On January 25, 2019, three years after the biggest environmental crime in the country, we are once again living a major tragedy caused by mining. By February 22, the collapse of Dam Number 1 in the Corrego do Feijao complex owned by Vale S.A. had resulted in 177 deaths and 133 missing. One month after the rupture of the dam, it is safe to conclude that at least 310 people died as a result of one more crime by Vale S.A. What occurred in Brumadinho is already considered the worst human disaster related to dams in the world since 1985, the year when approximately 270 people died after the breach of two dams above Vilarejo de Stava in the north of Italy. It is also the biggest workplace accident ever registered in Brazil. Once again, people in Brazil and throughout the world are shocked and indignant at a mining crime perpetrated by the company Vale S.A.
As the days go by, news emerges of Vale’s incompetence and neglect in dealing with security in its operations. Even three years after what occurred in Mariana with the collapse of the Fundao tailings dam, Vale continued operating in a sloppy manner with respect to human life and the environment: (1) the emergency sirens did not go off, (2) the administration buildings, the company cafeteria and the community of Correo do Feijao were located directly in the path of a possible tailings spill, ruling out any chance that the workers and local population could escape in the event of a collapse of the dam: and (3) internal documents of the company reveal that Vale had had information about the risks of a breach at Dam Number 1 in Brumadinho since November 2017.
A few days after the collapse of the dam in Brumadinho, two representatives of the International Articulation of People Affected by Vale (AV) from the states of Rio de Janeiro and Maranhao, joined with a representative of a member group in Minas Gerais state, MovSAM (Movement for Mountains and Water) in Casa Branca, Brumadinho. MovSAM has been consistently sounding the alert and denouncing Vale’s operations in that municipality since 2010.
The three representatives from AV carried spent seven days in the region. Members of the mission were:
Danilo Chammas, Lawyer, Justica nos Trilhos (Justice on the Rails), Maranhao
Daniela Fichino, Communications, Justica Global (Global Justice), Rio de Janeiro
Carolina de Moura Campos, Environmentalist, Movimento Serras e Aguas (MovSAM), (Movement for Mountains and Water) Casa Branca, Brumadinho, Minas Gerais
The AV mission members visited the main areas affected by the catastrophe. Their objective was to document actions by public bodies involved in assisting the victims and their families, and, in particular, to study company responses to the grave violations perpetrated. As a result of the mission, a document was elaborated with preliminary observations on the complex situation the municipality and the population were facing. The document captures the confusion of roles between the company and the state in responding to the disaster. Such confusion of roles is not just on the occasion of a disaster but results from the dismantling of multiple regulatory organizations and agencies of the Brazilian state and the state’s submission to the agenda of a mining model based on privatization and neoextractivism.
The difficulty in accessing some of the information that should have been publicly available was evident, for example, the emergency plan and the inspection reports for the dam. We noted a striking lack of transparency and commitment to truth on the part of the company, Vale.
Finally, the document stresses that the catastrophe that occurred in Brumadinho is directly related to the active behaviour of Vale S.A. in disqualifying, silencing, monitoring and criminalizing organizations that defend human rights and the environment. This practice is not restricted to the local movements in the municipality of Brumadinho which have for many years focused on the company and government bodies with denunciations and resistance to both current and future impacts of mining projects. On the contrary; this is about a consolidated practice by Vale with parallels to be found in all the places that the company operates.
The same behaviour occurred in the evacuation of 500 people from the cities of Barao de Cocais (100 km away from Belo Horizonte) on February 8 and 200 people in Nova Lima (25 km from Belo Horizonte) on February 16. Both places are located close to Vale dams and needed to be evacuated because there was no guarantee of the security of the structures. Reports indicated that the evacuations were carried out in a “chaotic” manner, without making information available to the residents. The company never presented a broad plan for emergency procedures in these two regions. It claimed that there had been a meeting to present a plan but the local population claimed no knowledge of such a meeting.
