5 Years After Disaster, Communities Are Still Fighting for Their Rights

The tailings dam collapse at the Samarco mine in Mariana, Brazil has been called the worst ecological disaster the country has ever seen. On November 3, 2015, a 40 million cubic meter avalanche of mine waste killed 19 people and contaminated 668 km  of rivers and watersheds before finally reaching the Atlantic Ocean. The waste spread across 39 municipalities, displaced 500 families and ultimately affected 3 million people living in the contaminated watersheds. The widespread pollution has caused serious health problems across the region. 

Destruction in the town of Bento Rodriguez, Minas Gerais after the Mariana tailings dam failures. Credit: Senado Federal

In the aftermath of the collapse, Vale and BHP Billiton, the joint owners of the Samarco mine, signed an extrajudicial agreement to create the Renova Foundation which was tasked with overseeing and carrying out the recovery, remediation and compensation from the disaster. Yet five years later, little has been done. 

The Renova Foundation has failed to live up to its mandate. According to Brazilian prosecutors, it has not delivered on any of its promises, including the construction of new homes  for displaced families. Communities assert the foundation is functioning as a PR tool for the mining companies, and their needs and input have been left out of the process.

According to Brazllian organizations, of the 95,000 people registered for aid with the Renova Foundation, only 19,000 are receiving emergency payments. In July, amidst some of the most dire moments of the COVID-19 crisis, the Renova Foundation attempted to cut aid payments to 7,000 people. In July, 200,000 Brazilians filed a lawsuit against BHP in courts in the United Kingdom in response to the inadequate compensation. One of the largest in British history, the suit demands the company pay $6.3 billion in damages

The failures of the Renovation Foundation and the influence of the mining companies have on the process are so drastic that the UN Special Rapporteur on Hazardous Substances and Waste recommended “reforming the governance structure of the Renova Foundation to replace all influence of Vale, BHP and Samarco with independent experts free of conflicts.”

Communities are also demanding that Vale and BHP Billiton be held accountable for their actions, but the crimes committed by the mining companies have still gone unanswered. The companies knew the dam had safety issues. Experts flagged them two years before the collapse. While 21 people were initially charged with homicide, the charges have all been reduced and no corporate executive of Vale, BHP Billiton or Samarco has been convicted or jailed.  

The Mariana tailings dam collapse lays bare multiple levels of systemic failures. The mining companies failed to prioritize safety standards over their own profits. The Brazilian government failed to regulate the mining companies before the disaster and to hold them to account for their crimes afterwards. The Renova Foundation failed to listen to those affected by the crimes of the industry and provide appropriate, adequate support and compensation to all the victims. The mining industry and investors failed to learn from this disaster and four years later another Vale tailings dam collapsed in Brumadinho, Brazil. 

Today, on the 5-year anniversary, communities in Brazil are demanding their rights to public participation so that they have a voice and seat at the table in the decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. They are also demanding the resettlement of displaced families, reparations for around 60,000 people, that studies on public health and environmental contamination be made public, and the creation of a program to restructure the local economy.  Similarly to the guidelines endorsed by over 150 organizations, communities and experts across the world, communities are also calling on the Brazilian government to require companies to decommission the other risky tailings dams across Brazil. Please show your support and highlight their demands by using the #5AnosDeInjustiça on social media.


Banner photo: Pollution from the Mariana tailings dam disaster flows through the town of Barra Longa, Minas Gerias. Credit: IBAMA Brasil