Brumadinho-dam Brazilie

Four years later: the fight for justice continues in Brumadinho

‘It was not an accident. You cannot prevent an accident.’ Today, it has been exactly four years since the Brumadinho dam in Brazil collapsed. The disaster caused a tsunami of toxic mining waste leaving 272 people dead and an ecosystem destroyed. Environmental human rights defender and journalist Carolina de Moura Campos, whose story is part of a documentary supported by IUCN NL, tells us about the fight for justice for the people of Brumadinho: ‘Mining is the ultimate expression of the global patriarchy.’

Header photo: © The Illusion of Abundance

De Moura recently toured with human rights lawyer Danilo Chammas through Europe to raise their voice for a strong and effective EU directive on corporate sustainability due diligence. The directive was proposed in February 2022 and obligates major companies to prevent human rights violations and environmental pollution in their supply chain.

The Illusion of Abundance

De Moura is one of the three women activists from Latin America whose story is portrayed in the documentary The Illusion of Abundance, which premiered in Cologne, Germany in November 2022. The powerful film, supported by IUCNL NL, Both Ends and other organisations, shows the human and environmental impact of unsustainable mining, boosted by the high level of consumerism in northern countries.  

Ongoing fight for justice for the people of Brumadinho

Four years have not erased the tragedy from daily life in Brumadinho. Far from: it has become an integrated part of the lives of the inhabitants of the small town in Minas Gerais, a state in south-eastern Brazil. Last year, people relived the disaster when heavy rainfalls flooded the town and the smell of toxic waste entered their houses again.

Four people are still missing. According to the official numbers, 270 people were killed on the 25th of January. But because two victims were pregnant, to the people of Brumadinho this number is not correct, tells De Moura: ‘We count these babies, who did not even have the right to be born. For us, 272 people have died.’ The chance of more victims is lurking among the survivors. De Moura: ‘Blood exams have shown that most people in town have a high rate of heavy metals in their blood, above the health limits. This may cause illnesses, while our public healthcare system does not provide adequate treatment.’ Research has also shown that more people suffer from anxiety or depression in the area, compared to the Brazilian average[1]

‘The environmental damage is terrible. The source of drinking water of a lot of people has been destroyed.’

Carolina de Moura Campos

A dream that turned into a tragedy

The dam in Brumadinho was a tailings dam holding waste, including toxic materials, of the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine, located 9 kilometres east of the town. The owner of the dam, Vale, is one of largest producers of iron ore and nickel in the world and operates in 30 countries[2] According to De Moura, mothers were proud that their sons worked for such a large company: ‘for them it was like a dream coming true.’

The mining company was aware of problems in the dam structure[3][4] According to a report by Reuters, Vale also knew the dam was at greater risk of collapse[5] The mining multinational and the German safety inspector and certification company Tüv Süd would not have been transparent about the true risks. In December 2022, it came to light that drilling activities by the Dutch soil research company Fugro may have been the final push for the dam to break. Vale initially hired a Brazilian company applying a safer, more expensive method, but then decided to work with Fugro[6]

The collapse took place around lunch time: hundreds of mine workers were having lunch when the tsunami of mud hit them. ‘The family members of the victims symbolise strength,’ shares De Moura. ‘They are still fighting to find the four people who have not yet been found. They are fighting for justice and for the story to be told the way it happened, rather than what the companies want to tell: that it was an accident. It was not an accident. You cannot prevent an accident. And they could have prevented this.’

Environmental impact

The collapse of the dam also had a major impact on the environment. A stretch of Atlantic Forest disappeared, showed an analysis by WWF-Brazil: approximately 125 hectares of forests got lost due to the collapse of the dam[7] The mud flow of 11.7 million cubic metres of toxic waste, including iron aluminium and copper, reached almost 290 hectares[8] On top of the direct impact of the mud stream on the biodiversity in the area, part of the metals spilled into the Paraopeba River, affecting ecosystems downstream.

This does not only affect biodiversity, it also has a direct impact the people in the area. The Paraopeba River provided nearly 30% of the drinking water for 6 million people. This is no longer the case, according to De Moura: ‘The environmental damage is terrible. The source of drinking water of a lot of people has been destroyed, including that of habitants of the city of Bello Horizonte. The river can no longer provide us with clean water.’

