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After the world's largest mining disaster: what impacts? Who is affected?

In contrast to ‘hazards theory’, the theory of disasters derived from a sociological approach will underline concerns about complex social organization and collective behavior. Português. Español.

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Author's photos.November 2015 was marred by the biggest environmental tragedy Brazil has known. It was also the biggest mining disaster in the world, caused by the rupture of Samarco's mining company tailings dam in Mariana, located in the state of Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil. Any analysis of the consequences of this disaster requires that we rethink our definition of environmental impacts, as well as who to identify as the affected parties and how those legitimate actors come forward who are to act in the mediation processes that begin in the wake of a disaster like this one.

According to the survey carried out by Lindsay Land Boweker, this is the biggest disaster in tailings dams in terms of the amount of waste in the last 100 years. The mud tailings killed people and animals, destroyed cities in the state of Minas Gerais and, following the course of the Doce river (fifth largest in Brazil), crossed the state of Espírito Santo, reaching the sea. The Doce basin is 853 km long with approximately 3.4 million people living in the region. Once the mud reached the river mouth, it entered the sea and so far experts are not able to tell what the direction of that waste will be, nor its dynamics in the ocean. It is estimated that the mud may reach Caribbean beaches profoundly affecting marine life, to the point of extinguishing some species.

The extent of the impacts of this disaster, reaching far from the dam’s area of influence as defined in the Study of Environmental Impact is impressively long and diffuse, and includes the neighboring state of Espírito Santo. From an in situ observation of the actual environmental impacts of the Samarco tailings slurry in this state, carried out by the Organon team (Study Center and Research in Social Mobilization of the Federal University of Espírito Santo), a report was compiled that serves as a basis for the present reflections.

Environmental legislation and its limits

Brazilian environmental legislation defines environmental impact as a "change in the physical, chemical and biological environment caused by any form of matter or energy resulting from human activities" and includes human and social aspects in its assessment of scale (see Resolution of the National Environment Council, n.1, 1986). Nevertheless, the legislation is limited in terms of social and environmental aspects. In the debate on environmental conflicts, broadly raised by Zhouri, the limits of the law and the distortions of the environmental licensing system leading to breaches of legislation, scarcely permit the inclusion of those affected by the process.

Besides the shortcomings of law enforcement, overall, social aspects are mainly dealt with by environmental agencies as "anthropogenic" or "socio-economic" issues. Categories from the social sciences hardly appear, and so, for example, cultural or psychological aspects are included in categories such as "people's welfare" or "social and economic activities". These aspects are still neglected and a preoccupation with "hazards" prevails. According to Valencio: "Hazards theory emphasizes a geographic approach, in which the physical mechanisms, the temporal and spatial distribution and dynamics of the outbreak of physical events have greater weight than other causes, while the theory of disasters derived from a sociological approach will underline concerns about complex social organization and collective behavior." Samarco has tried to take upon itself the prerogative of defining who the affected ones are. In a meeting held in December 2015 in the riverside community of Mascarenhas in the Baixo Guandu in the State of ES, Samarco blocked the entrance to a member of the MAB and journalists who accompanied him.

The space for participation and even for self identification of affected individuals is virtually nonexistent. It is restricted to public hearings which represent arenas to expose the conflict (which is why these are important spaces), rather than a decision space. Thus the way in which the categories in the law are operated by environmental agencies and experts imposes a rather limited definition of environmental impacts.

(Various) environmental impacts observed in the State of Espirito Santo

The social dimension of environmental impacts is much broader. Although they are quite diffuse and difficult to quantify, if we pay even minimal attention to people's discourse we will be able to identify various other effects caused by the disaster that elude the categories set out in the environmental licensing protocols and which have been guiding the evaluation and reparation of damages in this disaster.

In the State of Espírito Santo the water shortage, mainly affecting the city of Colatina, generated social chaos due to the inability to organize a water distribution plan. Besides the lack of water, this led to serious conflicts and breakdowns in society culminating in the use of special squads from the police and army. The effects of water shortage can still be seen in the desperate spread of opening wells in various locations. The impact of the opening of all these wells is still unknown.

Water contamination prevented the fishing of all riverside communities along the river Doce. All fishing was interrupted. As mentioned above, the mud reached far into the sea, preventing fishing in the district of Regency and surrounding areas. As a result of this, other activities related to fishing, such as the production of nets, hooks, ice, refrigerators, etc., were compromised.

