Brazil dam disaster: Five years on, are new laws enough?

Ana Ionova
Marta de Jesus Arcanjo Peixoto surveys the ruins of her home, which was swept away in the Samarco mining disaster on Nov. 5, 2020, in the Mariana district of Minas Gerais, Brazil.
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Five years ago, Marta de Jesus Arcanjo Peixoto’s home was swept away when a dam holding waste from a nearby iron ore mine burst. She was one of hundreds of thousands of people across the Mariana region in Brazil’s mineral-rich Minas Gerais state that watched their land be destroyed by toxic sludge. It damaged the land, polluted rivers, and claimed 19 lives.

New homes were promised to victims, and both the federal and state governments passed new laws under the promise of “never again.” Yet residents are pushing for justice and prevention.

Why We Wrote This

We often hear “never again” after disasters. Following a devastating dam break in Brazil, new safety measures were created and a mining company pledged reparations. Is that enough to make “never” a reality?

In a nation still suffering the effects of a 2014 economic crisis, dealing with the toll of COVID-19, and being led by a populist trying to open up extraction of natural resources, advocates and victims fear the steps taken so far won’t be enough to guarantee a disaster doesn’t happen again.

“What we are living today is not the life that we wanted. Our future is so uncertain,” says Mauro Marcos da Silva, a member of a group for affected residents. “But we’re fighting so it doesn’t put an end to our story in this place, so it doesn’t wipe it off the map.”

A few crumbling walls – stained a deep, muddy red – are all that remain of what Marta de Jesus Arcanjo Peixoto once called home. As the forest edges closer, dense vegetation is enveloping the concrete shell that used to be her kitchen. An antique clock, its hands frozen in place, still hangs on a living room wall.

“Here was my room and, over there was the boys’ bedroom,” Ms. Peixoto says, yanking at the towering weeds as she moves through the rubble. “Now, there is just mud and forest.”

Five years ago, Ms. Peixoto’s house was swept away when a dam holding waste from a nearby iron ore mine burst. It released millions of tons of toxic sludge over the Mariana region in Brazil’s mineral-rich Minas Gerais state, killing 19 people, polluting the region’s most important river, and poisoning water supplies that fed into fishing villages across nearly 40 municipalities. The torrent of mud traveled more than 400 miles before spilling into the Atlantic Ocean, making this one of Brazil’s worst environmental disasters to date.

Why We Wrote This

We often hear “never again” after disasters. Following a devastating dam break in Brazil, new safety measures were created and a mining company pledged reparations. Is that enough to make “never” a reality?

Ms. Peixoto, along with hundreds of thousands of others across the region, is still feeling the impacts of the catastrophe. The new home that was promised to her by the mining company has yet to be built. The land where she grows crops and raises dairy cows is still covered in a thick, red sludge of mining waste. Her income has been decimated, leaving her dependent on monthly assistance of roughly $200, equivalent to a minimum salary in Brazil, from Samarco, the owner of the failed dam.

“The land is no good anymore – it’s dry, it’s hard,” Ms. Peixoto says. “Many crops end up dying.”

This town traces its very existence to the mining rush that gripped Minas Gerais at the start of the 18th century. But in recent decades, it avoided the region’s dependence on mining, thanks to a thriving small-scale agricultural industry. Then the dam collapsed. It displaced the tightknit community of farmers who lived off the land for generations.

“We didn’t just lose our crops,” says Vicente Celestino Arcanjo, Ms. Peixoto’s older brother, whose house in the hills of Paracatu survived the dam collapse. Before the sludge blanketed his family’s farm, Mr. Arcanjo grew sugar cane, just as his father had. “We lost a community. It was the football field, it was the school where my boys went, it was the church we prayed in.”

The 2015 disaster seemed poised to mark a turning point for Brazil. In the aftermath, lawmakers in Minas Gerais penned a new bill called “A sea of mud, never again,” which vowed to impose strict safety rules on mines. Pressure mounted in 2019, when another dam burst near the town of Brumadinho, also in Minas Gerais, and killed 270 people.

