- On November 5, 2015, an iron mining tailings dam, owned by the Samarco company, a joint venture of Vale and Austro-British BHP Billiton, collapsed in Brazil killing 19 people and sending a toxic sludge flood into the Rio Doce, polluting its length to the Atlantic Ocean.
- The disaster contaminated the drinking water of thousands of people living in river communities, wrecked the livelihoods of fishermen and small scale gold miners, ruined recreational activities for the region’s children, and disrupted lives across the region.
- Critics say the government and corporate responses have been slow and very uneven in their effectiveness, with aid coming for some who have been impacted, while the needs of others have largely been ignored.
- A strong grassroots movement has arisen, with many existing and newly arising groups taking a wide variety of actions, including the founding of a radio station and newspaper to report on the crisis, acts of civil disobedience, informational workshops and protests, and even a group looking at long-term sustainable solutions.
Rumbling trains are part of the everyday background noise in Brazil´s Rio Doce valley. Enormous freight trains pass up and down the valley’s length roughly every hour, day and night, with the line between Minas Gerais, a state in southeastern Brazil, and the port of Vitoría on the Atlantic Coast, carrying more than 110 million tons of goods and commodities each year.
Vale, Brazil´s mining giant named for this same valley, depends on that railroad to ship its ore and other products. So when Neto Barros, the mayor of Baixo Guandu, a city of some 32,000 people on the banks of the Rio Doce, ordered the tracks blocked, people and the media noticed.
This defiant act of civil disobedience came in response to corporate inaction after the bursting of the Fundão dam which spilled 50 million tons of iron ore and toxic waste into the Rio Doce, killing 19 people and poisoning the river along its entire 853-kilometer (530 mile) length. The rupture polluted drinking water, contaminated farmland with sludge, destroyed fishing and other livelihoods, and deprived children of outdoor activities including swimming and boating.
“The [Fundão] dam broke on November 5th, and they didn’t show up on the 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th. They didn’t send any signals,” Barros told Mongabay. The “they” he refers to is the company responsible for the spill: Samarco, a joint venture between mining powerhouses Vale and Austro-British BHP Billiton.
Barros urgently needed a meeting with Samarco and Vale executives to show them the impact the Fundão dam rupture was having on his city and to determine what the companies were going to do about it. A judicial order forced the mayor to remove the tractors blocking the rail line within hours of the blockade, but the next day, Barros says, representatives from Samarco arrived at city hall.
By then, Mayor Barros had already taken the initiative and protected Baixo Guandu´s residents from the dangerously contaminated river by switching the municipality’s water supply from the Rio Doce to a tributary that also passes through his city.
This independent action, taken in the wake of the dam´s collapse, is just one of many responses coming from people mobilized at all levels of Brazilian society by the environmental catastrophe — a disaster which many locals say has seen a slow, lackluster government and corporate reaction.
Rio Doce grassroots organizing
Roughly six months after Barros’s blockade, around 40 different civil society organizations and social movements, such as the Movement for those Affected by Dams (MAB) and the Landless Farmers´ Movement (MST), organized a caravan to travel through the region impacted by Samarco’s mining sludge spill.
Four different groups traveled separate stretches of the valley, gathering testimony about the way the toxic mud was affecting people and their communities. The caravan culminated in two days of workshops, panels and protests in the town of Governador Valadares, a city of more than 260,000 inhabitants.
In another independent action, a group of scientists is analyzing its second round of water samples from the Rio Doce to determine what exactly is in the water now. One reason for this investigation is a basic lack of trust in the government and the mining corporations. Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, is relying on samples and water analyses provided by Samarco.
In this context, grassroots communication efforts have been vital as a means of organizing people to express themselves, share their experiences and determine next actions.
One group has set up an emergency radio station, Radio Brota, to report on the crisis and its aftermath, while the Catholic Archdiocese in Mariana, a city near the collapsed dam, has organized a newspaper focusing on local survivors, called A Sirene (The Siren). The paper´s name refers ironically to the Samarco warning siren system that failed to sound when the dam ruptured and people were compelled to run for their lives.
