Toxic Tsunami

An abandoned car amidst the ruins of the village • Photo by Senado Federal

A year and counting of mud and struggle since Latin America’s worst mining disaster. Judith Marshall reports.

On November 5, 2015, a tailings dam collapsed at the Samarco iron mine. The mine is a joint venture of Vale (a Brazilian multinational corporation with holdings in Canada) and BHP-Billiton in Brazil’s resource-rich state of Minas Gerais. The breach created the worst environmental and social disaster in Latin American mining history. Worst in size – with some 60 million cubic meters of metals-laden muck. Worst in area effected – from the mine site inundating some 800 kilometres down the Sweet River Basin to the Atlantic Ocean. Worst in costs of reparation – effecting the property, livelihood and lives of some 3.2 million people who call the Sweet River Basin their home.

Nineteen people lost their lives. Five nearby communities were buried in muck, leaving more than 1,200 people homeless. Communities hundreds of kilometres away lost farmlands, water supply, fishing grounds, crops and livestock.

After a six month investigation, Brazilian Federal Prosecutors filed a 359-page civil lawsuit. The US$58 billion lawsuit names Samarco and its joint owners, Vale and BHP-Billiton. It also names Brazil’s Federal government and the state governments in Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, accusing them of regulatory negligence in issuing environmental permits and failing to monitor mining operations.

Samarco produces pellets from processing low-grade iron deposits into a high value-added product, marketed to the global steel industry. Founded in 1977, Samarco’s integrated system in the states of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo now encompasses two mines, three processing plants, three mineral pipelines, four pellet plants and a port. The Mariana complex also includes 3 mines and 4 processing plants wholly owned by Vale. Samarco’s fourth pellet plant, launched in 2014, increased production by 37%. The total waste dumped behind tailings dams increased exponentially.

Extraction and initial processing produce dry waste, stored in waste dumps, and wet waste, stored behind tailings dams. Samarco owns three such tailings dams while Vale owns another six plus eight 8 dikes, all within the Mariana complex. Samarco’s Germano, Santarem and Fundao dams plus Vale’s Campo Grande are all registered as Class III dams with high potential for environmental damage.

Mariana – an “environmental crime”

What were the circumstances surrounding the Fundao dam’s collapse?

First the market context. After the super cycle of commodity prices from 2002-2012, iron prices had plummeted from $200/metric ton in 2008 to $38 in 2015. In 2009, Samarco had commissioned a 24- hour monitoring plan of its dams, as well as an Emergency Action Plan. With the economic context worsening, Samarco intensified production and cut costs by laying off workers, postponing maintenance and minimizing security. Samarco never implemented the monitoring or the emergency drills in adjacent communities.

Second, the regulatory context. Brazilian mining companies operate in the same milieu of “regulatory capture” as South Africa or Canada. Even after mining companies in Brazil had successfully lobbied for “self-regulation” and a reduction in environmental licensing and monitoring requirements, the corporate pressures for more deregulation continued. In November 2015, when the disaster occurred, Governor Fernando Pimental, (Workers Party, PT), was preparing a bill for further relaxation of licensing procedures. It passed in January 2016.

Prior warnings that the tailings dam was structurally weak went unheeded. Fundao dam had been fast-tracked to take advantage of the boom. It was modified twice between 2008 and 2015, with a rapid review process, dispensing with required public hearings. An engineer involved in constructing the original dam claimed he had alerted Samarco of the risk of rupture in 2014.

Thirdly, political influence. Both Samarco and Vale were major contributors to the political party in power in Minas Gerais.

Beatriz Cerqueira, president of the CUT labour central in Minas Gerais, called for a Commission of Inquiry into the strategic role mining companies are playing in financing electoral campaigns. “The main candidates for the Presidency of the Republic … for governor of Minas and a large number of the candidates for state deputies, federal deputies… are financed by the mining companies. Many studies in the universities are also financed by the mining companies. In addition, there are the major PR campaigns carried out in the media, compromising journalistic coverage of these companies.”

A Year of Mud and Struggle

Brazilian social movements, unions, NGOs and churches rapidly joined forces. They accompanied those directly affected by the catastrophe to lobby for more adequate responses from government and mining companies. MAB, the Movement of People Affected by Dams, deployed activists from other parts of Brazil to reinforce their organizing activities with affected communities all along the Sweet River. University-based researchers wrote investigative reports that provided technical support to reinforce community proposals. The one over-arching demand was for those most directly affected to be treated not simply as victims but as citizens, placed in harm’s way by private companies licensed by their government. Those affected are demanding their government defend their rights and allow them full participation in all deliberations about emergency measures, resettlement and compensation.