Last month, Brazil’s Senate adopted new legislation banning the type of dams that caused the two disasters, giving companies until February 2022 to bring existing structures in line with the new rules. Though important wins, the overhaul will do little to make mining safer in practice, experts warn, amid weak enforcement and an ongoing push to liberalize Brazilian markets – in part by opening the country up to more natural resource extraction.

“The [federal] law is a lost opportunity,” says Bruno Milanez, a professor at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Minas Gerais and the coordinator of PoEMAS, a research group that studies the political, economic, social, and environmental impact of mining.

Now, with toothless laws on the books, winning truly effective reforms may be that much more difficult, he says. “We could have made significant strides. And we didn’t.”

Watered down

The cause of the Samarco dam failure remains under investigation. But internal documents seized by authorities shortly after the catastrophe suggest the company was aware the structure could collapse. Samarco denies knowledge of structural weaknesses.

Samarco, a joint venture between Brazil’s Vale and Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton, was ordered to pay billions in environmental cleanup and damages to victims. Twenty-one people were charged with homicide and a landmark suit was filed against BHP in England, alleging the company was “woefully negligent.” The UK High Court agreed on Nov. 9. The claimants plan to appeal the decision.

Ana Ionova
A destroyed house sits in Bento Rodrigues, in the Mariana district of Brazil's mineral-rich Minas Gerais state. In 2015, a Samarco-owned dam holding waste from an iron ore mine burst, releasing millions of tons of toxic sludge. Five years later, Bento Rodrigues is still struggling to recover.

The disaster sparked outrage across Brazil, but regulatory change was slow to come. “The law didn’t have the traction needed to advance because nobody believed another collapse would happen,” says Mauro Marcos da Silva, a former resident of Bento Rodrigues, one of the towns destroyed in the collapse, and a member of the Commission for People Affected by the Fundão Dam (CABF). “We kept saying that Mariana was not the first and it won’t be the last.”

More than brick and mortar were wiped out. The historical village of Bento Rodrigues was built by enslaved people in the late 1600s, back when colonial powers descended on the Mariana region in a mad scramble for gold. Even after the sludge erased most of the town, residents have fought to keep their land.

“The mud took everything. It destroyed the house where I was born,” Mr. Silva says. “Today, there is nothing. ... But it’s still our land. We still have a strong connection to this place.”

Efforts to tighten mining oversight are running up against a broader agenda of deregulation. Brazil is trying to attract investment and kick-start its economy, which is still recovering from a crippling 2014 recession. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil now faces further fiscal pains as emergency aid balloons public spending.

The push toward liberalization of the mining sector began in 2018, but has only intensified under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. The populist leader has repeatedly railed against environmental protections, calling them a barrier to development. Informal, unregulated mining is also making inroads under Mr. Bolsonaro. He is pushing to open Indigenous lands to wildcat mining, which has encouraged illegal invasions into protected areas.

The government says it plans to slash the enforcement budget of the National Mining Agency, tasked with monitoring and regulating hundreds of dams across Brazil. Critics say this will likely make it more difficult to police mining companies and ensure they are following new regulations.

While Minas Gerais passed its state-wide law last year, Mr. Milanez says lawmakers have not outlined how it should be put into practice, making it impossible to enforce. Critics say Brazil’s new federal law, meanwhile, was watered down by a series of loopholes and exceptions in Brazil’s chamber of deputies.

“It was gutted. It became so lax that it is unlikely to improve security,” Mr. Milanez says. Brazil’s legislature remains vulnerable to lobbying from mining interests despite a ban on campaign financing, he adds. “It is easy to comply with the law without you having to actually change the way you operate.”

On a local level, mining companies wield power. They often employ whole communities and serve as a lifeline for cash-strapped municipalities that might need funding for infrastructure projects like roads or hospitals.

Mr. Silva, the community activist, says the region is dependent on the mines. “Here in Mariana, it’s the activity that guarantees the survival of the city.”

With municipal elections starting Nov. 15, the influence of mining companies has come into sharp focus. In neighboring Espírito Santo state, where mining has less clout, candidates in towns affected by the Samarco disaster have been vocal against the sector. But in Mariana, those running for office are treading carefully, making vague calls for change. None are proposing alternative engines for growth.

