mineral authoritarianism



The political environment in Brazil has not been very open to the free exercise of critical debate on the social and environmental impacts of mining projects.

The critical moments that follow extreme events such as the rupture of tailings dams tend to favor, in the immediate aftermath of disasters, the expansion of public debate on environmental risks. This happened when, given the proportions of the disasters at Samarco in 2015 and at Vale in 2019, elements of analysis that were more substantive than usual were brought to the table. Some voices were heard then, maintaining that it was not an accident, but the result of decisions taken under the aegis of a short-term economic logic, with little regard for its social and ecological implications; that such decisions would have led to the implementation of low cost and less safe dam models – of the type responsible for 40% of all disastrous occurrences with known dams in the world; that emergency plans did not exist and that enforcement was insufficient; that the licensing process was precarious and unreliable; that there has been a reduction in the intensity of maintenance activities, in parallel with the fall in mineral prices (empirical research confirms that the disaster rate in periods of falling commodity prices is, in the world, significantly higher than the average rate)[I]; that the levels of public information provided by the company in the pre- and post-disaster periods were insufficient and not very transparent (see processes of disinformation triggered on the levels of water contamination shortly after the mud spill in the Rio Doce basin).

The strong impact of the disaster on the mainstream media was not, however, enough to sensitize the dominant forces in the formal political system, which showed strong commitment to the political and economic coalitions that support extractive developmentalism: even shortly after the disaster, the National Assembly The Minas Gerais legislature approved a bill that changed the state's environmental policy, claiming the need to "unlock and streamline" licensing, seeking to limit the participation of populations affected by mining facilities in decisions and increasing the risk margin for tragedies of the same kind of happen again. All of this highlights the great gap between public debate and the political decision-making sphere, reluctantly appropriated by large private interests.

There is a strong perception that the political environment has been, in Brazil, not very open to the free exercise of critical debate on the social and environmental impacts of mining projects. This debate – namely, its problematization from the perspective of the affected populations – was largely absent throughout the continued existence of the export model of commodities based on large investment projects in infrastructure networks required to accelerate the movement of goods towards the international market. In particular, the spokespersons of social groups of those affected who tried to make their perceptions heard in the discussion of such projects, those that we could call “alert launchers”, were not very visible in the local spheres.

The role of the alert launcher (whistleblower in English) is increasingly seen as fundamental in the democratization of contemporary decision-making processes. Emerged in the field of sociology of risk, this term designates individuals and groups who denounce what they consider to be dangerous behavior and contrary to the civic principles on which laws tend to be inspired. These are subjects who witness the occurrence of illegal or dangerous acts for third parties, and who, out of civility, decide to alert the public sphere, in particular the authorities that have the power to put an end to them. While the notion of whistleblower, Linked to the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition, it designates those who intend to interrupt an illegal or irregular action, the alert launcher seeks to signal a danger or a risk, questioning the instituted powers, and raising the awareness of his contemporaries. Unlike the figure of delator, the launcher of the alert is not based on a logic of accusation, but intends to disclose a state of fact, a harmful threat to what is considered to be the common good, the public or general interest. In the absence of instruments specifically intended for their protection, the launchers of the alert, confronted with facts that may constitute a danger to the population and their environment, and having decided to reveal this fact to civil society and public authorities, see themselves exposed to the risk of suffer reprisals from hierarchical systems subordinated to large economic, financial or political interests.

Here it is, five years after the Samarco disaster and a year and a half after that of Vale in Brumadinho, warning launchers are once again pointing out risks associated with irregularities and disrespect for rights by large-scale mining along the Carajás Railroad. The recently published report « Human rights and companies: Vale SA and the strategies of domination, violations and conflicts involving territories, water, race and gender”[ii] shows how, claiming to build a logistics corridor duplicating the railroad, the company created, according to the communities, a real “dry corridor”, with situations of water scarcity for the population.

Most of Vale SA's railway corridor in Maranhão is located in plains regions, which flood for a good part of the year, having been characterized by its great water availability. Mining demands huge amounts of water for its extraction processes. But the report points out how the duplication of the railroad itself created problems for access to water. Aggressive interventions were carried out on the banks of watercourses in areas of permanent preservation, due to irregular occupation, grounding or silting up of watercourses, in addition to an increase in the concentration of iron in the water after the railway interception of watercourses. . Residents began to live with the practice of storing water and having its use regulated, which has involved, in some communities, the receipt of water from the municipal government using tanker trucks, which do not supply it satisfactorily. Communities come to depend on well drilling and maintenance actions. Meanwhile, after being blamed for the death of streams, the company, under the umbrella of its “corporate social responsibility”, started to build cisterns to capture and store rainwater. Women now have to travel long distances to fetch water, becoming more subject to various types of violence. Many men decided to migrate, increasing the responsibilities that fall on women, who also lost economic autonomy due to the suppression of the vegetation from which they usually extract the babassu coconut. The evils described by the report refer, in large part, to warnings that were not heeded in time and that could have prevented such damage.

