The latest environmental and human catastrophe involving Brazilian mining giant Vale occurred on the 25th January 2019 when a mine-tailings dam in Minas Gerais state ruptured. Mining waste and sludge engulfed the town of Brumadinho, with over a hundred people confirmed dead and more than 200 missing.
This catastrophe comes in the wake of the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam near Mariana in November 2015. Despite allegedly knowing of the potential for the dam to collapse in advance, Vale declined to act, leading to the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history.
These are shocking events, but without concerted action they will surely happen again. Brazil faces an uphill battle to navigate the issues inherent in an aging network of dams, many of which are at risk of collapse.
Brazil is at crossroads. The recently elected President Jair Bolsonaro has made no apology for his brazenly anti-environmental approach, aimed squarely at the expansion of agribusiness and the exploitation of primary commodities - this in a country filled with expensive and poorly constructed infrastructure projects, permeated by human rights and environmental violations and with little or no oversight.
Despite some environmentally-friendly rhetoric, progress was slow under the previous administrations of Michel Temer, Dilma Rousseff and Lula. Deforestation continued, mining and agriculture expanded and more dams were built. Only a national and global campaign of pressure prevented Temer from abolishing the Renca forest reserve in 2017.
Rising income inequality and declining social indicators are high on the agenda of the Brazilian public. Public discontent with this situation was undoubtedly a factor in Bolsonaro’s election. For some, the environmental cost of development is not a priority. Inequalities and injustices within society create risk. Structural problems intersect with development failures and corporate negligence.
But despite efforts to assign blame, the reality is that arresting a few Vale employees will not address the root causes of the problem. Though technical negligence may have played a part, there are much more systemic issues at play. No disaster is ‘natural’ - so could the Brumadinho dam collapse more accurately be framed as a crime against nature and humanity?
Last week in Davos, President Bolsonaro spoke about Brazil’s status as a world leader on environmental protection, but the images of a tsunami of mud and toxic mining tailings engulfing Brumadinho made his words ring hollow. His administration has a lot in common with the Trump White House, which has also been criticised for its attitude towards environmental concerns. Some argue that a religious ideology of “dominionism” underpins the environmental position that many conservatives adhere to - the idea that human beings have the right to exploit the earth and all other life-forms.
But as John Trudell, a Native American (Santee Lakota) leader said in 1980, “we must go beyond the arrogance of human rights. We must go beyond the arrogance of civil rights. We must step into the reality of natural rights because the natural world has a right to existence. We are only a small part of it. There can be no trade-off.” As a global society we are facing an earth system breakdown that requires a deep cultural shift designed to re-imagine our relationship to the planet. How will this shift happen?
The failures of top-down action.
In Brazil, a culture of collusion between governmental and corporate actors makes meaningful top-down change a slow and painful process.
The collective failure of private and public stakeholders to mitigate the risks of environmental catastrophe is not exclusive to the present government. Legislation to protect the environment has long been under threat in Brazil, as the economy has slumped in recent years. President Michel Temer previously sanctioned the creation of the National Mining Agency while vetoing the creation of 130 positions dedicated to overseeing the activities of mining companies, ostensibly to avoid an increase in state spending.
The environmental licensing process in Brazil is seen by many business interests as an obstacle to ‘progress.’ Legislation is progressive and robust on paper, but once a political decision is made about a project there is minimal enforcement. According to the 1988 constitution of Brazil, the State has an obligation to protect local communities and workers who face excessive daily risks. The problems with the Brumadinho dam were well known but neither Vale nor the State’s environmental agency took any action.
Dam collapses are the tip of the iceberg in a global web of corporate dominance within governing structures that openly prefer profit above all else. Priority is given to investors, corporations and special interest groups to the detriment of human and environmental wellbeing. Climate treaties are trampled. Human rights are violated and the State is complicit.
João Clímaco, general coordinator of FONASC (the National Forum of Civil Society on Hydrographic Basin Committees) lamented this crisis of governance, telling us that it is “an established model that is totally unrelated to the Brazilian reality, the rights of the people…a model that privileges the concentrated power of big capital to the detriment of society and the weakening of democratic institutions.”
When the Vale Company was privatized by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, it sold for a little more than $3 billion Brazilian reais. Twenty years on, profits have soared by over 1,700%, with the National Development Bank providing public funds to guarantee further business expansion.
From the outset, the company has underestimated risk in its operations and shown contempt for human life and the environment. Consider the location of the building where the workers were lodged in the latest disaster, immediately below the tailings dam and the first building to be buried by toxic sludge. This is not an isolated incident. Several years before the Mariana disaster, Vale won the dubious “Nobel Award of Shame” in 2012 when it was voted the world’s worst company.
Neither the government nor Vale have learned from their past mistakes; nor do they appear willing to do so. Despite attempts to create special commissions on mining and increase oversight, the influence of the mining lobby in politics is intense. For example, 46 of the 53 federal deputies elected in Minas Gerais in 2014 were backed by industry money.
The promise of bottom-up action.
Moving forward, a framework for protecting the environment and promoting human and non-human wellbeing is already established in the Brazilian constitution and (to a lesser extent) in the legislative arena. But it will take people power to move beyond ‘unenforceable laws’ towards real action. There is no time to wait for those in power to make the necessary technological and legislative decisions.
Grassroots action is urgent and is already underway. In January 2019, for example, 46 environmental, human rights, labor and civil society organizations signed a statement committing them to “speak out against hateful rhetoric and acts of violence, intimidation or persecution” against the communities and civil society advocates that Bolsonaro has branded as ‘enemies’ or ‘terrorists.’
But expanded activism won’t be enough without a deeper re-evaluation of human relationships with natural systems. As people grow weary of a global socio-economic system that thrives on the myths of scarcity and competition, we must make and tell better stories about our relationship with nature and create new narratives to bind our communities and the natural world together.
As a recent article in the Journal of Peasant Studies argues, we need an “environmentalism cognizant of the dialectic between expanded capitalist accumulation at a global scale and environmental dispossession.” The fight for this kind of environmentalism continues in every corner of the world. Environmental disasters are an affront to our collective efforts to survive and thrive. We must depart from the trajectory defined by a status quo that actively creates more disaster risks.
This would represent a complete shift in worldview and a transformation of conscience. Human beings have the capacity to fulfil a duty towards future generations: unlike any other time in history, it is (technically) possible to supply energy, food and water to all. But clearly the problem is not a technical one. It is one that requires re-orienting our socio-economic values.
It is only through love, compassion, solidarity and urgent action that we have the potential, not only to survive but to become stronger, both with each other and within the web of life that connects us to nature. In fact, we are not separate from nature; we are nature itself.
That has been the cosmovision of indigenous peoples all around the world. But it has taken us far too many calamities to learn that we cannot eat or breathe money. Capitalism only serves itself, and we need a system that serves people and protects the planet. Otherwise, there won’t be any future left.