Throughout this whole scenario, one question remains: how is it possible for a new tailings dam collapse to occur in the same state and with the same company after what we lived through with the “tragedy-crime” in the Rio Doce river basin? That tragedy left 19 people dead, hundreds of people homeless and polluted the Rio Doce for hundreds of kilometers, until it reached the Atlantic Ocean in Espirito Santo state. It affected water supply in diverse municipalities and the daily lives of people in innumerable communities, who still today are suffering the harsh consequences of the tragedy.
We can begin to respond to this question by an inquiry into the model of mining adopted by Brazil and a good part of the world, which daily, in addition to the extreme cases of Mariana and Brumadinho, kills and destroys the socio-economic pattern of nearby communities and also the environment. Iron is one of the principle products on the schedule of Brazilian exports. In 2018, iron exports reached the volume of 394 million tonnes. Vale is the biggest exporter of iron in the world. A large part of the product sold by Vale is mined in Brazil, from where the mineral is extracted and shipped to other countries without going through any kind of industrial processing.
The Kandir Law passed in 1996 is an important law for the mining sector since it exempts payment of duties for non-industrialized products, among them, mining products. The law is responsible for the loss of half a trillion of $R for states in Brazil and puts the emphasis on the role of exporters of raw materials from Brazil onto international markets. The Kandir Law does not take into account that the mineral is a public good and that its extraction is carried out through a concession from the state. The law contributes to the wealth of the companies, in detriment to the territories where the mineral originates. The territories are dumped with all the negative effects of mining, with degradation of the water systems, soil contamination, air pollution, destruction of eco-systems , suffocation of any kind of alternative local economic activity and dispersal of communities and traditional people who share their daily life with the mining operations and many times, end up being ousted from their territories. In this scenario, a public and collectively owned resource ends up generating wealth for only a few, and leaving a trail of suffering and death in the mineral-rich territories.
Another element that strengthens this mineral-exporter model is the constant legislative flexibilization that regulates and licenses these activities, carried out with the justification that the procedures suffer from bureaucratization and delays. It was through a simplified process that Vale S.A. was permitted to succeed in getting approval to expand the Paraopeba complex, which includes the Corrego do Feijao mine in December 2018. With the reduction of the classification from a Class 6 enterprise to a Class 4 (reducing the category that defined the potential pollution of the enterprise), it was possible to get simultane ous approval of three licenses (preliminary, installation and operational).
The meeting to approve the license (37th Extraordinary Meeting of the Chamber of Mineral Activities (CMI) of the State Council on Environmental Policy, COPAM) was held on December 11, 2018. There was intense discussion and a demonstration against granting the license by the local community that had been suffering from the impacts of mining on the regional water system. In the end, only Councillor Maria Teresa Viana de Freitas Corujo, appointed to the Council by the National Civil Society Forum for the Committee of Hydrographic Basins (Fonasc) voted against approval of the license. Her argument was exactly that the rigor of the process for expansion and continuity of the Corrego do Feijao mine was less than what was required, considering the size and potential for pollution of the project. She found an opportunity to call attention to the fact that the process was following the specifications with reference to enterprises with Class 4 risks (moderate environmental impact) when it should have been licensed as a Class 6 risk (large scale and potential polluter). In this last class, the procedural timelines would have been extended to allow a larger number of phases and technical studies for the licensing procedure.
The expansion of the complex would permit an 88% increase in production, which in turn would demand a slower processing, with more rigorous analysis of the risks and expansion of the dialogue with society. Once again, however, organized civil society was not considered to be a relevant actor in the licensing process.
Another point where revision is necessary in this mining model adopted by Brazil is self-monitoring, which permits the companies to set up direct contracts with supposedly independent auditors who verify and attest to the security of their operation. This direct relationship contains an inherent conflict of interests, since those attesting to the security are paid by those who do not want to have any problems that would bring their activities to a halt. This observation is corroborated by statements the engineers from the German consulting company “Tuv-Sud” made to the task-force set up to investigate the collapse of the dam in Brumadinho. They affirmed that they had been subjected to pressure from Vale to release a declaration of stability for the dam that collapsed.
