- Afro-Brazilian communities in the Brazilian state of Bahia are applying to the English courts for compensation for a decade of alleged pollution and disruptions from a nearby iron ore mine.
- The allegations date back to 2011 and include air and noise pollution, physical and psychological damage from mining operations, and possible water contamination, which the communities blame on a subsidiary of U.K.-registered Brazil Iron Limited.
- Brazil Iron denies the allegations and says they could undermine a new project it plans to begin soon that will bring billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the region.
- The case has already led to the court issuing an injunction against Brazil Iron for sending letters to community members; the case, in which 80 community members are seeking individual compensation, must first settle on whether the English courts have jurisdiction in the matter.
More than a year and a half since the iron ore mining stopped, the lives of Vanusia Souza dos Santos and her community in the heart of Brazil’s Bahia state have returned almost to normal. Without the din of whirring machines and revving trucks, they now sleep peacefully at night, she says. The black mining dust that used to settle on their land has also cleared.
Yet some problems persist, she says. Community members remain wary of drinking from the local springs, which they fear are polluted with toxic heavy metals. The cracks in their houses that were reportedly caused by past explosions from the mine still haven’t been repaired as the mining company promised.
Since April last year, Brazil Iron’s mining operations have been suspended by the Bahia state environmental and water regulator, INEMA, for encroachment of mining beyond the authorized limits. Yet with its license back, operations are forecast to resume in December or January.
The affected communities are now taking action. With the support of Leigh Day, a U.K. law firm, 80 community members are fighting to get justice for enduring a decade of pollution and disruptions to their lives allegedly caused by the mining operations of Brazil Iron Mineração Ltd., a subsidiary of U.K.-registered Brazil Iron Limited.
The case centers on allegations dating back to 2011, when the Bocaina and Mocó communities, comprising 150 low-income rural households, claimed that the iron ore dust settling on their crops had ruined their harvests, which Mongabay reported in August last year.
According to Leigh Day’s letter of claim, the mining activity is also linked to health problems such as respiratory illnesses and sore throats, and lack of sleep and declining mental well-being as a result of the noise from jackhammers and other equipment. Official reports cited in the letter suggest the water and soil in the region are contaminated with toxic heavy metals. The letter also cited reports of encroachment on the communities’ land, including unauthorized drilling.
The communities link the troubles to the nearby Mocó mine on the outskirts of the town of Piatã. The communities live just 150 meters up to 2 kilometers (500 feet to 1.2 miles) away from the mine and are made up of mostly quilombola — descendants of formerly enslaved Afro-Brazilians — who are historically “amongst the poorest in Brazil” and “are subsistence farmers or reliant on social welfare programs,” according to Leigh Day’s letter of claim.
Leigh Day lawyers filed a lawsuit in September against parent companies Brazil Iron Limited and Brazil Iron Trading Limited, arguing that the companies violated environmental requirements and brought psychological and physical distress to the surrounding communities.
It’s the first time a foreign law firm has defended the community. Souza, who plays a leading role in the Bocaina Association, says they tried all other Brazilian entities. There’s a similar case in Brazil for collective compensation, opened by the public prosecutor, but the lawsuit with Leigh Day seeks individual compensation. “I’m very confident that our reality here can change,” Souza says. “With the lawsuit in England, we see that things are moving faster.”
There are some advantages of using the English courts rather than Brazilian ones. According to the letter of claim, “while access to justice in Brazil varies from state to state, Bahia is among the worst in terms of delay, backlog, under-resourced courts, rate of implementation of court decisions, number of public defenders, ratio of lawyers per capita, and ratio of judges per population.”
For the community members who depend on low-income activities for their livelihoods, “paying for a private lawyer would simply be impossible,” according to the letter of claim. “The hourly rate of a lawyer in Bahia would cost 245% of the monthly income of the bottom 20% income group in the State.”
It wouldn’t be the first time an English court has exercised jurisdiction for such a case outside of the U.K. In April 2019, the Supreme Court of the U.K. held the British mining company Vedanta responsible for environmental damage caused by its foreign subsidiary in Zambia. “The decision [against Vedanta] confirmed that English parent companies could owe a duty of care to foreign claimants affected by operatives of their subsidiaries abroad,” according to a 2020 study. “English courts could have jurisdiction to hear such cases, even when a foreign court is a more appropriate place for the trial.”
Brazil Iron “categorically denies all accusations made by the Leigh Day office,” according to a statement sent to Mongabay from the company’s communications department. It added that a high mountain between the communities and the mine makes it “unlikely that these [dust] particles can reach, at least in large quantities, the region,” and that despite the mine road being several kilometers away, Brazil Iron “frequently provides water trucks to moisten the roads making this thesis [of dust pollution] even more implausible.”