Fear spread within communities. People do not want to buy fish. The lack of information, coupled with the unprepared exposure of the issue in the media and the silence of the authorities, fueled the formation of a stigma that began to become evident. Many people complain that nobody wants to buy vegetables, legumes or anything minimally related to water that comes from the region. Thus, in addition to crops that are being lost because many people depend on the river water for irrigation, producers feel the impact on falling sales. During the main holiday (summer) season in the area at least three beaches are closed. Surfing and other water sports are compromised as mud affects the small but regular tourist trade particular to Regency. In addition, small traders with threatened livelihoods joined one of the most established Brazilian social movements, the Landless Rural Worker’s Movement (MST), for the occupation of lands in a nearby farm in the region.

Children can no longer play in the river. In some places, such as in the Maria Ortiz community, this had been the only place to play, given the cramped spaces people live in between the rails of the Vale mining company whose trains run every ten minutes, openly loaded with iron ore, and the river Doce, now full of waste. The ore is everywhere, there is no escape. Bookshelves in a house by the river, dusted that morning, are already covered in ore dust by the afternoon, and there is neither water nor motivation to clean up so much dirt.

The weight of the tragedy falls more on women. Reports of domestic violence have multiplied, much of which is due to the increasing incidence of alcoholism among men. In addition, several violations of rights have been observed, such as the brutality of the police during several protests that have taken place. Brutality and disrespect were the immediate responses that people in the Sezínio settlement of the Landless Movement, located in Linhares, received when they claimed, with a barricade in the ES-245 State Road, that the city hall had built a disputed dam between the river Doce and the lakes that feed the one hundred families living in the settlement.

The overall impacts need to be thought through more broadly, involving the affected community and including emotional and cultural dimensions alongside the pre-existing political dynamics. It is also important to observe how those who are affected react, resist and politically build their counter mobilizations.

The affected and the legitimacy of the actors

The mobilization of parties affected by large extractive projects is always complex. It is necessary to make distinctions that can enable us to understand the complexity of these processes. Initially we must identify in these contexts those who have been  "affected" (not necessarily mobilized or self-identified as such), those "affected” who have also been “mobilized” and the "mobilizers of the affected."

The pre-existing organizational diversity in the territories affected by the disaster is significant. There are civil associations, but there are also groups that identify themselves as traditional communities that are organized in other ways. In the case of fishermen, for example, there are colonies, associations, federations and autonomous movements. It is therefore necessary to expand the observation to the various actors and collectivities. Some groups and individuals were already mobilizing themselves in Espírito Santo and in Minas Gerais around the framework of "those affected" by the mining, the oil and the gas. However, and given the magnitude of the affected territories, certainly most people were not engaged as "the affected" before this disaster. Some people receive water, some do not. Some receive more, some less. It is important to note that in a situation of material precariousness anything easily becomes a resource that is contested.

In an abrupt and unforeseen disaster, it takes some time to frame who they are among the subjects, since this new condition appears suddenly and affects people differently, through their pre-existing identifications. The disaster is not in itself an amalgam that brings people together. Some may not even realize how much they are being affected by the tailings slurry.

Considering these aspects, it is essential that mobilizing actors work together with the various affected groups. We cannot overstate the importance of social movements that started up long ago and that have been acting on behalf of those affected, such as the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) which formally started in the 1980s to coordinate and organize the defense of the people whose lives are affected by hydroelectric dams.

In the current disaster, the MAB has been systematically prevented from participating and assisting those affected in meetings with the Samarco company. This has occurred in the States of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. Moreover, Samarco has tried to take upon itself the prerogative of defining who the affected ones are. In a meeting held in December 2015 in the riverside community of Mascarenhas in the Baixo Guandu in the State of ES, Samarco blocked the entrance to a member of the MAB and journalists who accompanied him. This episode echoes a common practice in the relationship of mining companies with affected communities: they choose some local leaders and hold negotiations in closed meetings.

The elimination of mobilizing actors in the negotiation process and debate between the company and those affected is a very serious mistake (besides being unfair), which ignores the ways that processes of collective action are constituted, whose effects clearly impact on those who are weaker in the dispute. The recognition of the importance of the participation of mobilizing actors that already exist does not mean depriving the subjects affected as individuals of their political power. As suggested by James Scott in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance, beyond the public discourse which makes visible the relations of power involved, there is a hidden discourse, in the form of an infrapolitics of subordinates that needs to be considered, lest we find that domination is simply accepted by the subordinated.

The link between a hidden dimension and a public political discourse requires, however, the participation of many actors already established and set up so that the situations of environmental injustice generated by the breach in the tailings dam (in this case) are articulated in ways that can transform the living conditions of these subjects. Well, what we know from the practices of mining companies in the sector shows that this is exactly what they seek to avoid.

The company's operating strategies

There is a break in the routine which no longer allows meetings and conversations in the usual public spaces - key areas for exchanging ideas, forming opinions and building collective action.