Morgana Maselli, a spokesperson for the caravan that toured the Rio Doce region in April, says that what is really needed most is a permanent regional forum that can host discussions and plan future actions. “A forum that unites all the conversations about the Doce River would be a good way to unify the struggles because one thing that we noticed along the way is that there was an effort on the part of Samarco, Vale and BHP to individualize negotiations,” Maselli said. “All forms of collective negotiation have been suffering from a lot of pressure from the mining industry, so it’s important to unify the struggles.”
In Mariana, which has 58,000 residents and sits near the river, residents have taken symbolic action: on the 5th of every month, a group gathers to activate a siren for a minute to recall the disaster and those lost.
Also in Mariana, where mining accounts for the majority of the city´s budget, a group called Fica Samarco (Samarco, Stay) formed shortly after the disaster. It is lobbying the company to keep operating in the area. In June, the Mayor of Mariana met with Brazil´s interim President, Michel Temer, to request that Samarco be licensed to return to business.
Support for Samarco even sometimes translates into antagonism against the disaster’s survivors. “We’re experiencing a lot of discrimination,” says Neuza da Silva Santos, who lived in the town of Bento Rodrigues which lay just below the dam and was devastated by a flood of toxic mud. “Some people say it was our fault. Other people say that we built underneath the dam. But no, [the town of] Bento [Rodrigues] was there for 300 years — more than 300 years — and the company has been working there for [only] 40 [years] or so.”
In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the city of Mariana became synonymous with the disaster, to the point that a famous Brazilian actor with the same name appeared in a public service announcement, urging people to “remember Mariana.”
The Samarco response
The survivors of Bento Rodrigues have been receiving financial support from Samarco via a debit-card system since the disaster. However, these cards have created tension in communities further downriver where some people impacted by the spill receive funds from the company, while others don’t, with no clearly defined distinction to explain the difference.
Six months after Bento Rodrigues was destroyed by the mud flow, the town´s survivors voted on a new location, which Samarco has agreed to build as part of the recovery effort.
“While we cannot bring back the lives that were lost, we continue to focus on ensuring that the families and communities impacted by this tragedy are supported,” Dean Dalla Valle, BHP’s senior executive in Brazil to deal with the disaster, said in a statement.
Since the Doce River supplies drinking water for most of the settlements along its course, Samarco has also been providing water in some places, such as the Krenak indigenous community near Resplendor, roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) upstream from Baixo Guandu.
In late April, the company announced it would stop supplying water to Regência, a fishing and tourist community at the mouth of the Rio Doce on the Atlantic Ocean. This decision provoked residents to organize a blockade in the small, closely-knit town of 800 people. Samarco’s announcement catalyzed a meeting in Regência´s main square where residents decided to prevent Samarco employees from leaving the area by blocking the only road out of town. Taking turns in shifts, the residents kept the road closed for ten days until the company agreed to meet with them, although by then a judicial order had forced Samarco to reverse its earlier decision to not supply water.
Maselli says that larger urban communities have often been overlooked in company discussions concerning who has been affected by the disaster. In the mining accident’s immediate aftermath, the mayor of Governador Valadares said that Samarco wasn´t providing enough water for its nearly 300,000 inhabitants.
But supply isn´t the only issue, according to Maselli, who says that the treatment and purity of some of the water being offered to residents by Samarco is being questioned. “There’s still no guarantee of how good this water is,” she states. “We collected a lot of stories from people who are having skin problems, stomach problems because of this treated water from the river.”
“This [possibly poorly treated water] can cause silent diseases in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years,” argued Mayor Barros. “The people who polluted the water should be treated like criminals, and they have to supply water, cost what it may.”
Community water supplies aren’t the only losses to the disaster. Local fishermen are unable to fish in the river, which has cost them not only their livelihoods, but also, often, an important family food source. The Rio Doce valley is also home to traditional gold prospectors who pan for the mineral in the river. The stream muddied with toxic sediment has cut them off from a source of income.
