On January 25, 2019, a sea of mud destroyed the administrative buildings and the refectory of the Córrego do Feijão mine and part of the community of Vila Ferteco in Brumadinho, causing the burial and death of more than 300 people. A human and environmental tragedy, immeasurable but foreseeable. Once again, the disruption of a tailings dam in Minas Gerais, after the disaster in Mariana in 2015. Once again, involving multinational mining company Vale (See the map of local impacts of the Brumadinho and Mariana disasters).
The company has collected, both in Brazil and in the other countries where it operates, an important array of cases of conflicts (it operates in 27 countries; in ten countries it only has offices, in fourteen countries it has active extractive projects, while exploration activities are ongoing in the three countries. See corresponding layer in the map legend). These include instances of human rights violations, dubious environmental licensing processes and compensations, unpaid environmental fines, irreversible damages to the environment and destruction of means of life of indigenous and traditional groups.
In this article, with the contribution of researchers and members of social movements from different countries, we present a survey of cases of environmental conflicts that show how negligence and insecurity, felt by the populations affected by the tragedies of Brumadinho and Mariana, are systematically reproduced by Vale. This sample of almost 30 cases in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Mozambique, New Caledonia, Guinea, Australia and Indonesia surely endorses the many voices that say: "It was not an accident. It was a crime."
Just three years ago, in Mariana, the river Rio Doce was completely destroyed by tailings that descended from the dam of Fundão and flowed more than 700 kilometers to reach the sea. Nineteen people lost their lives, while hundreds of families had their homes destroyed. Curiously, this same Rio Doce is part of Vale's original name: Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD). In this region of the state of Minas Gerais, where the state-owned CVRD emerged in 1942, in addition to increasing insecurity due to the presence of numerous dams, populations also suffer from the daily impacts of mining and struggle against the expansion of Vale's projects (e.g. in Gandarela Mountain Range and in Nova Lima, MG).
The growth of CVRD and "sacrifice zones" in northern Brazil
Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, founded during Getulio Vargas dictatorship to exploit natural resources and boost the industrialization of Brazilian economy, grew and expanded its activities sectorally and geographically. From the 1980s, the company expanded its operations to northern Brazil, in the state of Pará. Today, according to the Sistema de Informações Geográficas da Mineração (SIGMINE), Vale has 1,630 mining concessions in Brazil, covering a total area of km2 53,977 (equivalent to the surface of Croatia - activate the mining concession layer on the map and zoom in on Brazil to see the location of Vale concessions). Furthermore, apart from the tailings dams of Mariana and Brumadinho, Vale owns 160 more across the country, according to the Agência Nacional de Mineração (ANM), out of which 65 are identified as of high risk of damage or collapse (activate the tailings dams layer in the map legend to see their location).
The municipality of Barcarena was destined for the aluminum industry, in a context in which the polluting and electro-intensive industries were gradually relocated to the Global South. In this process, indigenous populations, quilombolas and other local communities suffered the negative impacts of the industry without benefiting from the promised development (e.g. Hydro Alunorte, the pipeline in Moju and bauxite mining in Oriximiná, PA). Furthermore, the Carajás Iron Project, which aimed to extract and export the region's large iron ore reserves, accelerated the deforestation of the Amazon forest, whose wood was transformed into charcoal and used by the pig iron industry established along the Carajás Railroad, built by the same CVRD.
In one of the communities along the Carajás Railroad (Piquiá de Baixo, MA), where for decades the population has been suffering from health problems due to the pollution of the pig iron industry, several resistance groups have articulated and formed the Rede Justiça nos Trilhos (Justice on the Rails) in 2007. The organization was a key actor to ensure the resettlement of the community in a new neighborhood without pollution, Piquiá da Conquista.
The Rede Justiça nos Trilhos also has an active role in another case marked by environmental injustices: the S11D project - no less than the largest iron ore project in the world. The S11D has been heavily contested due to its environmental impacts in the Carajás National Forest, on suspicion of irregular land acquisitions, violent expropriations in Canaã dos Carajás, and human rights violations and trampling along the Carajás Railroad, which was duplicated to transport the ore. One of the affected indigenous communities, Xikrin, is a neighbor of the Carajás Forest and is impacted by two other projects of the company (the Onça Puma nickel project and the Salobo copper project, PA). Just between this community and Vale, there are already several lawsuits in progress. One of the major concerns of the Xikrin is the pollution of the Cateté River by heavy metals, which has drastic consequences for their survival and culture. They receive compensation from Vale, but also call for the closure of operations to preserve their way of life.
From CVRD to the internationalized Vale S.A.
What these cases involving the Xikrin indigenous community and many other cases indicate is that Vale does not understand or deliberately does not listen to local demands, especially when the destruction of lifestyles (or lives) and cultural and ecological values cannot be compensated monetarily. After all, how much is a river worth? And if Vale's past history has been one of destruction, recent history is, in some ways, even more disturbing.
