Summary: Brazilian dam bursts with devastating human and environmental consequences

On 5th November 2015 a tailings dam, holding waste from an iron ore mine, burst flooding the village of Bento Rodrigues in the state of Minas Gerais in the central region of Brazil. Thousands of tonnes of toxic waste flowed out, destroying houses, farmland, and rivers and leaving at least 17 people dead and 350 families homeless. The environmental impact of this disaster will take years if not decades to overcome. Fishing and agricultural communities have had their livelihood destroyed, and local residents and indigenous communities their homes wiped out. The water of the Rio Doce, which supplied most of the 3.2 million people that live in its basin, “no longer has any use, being unfit for irrigation, animal and human consumption,” according to the director of the Water and Sewage Service of Baixu Guandu in the neighbouring state of Espirito Santo. An estimated 9 million tonnes of fish have been found dead on the banks of the river.

The iron ore mine was owned by Samarco, a joint venture between BHP Billiton Ltd, an Anglo-Australian mining company, the largest in the world, and Vale, a Brazilian company and the third largest in the world. In December the assets of both companies were frozen following a judicial ruling that Samarco could not cover the estimated damage costs of US$5 billion demanded by the government. Following several attempts to challenge government compensation demands the two companies agreed in March 2016 to set up a fund of US$1.5 billion. However, state and federal prosecutors have challenged this compensation agreement signed with the government as it undermines the rights of the victims of the disaster at a number of levels. The agreement allows the mining companies to set up a private foundation that will oversee each compensation claim on an individual basis, which will give them the ability to negotiate a victim’s compensation. Any victims willing to challenge the compensation will have to take them to court with lawyers funded by the companies.

SRT grantee Justica Global, launched a report in January 2016, setting out its findings on the extensive human rights violations caused by the disaster. The organisation has also denounced both companies to both the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights following both the disaster and the subsequent failure to provide minimum adequate compensation for victims. On 25th November, Justiça Global and Conectas, another SRT grantee, took the United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs on human rights and the environment as well as on human rights and hazardous substances to visit the disaster site. The UN human rights representatives stated that the disaster was a “tragic example of the failure of businesses to adequately conduct human rights due diligence to prevent human rights abuses”.

Full report from Justiça Global:

Return to grantee stories