It’s been three years, but Monica Santos still remembers the day in painful detail. The call at work from her cousin, who told her the dam had burst. The tsunami of strongly smelling mud on the hour’s drive towards her home town, Bento Rodrigues. The words of her fleeing neighbours, who stopped her on the way: “Bento is over: everyone’s gone”.
The 2015 disaster, a dam collapse at a Brazilian mine, killed 19 people and contaminated over a thousand hectares of land near the city of Mariana, in what the then-president described as “the biggest environmental disaster” to hit the country.
The tragedy now looks set to be dwarfed, however, by events at Brumadinho, where last Friday’s collapse of a similar tailings dam has left at least 58 people dead and 300 missing.
The cause of the new disaster, in the same mineral-rich region of Minas Gerais, has not yet been established. But the parallels with 2015 already provide a sobering warning of what lies ahead for survivors – from the pollution of drinking water, to long battles for compensation, and the slow ebbing of international interest.
For Santos, 33, whom I met with fellow survivor Douglas Krenak in the lobby of a London hotel last October, the process of recovery is an ongoing struggle, and one she feels the rest of the world has largely chosen to ignore. “In Brazil, people now only talk about the Mariana collapse on the anniversary of the disaster. While in the UK, I am not even sure people know a British owned company was involved,” Santos explains through a translator.
Her family still lives in provisional accommodation and her mother suffers from depression and panic attacks. Unable to return to the town of her birth (due to the risk posed by other dams in the region), she remains haunted by the memories of things lost to the flood – including the only photograph she had of her father, who died when she was seven.
It is not just the mining towns that are affected by such disasters. Douglas Krenak, from the Krenak indigenous community, remembers how the 2015 collapse unleashed a torrent of waste into the water system and devastated fish stocks. “All the toxic mud from the dam at Bento Rodrigues contaminated the river, killing the plants and animals – the tatu, paca and capybaras – and harming our fishing and our rituals of baptism,” he explained.
The search for justice by victims of the Mariana disaster has united 240,000 individuals, 24 municipal governments, 11,000 businesses, a Catholic archdiocese and 200 members of the indigenous Krenak community behind a new class action against BHP Billiton, the Anglo-Australian co-owner of the dam.
In some instances, lawyers are seeking 10 to 20 times the damages that have been offered to claimants so far. And by filing the lawsuit in the UK, they hope to bypass Brazil’s slow court system. We will seek publicity for the “crimes that try to wipe us out”, said Krenak.
Yet it is not only improvements in compensating the victims of such events that needs to change. “One cannot fail to note that this is the second time in just a few years that a major mining disaster happens in this area and involving at least one of the same companies,” says Jorge E Vinuales, Profesor of Law and Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge.
In regard to Brumadinho, Vinuales advises establishing an international fact-finding commission, consisting of both Brazilian and international commissioners, to clarify exactly what happened.
As a general recommendation, he suggests imposing multibillion fines and a new system that triggers criminal liability of the persons in control of the safety of operations. This should help ensure companies cannot expect to simply “pay their way out of catastrophes”, he says.
“The human rights and environmental aspects of corporate social responsibility should also be upgraded to the level of compliance requirements (such as money laundering and anti-corruption requirements),” Vinuales adds, “to signal, very clearly, that this is not just a best efforts goal or a branding game but a very serious requirement”.
For the victims of the Mariana and Brumadinho disasters, such changes, if ever implemented, will come far too late.
But as the news cycle moves on, the need for justice for the victims must not be swept away with the mud. Especially in light of President Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to cut environmental “red-tape” and open up indigenous territories to mining, if global attitudes to industry regulation don’t change soon, more tragedies like Mariana and Brumadinho lie in wait.