The report referred to attested to the stability of the structure, but detected problems in the drainage system and noted that stability of the height had reached the security limit under Brazilian norms. Everything indicates, however, that the company did not take the appropriate measures and deliberately assumed the risks. This provides yet more evidence that the actual system is failing and requires broad restructuring. In a sector that demands zero tolerance, it is not possible to leave attestations of security in the hands of the companies.
The movement towards self-monitoring includes dismantling the state apparatus for control over these enterprises. This acts directly to favour the companies. What we can observe is that the strategy to intensify mineral extraction in the country comes linked with the constant weakening of the state regulatory bodies.
Within this scenario, the response is not simply prohibition of more measures to increase flexibilization and/or simplification of the process for environmental licenses. What is necessary is to broaden the role of the state in the process, extending also the capacity for state action in the number of professional and technical experts, in addition to truly including civil society as an effective partner in the decisions about mining complexes. It is also necessary to block the intense lobbying of the mining companies, revising laws such as State Law 21,972 of January 21, 2016 which flexibilized the environmental licensing process in Minas Gerais state. This made it possible for expansion of the Corrego de Feijao Complex to be classified as a Class 4 project. If it has been classified as Class 6, it would not have been possible to sub-divide the environmental licensing. This ended up understating the toxic effects of the mining complex and limiting capacity to visualize the environmental impacts in a comprehensive way.
Taking all of this into account, various civil society organizations, among them the International Articulation of People Affected by Vale, demand the establishment of a Mixed Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPMI) to investigate the situation of major mining companies in Brazil, including their weaknesses and the socio-environmental impacts that accompany the current extractivist model of mining. We would also like to offer congratulations on passage of state law “Sea of Mud Never Again”, in the Legislative Assembly of Minas Gerais on February 22, 2019. This law presents stricter laws for issuing environmental licenses and inspecting dams throughout the state. We recommend definitive approval of this law by the state government, without veto of any of the articles contained in the law.
We understand that the national debate on mining cannot be limited to control over the technologies used in tailings dams. Even with the National Mining Agency’s prohibition in Brazil of methods involving increasing tailings dam heights (method used in Fundao and Brumadinho), and its new regulations about construction of installations in the “Self-rescue Zone” (Vale in Brumadinho), more is necessary. We need to confront the daily impacts of major mining projects and not just their most extreme impacts.
With growing global demand for minerals, and taking into account the breadth of socio-environmental impacts caused by mining megaprojects, it is not enough to investigate the security of existing mines. To guarantee effective protection of the environment and safety and health for people throughout the world affected by mining, we urgently need reflections about the scale and rhythm of extractive activities, particularly in the countries of origin of these minerals. These countries inherit the socio-environmental impacts, with risks and damages falling more heavily on the most vulnerable ethnic groups, thereby producing and reproducing inequalities.
It is relevant to point out that the safety of mining installations and the defence of socio-environmental rights are inextricably related to global commodities markets and their price cycles. Studies demonstrate that accidents related to tailings dam collapses happen with greater frequency 25-29 months after periods of a commodities boom. Urgency to increase profits rapidly during periods of high commodities prices prompts companies to intensify the rhythm of production and increase production targets. Companies add the necessary infrastructure but fail to pay sufficient attention to its safety and stability. The consequences are experienced months later, showing the unsustainability of a system that gives exclusive priority to maximizing profits.
In the face of all of these aspects, and after reflection, we demand:
- Cessation of operations of Vale in Minas Gerais until completion of repairs for the social and environmental damages both in Brumadinho and throughout the Rio Doce basin.
- Immediate resignation of the Directors and Administrative Council of Vale S.A. and concrete changes in the governance structure of the company.
