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Samarco Tailings Dam Failure in Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil

The tailing dams failure in the iron ore mine in Mariana (Minas Gerais) belonging to the Vale and BHP Billiton companies, caused outrage because of loss of human lives and heavy pollution in the Rio Doce.


The Brazilian governments under Presidents Lula and Rousseff pushed forward an exporting extractivist economy largely based on iron ore exports by the Vale S.A. company (formely Vale de Rio Doce) and also on soybean exports. To the Brazilian policy makers (both in government and in the neoliberal opposition) the tailings dams failure at Samarco's Germano mine (Samarco is owned by Vale and BHP Billiton) in Mariana (not far from Ouro Preto), in Minas Gerais’ iron belt on 5th November 2015 was something of a shock. This is one of the largest iron ore mines in the world. The Rio Doce (the Doce River) was polluted for over 700 km downstream. The burst dam unleashed 50 million cubic meters of mud on the valley killing 19 people and wiping out the village of Bento Rodrigues and reaching very quickly Barra Longa and other villages. About 800 people lost their homes. Many villages downstream were left without drinkable water. The discharges were mainly composed of iron oxide and silica, but IBAMA reports indicate their toxic potential by the presence of heavy metals [14].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Samarco Tailings Dam Failure in Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil
State or province:Minas Gerais
Location of conflict:Mariana
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Tailings from mines
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Iron ore
Project Details and Actors
Project details

In 2014, Samarco produced 25 million tons of iron ore in Mariana, and a similar amount of waste. Production increased 9 million tons over previous year, to compensate for lower prices.

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Project area:30,000
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:40,000
Start of the conflict:05/11/2015
Company names or state enterprises:Samarco from Brazil
BHP Billiton (BHP) from United Kingdom
Vale (Vale) from Brazil
Relevant government actors:Governor of Minas Gerais
President of Brazil
Ministry of Mines, Brazil
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Atingidos por Barragens
Articulacao Internacional de Atingidos pela Vale
Metabase, workers union in Mariana, Minas Gerais
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Mine tailing spills, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Soil contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Under negotiation
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:Iron mining was suspended after the tailing dams bursts. It is not certain whether mining will be continued. The issue is now compensation for loss of life and reparations. Whether there will be a successful criminal case against the companies involved, Vale and BHP Billiton, and court decisions sending those responsible to jail, is yet not known.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:After the large spillage of tailings on 5th November 2015 from the failed dams there is negotiation on the compensation and there might be criminal lawsuit. This is a matter that will presumably last for years.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[5] Atingidos pela Vale. Mais um rastro de destruição e morte na história da mineração e da Vale S.A. 6 nov 2015.
[click to view]

[9] Financial Times. Brazil mine disaster casts cloud over BHP Billiton and Vale. James Wilson, Jamie Smyth, Joe Leahy. 10 nov 2015.
[click to view]

[10] Reuters. Vale workers fear for safety after Brazil's Samarco disaster. Marta Nogueira. 19 nov 2015.
[click to view]

[14] IBAMA. Laudo Técnico Preliminar Impactos ambientais decorrentes do desastre envolvendo o rompimento da barragem de Fundão, em Mariana. Nov 2015.
[click to view]

[16] Rocha, D.S. As lutas indígenas em contextos de injustiças e conflitos ambientais: vida, saúde e mobilizações dos povos Tupinikim e Guarani Mbyá no Norte do Espírito Santo. Rio de Janeiro, Fiocruz (Tese) , 2017.
[click to view]

BBC. Rebuilding lives after Brazil's 'worst mining accident'. Daniel Gallas. 20 nov 2015.
[click to view]

[1] Globo. Protesto de índios na estrada de Ferro Vitória a Minas completa 4 dias [Report on the actions against pollution of the Rio Doce by the Krenak indigenous people]. Mariana Oda. 16 nov 2015.
[click to view]

[2] Folha de Sao Paulo. Brazil Dam Burst: Mud Advances and Provokes Fish Kill in Minas Gerais. Fábio Braga, Thiago Amâncio. 11 nov 2015.
[click to view]

[3] Estado de São Paulo. Samarco passou a acumular mais rejeitos em 2014 nas barragens rompidas. [report in Estado de Sao Paulo on iron ore production and waste production by Samarco in 2014]. José Tomazela. 8 nov 2015.
[click to view]

[11] Agência Brasil. Procuradores da tragédia de Mariana querem atuar no caso de Brumadinho. Léo Rodrigues. 31 jan 2019.
[click to view]

[12] MAB - Nota Pública: Juiz do caso Samarco: espetáculos, manobras e violação de direitos civis e políticos. 10 aug 2018.
[click to view]

[13] Globo - Justiça Federal homologa TAC quase 3 anos após rompimento de Fundão. 8 aug 2018.
[click to view]

[15] Piauí. A onda: Uma reconstituição da tragédia de Mariana, o maior desastre ambiental do país. Consuelo Diegues. Jul 2016.
[click to view]

[20] Globo. Justiça Federal retoma ação criminal que tornou acusados réus por homicídio no desastre de Mariana, diz MPF. 13 nov 2017.
[click to view]

MAB - Audiência da Assembleia Legislativa discute impactos da Samarco. 17 nov 2015.
[click to view]

MAB - MAB cobra comprometimento do MDA na reconstrução da Bacia do Rio Doce. 16 nov 2015.
[click to view]

El Pais. Lama de barragem da Samarco chega ao mar. 25 nov 2015.
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[4] Tragédia anunciada – dossiê do Movimento Atingidos por Barragem (MAB) faz um balanço da situação em Mariana (MG) [Report by MAB]. 8 nov. 2015.
[click to view]

[17] Atingidos pela Vale. Nota da Articulação Internacional dos Atingidos e Atingidas pela Vale frente ao marco de um ano do maior crime socioambiental do país. 6 nov 2016.
[click to view]

[18] Atingidos pela Vale. NOTA CONTRA A HOMOLOGAÇÃO DO ACORDÃO DE MARIANA. 6 May 2016.
[click to view]

[19] MAB. Nota Pública: Juiz do caso Samarco: espetáculos, manobras e violação de direitos civis e políticos. 10 aug 2018.
[click to view]

ABRASCO. Nota da Abrasco sobre a tragédia da mineração em MG: SAMARCO-VALE-BHP. 26.11.2015.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Joan Martinez Alier
Last update22/02/2019
Conflict ID:2194
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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