The way a company relates to the communities generates fragmentation. It individualizes the contacts with the community, ignoring local organizational complexity, and instead singling out some actors to relate to. The thesis recently defended by Giffoni is already a point of reference on this subject, showing clearly that the management of financial risks provides mapping and neutralization strategies for handling social stakeholders who are critical of the businesses involved. The author notes that clearly there are strategic interventions that seek to co-opt leaders or use local conflicts to produce mistrust and insecurity in local social relations. Stakeholders' identification methods are used by companies to develop projects of social mobilization with the explicit objective of reducing the conflicts between the community and the company.

These practices are anchored in concepts and assessments of "social risk" and "political risk". These ideas have produced a set of measurement institutions linked to the corporate world of mining, which assess the risks for business through instruments such as the "social license" and an investment in cultural projects that can reverse corporate reputation indicators. The evaluation of "political risk" made by countries includes measures such as "political violence", strikes, riots, civil commotion, sabotage, terrorism, among others. Such defensive processes hinder business in the mining sector.

In a visit to a riverside community, we heard about a health agent that mediates between the company and the community, selecting people who may enter the company's benefit programs. Mothers reported with indignation that some children were included in some kind of registration while others were left out, "he asks his daughter to go out with a clipboard picking up some children's names." Interestingly, no one knows what the registration is for, but by the tone of complaint, they assume that they are losing some benefit. 

It is possible to see this relationship also in water distribution. Some people receive water, some do not. Some receive more, some less. It is important to note that in a situation of material precariousness anything easily becomes a resource that is contested. This pattern of interaction generates rivalry for resources, resentment and distrust among people. This environment discourages the construction of collective action and the emergence of strong organizations in the affected territories.

At the mouth of the Doce river the company hired many fishermen for mud containing tasks and the removal of dead animals. A resident told us that they leave at 5 o'clock in the morning and need to stay all day at the machines working at the river mouth, monitored by surveillance cameras. There is a break in the routine which no longer allows meetings and conversations in the usual public spaces - key areas for exchanging ideas, forming opinions and building collective action.

Thus, the people we talked to tend to give a pejorative account of the very character of community members. Among the fishermen in the various places where we visited, we heard that "fishermen are disorganized." In a conversation with a group of women we heard them complain that in the community each one must see for himself/herself. The fact that the fishermen are getting money from the company, and working for it, is not regarded positively among some of the others.

There is also a huge asymmetry between the actors in action: on the one hand a fragmented community, on the other, a large multinational corporation. In a context such as this one, it is essential that organized groups that have faced similar disaster scenarios, know the business strategy and can discuss mining and dams, act in concert with the affected subjects in a wider public sphere. Certainly that should be done respecting their local peculiarities and making a contribution to the list of remedial measures that must be undertaken if there is to be any impact on the broad rights violated by the company, thereby enhancing the complexity of the definitions established by existing legislation so that they are fit for purpose.

Finally, the constituted social movements also have an important contribution to make in the cause, in its wider sense, of finding ways to overcome the invisibility of the injustices suffered by those affected, articulating a political explanation for these situations.

They have the role, in short, of forcing the issues of mining and other major development projects onto national and global political agendas. And that is what groups such as the Committee to defend the territory against the mining and the Observatory of Conflict Mineros of Latin America have done. At the present time, there is only one way of doing this, since the established political actors are the promoters of this development model.

Social movements are thus confronted by the great challenge of having to win over public opinion at large, so that the people who live in the urban areas of large cities and the middle classes realize the full impact that mining has on distant communities, on groups who depend for their livelihoods on their interaction with nature, the river, fish or smallscale agricultural production.

How to cite:
Losekann.C.(2016) «After the world's largest mining disaster: what impacts? Who is affected? », Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,7 March. https://opendemocracy.net/cristiana-losekann/after-worlds-largest-mining-disaster-what-impacts-who-is-affected
About the author

Cristiana Losekann is Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Federal University of Espirito Santo, Brazil. She coordinates the project Organon that researches and supports social movements in Brazil mainly with legal proceedings related to collective conflicts. 

Cristiana Losekann é Professora do Departamento de Ciências Sociais da Universidade Federal do Espirito Santo, Brasil. Ela coordena o Projeto de Extensão Organon, que pesquisa e apoia movimentos sociais no Brasil com apoio jurídico a causas coletivas. 

Cristiana Losekann es Profesora del Departamento de Ciencias Sociales de la Universidad Federal de Espirito Santo, Brasil. Coordinadora del Proyecto/Grupo Organon, que investiga y apoya a los movimientos sociales en Brasil con apoyo jurídico a causas colectivas

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