‘From our perspective as ecofeminists, mining is the ultimate expression of the global patriarchy. Violently and without permission, people exploit the body of Mother Earth.’

Carolina de Moura Campos

Exploiting Mother Earth

Women have an important role in the association of the victims’ family members: of the 11 board members, 10 are women, while they experience even more challenges. As a journalist, De Moura started her career working on environmental issues, after which she organically became an environmental human rights defender and gender activist.

De Moura experiences that she is taken less seriously because she is a woman, for example during meetings with Vale. ‘They often do not value our voice,’ she says. ‘From our perspective as ecofeminists, mining is the ultimate expression of the global patriarchy. Violently and without permission, people exploit the body of Mother Earth. Comparing the image of a woman to the image of Mother Earth in relation to this kind of violence is very strong. I feel it in my own body.’

During the interview she wears a long embroidered skirt. It is one of the creations of a group of Brazilian women who became victims of mining. Each skirt tells the story of the struggle of one of these women. ‘When I wear this, I feel protected. I take the energy of the woman who put her time, hope and pain in this skirt with me. As a woman, it is very important to be with other women. It helps us to not feel alone and not to believe the stories that are forced upon us. That we cannot achieve certain things, for example, such as successfully fighting a big, powerful company while we should take care of children. When I feel down, I meet other women defenders to regain energy.’

Carolina shows her embroidered skirt during the interview

‘It is crucial European companies are held accountable for their actions around the globe in the country they are based.

Carolina de Moura Campos

European countries must be held accountable

More dams in Brazil are at risk, according to De Moura. ‘It is important that the people responsible are legally prosecuted. Vale paid families of the victims a, but money is not the issue: Vale just includes these kind of payments in their budget. Impunity will only cause more crimes.’

Part of her work is monitoring the companies planning to start new mining projects in the area. ‘We thought that after the tragedy in 2019, the position of the government and companies would change. But things got worse. Authorities in the region still give permits to questionable companies with plans threatening the water supply of thousands of people. A new law was established, but companies now just pay a fine and continue to put their workers, the people in the region and ecosystems at risk.’

De Moura had multiple reasons to share the story of Brumadinho in Europe. ‘There are civil society organisations in Europe, like IUCN NL, doing important work. In Latin America we need the support of these organisations. It is important that a big group of people knows what is happening. But most of all, is crucial European companies are held accountable for their actions around the globe in the country they are based.’

She still believes in justice: ‘We will not forget; what happened is now part of us. It is better to use our pain to be together and fight for social and legal justice. It is a tool to heal ourselves.’  

Initiatives at European and Dutch level

If well-developed and effectively implemented, an EU directive on corporate sustainability due diligence could be an important step towards environmental and social accountability in international value chains. It has the potential to safeguard people, the environment and climate from harms caused or contributed to by the activities of EU companies and their value chains, and their business relationships abroad. Unfortunately the proposal put forward by the European Commission is too weak in several respects.

In May 2022, IUCN NL and 220 other NGOs called on the European Parliament and EU Member States to improve the proposal to guarantee that the law will effectively prevent corporate harm to human rights, the environment and climate.In December 2022, the European Council adopted its negotiation position, further watering down the proposal. The European Parliament is expected to adopt its position in May 2023, after which the negotiation phase starts.  

In November 2022 the Christian Union submitted its proposal for a national law on responsible and sustainable business practices. This proposal is completely in line with the OECD Guidelines which would provide the necessary safeguards. It also provides for the obligation for large companies to draw up a climate plan.  Financial institutions also fall under the scope of this law. Research has shown that Dutch pension funds investing in Vale took only limited action to hold the company accountable after the disaster. This week the official treatment of the proposed law will take place in the relevant parliamentary committee. The Netherlands is not the only country working on national legislation, several European countries have taken similar initiatives.

Supporting environmental defenders

In many countries, environmental human rights defenders have less and less scope to express themselves. Their work is increasingly hindered as they are threatened, criminalised and violently silenced.

IUCN NL works with partner organisations around the globe to support environmental human rights defenders. Through our Forests for a Just Future programme, for example, we work to guarantee the freedom of movement and the safety of nature conservationists. Our activities include advocating for binding laws and regulations at the different levels.

More information?

Antoinette Sprenger
Senior Expert Environmental Justice
Nadine Kliffen_IUCN NL
Nadine Kliffen
Communications Manager