Government and corporate response
In March, Brazil’s federal government and the states of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, which were both affected by the disaster, signed an agreement with Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton creating a foundation that will manage R$ 4.4 billion for environmental recovery and economic development over the next three years. Brazil’s Public Ministry, a judiciary watchdog agency, however, protested the foundation’s structure, saying that those affected by the disaster had had no voice in the agreement, as the law requires.
“It’s an agreement that was reached between… the companies and the government,” federal prosecutor Edmundo Antonio Dias Netto Junior told Mongabay. While a foundation board was created supposedly to invite local participation, the board’s community positions wield no decision-making power, say critics.
“The foundation serves as a shield against the responsibilities of the companies and the government, both federal and state, with respect to those affected by the disaster,” asserts Dias Netto Junior. The prosecutor believes that the foundation is meant to take people’s attention away from the companies’ role in the accident: “It’s a kind of [promotional] engineering that, in a certain sense, puts the companies on the margins, and draws all eyes to the foundation.”
Lawsuits and settlement
In early May, prosecutors, stressing that the government had not taken responsibility for its own failures in the disaster, filed a US$ 44-billion lawsuit against the federal and state governments and the three firms involved. One demand made in the suit is that the state and federal governments seek economic alternatives to mining to decrease the region´s dependency on the industry.
However, the strength of that lawsuit was potentially sapped two days later when an agreement was announced that will see Samarco, BHP and Vale pay a government-estimated R$ 20 billion (US$ 5.6 billion) over 15 years to cover damages and repair them.
Dias Netto Junior sees this settlement as a maneuver to stave off independent lawsuits launched by communities or individuals harmed by the mining accident. The prosecutor also argues that the federal government has conflicts of interest regarding the dam collapse, since it holds golden shares in Vale, which was wholly owned by the government until 1997. These shares give the Brazilian government power over the company’s activities.
Prosecutors aren’t the only ones raising concerns. On June 8th, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights presented a complaint against Brazil for 13 cases of human rights violations related to mining, including the Fundão dam collapse.
Innovative long-term grassroots responses
One group that arose out of the disaster is the Aliança Rio Doce (Doce River Alliance). The group has made several trips along the river since the mining accident, stopping in communities to discuss what´s happened so far, what hasn’t happened, and what is needed.
The core of the alliance was originally formed by an unusual constituency — permaculture practitioners and artists from São Paulo — but has since expanded to include people with a range of backgrounds. The permaculture approach to disaster recovery advocated by the group encourages the development of self-sustaining and environmentally sustainable models for water, energy, food supplies and production in the Rio Doce valley.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in late April, the group brought an accordion-playing clown to the public school in Regência, where children were invited to play an educational game about the river and the disaster. There were painting, juggling and planting workshops too.
The group also took the time to repair the school´s water cistern, which catches rainwater for use in its garden or for cleaning. Since the disaster, the community and school have been dependent on water trucked in by Samarco.
Luceli Gonçalves Rua, a master teacher, said she appreciated the collective´s creative efforts. “The workshops are pretty cool. They’re collaborating [with us] by offering a recreational space for the children.” She notes that the official disaster response has focused little on the harms suffered by children. “[They’ve] been left completely without relaxation activities. All that they’ve got [left] is a soccer field. That’s it. What did they do before? They would swim in the river; they would swim in the sea; they would go fishing with their parents, but that’s not possible any more.”
For Felipe Pinheiro, one of the Doce River Alliance organizers, the efforts in Regência are a model for other projects that need to happen all across the disaster-impacted region.
“We understood the reality of the community [of Regência], and we also built some partnerships, so now we can do things,” he says. The collective hopes to widen its impact soon, noting recent discussions with a professor from the Federal University of Ouro Preto and possible plans to set up a permaculture course that will serve 900 teachers from 200 schools that are part of the federal government’s Sustainable Schools program.
Discussions to help determine what the community wants and needs for the future are a critical part of the ongoing healing process, says Pinheiro. “[O]ur dream for Regência is to find space for discussion, and to determine what people want for the next 30-50 years for the community.”