesses, a Catholic archdiocese, and about 200 members of the Krenak indigenous community.
The lawsuit seeks $US5 billion in compensation from BHP Billiton for damages caused by the dam collapse. The full claim was served in May 2019 and the company had four weeks to respond. The plaintiffs believe they have better chances to get fair and speedy compensation in Britain than in their home country, where courts can take more than a decade to reach a judgement and compensation offers fall far short of the damages incurred.
Despite all the damage caused in Brumadinho, there has been very little legal action against the mining giant Vale. Immediately after the collapse, eight employees working at the mine were arrested for negligence but all were released shortly after.
Whilst it may be important to seek justice at all levels, what about those higher up in Vale? Are the arrests of everyday workers simply a distraction from looking at those higher up in the company? With two dam collapses and many others at risk of a similar fate, it is time we started having conversations about corporate negligence. Who is at the top of Vale's operational decision making, and who is holding them to account?
Since the disaster, the worst that has happened to officials has been their own resignation, after several executives, including Fabio Schvartsman, Vale's CEO, were asked to be removed after prosecutors called for their dismissal in March.
Justice may still be served as Brazil’s National Mining Agency will investigate Vale over possible corruption in misleading officials about the safety of its dam. If found to have violated Brazil’s 2013 anti-corruption law, Vale could face a fine of up to 20 percent of its $36.575Billion gross revenue from 2018.
The fight is still on as Jose Sampaio (a federal prosecutor in the state capital of Belo Horizonte who is spearheading the investigation into Vale) told reporters: "I have no doubt someone will go to jail.”
Jose was also the lead investigator during the investigations into Vale, BHP Billiton and Samarco after the Mariana collapse and filed homicide charges against 21 people in October 2016 but by July 2017 the Federal Court had suspended the criminal case. In the case of Brumadinho, the charges under consideration include murder, manslaughter, environmental damage and false representation according to an interview Sampaio gave to The Wall Street Journal. The false representation charges are being leveled at employees of both Vale and German inspections company Tüv Süd, which certified the dam was safe shortly before the collapse.
In February of this year, Brazil’s National Mining Agency banned upstream tailings dams similar to the one that burst, setting the deadline for decommissioning them by 2021. Brazil’s Senate approved a bill that would impose stricter measures to tighten dam safety, such as requiring new monitoring technology and detailed emergency plans. However, it is unlikely the rules will ever be enforced under new President Jair Bolsonaro, who promised during his election campaign to restrict fines and ease regulations on mining and other industries that exploit natural resources.
The outcomes of this story are far from clear, but Brazil's tumultuous politics and strong social divisions suggest it will be a lengthy battle. For the victims and their families, there is still a long way to go.
There is much more to community regeneration than money and legal action, but as the outcomes of the 2015 Mariana disaster show - it is a good place to start. What happened in Brumadinho and Bento Rodriguez is not just about reparations for small Brazilian communities - it is about corporate responsibility, ecological protection, and who we hold to account when disasters like these happen.
Ben works with the Lush buying team to support the buyers to make our supply chain more regenerative.
Read part one here.