What’s really threatened by the mining dam break in Brazil?
Contextualizing the Samarco mining disaster and its aftermath
The mine tailing dam break in Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 5 November 2015 has been described by the Brazilian government as the country’s worst environmental catastrophe. It killed at least 17 people and released a wave of toxic plume which devastated the Rio Doce river basin. The dam rupture, which happened directly after the 13th November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, was only superficially covered in mainstream international news outlets, and has mostly disappeared from media newsfeeds, although its far-reaching ecological and political consequences will be felt for decades. Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier sat down with Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich on 19 November and recorded the following conversation, which was originally published as a series of three posts on Seeing the Woods. On 2 March 2016 the Brazilian federal government and the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo reached a deal with Samarco Mineração (the joint venture between Vale S.A and BHP Billiton which owns the dam) and the latter agreed to pay 4.4 billion reais – 1.5 billion US$ – towards a 20 billion US$ fund which will be administered by a company-managed private foundation with the official aim of restoring the Rio Doce ecosystem and supporting survivors and the local economy. While Samarco, whose activities had been suspended, is already planning its business comeback, Brazilian social movements and the Federal Public Ministry alike are denouncing an agreement that is seen as prioritizing private interests. This interview gives some important insights on the agreement, which is being finalized more than three months after the deadly catastrophe, and long after the toxic mud wave reached the Atlantic ocean.
Robert Emmett: Those of us who don’t read Portuguese have to rely on what the media in English is saying. I’m curious about the language used to describe the event. I like to think “Let’s start with the facts,” but of course that’s exactly what is up to debate. I read that some seismic activity was recorded?
Lise Sedrez: I just don’t buy that one. If we go for the facts, let’s say that Brazil is on a very old tectonic platform. We used to say “There [are] no natural disasters in Brazil,” which of course is not true. There have been very few cyclones. We had one in Santa Catarina [in 2004] and it was like “Oh my God, that never happens.” The last time something like this happened was about 170 to 200 years earlier. But there are no earthquakes. What they registered was seismic activity between 1 and 2 on the Richter scale. We had larger seismic activity in Minas Gerais in the past, with no effects whatsoever. And there is a strong possibility that this recorded seismic activity happened as a result of the breaking of the dam.
RE: So what happened?
LS: Actually, we don’t know what exactly happened to provoke the dam breaking; this is still under investigation, and that has to do with the political context. This company, Samarco, is a subsidiary of Vale do Rio Doce, or Vale for short, and the Australian mining company BHP Billiton. Vale has a particular story that makes things so complicated. It was a state-owned company until the late 1990s, and it had several monopolies guaranteed for mining—Carajas, everything in the Amazon that you can think about, was a monopoly of Vale do Rio Doce. Other companies, especially during the military period, had to negotiate mining rights with Vale. With the consensus of Washinghton and the neoliberal project carried out by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the late 1990s, Vale was privatized. There are still many questions about that process of privatization. Basically, it was sold for a fraction of its value. And that has also been part of the debate. If it was a public company, would that have happened? Would it be an appropriate penalization to nationalize the company again? There are people talking about that. On top of that, as a private company, Vale is a major employer in the region, so everybody is very concerned about the interruption of its activities because that means leaving everybody, and I mean everybody, without a job, since all the other activities in the region, like fishing, have been affected by the spill. And Vale has contributed to the political campaigns of every single politician in Minas Gerais. And both of the big parties—PSDB, which is a center-right party, and PT, which I would say is a center-left party—both parties received large amounts. So the entire debate of how we call this particular event is also tainted by this, in small symbolic things but also in more dramatic moments. For instance, the announcement of the disaster made by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais was made from the headquarters of the Samarco company. And he’s a PT governor, a center-left politician. The previous governor, who was governor for eight years, and therefore responsible for the fiscalization (the fining process) and maintenance, Aecio Neves, is also the former Brazilian presidential candidate of the opposition, the center-right. He was also one of the first ones to say [after the dam break] “this is not a time to try to place blame,” because it’s not very convenient for him. So everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.
Everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.
RE: How are nonprofits responding?
LS: For instance, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has work in that area with the recovery of the degraded springs, water springs, which was funded by the Vale do Rio Doce, the company. So on the one hand he’s saying “look, the company has to make good to this work, and take responsibility,” on the other hand he says “well I know they are going to do that because they are a good, responsible company.” The president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has just issued a decree allowing workers to use their mandatory retirement savings, which normally you can only take when you’re actually retired or in very special circumstances, such as natural disasters. Now there is a special decree that allows you to take that money if you were a victim of a natural disaster. She amended the decree to include, for the purpose of taking away their money, breaking of dams as a natural disaster.
