International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction: What about the social cost of tailings management?

The United Nations General Assembly has designated October 13th as the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction to promote a global culture of disaster risk reduction. It was established in 1989, after a call for a day to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction. Since then, the date celebrates how people and communities around the world are reducing their exposure to disasters and raising awareness about the importance of reining in the risks that they face.

I find it impossible to talk about “disaster risk reduction” without acknowledging the highest price paid when mining tailings aren’t managed properly, which is the loss of life. The crime-tragedy of Brumadinho (MG – Brazil), which took place on January 25, 2019, is a consequence of a business mentality in which economic gain is above life, imposing a high social cost on society. We can no longer allow this to continue. We need more humanity in the mining sector.

The main duty of companies is to ensure the security of their operations, and then to think about how they can be profitable, not the other way around. We need international rules and sanctions for companies that violate human rights and cause environmental pollution by not handling their waste properly.

It is important to remember that, in Brazil, there are 75 dams in a situation of alert or declared emergency out of a total of 458 dams included in the National Dam Safety Policy (PNSB), according to an August report by the National Mining Agency (ANM). Of the 75 dams, four are in an emergency situation at alert level 3, which means they are at risk of imminent failure or with a high probability of failure. These four mining tailings reservoirs are located in Minas Gerais (three of them owned by Vale S.A. and one by ArcelorMittal Brasil), in cities in the metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte – Nova Lima, Ouro Preto, Barão de Cocais and Itatiaiuçu.

What can we conclude from these numbers? The answer is clear: further tragedies may happen at any time. In my opinion, the UN (United Nations) is not doing enough in the face of such a serious issue, as it has given the ICMM (International Council on Mining and Metals), which represents the industry, more power than it should in the drafting of the new global standard for tailings management, and I fear the same will happen at the UN Global Institute for Tailings Management. It is of great concern that ICMM protects the interests of corporations above all else.

I was born and raised in Brumadinho, a small city located 60km away from Belo Horizonte, the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais. The very name of our state (which means general mines, in English) points out our greatest treasure, and curse: the many mountains that embellish our views are extremely rich in minerals and gems, a natural characteristic that has been object of covetousness of markets since the 17th century, when Brazil was a newborn colony of Portugal. And now here we are, more than 500 years later, still having our natural resources exploited irresponsibly and greedily. On January 25, 2019, the people of Brumadinho, including my family and I, learned the consequences of such practice in the most terrible way, with the collapse of the B1 dam at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão Mine, which took away 272 lives and destroyed the environment.

Brumadinho is now a place associated with the worst tailings dam failures in the world. The breach of Vale’s dam is the biggest humanitarian tragedy in Brazil and the second biggest industrial disaster of the century.

The mining industry has to start acting differently because clearly, the current model of business has not worked. I’m not an engineer, but for me, it is simple enough to understand that if you build an upstream dam designed to support a certain amount of material in an area that receives a lot of rain annually and do not have proper mechanisms in place to get that extra water out, at some point it will liquefy enough to cause a failure. The fact that Vale did nothing while knowing the danger its dams presented and having all the resources to do so, says enough about their ethics, or better lack of it. 

When a company knows the risks and does nothing, it is choosing to kill, and it has to be held accountable; not just the company but the individuals who were involved in the decision-making process. If the dam hadn’t been certified as safe, it is unlikely that so many workers would have been around it, e specifically just below the dam when it burst. And the dam was only certified as safe because the German certifier Tuv Sud felt pressured by Vale to do so, as investigations have shown, because they didn’t want to lose their contracts. 

Four months after the certificate was issued, the dam collapsed. In Germany, Tüv Süd is the subject of two lawsuits in the civil area with the objective of analyzing accusations that the company was responsible for the tragedy by issuing the report. Besides being directly important to the families of victims and those affected by the rupture, these processes can help ensure that foreign companies follow ethical and safety standards not only in their countries of origin, but in the other nations where they operate.

In Brazilian justice, Tüv Süd and Vale are also defendants in a criminal action for damage to the environment based on a formal complaint filed by the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais (MP-MG). In this action, 16 people, including the former president of Vale, Fábio Schvartsman, are accused of aggravated homicide.

In addition to the Federal Police, three parliamentary inquiry commissions investigated the causes of the rupture and I quote the conclusion of one of them: “By analyzing the evidence collected by this commission, there is no doubt that the Brumadinho crime was caused by the omission of those who, in the exercising their professional functions, became aware of the unstable condition of the B1 dam and, although they could, they did not take steps to try to avoid loss of life and damage to the environment […]. Everyone involved, from technicians to the company’s president, was aware of the risk of the B1 bursting and did nothing to prevent the dam from collapsing”.

Since day 1, Vale has shown zero sensibility as to the psychological damages they’ve caused and how long term they are. From the very beginning, they have not at all been supportive of the victims and our requests, and they never approached the families. The greatest proof of their corporate insensibility is that they’ve been denying family members the receipt of compensation, filing legal appeals against the legitimate claims of victims’ relatives. It is a right that the government negotiated with Vale in their deal of billions of dollars, an issue that has been denounced for years now. 

Of course no money will ever be able to repair the damage or to bring back those we’ve lost, but it allows possibilities for people to start over and find ways to recover. Above all, it is a penalty intended to teach companies that life has absolute value and must always come first. Before it’s too late.

The tragedy of Brumadinho is unacceptable, especially having occurred a few years after the collapse of the Samarco dam, in Mariana (MG). Before the tailings mud tsunami that invaded Brumadinho, activists tried to prevent Vale from obtaining an environmental license. Later, more local groups were formed, such as the NGO Avabrum (Association of families of victims and affected by the tragedy of the breach of the Mina Córrego Feijão Brumadinho dam), which I am a member of, and which conceived the Brumadinho Legacy Project*, launched in 2022.

We all need to continue fighting and advocating for more actions globally and locally, both to repair the damages that have been done and to prevent more damage in the future. On the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, what I expect from mining companies 

is a true commitment to safety first. So far, they’ve gotten out unscathed while their victims were left in pieces, and that is unacceptable.

* The Brumadinho Legacy Project is carried out with resources allocated by the Management Committee for Moral Damage Collective paid as social compensation for the rupture of the dam in Brumadinho in 25/01/2019, which claimed 272 lives.


About the author:

Angélica Amanda Andrade is an English teacher who was born and raised in the small town of Brumadinho, Brazil. On January 25, 2019, she tragically lost her sister, Natalia, when the B1 tailings dam in one of Vale’s mining complexes collapsed, causing a mudflow that killed 272 people, mainly staff, and impacted houses, farms, bridges, roads and rivers downstream.

Angélica became a community representative and an advocate for justice and change in the mining sector after the Brumadinho dam failure. She has been a key-note speaker at the UN-supported PRI in 2019 and in a European advocacy campaign where she met with several political representatives working on the issues of human rights. Angélica has spoken at the Summit on Global Mining and Tailings Safety, London, on the first anniversary of the tragedy and has been a guest speaker at the Global Launch of the ICMM Industry Standard on Tailings Management – GISTM.

Since 2019 Angélica has been an active member of Avabrum, attending many events as a community representative, and in 2021 was invited to join the UN Global Tailings Management Institute Advisory Panel for the formation and establishment of the Institute.