“No mayoral candidate wants to spar with a big mining company,” says Mr. Milanez. “At the end of the day, it will be this mining company that will likely help him renovate a sports field or a wing in a hospital if he needs to.”

Residents of Mariana, where the economy has struggled to recover, seem to be warming to mining once again. At first, public sympathy was with the survivors, Mr. Silva says. “But soon, it was back on the side of the company, asking for it to come back and guarantee jobs.”

Ana Ionova
Three years ago, Vicente Celestino Ancanjo buried his mother in the small cemetery overlooking the remains of the village of Paracatu, Brazil. The sludge from the 2015 dam disaster swept through the homes of three of Mr. Arcanjo's siblings and destroyed the family's crops. “The mud didn’t kill my mother, but seeing her children left with just the clothes on their backs hurt her a lot," he says.

Samarco says it plans to restart operations at its Mariana site by the end of the year, using a new dry tailings method widely seen as a safer alternative to dams.

“We just hope this really means it’s now safe,” says Sandro José Sobreira, a former resident of Bento Rodrigues.

At the mercy of others

The day the contaminated waters wiped out the town, Mr. Sobreira was working in his family’s store, in the house where he grew up. “It was a shop that was passed on from generation to generation,” he says.

The sludge swept away the store, the house, and much of the town, leaving behind reddish rubble, stained from the mix of mud and heavy metals. Five years on, he says his family is living in limbo as they await a new house and try to piece together how to move ahead. Like most of those affected, he is still living in a temporary home with rent subsidized by Samarco. “We’re at the mercy of the company, waiting for a resolution,” he says. “We don’t know when it will come.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt another blow to Mariana, where infection rates are nearly a third higher than elsewhere in the state. The pandemic has further slowed progress on rebuilding the communities devastated by the disaster. Five years on, just two houses have been completed and another five are slated to be finished by the end of the year, according to Mr. Silva. That’s out of the roughly 280 promised to the victims in Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu de Baixo.

The Renova Foundation, the group set up by Samarco to lead reparations, says it has allocated more than 10 billion reais ($1.7 billion) toward compensating families, rebuilding the destroyed towns, and cleaning up the environmental damage. So far, it says it has paid out 2.6 billion reais ($451 million) in damages and assistance to 321,000 people in the region.

CEO André de Freitas said Renova’s work had been stymied by the pandemic, which has slowed construction. He announced in November that reconstruction will likely take another 10 years.

For Mr. Silva, COVID-19 is just the latest in a string of excuses. “They are constantly looking for a justification for the delays,” he says. “Now, it’s the pandemic.”

Brazilian authorities seem to agree: Last month, federal and state prosecutors sought to reopen a suspended 155 billion reais ($27.4 billion) civil action lawsuit, alleging that Renova, Samarco, Vale, and BHP were dragging their feet on meeting their obligations after the disaster. A recent United Nations report found none of the 42 projects to repair damage from the collapse are on track.

A ticking clock

For some of the victims, time is running out. Three years ago, Mr. Arcanjo buried his mother in the red dirt of the small cemetery overlooking the rubble-covered remains of Paracatu. The sludge swept through the homes of three of his siblings and destroyed swaths of the family’s farm.

“The mud didn’t kill my mother, but seeing her children left with just the clothes on their backs hurt her,” Mr. Arcanjo says. “And she ended up dying without seeing us get justice.”

From the roughly 600 families that were directly affected in Bento Rodrigues, about 400 are still stuck in negotiations with Renova over compensation, according to CABF, which is made up of affected residents advocating for fair compensation and reparations.

For Mr. Silva, whose ancestors built Bento Rodrigues as enslaved people more than three centuries ago, the ongoing fight for justice is about preserving the legacy of the land.

“What we are living today is not the life that we wanted. Our future is so uncertain,” he says. “But we’re fighting so it doesn’t put an end to our story in this place, so it doesn’t wipe it off the map.”

Ana Ionova’s reporting in Brazil was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Editor's note: The original story incorrectly stated a UK court decision was pending. That's been updated. 

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