Since 1997, CVRD has undergone an intense process of privatization and internationalization. This process was crowned in 2007 with the name change to the more modern Vale. The Vale in the name CVRD, which means valley and represented the natural geographic depression of the Rio Doce (meaning ‘Sweet River’), now occupied by mining tailings, gave way to a new Vale, which was announced in these statements of the former president of the company, Roger Agnelli: "Anywhere in the world, the word Vale is easy. Vale means value. It's a short name and easy to remember."
This was a change that aimed to improve Vale's communication with its shareholders worldwide. On the other hand, the effect was certainly not the same for all its stakeholders, as indicated in the cases presented. In general, Vale's activities outside Brazil are marked by environmental injustices that are very similar to those we have seen in the Brazilian cases. One of the initiatives to address the impacts and human rights violations caused by Vale, at a global level, is the International Articulation of the People Affected by Vale, which, since 2009, brings together organizations and social movements from countries where the company operates.
While in Brazil Vale consolidated its position as the largest iron ore producer in the world (with more than 350 million tons produced in 2017), the acquisition of Canadian mining company Inco Limited in 2006 and investments in Moatize (Mozambique) from 2004 onwards aimed to consolidate the company as a major producer of nickel and coal. Iron ore, coal and nickel formed the complete package to produce the steel needed to fuel the great Chinese economic growth.
The now Vale-owned Inco started its operations in Indonesia in 1968, and until the takeover it was the world's largest owner of nickel reserves and second largest producer. For more than fifty years, the indigenous people have been protesting for access to and fair compensation for the taking of their ancestral lands and their livelihoods; against water air and soil pollution; and for a resolution to health problems caused by the nickel mining operation. The Karonsi’e Dongi indigenous people report being consistently threatened and intimidated by the Indonesian authorities and armed security guard
In Mozambique, Moatize was considered the largest unexplored coal-mining province in the world. In the region, hundreds of Mozambican small farmers have been resettled in precarious conditions and are still demanding proper compensation. Lately, Vale also focused its activities in the energy and logistics sectors to support its mining operations. In Brazil, in addition to the Carajás Railroad, the company made important investments in energy generation, including the gigantic hydroelectric project of Belo Monte in the Amazon.
In the mining sector, besides the “steel package”, Vale invested in copper and phosphates operations mainly in South America. In Peru, for example, according to the Instituto Geológico Minero y Metalúrgico (INGEMMET), Vale has 432 mining concessions (242 operating, 188 pending of autorisation, and two cancelled), with a total area of 4297 km2 (activate the mining concessions in Peru layer in the map legend). In one of the few cases of environmental justice victory on our list, communities in Cajamarca (Peru) were able to paralyze a copper mining project after innumerable irregularities to approve exploration permits and environmental licensing.
Finally, it is also important to emphasize that the privatized and internationalized Vale now has greater flexibility to promote acquisitions and divestitures in short periods of time. In many cases, Vale has sold mining projects without assuming responsibility for its environmental and social liabilities (e.g. copper project in Chile, phosphate project in Peru, potash project in Argentina). In the case of the phosphate project Bayóvar in Perú the local community claims against illegal land appropriation and the fishers claim for the sea and air pollution. Two fisher were killed in year 2012 during protests against Vale.
If, on the one hand, the presence of important social and environmental liabilities is a common feature of the analyzed cases, benefits remain at the utmost in the corporate and financial sector, where the corporation has for a long time attempted to shuffle off its responsibility. The ongoing mobilization in Brazil and elsewhere in support of the victims of Mariana and Brumadinho crimes will ensure that impunity will not be the eventual outcome once again. Furthermore, they also urge to reflect on the wider problems generated by a resource extractivist logic as pushed forward by large mining companies such as Vale and their political allies in the pursuit of economic growth and regional development. Such a model not only accentuates dependencies on primary exports in countries of the Global South, thereby deteriorating their balances and terms of trade, but also unevenly distributes the cost of environmental destruction while affected communities continue to face myriad injustices and a constant risk of such dramatic tragedies.
This map has been co-produced between activist scholars, independent researchers and local activists. Authors of case forms are indicated at the end of each case sheet. We are grateful to organizations and collectives that exchanged with us information and data and that struggle every day on the ground, in the courts, in their homes. Special thanks to the Movimento [email protected] [email protected] por Barragens (MAB), Articulação Internacional da [email protected] pela Vale, Movimento Aguas de Gandarela, FASE, Jubileu Sul Brasil, Movimento pela Soberania Popular na Mineração (MAM), to the research group of Mapa de Conflitos envolvendo Injustiça Ambiental e Saúde no Brasil, Mining Watch Canada, JATAM Indonesia.
This map counts on the general coordination, research and graphic design by the EJAtlas research group (Daniela Del Bene, Sara Mingorría, Grettel Navas, Lucrecia Wagner, Raquel Neyra, Max Stoisser), by Yannick Deniau of the Geocomunes collective and by Beatriz Saes (Universidade Federal Fluminense).
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