The mine tailing dam break in Bento Rodrigues, Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 5 November 2015 has been described by the Brazilian government as the country’s worst environmental catastrophe. Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier sat down with Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez at the RCC in Munich on 19 November and recorded the following interview.
RE: Those of us who don’t read Portuguese have to rely on what the media in English is saying. I’m curious about the language used to describe the event. I like to think “Let’s start with the facts,” but of course that’s exactly what is up to debate. I read that some seismic activity was recorded?
LS: I just don’t buy that one. If we go for the facts, let’s say that Brazil is on a very old tectonic platform. We used to say “There [are] no natural disasters in Brazil,” which of course is not true. There have been very few cyclones. We had one in Santa Catarina [in 2004] and it was like “Oh my God, that never happens.” The last time something like this happened was about 170 to 200 years earlier. But there are no earthquakes. What they registered was seismic activity between 1 and 2 on the Richter scale. We had larger seismic activity in Minas Gerais in the past, with no effects whatsoever. And there is a strong possibility that this recorded seismic activity happened as a result of the breaking of the dam.
RE: So what happened?
LS: Actually, we don’t know what exactly happened to provoke the dam breaking; this is still under investigation, and that has to do with the political context. This company, Samarco, is a subsidiary of Vale do Rio Doce, or Vale for short, and the Australian mining company BHP Billiton. Vale has a particular story that makes things so complicated. It was a state-owned company until the late 1990s, and it had several monopolies guaranteed for mining—Carajas, everything in the Amazon that you can think about, was a monopoly of Vale do Rio Doce. Other companies, especially during the military period, had to negotiate mining rights with Vale. With the consensus of Washington and the neoliberal project carried out by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the late 1990s, Vale was privatized. There are still many questions about that process of privatization. Basically, it was sold for a fraction of its value. And that has also been part of the debate. If it was a public company, would that have happened? Would it be an appropriate penalization to nationalize the company again? There are people talking about that. On top of that, as a private company, Vale is a major employer in the region, so everybody is very concerned about the interruption of its activities because that means leaving everybody, and I mean everybody, without a job, since all the other activities in the region, like fishing, have been affected by the spill. So this is a concern. And Vale has contributed to the political campaigns of every single politician in Minas Gerais. And both of the big parties—PSDB, which is a center-right party, and PT, which I would say is a center-left party—both parties received large amounts. So the entire debate of how we call this particular event is also tainted by this, in small symbolic things but also in more dramatic moments. For instance, the announcement of the disaster made by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais was made from the headquarters of the Samarco company. And he’s a PT governor, a center-left politician. The previous governor, who was governor for eight years, and therefore responsible for the fiscalization (the fining process) and maintenance, Aecio Neves, is also the former Brazilian presidential candidate of the opposition, the center-right. He was also one of the first ones to say [after the dam break] “this is not a time to try to place blame,” because it’s not very convenient for him. So everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.
RE: How are nonprofits responding?
LS: For instance, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has work in that area with the recovery of the degraded springs, water springs, which was funded by the Vale do Rio Doce, the company. So on the one hand he’s saying “look, the company has to make good to this work, and take responsibility,” on the other hand he says “well I know they are going to do that because they are a good, responsible company.” The president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has just issued a decree allowing workers to use their mandatory retirement savings, which normally you can only take when you’re actually retired or in very special circumstances, such as if you were a victim of a natural disaster. She amended the decree to include, for the purpose of taking away their money, breaking of dams as a natural disaster.
RE: The decree allows employees to take their retirement savings early?
LS: Yes. So the responsibility to deal with the immediate costs [of lost income] is put on the backs of the workers.
CL: That’s Brazil for you.
LS: It’s even more complicated than that. Legislation for environmental damage is about 15 years old in terms of setting penalties and fines. Samarco received several fines, each of them the maximum, but the total is still really low, because each of the fines has a legal ceiling. Overall, only in the state of Minas Gerais, there are over 200 unpaid environmental fines because companies appeal once, twice, and again, and can go on for ten or 15 years without paying.
RE: What would a meaningful fine be for a large transnational mining venture, in proportion to their daily profits?
LS: In this case the total fine that was given Samarco I’ve read is something around seven percent of its net profit. But I would be careful about that estimate for several reasons. First, the spill paralyzes all work in the area, which means a loss of profit for the company, which is large. Second, the fine does not exempt the company from cleaning up, so the fine comes on top of the entire cost of recovery for the area. However, this is also complicated because the public ministry has just signed an agreement for one billion reais for the clean-up. That may still be below what we need, and may be putting a ceiling on the liability of the company.
CL: And there are heavy metals in the floodwater, so there are potentially much longer-lasting costs.
LS: Well, this is also a bit complicated. It’s not clear as there are several small cities affected, and one large one, Governador Valadares, in the way of the river. Some of the mayors made their own water testing. One of the cities found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.” However, the mayor of Governador Valadares showed a number of tests saying there [are] no heavy metals. Everybody is protesting that they don’t trust this kind of test. I’ve joined a group of over 2,000 volunteers including 700 scientists who are proposing to do an independent analysis of the environmental and social impact. It’s the first time that anything like this has happened in Brazil—not only the disaster but this kind of volunteer organization. The group has over 2,000 people right now, everybody from undergrad students to PhDs, and everybody wants to help, but it’s going to need lots of organization.
CL: Are they organizing with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brazil, which is gaining momentum?
LS: Yes, they are organizing with that, they are making connections, although the experience of the MAB is mostly with water dams (not mining dams) and people who are being . . .
CL: . . . displaced.
LS: Yes. We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows. We are talking about a mud that is full of iron and probably arsenic and silica, and some aluminum. It’s heavy and it’s impermeable, so it passes through the river, creating a layer at the bottom where nothing can grow. On top of that all the fish are dying, since they have no oxygen. And all the animals—dogs, cattle caught by the water—are dying and decomposing. So it alters the water even if you have dilution from the river tributaries, for instance. Some cities are trying to capture the water from the tributaries, hoping to bypass the river and find a new source of drinking water. We’re talking about a city like Governador Valadares, with close to 300,000 people. Drawing from tributaries upstream means less water diluting the river. Even before the disaster the springs were compromised. If there are heavy metals in the heavy layers at the bottom, people are talking about the possibility of some of these metals getting to the phreatic water sheet. So as you see it’s a kind of disaster of incredible magnitude, not only in terms of what happens to the ecosystem, but also in terms of political, economic, and social impacts—it goes in all directions. And it is a big question mark. I mean, we have no experience with that. And the fact that it happened just before the Paris attacks made it disappear from the public eye.
[the second instalment of this three-part interview will be published next week]
Thanks to Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez for the interview, Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier for interviewing, and to Livia Jacobina for transcribing.