In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, dams are dangerous

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In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, dams are dangerous

In 2015, Brazil had one of its worst environmental disasters. Tchenna Maso is a human rights defender. He writes about the human cost of the dam disaster, and what has changed since then.


A man carries the coffin of Emanuele Vitoria Fernandes, aged 5. He died in Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst in Mariana, Brazil, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

It is the fourth anniversary of the Fundão dam disaster in Mariana, a town in the South-eastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. British-Australian company BHP and the big Brazilian mining company, Vale, owned the Fundão dam and the iron ore mine, called Samarco

The dam held toxic waste from the mine. It burst on November 5, 2015, and killed 19 people and destroyed everything. It released 48.7 million cubic metres of toxic waste into the Rio Doce, a 530-mile long river. It affected a part of the Atlantic Ocean over 370 miles away from the dam.

People say it is Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. 1.4 million people lived in villages next to the river and they lost their homes. Four years later, the terrible effects are still there. And Samarco hasn’t rebuilt even one house.

In January 2019, another dam burst near the town of Brumadinho. It was just 75 miles away from the Fundao dam, also in Minas Gerais. This time only Vale owned the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine and dam. About 270 people were killed. They were mostly workers. They were in the canteen.

What happened in Samarco and Brumadinho was the result of the terrible way in which companies exploit the environment. In both cases, the communities are deeply shocked. They want justice and reparation.

Open for business

In October 2019, I travelled to Geneva for talks on the UN Binding Treaty. This asks governments to make legal rules against environmental abuses by companies around the world, under international human rights law.

From Geneva, I went to BHP’s annual meeting in London, to explain what is happening in communities four years after the dam burst in Mariana. But the board was ready to dispute the community demands which I asked for, such as for affected people to take part in the reparations and for research on the environmental effects of the dam bursting.

Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro believes that the companies themselves are solving the problems. And so he has not given any government ministers roles to look after the repairs. But he has appointed people with no real power. His government is giving all the power to the companies, so, in Brazil, the state has no power.

The mining model

Brazil is now continuing with deforestation, agro-industry, and mega-dams. Bolsonaro wants to ‘open up the Amazon’. More agribusiness and mining is leading to deforestation and a terrible effect on the Amazon’s rivers. They build dams on the river for energy. This activity in the Amazon, with the fires and ecological destruction, is connected to the new corporate power in the region. Bolsonaro’s government is trying to move away the indigenous peoples who live there so that it can control the resources of the Amazon.

They have found lots of different minerals in Brazil and there are new technologies for iron and other minerals. So companies are making mines deeper and that leads to more toxic waste, more water to wash the minerals, and more workers to exploit. They have used this model of mining and storing the waste in dams for many years in Brazil, but it is a technology that is no longer used in many countries. It uses energy and water and in areas where poorer people live.

Mining companies often do not make sure that the places where they have the mines are safe for everyone. They put the dams where construction is easier and cheaper. But these options are not cheap when the dams burst because companies do not do studies of the area. In Samarco, there was not enough drainage and there were mistakes with the mining waste, which meant that only three small earthquakes made the mine burst.

A time bomb

Bolsanaro’s government has made environmental laws more flexible to help the economy and make the state smaller. This means companies can exploit land and workers more easily and it gives them bigger profits.

More than nine dams have already burst in Brazil. But there are very few officials doing risk control to stop these collapses. And when they do, there is very little investment in sustainable technologies which could increase public safety. All of these polluting dams are above towns with large populations.

For communities affected by these crimes, justice is the most important thing. The second is reparation.

I work for the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB). It is asking for change to the laws to recognize communities’ needs for social development and for their rights. These are necessary before the construction of mega-projects.


Eliene Almeida is head teacher at a school in Bento Rodrigues district. It was covered with mud after a dam burst. She carries her child at a hotel used for people who lost their homes, in Mariana, Brazil. November 9, 2015.

Women are leading the fight

At MAB we work a lot with women. The main problem is that we need to see that people are in trouble and with women it is more difficult because they have many informal jobs and men control them. Mining companies always give reparations to the head of the family, usually men, and this takes away financial control from women. At the same time there are problems not just with money but with health and dirty water.

In general, Brazilian society opposes women leaders more. In recent years, the defenders in MAB who have suffered the most attacks have been women. Dam disasters result in more social problems, including more alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence – often following displacement, loss of jobs, land grabbing, and ecological effects.

On March 22, 2018, World Water Day, comrade Dilma Ferreira Silva was killed by a landowner. The police say he was involved in illegal logging. She lived in a rural, isolated settlement in Tucuruí, Pará state. It was affected by a mega-dam many years ago, with 32,000 Brazilians displaced. Dilma was fighting to get public services in her community.

There have been many disasters around the world, most recently in Siberia, when a dam burst at a gold mine in October 2019. We must protect human and land rights and make laws to make sure that there are no more disasters like Samarco and Brumadinho.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)