- Immediate revision of State Law 21,972 of January 2016 which flexibilized environmental licensing in Minas Gerais. This made it possible for expansion of the Corrego do Feijao complex with a Class 4 classification, despite proofs that it belongs to Class 6 (classes being assigned according to potential pollution/damages).
- Immediate halt in both the construction of the Maravilhas III Dam (located in the municipality of Itabirito, Rio Acima and Nova Lima) and the heightening of Itabirucu Dam (located in Itabira), both in the state of Minas Gerais. Maravilhas III is projected to hold deposits of 108,86 million cubic meters of tailings, almost double the volume accumulated in the Fundao Dam which collapsed in 2015, and nine times more than what was stored at Brumadinho (12 million). The Ibabirucu Dam, for its part, has capacity to receive 18 times more tailings than Corrego do Feijao Dam. Following on this, we also indicate the need for immediate resettlement of all the families potentially affected by the probable collapse of the Casa de Pedra Dam, owned by CSN, in Congonhas, also located in Minas Gerais.
- Declaration of expiration of all authorizations to Vale S.A. for studies and mining concessions from the Ministry of Energy and Mines (Article 63 of the Mining Code- Law 227/1967) and revocation or cancellation of environmental licenses granted to Vale S.A., by environmental bodies (Article 19, subsection I, II and III of Resolution 237/1997 of CONAMA).
- Assumption of responsibility in all spheres of Vale and its directors and engineers: those responsible for the crimes of the tailings dam spill must be punished. The victims in the Rio Doce basin are still suffering today from neglect by Vale S.A. which has neither compensated them nor recognized all the rights of those affected. In this regard, we demand complete and rapid repairs on all property damaged by the collapse of the Brumadinho Dam and the Rio Doce basin. We also demand rapid progress in punitive action with a view to criminal sentences for those responsible for the crime of Mariana. It has been demonstrated that impunity, in addition to consolidating the crimes already committed, serves as an incentive for the occurrence of new crimes.
- Approval of a Mixed Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPMI) to investigate the actual situation of major mining companies in Brazil, their weaknesses and the socio-environmental impacts that accompany the extractivist mining model, so that cases like these are not repeated.
- Agreement that any negotiation with regard to mitigating the tragedy must be carried out with the obligatory participation of the men and women affected.
- Revision of the operating licenses of the mining chain throughout the country, as well as alterations of the laws that regulate the administrative procedures for construction and operation of tailings dams, for example the State Law/Minas Gerais 21,972 of January 21, 2016. Despite the risks, environmental licensing for tailings dams has been carried out without consideration of the real potential of their impact. Among the problems are fractioning the licensing, under-estimating the areas of impact, failure to consider potential damage to communities and to hydrographic basins and insufficient evaluation of alternative technologies.
- Immediate technical review of all the existing tailings dams in the country and re-evaluation of their security status.
- Repressive and preventative action by institutions such as the Attorney General and the State Prosecutor, in search of ways to monitor the conditions of the tailings dams and inspect the actions of mining companies. This must be carried out with a view to avoiding violations of rights in the context of big mining complexes and guaranteeing dignity and security to the communities that are located below the tailings dams.
- Guarantee the right to consultation, consent and veto to local communities affected by mining activity and effective community input into the environmental licensing process.
- Strengthen government environmental bodies through employing personnel, investments in equipment and technology and guarantees of independence for all employees, from the inspectors to senior staff at the top of the ministries.
- Guarantee that Mining in Indigenous Territories respect ILO Convention 169 and is subordinate to the approval of the Indigenous Peoples Statute.
Finally, we remember and pay homage to the women and men who had their lives interrupted by mining in Brumadinho, in Mariana and in diverse parts of Brazil and throughout the world. We express our total solidarity to the entire population of Brumadinho, to the families who have suffered the loss of their loved ones and to those still awaiting news. There are no words in the face of such pain.