The tale of a Brazilian betrayal: the mining and environmental tragedy in Itabira

As long as environmental policies in Brazil continue to be filtered through corruption and electoral accountability, large scale mining companies will carry on their highly profitable but dangerous extraction with impunity. Español. Português.

Daniel Cerqueira
9 December 2015

Vale S.A train being loaded with iron ore in Mina Cauê, in Itabira. Pedro Rezende/Wikimdia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Itabira is probably the most quintessential mining town in Brazil and, possibly, in the world. A few kilometres away from it, the baroque architecture of several colonial towns preserves the full splendour of eighteenth and nineteenth century mining. Mining, more than any other activity has influenced the history and culture of the state of Minas Gerais. So much so, that those who are born here are known as miners.

In 1902, Itabira invigorated its mining roots as it witnessed the birth of one of the most celebrated poets in the Portuguese language. The work of Carlos Drummond de Andrade is immersed in a mining spirit that the author attributes to his childhood spent in Itabira. In his poem Confidencia del Itabirano (Confidence of an Itabirano), Drummond confesses that he took an ironstone with him as a souvenir of his hometown, when he left for Belo Horizonte and then Rio de Janeiro.

In 1942, Itabira inaugurated the second Brazilian mining wave, led by the Vale do Rio Doce Company which, in only a few decades, became the largest exporter of iron ore in the world. The company carried whole chunks of the Minas Gerais mountains through the Rio Doce valley to the port of Tubarão. The resulting transformation of the Itabira landscape was described by Drummond when he learned that his parents' house had been flooded by a dam of Vale do Rio Doce:

The largest train in the world
Powered by five diesel locomotives
Thievish, geminate, unbridled
It carries my time, my childhood, my life
Ground in 163 cars full of ore and destruction
The largest train in the world
Carries the smallest thing in the world
My Itabiran heart

Eventually, Vale do Rio Doce spread to 12 other states in Brazil, new continents and the stock exchange in five countries. In 2007, it dispensed with the name "Rio Doce", to be renamed Vale S.A., and since then the company has become one of the largest multinational corporations in the world.

On November, 5, 2015, the river that had lived alongside the first trains of Vale fell victim of such a betrayal that Drummond, had he been alive, would have dedicated an entire poetical anthology to it. Two dams in an iron mine of Samarco S.A., a consortium between Vale and BHP Billiton, broke and left a trail of unprecedented destruction. Dozens of people died and the town of Bento Rodrigues was buried under tons of mud and iron waste. The mud finally reached the Rio Doce, a major water corridor and freshwater resource in the Brazilian Southeast.

Brazilian society has been reflecting since on the acceptable risks of large-scale mining. The mayor of Mariana, the town where the broken dams are located, has argued that the deactivation of Samarco would cause the bankruptcy of several inland towns in Minas Gerais. Statements by Dilma Rousseff attributing sole responsibility for the disaster to Samarco were followed by derisory environmental fines and a meagre compensation agreement between Samarco and the Public Prosecutor.

What happened on November 5 reveals a string of incompetence and negligence on the part of both the company and the State authorities. Contrary to what President Rousseff said, the Brazilian government is clearly responsible for this and five other broken dam cases in the last 14 years. Samarco was operating without any evacuation plans while at federal level, the National Department of Mineral Production in 2014 audited only 141 of the 602 mining dams in the country.

The crux of the environmental risk in Brazil appears to lie in the murky relationship between public interest and the interests of large companies in the mining, energy and building sectors. This reality has been partially unveiled by the Petrobras and other public companies’ contracts scandal, but nothing seems to indicate that corporate cooptation is about to change. In fact, the election campaign of several members of the federal and Minas Gerais state parliamentary committees created to investigate the causes of the Samarco accident have been funded by Vale.

Miners’ guilds have also donated to the campaigns of 17 of the 37 members of the Chamber of Deputies Committee evaluating the text of the new Brazilian Mining Code.  Vale and other large mining and civil construction companies have spent millions on the campaigns of Fernando Pimentel, the current governor of Minas Gerais, and Dilma Rousseff, the political godmother of the hydroelectric plant of Belo Monte and other monumental works the environmental and social sustainability of which have been widely questioned.

As long as environmental policies in Brazil continue to be filtered through corruption and electoral accountability, natural resources such as the Rio Doce will remain expendable, not only as the name of a large mining company, but also as a source of freshwater for hundreds of thousands of Brazilian citizens.

This article was first published by Asuntos del Sur.

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