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: This relative lack of exposure to the dam break is definitely something I hope we can talk about. It seems like there are several durations involved and also questions of how the media has covered or not covered the spill. Some of the coverage has focused on the company and the economic impact of closing down operations and has pointed out that the price for iron has been relatively low in the last ten years, because of the decreased demand for export. There has been a shift in the conversation from describing the event in concrete, biological terms to an abstract conversation about the commodity exports, iron pellets as raw material for industrialization. There is the time frame of the cost of the good that was extracted, and there is the other time frame, which is the lifecycle of aquatic life [that] has been impacted for a generation, particularly larger forms of aquatic life, like fish, which won’t recover for a full lifetime.
LS: Some species that were endemic to the area are lost, gone forever.
RE: There is a sense that there is a longer emergency of climate change and then these punctuating events, sometimes described in the sense of industrial operations. When dams or pipelines fail, the consequences are so out of proportion, in the sense that we think a dam may last another five or ten years and then the life of a stream is wiped out suddenly and permanently, with species gone. Where does this incongruity show up in media?
LS: It also is true that it showed how we have changed the way we read. I mean, ninja media and the alternative media have been very important in the process because the big newspapers are putting the disaster on the second or third page. They found out that they can’t ignore it completely because alternative media, and Facebook and ninja are keeping it alive.
CL: I also felt this very strongly. On my Facebook feed: for example, Brasil de Fato, which is a main Socialist newspaper in Brazil, and Nova Democracia, which is another alternative newspaper, are covering this a lot, posting pictures and also getting people to tell their stories on social media. People are interacting with each other outside the big media, taking things into their own hands.
LS: It is also true that environmental issues had become in recent years a theme for the left. However, this disaster, in the way that Vale may be connected to the current administration of PT, brought it back as an issue for the right as well. I’ve heard about the disaster from Mariana from my friends on the left as well as my friends on the right. It’s one unifying point of protest. How they are going to read the disaster is very different, but it’s there, and it’s very strong. I found it interesting because the newspapers did try to kind of [suggest that] Paris is more important and this alternative media kept [the disaster] alive. I would like to go back, however, to the point about extension. One thing that was very interesting is to see some of the disciplinary boundaries and the different views of the disaster by scientists. Thus you have engineers and geographers who are just saying “okay, calm down, the river is coming back,” while biologists and ecologists are in panic.
RE: I’ve heard that in Appalachia, where different scientists have totally different discourses around streams and tailing ponds in post-mining landscapes. I’m curious to hear how disciplinary differences in perception are working out in this case?
LS: I find that fascinating as well. We all joined this group of 2,000 volunteers, probably 400 or 500 PhDs from all areas of Brazilian academia, who all want to help and we all want the company to pay. The geologists and geographers are going to have this idea that the river is coming back. Biologists are furious: it’s over, it’s dead. Among all this mess, I’ve read about this very beautiful initiative by the fishermen, Operation Noah’s Ark. It was gorgeous but absolutely useless.
RE: Taking the fish from the spill area and transporting them to small aquariums?
LS: And to lakes, which have their own ecosystems and work at the optimal level of biomass. If you’re bringing an endemic species, although you can save some genetic material, the impact is mostly negative. What was important was for the communities of fishermen to feel they were doing something. It was much more a political, social activity. What we should be looking at is a new river, probably in the next 30 years. Water is going to find other areas to go. Even for geologists, even if you don’t consider the life of the river, we are talking about a game changer. Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on. The Doce was the river through which so much of this material would pass. It was also the area where traditional populations from the colonial times would negotiate the space and dispute with the settlers. Right now you still have some of the communities like Krenak that depend on the river, and they are desperate. It’s a river that is really, really important for the communities. A famous biologist, Andre Ruschi, has a famous preservation area of Colibri in the Atlantic Forest right by the margins of the Rio Doce. We are all expecting the mud to pass through and destroy it. Once arriving to the sea it’s not going to disperse easily so the marine reservation, the Parque Nacional dos Abrolhos, could also reach this platform. This particular disaster is going to pass through the heart of some of the remains of the Atlantic Forest. What are we going to do?
RE: Well, one thing you’re doing is going back to Brazil to work with SOLCHA, Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental, and I imagine this is going to be front and center for environmental historians in Latin America. Are there plans to have the 2,000 volunteers involved in citizen science, collecting data?
LS: Right. What I’m planning to do is to get volunteers from my University and organize a history of the area and of the river, and find out more about other examples of similar disasters. What we can offer to this group is the historical perspective.
RE: In May 2016 there is an event planned with Wisconsin’s Center for Culture, History and Environment focusing on the Mississippi River and the following year on the Danube. It’s a transatlantic environmental history workshop, histories of continents and nations through rivers. It’s similar to the project that you are describing and I think of these things as networked together. And the connections that scholars make who are looking at rivers and in the way you tell stories through the trajectory of a river.
LS: I think you are totally right. [With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics. Any step is very sensitive. Mining in the area may have slowed down, but this is an ongoing disaster. There are three dams in that particular mining area. The others are both below [safety] levels but if these two break, especially the largest one . . . what we are seeing right now will look like a pre-disaster. They are going to have to consider the possibility of the breaking of these two other dams against the profit that they can make with a low price product. As for now, Samarco is itself a victim of the disaster.
[the third instalment of this three-part interview will be published later this week]
Thanks to Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez for the interview, Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier for interviewing, and to Livia Jacobina for transcribing.