SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 226 March 2019

Brazil dam disaster

When the Córrego de Feiljão dam burst mining waste crashed through a workers’ canteen and mine buildings, sweeping away vehicles, houses and farms. At least 166 people were killed, with 150 yet to be found – bodies have been buried in iron ore waste ten metres deep. It could have been even worse. Six hundred people were in the canteen and administrative area when the dam failed, and the dense sludge skirted the edge of Brumadinho town.

The disaster struck on 25 January in the Minas Gerais region of south-eastern Brazil. The victims were mineworkers and the local community, powerless as twelve million cubic metres (12bn litres) of tailings, as the waste is called, cascaded down. As well as the lost lives and shattered families, the environmental damage is colossal. The Paraopeba river flowing through Brumadinho now runs rust-red, reeking of dead fish.

This was no natural disaster. It was a direct result of an economic system based on the pursuit of profit. It was predictable and preventable. Iron ore is extracted from huge open pit mines, stripping the land for miles around. Only a small fraction of the rock is iron and, at the end of the extraction process, the unwanted by-product is heavy, coarse, red-brown sludge. The cheapest way to deal with it is to dump it into gigantic tailings ponds, held back by dams made of layer upon layer of the compacted mining waste.

The dam at the Córrego de Feijão mine was built in 1976. The company responsible for it, Vale SA, a Brazilian multinational, is the world’s largest iron ore extractor – Brazil is the second-largest producer after Australia.

Vale denies any culpability. Dom Phillips reported in the Guardian: "On the day of the disaster, Vale… said the dam was regularly checked, most recently on 22 January, and had received ‘declarations of condition of stability’ from TÜV SÜD, a German inspection company". (‘That’s Going To Burst’: Brazilian Dam Workers Say They Warned of Disaster, 6 February)

Reuters journalist Stephen Eisenhammer showed that the TÜV SÜD audit was a bit more equivocal. It did say that "the dam adhered to the minimum legal requirements for stability", but also "raised a number of concerns, particularly about the dam’s drainage and monitoring systems". Eisenhammer got hold of an internal Vale report dated 3 October 2018 which said that "all prevention and mitigation controls" should be applied to the dam – clearly, they hadn’t been. A further Vale report (15 November 2017) gave the dam an ‘annual chance of collapse’ of one in 5,000, twice the "maximum level of individual risk". (Brazil Miner Vale Knew Deadly Dam Had Heightened Risk of Collapse, 11 February)

Marcia Reverdosa and Sheena McKenzie reported for CNN that the National Mining Agency (ANM) had classified the dam as ‘low risk’ and ‘stable’, and "said the most recent survey, carried out in December 2018 by a group of Vale technicians, found ‘no indication of problems related to the security of the structure’." They write: "Mining companies are currently responsible for hiring safety consultants, who make their assessments based on reports supplied by the mining companies themselves". (Brazil’s Brumadinho Dam Was Certified ‘Stable’ Weeks before It Collapsed, 3 February)

So, there is a system of self-assessment or the use of inspection firms that rely on contracts from the mining corporations. Negative findings are buried in internal reports. Moreover, the ANM is a government agency, set up in December 2018 to replace the National Department of Mineral Production. It was one of the last acts of the previous right-wing president Michel Temer, to pave the way for the policy of the new, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. While paying lip-service to the need for environmental protection, the ANM’s real aim is to make it easier to open up new mining sites – starting with an initial list of 20,000.

The whole set up, including endemic corruption at all levels of the political establishment, is designed to promote big-business interests. It’s short-sighted and short term. It maximises profits, human misery and environmental destruction.

The mineworkers were well aware of the risks. Dom Phillips’s article quoted above reports that the dam "suffered a leak last year that compromised its safety, according to employees who allege the mine’s operators did not inform the workforce or relocate a canteen and administration building that were destroyed in the disaster". Phillips spoke to Fernando Coelho, a 35-year-old miner whose father died when the dam failed. Fernando "broke into tears as he remembered his father warning him to steer clear of the dam. ‘That’s going to burst at any time’, he recalled him saying".

Such incidents are part of life and death for miners and local communities. In 2015 another dam in Minas Gerais collapsed, engulfing the small village of Mariana, killing 19 people. Although the loss of life was much lower than at Brumadinho, the collapse of the Bento Rodrigues dam unleashed 60 million cubic metres of iron ore waste. Hundreds of people were displaced and cities suffered water shortages as the Doce river basin was wiped out. It is considered to be Brazil’s biggest environmental disaster.

It had been built using the same upstream dam method as at Brumadinho and was run by Samarco, a joint venture by Vale and BHP Billiton, an Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate. Some commentators expected that tougher controls would follow. Instead, the Minas Gerais state administration actually made it easier to licence new mines and dams. Samarco has only paid a fraction of the fines levied for the Bento Rodrigues dam burst. There are thousands of these mine-waste dams around the world.

Successive governments have helped mining companies exploit Brazil’s rich natural resources. Regulations have been relaxed, allowing the takeover of land populated by indigenous peoples, the destruction of rainforest, the pollution of land and rivers, alongside attacks on workers’ rights and conditions.

Bolsonaro has made it clear that he intends to accelerate this process. It is possible that the anger surrounding the Brumadinho disaster could delay his immediate plans – there will be some kind of investigation, legal cases and further revelations. Indeed, the ANM has had to call for the decommissioning of upstream dams by 2021. Nonetheless, this will only be a temporary reprieve until market forces fully kick in again – unless mass action pushes the ruling class back.

Iron ore is a vital commodity. If the capitalist system runs on oil, it is built with iron ore – 98% of which goes into steel production. Steel is in everything from vehicles to vacuum cleaners, bridges and buildings. That only adds to the political clout of the mining companies – with their hired politicians and the state forces that, ultimately, defend the interests of their capitalist system.

The Córrego de Feijão dam disaster has exposed the murderous nature of capitalism. There has to be a full, public inquiry led by mineworkers, and including representatives from the local community and involving the wider trade union and workers’ movement, indigenous peoples and environmental activists. Vale SA must be made accountable. Forcing open the corporation’s books would reveal where the profits come from and where they go – and would put the nationalisation of Brazil’s mining sector firmly on the agenda. It would also shine a light on the murky workings of the whole system.

Environmental destruction, pollution and global warming affect everyone on the planet. However, workers and the poorest people are on the front line, as Brumadinho shows so tragically. While CEOs and their political cronies live in luxury, most people are forced to live and work in horrific conditions, denied a living wage or access to good quality housing, education and healthcare.

Yet workers produce the world’s goods and wealth – and the capitalists’ profits. This gives them great potential power. Their collective organisation in the workplace and society means that the working class could take over the running of society, involving other oppressed people and wide sections of the middle classes in the socialist transformation of society. We could then plan production and the use of the world’s resources democratically and sustainably.

This is not just a nice idea. It not one of a number of options. It is the only way to put an end to capitalism’s wanton disregard for human life, and to secure a planet fit for future generations.

Manny Thain

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