This article has been republished from Esquerda Online, where it was first published on 26 January. At the time of republication, 60 people have been confirmed dead and hundreds more are missing and assumed dead. Translation by Max Leak.
On Friday afternoon, 25 January, we were taken by surprise by the news of another collapse of a tailings dam in the state of Minas Gerais. This time the town struck by the disaster was Brumadinho, in the Metropolitana region, near Belo Horizonte.
First of all, we want to echo the grief now being felt by the families and friends of those who have lost their lives. At this time the number of dead is still unknown, as is the full scale of the impact on the environment and local population. But without doubt, we are facing a tragedy foretold, of huge proportions.
The Vale company, one of the biggest mining businesses on Earth, has already confirmed that 413 of its employees are missing, most of them probably buried beneath mountains of red iron ore waste. At the time of the accident, many workers were eating their lunch in the canteen, located right next to the broken dam.
Vale – indifferent to human life
As soon as the news reached the world media, the president of Vale made a public appearance lamenting the event, which he cast as an accident.
We disagree with the president. Brumadinho was not an accident. Nor was Mariana [where a tailings dam at a Vale facility collapsed in 2015, killing 19 people]. They were crimes against human life and against the environment. They form a part of the inhuman models of acceptable risk employed by the big capitalist firms. To these companies, it is cheaper to pay the fines and compensation monies (which, in most cases, as with the residents of Mariana, are never delivered anyway), than to prevent the next disaster.
Environmentalists are unanimous in saying that there exist ways of avoiding and controlling these leaks and perforations. The Federal University of Minas Gerais has developed technology that recycles iron ore waste, transforming it into bricks for use in construction. That technology was offered to Vale, who turned it down, not wanting to spend money on it. And any decrease in profit is inadmissible for any firm whose priority is to remunerate its shareholders on the New York Stock Exchange. For such firms, human lives are unimportant.
Goods and money in Vale bank accounts should now be confiscated to compensate the victims and ameliorate environmental damage
Vale declared profits of 5.7 billion reais ($1.5 billion) in the third trimester of 2018 alone. This is a firm that flaunts its astronomical profits, which go to benefit its major national and foreign shareholders.
In the face of the incalculable human and environmental damage caused by Vale, the federal government must confiscate, immediately, the company’s goods and funds, placing them at the disposal of the victims and of efforts for environmental recovery.
We demand, too, that all operations at other Vale mines be suspended indefinitely (with continued jobs and salaries guaranteed to workers there), while the conditions of safety of workers and nearby communities are investigated. The company’s other dams could break at any moment, causing further death and destruction.
Furthermore, there must be an immediate, thorough and rigorous investigation of those responsible for the Brumadinho tragedy, starting by ascertaining the responsibilities of the firm’s senior managers, who should be prosecuted and punished in an exemplary fashion as soon as their guilt can be proven.
Two of the greatest environmental and humanitarian crimes in the history of Brazil have now been the direct responsibility of Vale, a strategic-sector enterprise that was privatised at fire-sale prices by the right-wing Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration in the 1990s.
The second tragedy in three years gives ample indication of just how much the country has been harmed by the privatisation of the mining enterprises. These companies tear the wealth out of our soil, make use of our waters to wash their minerals and then export these raw materials abroad without doing anything on Brazilian soil to refine them or add value to them. Countless billions are diverted to their major shareholders, while the companies’ operations pollute, destroy and murder human beings and the environment. As a question of national security, and out of respect for the life of workers and of nature, Vale must be taken into state ownership, placed under social control, without compensation, and put at the service of Brazil’s sustainable development as a country.
Bolsonaro government poised to increase the risks that caused the disaster
In Brazil, there are around 24,000 dams operative today. The majority of these are water dams, used in agriculture. Of those, 60% have not been officially registered. The other 40% are not adequately inspected by competent authorities, because there is no interest in doing so. And even if there were, it would be impossible due to understaffing.
According to André Trigueiro, a Globonews journalist specialising in environmental issues, if the federal government were to decide [with its current resources] to carry out a thorough inspection of all existing dams in Brazil, it would take 33 years to complete such a survey!
The Bolsonaro government has already made very clear what its strategy is with regard to the environment and mining in Brazil: their policy will favour the interests of the mining companies, and their profits, even more heavily. It is for this reason that Bolsonaro appointed a Minister for the Environment who has been convicted of environmental crimes. And he intends to weaken even further environmental protection agencies and regulations, as well as doing away with the demarcation of indigenous lands.
We have no faith in the Bolsonaro government to resolve this or any other problem, as that would oblige it to face down the major companies, demanding that they revise their security regulations and make use of technologies to predict and eliminate risks to human life and the environment.
All our solidarity to the victims of Brumadinho!