Author: Lílian Mayerhofer
“From a drop of water that touched the Earth, the Pataxó tribe was born”, said the tribe leader Célia Peixoto. Her indigenous tribe is grieving the loss of one of Brazil’s most important rivers, Paraopebas, after a dam used to store detritus from the iron mining process collapsed on January 25th 2019, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The dam was owned by a national mining company named Vale, whose main economic activities include the extraction of iron; the damage from the broken dam corresponded to just 2% of the company’s ore mining proceeds.
After the dam failure, Célia’s tribe is struggling to survive, as the community relied on the fish available in this river. The major problem is: this is not news. Three years ago, another major dam failed in the same state, in the city of Mariana. This disaster left behind 17 deaths, 400 homeless families, 11 tons of dead fish and the death of a whole river, endangering another indigenous tribe known as Krenaks. So far, the company responsible for running Mariana’s dam, Samarco, has not paid the compensation related to this catastrophe, estimated to be US$ 85 million.
The rise of the mining industry in Brazil dates from three centuries ago, when gold, silver and copper were found in the mid-Eastern part of the country. Since then, many multinational industries have started their activities in the Brazilian territory, using the cheap labour available and lack of rigorous environmental laws in exchange for profit.
The mining lobby has had a direct effect on Brazilian policy since the proclamation of the Republic in 1889. As stated by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, “The wealth of iron beneath Brazil’s Paraopeba valley overthrew two presidents- Jânio Quadros and João Goulart- before Marshal Castelo Branco, who made himself dictator in 1964, graciously handed it over to the Hanna Mining Company. An earlier friend of the U.S. ambassador, President Eurico Dutra (1946-1951), had handed Bethlehem Steel the 40 million tons of manganese in the state of Amapá–one of the world’s biggest deposits- for 4 percent of the income from exporting it.”
As history tells us, Brazil has been involved in a long-term relationship with numerous multinational companies. Even Norway hit the headlines last year, after locals claimed that Norsk Hydro’s bauxite waste contaminated nearby waters and soil in the state of Pará, in the North of Brazil.
A feasible way to turn this situation around would be the reinforcement of national environmental laws and a better surveillance of legal permits. However, the recently elected Federal government is going in the opposite direction. As stated by the newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro, “we should end the ‘fine industry’ run by Ibama and ICMBio”; which are the organisations responsible for controlling illegal mining, deforestation and logging. When political momentum fails to address environmental issues, it risks not only the vulnerable members of a population, but also the future of entire ecosystems.