Issuing an alert is a process situated between two limits: that of requesting measures and that of predicting an illness, which can either be taken seriously, or be rejected, denounced, put on the back burner or give rise to controversy between experts.[iii].

We found that, in the Brazilian case, there are great difficulties in public listening to the warnings issued by alert launchers. The possibilities for the current debate to take into account the representation of what the public interest is in moderating private appetites are often limited, notably when the spokespersons for the denouncements come from social groups that are poorly represented in decision-making spheres and more distant from the circles of the public. power. This, not to mention the obstacles placed in the way of hearing the perspective of those most affected by the compromise of common non-mercantile spaces of water, atmosphere and living systems, which are heavily affected by large investment projects.

This is how, for example, the Mining Code, which was being revised in a direction that proposed to expand in an unforeseen way, the margins of freedom of companies, was pointed out, on the occasion immediately prior to the Mariana disaster, as having been problematically conducted by deputies financed by large mining companies, without this having generated major repercussions in the public sphere. On 7/12/2015, a few weeks after the disaster, BBC Brasil reproduced a document on letterhead showing that the draft of the new mining code was being written on a computer belonging to a law firm that worked for mining companies. Such evidence does not fail to remind us of the validity of the notion of “parliamentary capitalism”, in which large business corporations are almost immediately represented in the legislative sphere.

In inverse proportion to the free circulation of business interests within parliamentary bodies, populations threatened by lenient legislation and by complacent licensing and inspection processes do not have channels of connection with the political system that can guarantee them appropriate environmental protection in the face of the resulting harms. of such “organized irresponsibility”[iv].

Here is the speech of a resident of Bento Rodrigues, the community most immediately affected by the Samarco disaster:

“We had heard for a long time that the dam was dangerous, that it was risky, that there was a meeting where people asked about the dam, what the risk would be, where it would crack, what could happen, then they told us that there was a flow , that it would not affect anyone. And today what we see is this, it practically swept our district”[v]

Another resident confirms:

“At the various meetings at Samarco, they never touched on this issue of waste, that the dam could burst at any moment. They never touched on this subject. They only explained to us how the ore came out, they gave cooking courses, sweets. But they never talked about it.”[vi]

The corporate discourse on the relationship between large mining projects and communities claims that, after the disasters, there have been “major changes in the relationship between companies-communities-municipalities”[vii]. There is talk of “active listening” to the affected populations as a means of reducing “the imbalance in the conversation between the parties”. However, according to independent reports that reflect the perception of communities affected by mining projects, there is less listening and more imbalance than they want. Being heard and putting an end to imbalances is what they intend to achieve.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR-UFRJ).


[I] “In the analysis of the last 45 years (1965-2009), there is a strong correlation between the post-tree (phase of devaluation of mineral prices after a cycle of appreciation) and the increase in the number of dam failures”. Milanez, Bruno et al. 2016, in “Before the load was lighter: introduction to arguments and recommendations regarding the Samarco/Vale/Bhp Billiton disaster”. In: Charles Trocate; Marcio Zonta (eds.), The mineral issue in Brazil – Vol.2 – Before the load was lighter: reflections on the Samarco disaster/Vale /BHP Billiton, 2016, p. 19

[ii] Justice on Rails, Human rights and companies: Vale SA and the strategies of domination, violations and conflicts involving territories, water, race and gender, Sao Luis, 2020.

[iii] Chateauraynaud, F. Torny, D., Les sombres precurseurs – une sociologie pragmatique de l ́alerte et du risque. Paris: Ed. EHESS, 1999, p. 14.

[iv] “Organized irresponsibility” is the notion coined by the sociologist Ulrich Beck to describe the network of complacency between economic and political powers that causes technical and locational decisions capable of making investment projects to be safer, so as not to burden costs and reduce the profitability of companies.

[v] Global Justice, Rinspection report in Mariana after the failure of the Fundão tailings dam. Rio de Janeiro.2016 (interview held on November 14, 2015).

[vi] Global Justice, op. cit.

[vii] Brasil Mineral/Text Professionals, Relationship with the community: the impact on the reputation of companies, 20/8/2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYfVias-5j8 (best moments)

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