Brazil Disaster: Money Talks
It seems to be a sad fact that whenever large sums of money are involved in any enterprise, whether it is in the form of cold hard cash or in some less tangible form, corruption, violence and disaster often follow behind. Sadly, this is particularly true in Brazil. Since its colonisation by the Portuguese in the 16th Century the country’s natural resources have been sought after, fought over and often plundered. Today, much has changed in modern Brazil but the power of money still holds sway.
That fact was brought sharply into focus recently when a truly awful mining disaster made the news – and not for the first time. In 2015 a trailings dam in the Doce River that was used by a mining company to hold back waste water failed, destroying the town of Bento, killing 17 people and injuring many more. The companies behind that project, Anglo-Australian giant BHP Billiton and Brazil’s Vale, as well as the operator, Samarco, were heavily fined by authorities following that disaster and paid millions into the cleanup operation. But now, you’ve guessed it, it’s happened again.
On January 25th the Feijão dam – also a tailings type dam owned by Vale – failed, pouring iron mining waste into the river which quickly became a red, toxic sludge killing everything in its wake. The town of Brumadinho (pop. 37,000) was devastated. 150 were killed and many more are still missing. The environmental impact has been staggering, with the river running red for 500 miles where it reaches the Atlantic.
So why has this happened? Trailings dams were heavily criticised by the authorities back in 2015 but nothing was done to end their use. They are not dams in the true sense, but are berms made from mine waste and back-filled with rubble and additional waste as time progresses. They are inherently weak structures and often fail to varying degrees, particularly during heavy rains. But ultimately the fault must surely lie with successive Brazilian governments who consistently have failed to oversee mining operations despite local objections, and the power that the mining companies have within the region. Vale employs around 60,000 people in the area, and it is widely rumoured that they failed to pay the fine imposed on them following the 2015 disaster.
The problem is that money talks, and with the election of Brazil’s new President Bolsonaro, who has openly expressed an interest in lifting environmental protections, things are unlikely to change soon. The biggest irony? ‘Doce’ means ‘sweet‘ in Portuguese. Laughable if not so tragic.