Conflicts from the lawsuit
Representatives of Brazil Iron have been accused of visiting community members involved in the lawsuit at work and in their homes, “making threats and trying to coerce them to withdraw from the English claim,” Jonny Buckley, senior associate at Leigh Day involved in the lawsuit, tells Mongabay. Mining company representatives allegedly said the claimants would need to pay the English courts the legal costs of the winning side.
Typically, the losing side in English court system has to pay the winning side’s legal costs. However, certain protections under Brazilian laws prevent the courts from enforcing cost orders against individuals’ main residence and land that they cultivate.
“[Brazil Iron] were playing on their fears because they knew this was something [the community members] were concerned about,” Buckley says. “Often when companies are notified of these claims, they see if they can get rid of them without having to go through a lawsuit. We have seen it before.” Leigh Day also claimed that after proceedings were issued, Brazil Iron offered free health care to community members, including those involved in the lawsuit, in an attempt to bypass their legal representatives.
Brazil Iron has denied reports of intimidation, adding that it offers health care assistance to all residents around the Mocó mine. “If some of the [population] actually believe that they are having health problems because of the company, we provide medical care and monitoring to the entire community,” the statement said. “Which, obviously, does not reflect coercion, much less non-compliance with the preliminary decision of the English court.”
Leigh Day successfully obtained a temporary injunction against the mining company, prohibiting it from approaching or talking to the community members. The injunction will hold until July next year, when there will be a hearing about the jurisdiction, which Brazil Iron contests. On Nov. 20, the U.K. High Court ruled that Brazil Iron had failed to comply with the terms of the injunction after the company sent letters directly to community members offering free medical examinations. Brazil Iron was required to pay the claimants’ legal costs.
The lawsuit has created conflict within the community, especially between generations, says Claudio Adão Dourado de Oliveira, an agent of the Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission, who is closely following the situation. “The community is a bit divided. Younger people generally have this desire for a job, which ends up being in favor of mining without paying much attention to the consequences,” he says.
Brazil Iron told Mongabay that it’s “close to starting a project that will generate more than 50 thousand direct and indirect jobs,” which includes “a 16 billion reais [$3.3 billion] investment for Bahia and another 50 billion reais [$10.2 billion] in tax revenue.” It said the lawsuit was thus “an attack on a region that really needs investment and jobs.”
The local communities already have their own source of income from their traditional way of life, Souza says. “Before [Brazil Iron], we already had means of survival here. And it’s forever. It’s passed down from generation to generation. [Brazil Iron] knows that today or tomorrow it can go and leave nothing behind but destruction,” she says.
Allegations of environmental damage
The communities worry that surrounding water supplies and soil could be contaminated by toxic metals. Dourado de Oliveira says the communities have tried to get an independent survey to test for contamination, but have been unable to produce any recent updates. “[The communities] are asking universities to analyze the waters for them so they can resume [their sale of homegrown produce], but so far they have not been able to,” he says. “Even though [the mine] is still closed, it causes us internal insecurity because we don’t know if the water is contaminated and if it can be used for food.”
A study carried out by the Federal University of Bahia in 2021 found high traces of lead, phosphorus, manganese and zinc in water and soil samples, including in the Bebedouro spring, a main water source for the communities. Soil samples contained arsenic, barium and chromium. However, Ricardo Fraga Pereira, a researcher involved in the study, says these results aren’t conclusive and the origin of the metals can’t be determined.
“We can say that anomalies were found for some of the metals analyzed, both in the soil and in the water,” he says. “[But] only systematic monitoring can point out or confirm the existence of sources of contamination in the area, whether they were analytical errors, or whether they are natural occurrences in the area.”
After an inspection of the region around the mine in February 2021, the Bahia state health department found traces of “a large quantity of dark, shiny fragments” similar to crushed ore in the soil and leaves close to the homes surrounding the mining company. The report concluded that the two communities were “in a vulnerable situation as they are exposed to air, water and soil pollution caused by the constant emission of particulate matter from the detonation of rocks, iron ore processing and truck traffic to transport production.”
Brazil Iron dismissed these claims, saying that “due to the investment made in caring for this water body, it has the best quality water in the region.”
Brazil Iron owns 24 iron and manganese mining rights in Bahia through its Brazilian subsidiary. “It’s a sequence of research, and the area we’re looking at is just one of these,” Dourado de Oliveira says. “Imagine multiplying the [current] problem 20 times more.”
The jurisdiction dispute will be heard in July 2024. If the court says the communities don’t have a case for seeking a claim in England, then Leigh Day can appeal. If the court accepts the jurisdiction, then it will take another two to three years to conclude the lawsuit.
As well as individual compensation, Leigh Day says it wants justice for the communities. “What we’re hoping this lawsuit achieves, apart from compensation, is a deterrent effect [so] that the mine will not keep operating in this way that pollutes the surrounding villages so harmfully,” Buckley says.
Banner image: Brazil Iron’s Mocó Mine cuts through the lush countryside of Brazil’s state of Bahia. The mining company has another 25 applications for mineral prospecting in the region. Image by Felipe Abreu.
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