Landless Peoples Movement leader, Joao Pedro Stedile, puts his finger precisely on what matters:

In the end, who is going to determine the compensation paid to the families that were directly affected and the population of the entire region? And determine the fine for having killed the biodiversity of the country’s most important watersheds? … The federal government has behaved like an embarrassed partner of the corporations.


Despite widespread protest the main vehicle for responding to the massive rights violations involved with the spill is incredibly a private foundation set up and funded by Samarco, Vale and BHP-Billiton. The perpetrators of the crime get to decide who is to be compensated and how much paid out. Critics fear the new foundation will further cripple a woefully inadequate response by a delinquent state.

“The Samarco Vale BHP crime will not be forgotten”

I joined 400 Brazilians and international activists to commemorate this sad first anniversary. Five busloads of us did a “reverse march” over three days, starting in Regencia, the now abandoned beach resort where the toxic tsunami hit the Atlantic. We then worked our way westward along the 800 km Sweet River Basin towards the mine site. Commemorative events, public hearings and tree plantings were held in affected communities along the route.

We arrived in Mariana for two days of debate, testimonials and cultural events in a massive stadium. The cement bleachers served as camping grounds. Photos of the 19 deceased were posted at the entrance of the stadium. On the floor was a 5 meter long model of the destroyed river basin, complete with polluted water, dead fish, ruined crops, destroyed houses and people fleeing. The panels included politicians, lawyers and trade unionists speaking about long-term health and environment impacts and putting forth proposals for punishment and compensation. People from affected communities shared stories and strategies. In one nearby city, an international meeting of BHP-Billiton workers was taking place. In another, university researchers held a one year review of Mariana and its aftermath. Local people will not forget and are determined to fight back.

On November 5, about 1,000 people gathered in Bento Rodrigues, the community closest to the collapsed dam. Only the odd wall and ruins of a school remain. There a dramatic scene unfolded. It was an unusual combination labelled a “mistica” and organized by young activists Semi-naked bodies plastered with mad and carrying crosses re-enacted the chaos when the dam broke complete with screams of terror, phone and text warnings to flee, heroic rescues of children and elderly, and a tragic abortion. Church and community leaders gave messages of repudiation and comfort; the commemoration culminated with the mass presided over by sympathetic church leaders.

Lessons from Mariana

Sadly these this tailings dam collapse is not unique to Mariana. Sadly this is the operational normal with all the attendant risks of too many mines in the post-boom era, whether in the global North or the global South. In the prevailing neoliberal context of corporate impunity, company/government connivance and systematic disregard for the safety of workers, and adjacent communities threaten the ecological integrity of all too many parts of our sad old world.

In this age of extractivism, boom and bust cycles in commodities actually provoke more frequent tailings dam failures. The mining industry hones a carefully crafted image of themselves as benign purveyors of good jobs, economic growth and sustainable development. But they routinely continue to put workers and communities in harm’s way in their insatiable quest for profit bydumping mine waste into unstable, overfilled and under-inspected tailings dams. Corporations like Vale, Rio Tinto, Anglo American and BHP-Billiton enjoy full government support (some might say complicity). Governments, North and South, treat the interests of the mining company as if they were tantamount to the public interest. As shooting of South African miners in Marikana in 2012 made clear, and Mariana confirms, governments place less value on defending their own citizens than on maintaining investor ‘confidence’. With governments acting as complicit handmaidens of private mining companies, it is only social movements and public institutional voices from churches and universities that stand for an end to corporate impunity. We need to up our game in defending not only the workers and communities affected by mining, but also the very land and watersheds and ecological systems that extractivism destroys.

Judith Marshall is a Canadian popular educator and writer. She has recently retired after two decades in the Global Affairs department of the United Steelworkers and is now attached to York University.

This article appeared originally in the South African publication, Amandla. The theme of Amandla Magazine 49/50 is “The Misery of Mining” (Amandla49.50SCREEN). A longer study comparing the Mariana disaster in Brasil with the tailings dam collapse at Mt. Polley, British Columbia will be published by CCPA - BC in Spring 2017.