When three years ago the Fundão dam burst in Mariana, a city located in the state of Minas Gerais, it was deemed the worst mining disaster in Brazilian history. As affected communities and nature still struggle to recover, and victims continue their fight for just reparation, last January another social-environmental episode occurred in the town of Brumadinho, also located in Minas Gerais, and also involving Vale S/A, the largest mining company in Brazil. A toxic mud tsunami caused by the collapse of another tailings dam took the lives of two hundred and twelve people and displaced over a thousand, while ninety-three remain missing. The Paraopeba River, which runs across the region, is dead. The record of destruction now makes this the largest deadly event in the country’s extensive mining history.
While media headlines and the company itself continue to frame the episode as a “dam issue,” it has become clear that what happened first in Mariana and now in Brumadinho will not be prevented by replacing the tailings dam model or even by closing all the existing dams in the country. These dams are large reservoirs of iron ore mining waste, held together by walls of silt and sand. As such, they are the cheapest alternative to contain the waste produced from mining, which is often toxic and dangerous. Vale S/A’s initial response to what happened in Brumadinho was to insist that the dam had been built according to best practices and was regularly inspected. But, in fact, the company knew the vulnerabilities of the structure: in October 2018 it had produced an internal document that assessed possible causes of collapse and estimated how much it would cost the company, and how many people would die, if the Fundão dam burst. In other words, the company evaluated human and environmental rights in terms of risks worth accommodating for the sake of profit.
The disaster-crime of Brumadinho, as activists have been calling it, is essentially entangled with the everyday functioning of a predatory mode of accumulation known as extractivism. Such mode of accumulation, established on a massive scale 500 years ago with the colonization of the Americas, is characterized by the removal of large quantities of natural resources that are not processed (or processed only to a limited degree), for export. Besides the description of the activity, it is important to underscore its political nature: extractivism has always been a mechanism of colonial and neocolonial plunder and appropriation within the center-periphery relationship established by colonialism. As such, the global south extracts its natural resources in massive scale with great costs for all living beings, for the benefits of the global north.
In the 18th century, as precious metals were discovered in the Brazilian region that, for this precise reason, was named ‘General Mines’ (Minas Gerais), the colonial enterprise moved towards the interior of the country. Slaves were forced into an inhuman regime of labor in the mines, which led to death in short periods of time. The deceased were quickly replaced, contributing to the growth of another lucrative colonial business: the commerce of slaves. A lot of time has passed, but the capitalist mining enterprise continues to exert the same predatory force in Minas Gerais, with even more power, resources and legitimacy than then. Indeed, the Brazilian Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining (MAM) considers the mining industry’s current phase the most destructive upon human workforce and nature.
Disaster-crimes like the ones that happened in Mariana and Brumadinho have victimized workers, communities and nature in other Latin American countries, pointing to the inherent violence of the industry. In 2010, thirty-tree men working in a copper-gold mine in Chile owned by the San Esteban Mining Company, were trapped inside as the mine collapsed due to lack of basic safety code requirements. The miners’ ordeal lasted for sixty-nine days, when they were finally rescued in a very complex operation. The company was known for its long record of safety violations, which included past deadly accidents; however, no one was held responsible for the event. In 2014, the spillage of 40 million liters of sulfuric acid from the Buena Vista del Cobre copper mine into the Bacanuchi river, in Mexico, exposed the country’s weak regulation of mining operations. It also ignited a debate about the disproportionate use of water by mining operations in regions where human and non-human beings must deal with the scarcity of the natural resource.
In its contemporary version extractivism in Latin America, reshaped under the policies of progressive governments, is known as neoextractivism. Neo refers only to the nationalist character that the industry has recently acquired, as states have taken control over natural resources as a claim to sovereignty. Everything else remains the same: a subordinated position in the international market, the focus on competitiveness, efficiency, maximizing profits and externalizing impacts; the damage to the environment and the serious social and natural impacts.
All these abstract characteristics are translated into both a model of production and a model of social contestation management. The neoextractivist model of production entails destruction: fauna and flora are decimated, air and waters are polluted, farming communities are forced to leave their properties so the industry can expand, real estate prices skyrocket, increasing the total cost of life in the entire region, and maladies connected to disorderly urban growth follow suit.
On the other hand, all the various forms of social contestation that might arise are carefully controlled. First, control is exercised indirectly through the economic deprivation of the affected communities, which become specialized in mining and have no other resource of income. Companies also exercise control and influence over their workers’ unions, either through cooptation of leaders or by threatening with unemployment and benefits cuts. Against social movements and civil society organizations, the mining sector deploys scare tactics, from hiring henchmen to intimidating people so they sell off their land or stop attending political meetings, to suing the most vocal community leaders. And when disaster-crimes like the ones in Mariana or Brumadinho happen, mining companies are resorting to private foundations to manage the conflict through technologies of pacification that depoliticize and individualize the problem.
Given these structural characteristics of the extractivist industry, it is hard to sustain that the dams are the problem. Violence — against all living beings and processes of solidarity — is at the core of the industry, and the marker of its interactions with communities before and after a crime-disaster.
Recently, another community in the town of Barão de Cocais was evacuated as the risk of another tailings dam owned by Vale S/A rose to the point of imminent collapse. Unless we acknowledge that the problem lies in the mining industry itself rather than in its small components, we will continue to relive human made (and announced) disasters as if they were unexpected. In such a scenario, a future for Minas Gerais, my home state, might only be found in giving up its colonial destiny to start a new history of deep regard for its human and nonhuman lives alike.
Mariana Prandini Assis is a Human Rights Lawyer in Brazil and a Ph.D candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research.