Brazil: After Mine Dam Collapse, We Cry With Mother Earth

On January 25, 2019, a massive mining dam collapsed in north central Brazil, devastating the nearby community of Brumandinho. Dozens are confirmed dead and hundreds are missing—and the numbers continue to grow. The dam was 280 feet high and nearly a half-mile wide.

This tragedy could have been avoided. The company responsible for this disaster, Vale, is the world’s largest producer of nickel and iron ore; it has been destroying the land in the Carajás corridor for decades. The land is stripped, destroyed. The people are marginalised and mistreated. The company is known for its aggressive business practices and the destruction it leaves in its wake.

The Comboni Missionaries have long fought alongside the marginalised people of the world, sharing in their suffering, offering them hope in Jesus, and working to stop injustice. In 2007, the Comboni Missionaries along with many other groups, created Justiça nos Trilhos—Justice on the Rails—to fight for the people of the Carajás corridor in Brazil.

A comboni missionary, Fr. Dario Bossi, has been fighting with Justice on the Rails since the beginning. After the mining dam collapse , he wrote this letter:

“The Churches and Mining Network cries with the victims of the socio-environmental crime of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais (Brazil). We write today from this violated community, which we know well, after having shared with it several times its life and resistance to the expansion of mining. We also write from the many Latin American communities affected by the arrogant violence of extractivism, today silently embracing the little town of Brumadinho, in tears.

We are in solidarity with the families of the victims and the communities of faith, who will face the hard challenge of rebuilding hope. We also join the Archdiocese of Belo Horizonte, which with the words of the Gospel defined the tragedy as an “abomination of desolation,” referring to the “absurdities born of the [quest for] gains and contempt for the other, the truth, and the good of all.”

We continue accompanying and advising the churches involved in the territories damaged by mining and in all open conflicts between extractive companies and communities (In Brazil alone there are more than 70 dioceses where these conflicts have been mapped).

The company VALE SA, together with BHP Billiton, was responsible for 19 deaths and the pollution of the entire Doce River basin, in an incident on November 5, 2015. Now the same crime is repeated four years later, with even more deaths, confirming the inability of management to prevent further tragedies and signalling its disinterest and criminal behaviour. This responsibility also rests with the State, which grants licenses to extractive projects and should monitor them to guarantee the safety and dignified life of the communities and the environment.

When combined with political power, the capital of mining companies facilitates the installation or expansion of large extractive projects, while minimising restrictions and licensing rules. The “Córrego do Feijão” itself, whose dam was broken, releasing a massive mudslide of toxic waste, just obtained last month an environmental license for the expansion of 88 percent of its activities from the Council of  Environmental Policies of the State of Minas. Only the National Civil Society Forum on the Management of Hydrographic Basins (FONASC) voted against the expansion, denouncing “insane” mechanisms to reduce the safety requirements in the licensing of large mining projects. Disasters caused by the irresponsible behaviour of companies allied with political power cannot be called “environmental accidents.”

Since 2011, the people of Brumadinho and the surrounding region have been demonstrating in an organised way against the mine, its impacts, and its threats. The FONASC, in December 2018, wrote an official communication to the State Secretary of the Environment, requesting the suspension of the licensing of the Córrego do Feijão mine. The International Network of those Affected by Vale denounced at Vale’s Shareholders’ General Assembly in April 2018, “the dangers of the repeated process of reducing expenses and costs in its operations,” making explicit mention of tailings dams.

Those responsible for these crimes cannot claim ignorance. On the contrary, in the name of “progress” and the profit of the few, there is a systematic silencing of dissenting voices. We enthusiastically echo the words of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’: “The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest.” (LS 183).

The newly elected president of Brazil, bowing to pressure from those who financed his campaign, expressed the plan to make environmental control and licensing as flexible as possible. He criticised the “environmental fine industry”; his government stripped powers from the environment portfolio, suspended contracts with NGOs committed to defending the environment, and eliminated offices that worked to combat global warming.

Previous governments also facilitated the uncontrolled expansion of mining in the country, promoting the National Mining Plan and reformulating, by decree, the Legal Framework of Mining. Recent events demonstrate, violently, that these policies are a collective suicide and a threat to the lives of future generations.

This growth model is unsustainable and lethal; you cannot blackmail people who need jobs to survive in regions controlled by mining without guaranteeing safety, health, and social welfare. The problems are not solved “solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits” (LS, 190, citing Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church).

“It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress” (LS,194).

Frequently, companies and governments make mention of conflict mediation with communities through “dialogue.” They even seek the mediation of the churches, to give these talks greater credibility. They have also established extrajudicial mediation—an arbitration of sorts that invariably reduces their burden to repair environmental damage or pay fines for legal violations.

However, the lack of mitigation and reparations, the recurrence of new disasters, and the repetition of irresponsible and criminal practices confirm that this is not a true dialogue. It is a corporate strategy to seduce public opinion, guaranteeing a kind of social license to pollute, reduce popular resistance, and avoid large financial penalties under the guise of sustainability and the common good.

Rather than this one-sided and disrespectful “dialogue,” we trust in environmental protection laws and the rights of the people, as well as in authorities that effectively monitor their compliance and punish those who violate them. We support a Binding Treaty for Business and Human Rights at the international level, and a responsible, effective, and prompt judicial response for those who rely on impunity or, at the most, a slight financial inconvenience when the rare fine is levied”.