Mariana’s Disaster – Giovanna Freitas, Brazil

Mariana: An announced disaster

Fotos produzidas pelo Senado


Mariana is a city located in the state of Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil. Historically, the region has been known for mining, and, since the colonial period, extensive exploration. Controlled by the multinationals Vale and BHP Billiton, the company Samarco operates in this region, mining the ore in the region, increasing its iron content and exporting it to other countries. To stock the residue, three dams were built, Fundão, Santarém and Germano. However, in early November, Fundão and Santarém burst, causing the biggest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.

The full extent of the impact is still unknown. During the collapse, 62 million cubic meters of mud were released in a wave that spread to the ocean. The short-term consequence was the devastation of houses, with, so far, about 630 homeless, 7 dead and 21 missing, within the vicinity. The mud destroyed the flora, fauna and the people living in its path. The disaster happened in the basin of Rio Doce, an area where the reproduction of many species occurs, bringing together many marine species. The ocean is at risk, as well as the health of thousands of people who live and work in the area.

According to Samarco, the waste contained in the dams were iron and manganese, which should not present any significant risk to the health of people. However, studies reveal the presence of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, all being extremely toxic substances capable of devastating the environment and human health alike. When ingested, they are not recessed, being retained inside the body. Over time, this contamination can lead to serious problems such as cancer, ulcers and major neurological damage.

Furthermore, the presence of iron and manganese cause the formation of  a mud-like crust on the surface of the water. This crust prevents soil permeability and affects vegetation, creating a sterile environment where plants are unable to grow. The buried roots, murky water and leaves covered by mud prevent the plants from photosynthesis. In addition to the languishing of vegetation, lack of photosynthesis decreases the level of oxygen present in the water, choking marine species.

The sediment deposited on river banks causes the river’s siltation. This is compounded by the destruction of riparian vegetation, protector of margins. There is also the possibility of the mud covering and contaminating water sources. In addition to dirtying water, the disaster also reducedd its quality, ending the uptake of water to supply the population. At least 23 cities in the states of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo will experience a drought, seriously affecting rural communities.

In the case, there are two sides to be held responsible: the State and Samarco. The state remained silent, not fulfilling its responsibility to enforce the law, and did not take the necessary actions to prevent it, even when Federal prosecutors were warning us that the dam was on the verge of collapse since 2013. However, most of the accountability lies with Samarco. Even though the risk was know, the company failed to take the necessary actions to protect the environment and the inhabitants

The region did not have audible alarms to warn the population in case of emergency and there was little communication with the locals, with many people finding out what was happening only a few minutes before they lost everything. The dams were not monitored full time, proving the negligence. Paradoxically, a company that last year had a net profit of R $ 2.8 million (in Real), invested little in security. There wasn’t an action plan in case of disaster, which could have contained, if not avoided, the destruction caused. The cause of the collapse is still unknown; however, even if it is natural, the blame can be safely attributed to Samarco.

After the disaster, an operation was set up to mislead public opinion, making a series of administrative errors to make it look like a natural disaster. Vale, the former Brazilian state company, privatized in 1997, had great power in the advertising industry and could be excluded from the majority of newspaper articles about the episode. It’s not the first time that the company has been involved in scandals. In 2012, it won the “prize” as the Worst Company in the World, by Public Eyes People. The award was justified by a “70-year-long history marked by repeated human rights abuses, inhumane working conditions, looting of public property and the ruthless exploitation of nature.”

While environmentalists and professionals are in shock over the pollution of the river, bills have been proposed in order for mining companies to obtain environmental licenses more easily, even though today the process is already facilitated by the new Forest Code. Only 3% of environmental fines are paid. In the state in which the disaster occurred, there are only four fiscals; for each tax paid, there are 184 dams. In 2014, only 34% of the state’s 735 dams were inspected, spending only 13.2% of the budget to monitoring, further demonstrating the neglect of the government.

The disaster that happened in Mariana is another episode in the history of environmental and economic exploitation in the country. Discovered during the period of the great expeditions in search of gold in late seventeenth century, the city greatly suffered from aggressive ore extraction. Nowadays, the game of economic interests continues, but in another context. The state witnessed the destruction of its lifetime, referring to the irreversible damage to fauna, flora and all those that inhabit the areas of the basin of Rio Doce.

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