How a Mining Disaster is Helping to Overhaul Impunity in Brazil

Michael Darden – Yale Journal of International Affairs, 06/02/2016

On November 5, 2015, a tailing dam in the state of Minas Gerais (in the southeast of Brazil) ruptured. It released an estimated fifty million tons of iron ore waste into neighboring areas. It has quickly become the country’s worst environmental disaster. Seventeen people were killed and entire towns were submerged by the thick toxic sludge, which seeped into the Rio Doce river basin, traveled downstream, and has begun to spill into the Atlantic Ocean.[i] The environmental consequences are enormous for Brazil and will present the government with new challenges to introduce stricter mining regulation while establishing methods to mitigate future disasters and promote environmental sustainability. Parallel to updating Brazil’s archaic mining regulations, the country needs to address its culture of impunity, which has allowed for such accidents to happen repeatedly with little lessons learned, and which currently faces its largest test to its democracy with the impeachment proceedings for President Dilma Rousseff.

The tailing dams Fundão (which burst) and Santarém (which was damaged) are part of a complex iron ore facility operated by Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture by mining giants Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton and Brazilian Vale. The output accounts for approximately 20 percent of the world’s export of iron ore pellets.[ii] Since the accident, the complex has been shuttered pending the investigation into the cause of the rupture, and is currently under a process of containment.[iii] Samarco analysts have already forecast a 10 percent drop in output due to inactivity at the mine, an effect already being felt by the mining industry for some years now due to the global drop in commodity goods and raw materials.[iv]

Historically, the mining industry has been economically generous to Brazil, accounting for about one fifth of its GDP, which over the last decade has been fueled by China’s appetite for commodities. Exports grew substantially from $8.3 million in 2003 to $43 million in 2011.[v] However, the decrease in global and national demand for natural resources due to the global economic slowdown and Brazil’s economic contraction has hurt the mining industry.[vi] Companies responded by enacting cost-cutting methods, but so too did government agencies’ ability to provide adequate oversight; with safety officer positions charged to liaison with each other were left vacant.

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