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.
CL: Mainstream media in Brazil is very much backing that image.
LS: Yes. I mean, this entire thing about a small seismic event being considered responsible for breaking the dam . . .
RE: The Brazilian media is coming to the company’s defense? Is that because the company has an economic monopoly?
LS: I think you are right in a sense, because of the power of the company in this area. I think it’s also because our media is [politically] right-of-center and the Vale until now was hailed as the big success of privatization. They would love to see this (privatization) happening to Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. But to see Vale lose value and be challenged as a company, as this model company, would also jeopardize the entire idea that private ownership is better than public ownership.
RE: In other words, you’re saying there is a deep public interest perceived in this single privatized mining company . . .
LS: Oh yeah.
RE: It’s hard for people to articulate the difference between what the interests of that company and the interests of the region. You see this in Appalachia for a long time, where coal companies would say “what is good for coal is good for Appalachia.” And it became difficult for anyone to actually have any space in which to critique that because to critique means you’re potentially also taking a job from neighbors or your relatives.
LS: Just yesterday there was a rally of the residents of Mariana, with the worker unions asking for the company to remain in Mariana. They had t-shirts written with slogans that said “Yes; No to Unemployment.”
RE: This is the miner’s union?
LS: Yes. But you have to understand that it’s not only the miners, it’s not only the direct workers, but everything in the region that is connected to the Vale Company. It’s like FIAT for Turin: I mean if you don’t work for FIAT, you work for the company that sells FIAT cars, or you work for the company that sells tires for FIAT cars. And I repeat: even environmental organizations. We don’t have the tradition like in the United States and in Europe of nonprofits supported only by the membership fees. I know very few nonprofits in Brazil that don’t depend on private company or government funding. Most cities like Mariana or the nearby cities can pay their employees just because of the fees and taxes paid by Vale. If Vale were to disappear from Mariana that would mean a loss of municipal taxes that would make it impossible to pay the public employees.
RE: Is Vale perceived as a company that takes risks or as a company that doesn’t value worker’s safety?
LS: I couldn’t say . . . no more or less than any other company in Brazil. People cut corners in Brazil. What is concerning, however, is that the mining code of Brazil is very strict. It’s just not enforced. Now there is discussion of a new mining code, and some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly.
RE: So the disaster is an excuse for pushing through the process?
LS: Measures that would never be accepted in normal times. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today. The government is the problem in this narrative. Environmental regulations are the problem. There are other issues like for instance there are hundreds of unpaid fines in the environmental agency in Minas Gerais, still to be processed, and there’s no way the state government can process all of them. So they’re going now to give a huge amnesty to the companies, hoping to clear up the bureaucratic mess.
RE: Is this because the agency is understaffed or underfunded?
LS: They are understaffed, underfunded and in my opinion it’s a tactic from the companies to let the number of fines accumulate and then see what happens. Many of these fines are going to be amnestied because they are very close to the statute of limitation. This entire thing is a perfect storm. It shows us not only the connections between city and the countryside, but [also] the connections between environmental protection, ecosystems, and policies, national and local, the dispute between right and left in Brazil, the bureaucratic nightmare in terms of legislation and the huge lobbies for the relaxing of environmental laws. At the same time, everybody is an environmentalist in Brazil, everybody loves nature, or so they say. And these big lobby groups argue that the best way to help nature is by taking away environmental regulations. If you talk to each and every one of these guys arguing about the mining code, they’re going to say, “No, we are going to save nature.” Besides, we must remember that the lobby against environmental regulations is one of the strongest in Brazil because it’s so connected to ownership of land, and land disputes are the most common causes for which people are killed in the countryside of Brazil. Many environmentalists were killed because they were challenging the use of land. An event like this raises all these questions about media and politics without even having to go for to conspiracy theories. Why do you need conspiracy theories when reality is so much more!
RE: You described this river as at the heart of a certain national imaginary. Is it fair to say that what people have in mind when they’re saying “nature” has to do with a sense that Brazil has a particular natural heritage, biodiversity? So what you would be saving if you’re saving nature is something that’s only here, only in Brazil?
LS: It’s more complicated, as we are talking about a 800-kilometer river where there is everything from a city the size of Governador Valadares to groups of indigenous populations to areas that are natural reserves, and therefore, no large human population. It’s also one of the regions to have witnessed anthropogenic action for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’re not talking about a pristine area. Some of the images that have more impact in the media are people, firefighters for instance, saving a dog or a cow. It is a region where people and nonhumans have interacted in many ways for so long that is part of the identity. And that’s what I found so interesting about the fishermen trying to save the fish. They do see this connection. They are not saving the fish because they want the fish to live forever in the aquarium, but because it’s their livelihood. And I think the Krenak had it really well. They don’t differentiate so much between the river, the land, the fish. If the river is dead, we’re all dead. I know it sounds like some fake Chief Seattle story, but that’s what we are saying right now. It’s less one pristine area untouched for whatever species, it’s more this long built-up predatory relationship, if you want, but also a transformative relationship between nature and society that was going on along this river. And now it’s really threatened.
RE: Thank you, Lise, this has been so interesting. One last question: Why is it called the “sweet river,” rio doce? Because it was good water for drinking?
LS: Yes, sweet means that it’s drinkable water.
Thanks to Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez for the interview, Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier for interviewing, and to Livia Jacobina for transcribing.