RE: The decree allows employees to take their retirement savings early?
LS: Yes. So the responsibility to deal with the immediate costs [of lost income] is put on the backs of the workers. It’s even more complicated than that. Legislation for environmental damage is about 15 years old in terms of setting penalties and fines. Samarco received several fines, each of them the maximum, but the total is still really low, because each of the fines has a legal ceiling. Overall, only in the state of Minas Gerais, there are over 200 unpaid environmental fines because companies appeal once, twice, and again, and another, and another, and can go on for ten or 15 years without paying.
RE: What would a meaningful fine be for a large transnational mining venture, in proportion to their daily profits?
LS: In this case the total fine that was given Samarco I’ve read is something around seven percent of its net profit. But I would be careful about that estimate for several reasons. First, the spill paralyzes all work in the area, which means a loss of profit for the company, which is large. Second, the fine does not exempt the company from cleaning up, so the fine comes on top of the entire cost of recovery for the area. However, this is also complicated because the public ministry has just signed an agreement for one billion reais for the clean-up. That may still be below what we need, and may be putting a ceiling on the liability of the company.
CL: And there are heavy metals in the floodwater, so there are potentially much longer-lasting costs.
LS: Well, this is also a bit complicated. It’s not clear as there are several small cities affected, and one large one, Governador Valadares, in the way of the river. Some of the mayors made their own water testing. One of the cities found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.” However, the mayor of Governador Valadares showed a number of tests saying there [are] no heavy metals. Everybody is protesting that they don’t trust this kind of test. I’ve joined a group of over 2,000 volunteers including 700 scientists who are proposing to do an independent analysis of the environmental and social impact. It’s the first time that anything like this has happened in Brazil—not only the disaster but this kind of volunteer organization. The group has over 2,000 people right now, everybody from undergrad students to PhDs, and everybody wants to help, but it’s going to need lots of organization.
One of the cities [affected by the dam break] found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.”
CL: Are they organizing with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brazil, which is gaining momentum?
LS: Yes, they are organizing with that, they are making connections, although the experience of the MAB is mostly with water dams (not mining dams) and people who are being . . .
CL: . . . displaced.
LS: Yes. We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows. We are talking about a mud that is full of iron and probably arsenic and silica, and some aluminum. It’s heavy and it’s impermeable, so it passes through the river, creating a layer at the bottom where nothing can grow. On top of that all the fish are dying, since they have no oxygen. And all the animals—dogs, cattle caught by the water—are dying and decomposing. So it alters the water even if you have dilution from the river tributaries, for instance. Some cities are trying to capture the water from the tributaries, hoping to bypass the river and find a new source of drinking water. We’re talking about a city like Governador Valadares, with close to 300,000 people. Drawing from tributaries upstream means less water diluting the river. Even before the disaster the springs were compromised. If there are heavy metals in the heavy layers at the bottom, people are talking about the possibility of some of these metals getting to the phreatic water sheet. So as you see it’s a disaster of incredible magnitude, not only in terms of what happens to the ecosystem, but also in terms of political, economic, and social impacts—it goes in all directions. And it is a big question mark. We have no experience with that. And the fact that it happened just before the Paris attacks made it disappear from the public eye.
We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows.
RE: This relative lack of exposure to the dam break is definitely something I hope we can talk about. It seems like there are several durations involved and also questions of how the media has covered or not covered the spill. Some of the coverage has focused on the company and the economic impact of closing down operations and has pointed out that the price for iron has been relatively low in the last ten years, because of the decreased demand for export. There has been a shift in the conversation from describing the event in concrete, biological terms to an abstract conversation about the commodity exports, iron pellets as raw material for industrialization. There is the time frame of the cost of the good that was extracted, and there is the other time frame, which is the life cycle of aquatic life [that] has been impacted for a generation, particularly larger forms of aquatic life, like fish, which won’t recover for a full lifetime.
LS: Some species that were endemic to the area are lost, gone forever.
RE: There is a sense that there is a longer emergency of climate change and then these punctuating events, sometimes described in the sense of industrial operations. When dams or pipelines fail, the consequences are so out of proportion, in the sense that we think a dam may last another five or ten years and then the life of a stream is wiped out suddenly and permanently, with species gone. Where does this incongruity show up in media?
LS: It also is true that it showed how we have changed the way we read. I mean, ninja media and the alternative media have been very important in the process because the big newspapers are putting t the disaster on the second or third page. They found out that they can’t ignore it completely because alternative media, and Facebook and ninja are keeping it alive.
CL: I also felt this very strongly. On my Facebook feed for example, Brasil de Fato, which is a main Socialist newspaper in Brazil, and Nova Democracia, which is another alternative newspaper, are covering this a lot, posting pictures and also getting people to tell their stories on social media. People are interacting with each other outside the mainstream media, taking things into their own hands.
LS: It is also true that environmental issues had become in recent years a theme for the left. However, this disaster, in the way that Vale ed may be connected to the current administration or of PT, brought it back as an issue for the right as well. I’ve heard about the disaster from Mariana from my friends on the left as well as my friends on the right. It’s one unifying point of protest. How they are going to read the disaster is very different, but it’s there, and it’s very strong. I found it interesting because the newspapers did try to kind of [suggest that] Paris is more important and this alternative media kept [the disaster] alive. I would like to go back, however, to the point about extension. One thing that was very interesting is to see some of the disciplinary boundaries and the different views of the disaster by scientists. Thus you have engineers and geographers who are just saying “okay, calm down, the river is coming back,” while biologists and ecologists are in panic.
RE: I’ve heard that in Appalachia, where different scientists have totally different discourses around streams and tailing ponds in post-mining landscapes. I’m curious to hear how disciplinary differences in perception are working out in this case?
Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on.
LS: I find that fascinating as well. We all joined this group of 2,000 volunteers, probably 400 or 500 PhDs from all areas of Brazilian academia, who all want to help and we all want the company to pay. The geologists and geographers are going to have this idea that the river is coming back. Biologists are furious: it’s over, it’s dead. Among all this mess, I’ve read about this very beautiful initiative by the fishermen, the Noah’s Arc. It was gorgeous but absolutely useless.
RE: Taking the fish from the spill area and transporting them to small aquariums?
LS: And to lakes, which have their own ecosystems and work at the optimal level of biomass. If you’re bringing an endemic species, although you can save some genetic material, the impact is mostly negative. What was important was for the communities of fishermen to feel they were doing something. It was much more a political, social activity. What we should be looking at is a new river, probably in the next 30 years. Water is going to find other areas to go. Even for geologists, even if you don’t consider the life of the river, we are talking about a game changer. Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on. The Doce was the river through which so much of this material would pass. It was also the area where traditional populations from the colonial times would negotiate the space and dispute with the settlers. Right now you still have some of the communities like Krenak that depend on the river, and they are desperate. It’s a river that is really, really important for the communities. A famous biologist, Andre Ruschi, has a famous preservation area of Colibri in the Atlantic Forest right by the margins of the Rio Doce. We are all expecting the mud to pass through and destroy it. Once arriving to the sea it’s not going to disperse easily so the marine reservation, the Parque Nacional dos Abrolhos, could also reach this platform. This particular disaster is going to pass through the heart of some of the remains of the Atlantic Forest. What are we going to do?
RE: Well, one thing you’re doing is going back to Brazil to work with SOLCHA, Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental, and I imagine this is going to be front and center for environmental historians in Latin America. Are there plans to have the 2,000 volunteers involved in citizen science, collecting data?
LS: Right. What I’m planning to do is to get volunteers from my University and organize a history of the area and of the river, and find out more about other examples of similar disasters. What we can offer to this group is the historical perspective.
RE: In May 2016 there is an event planned with Wisconsin’s Center for Culture, History and Environment focusing on the Mississippi River and the following year on the Danube. It’s a transatlantic environmental history workshop, histories of continents and nations through rivers. It’s similar to the project that you are describing and I think of these things as networked together. And the connections that scholars make who are looking at rivers and in the way you tell stories through the trajectory of a river.
[With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics.
LS: I think you are totally right. [With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics. Any step is very sensitive. Mining in the area may have slowed down, but this is an ongoing disaster. There are three dams in that particular mining area. The others are both below [safety] levels but if these two break, especially the largest one one . . . what we are seeing right now will look like a pre-disaster. They are going to have to consider the possibility of the breaking of these two other dams against the profit that they can make with a low price product. As for now, Samarco is placing itself a victim of the disaster.
CL: Mainstream media in Brazil is very much backing that image.
LS: Yes. I mean, this entire thing about a small seismic event being considered responsible for breaking the dam . . .
RE: The Brazilian media is coming to the company’s defense? Is that because the company has an economic monopoly?
LS: I think you are right in a sense, because of the power of the company in this area. I think it’s also because our media is [politically] right of center and the Vale until now was hailed as the big success of privatization. They would love to see this (privatization) happening to Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. But to see Vale lose value and be challenged as a company, as this model company, would also jeopardize the entire idea that private ownership is better than public ownership.
RE: In other words, you’re saying there is a deep public interest perceived in this single privatized mining company . . .
LS: Oh yeah.
RE: It’s hard for people to articulate the difference between what the interests of that company and the interests of the region. You see this in Appalachia for a long time, where coal companies would say “what is good for coal is good for Appalachia.” And it became difficult for anyone to actually have any space in which to critique that because to critique means you’re potentially also taking a job from neighbors or your relatives.
LS: Just yesterday there was a rally of the residents of Mariana, with the worker unions asking for the company to remain in Mariana. They had t-shirts written with slogans that said “Yes; No to Unemployment.”
RE: This is the miner’s union?
LS: Yes. But you have to understand that it’s not only the miners, it’s not only the direct workers, but everything in the region that is connected to the Vale Company. It’s like FIAT for Turin: I mean if you don’t work for FIAT, you work for the company that sells FIAT cars, or you work for the company that sells tires for FIAT cars. And I repeat: even environmental organizations. We don’t have the tradition like in the United States and in Europe of nonprofits supported only by the membership fees. I know very few nonprofits in Brazil that don’t depend on private company or government funding. Most cities like Mariana or the nearby cities can pay their employees just because of the fees and taxes paid by Vale. If Vale were to disappear from Mariana that would mean a loss of municipal taxes that would make it impossible to pay the public employees.
RE: Is Vale perceived as a company that takes risks or as a company that doesn’t value worker’s safety?
LS: I couldn’t say . . . no more or less than any other company in Brazil. People cut corners in Brazil. What is concerning, however, is that the mining code of Brazil is very strict. It’s just not enforced. Now there is discussion of a new mining code, and some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly.
RE: So the disaster is an excuse for pushing through the process?
LS: Measures that would never be accepted in normal times. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today. The government is the problem in this narrative. Environmental regulations are the problem. There are other issues like for instance there are hundreds of unpaid fines in the environmental agency in Minas Gerais, still to be processed, and there’s no way the state government can process all of them. So they’re going now to give a huge amnesty to the companies, hoping to clear up the bureaucratic mess.
Some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today.
RE: Is this because the agency is understaffed or underfunded?
LS: They are understaffed, underfunded and in my opinion it’s a tactic from the companies to let the number of fines accumulate and then see what happens. Many of these fines are going to be amnestied because they are very close to the statute of limitation. This entire thing is a perfect storm. It shows us not only the connections between city and the countryside, but [also] the connections between environmental protection, ecosystems, and policies, national and local, the dispute between right and left in Brazil, the bureaucratic nightmare in terms of legislation and the huge lobbies for the relaxing of environmental laws. At the same time, everybody is an environmentalist in Brazil, everybody loves nature, or so they say. And these big lobby groups argue that the best way to help nature is by taking away environmental regulations. If you talk to each and every one of these guys arguing about the mining code, they’re going to say, “No, we are going to save nature.” Besides, we must remember that the lobby against environmental regulations is one of the strongest in Brazil because it’s so connected to ownership of land, and land disputes are the most common causes for which people are killed in the countryside of Brazil. Many environmentalists were killed because they were challenging the use of land. An event like this raises all these questions about media and politics without even having to go for to conspiracy theories. Why do you need conspiracy theories when reality is so much more!
RE: You described this river as at the heart of a certain national imaginary. Is it fair to say that what people have in mind when they’re saying “nature” has to do with a sense that Brazil has a particular natural heritage, biodiversity? So what you would be saving if you’re saving nature is something that’s only here, only in Brazil?
LS: It’s more complicated, as we are talking about a 800-kilometer river where there is everything from a city the size of Governador Valadares to groups of indigenous populations to areas that are natural reserves, and therefore, no large human population. It’s also one of the regions to have witnessed anthropogenic action for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’re not talking about a pristine area. Some of the images that have more impact in the media are people, fire-fighters for instance, saving a dog or a cow. It is a region where people and nonhumans have interacted in many ways for so long that is part of the identity. And that’s what I found so interesting about the fishermen trying to save the fish. They do see this connection. They are not saving the fish because they want the fish to live forever in the aquarium, but because it’s their livelihood. And I think the Krenak had it really well. They don’t differentiate so much between the river, the land, the fish. If the river is dead, we’re all dead. I know it sounds like some fake Chief Seattle story, but that’s what we are saying right now. It’s less one pristine area untouched for whatever species, it’s more this long built-up predatory relationship, if you want, but also a transformative relationship between nature and society that was going on along this river. And now it’s really threatened.
Credit for article’s featured image: Waldemir Barreto/Agência Senado.
Special thanks to Livia Jacobina for her transcription work.
Lise Sedrez is an environmental historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and is currently completing a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.
Robert Emmett is a cultural studies and ecocriticism scholar and coordinator of academic programs at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.
Stephanie Hood is an editor at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.
Claire Lagier is a PhD candidate at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich and an editor at Uneven Earth.