On January 25, 2019, a Brazilian dam collapsed, killing hundreds of people in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The dam was owned by a Brazilian company, Vale SA, and was designed to hold back iron ore waste. The collapse flooded the small southeastern city of Brumadinho along with multiple Vale buildings. In the days following the collapse, multiple search parties looked for missing persons and surveyors found dead fish and trash over ten miles away from the mine collapse in the Paraopeba River.
Coverage of the January 25 tragedy focused on how this was not the first time Vale has had to answer for a deadly dam failure. In 2015, another one of the Vale dams in Minas Gerais broke, killed nineteen people, caused hundreds to be relocated, and left 250,000 residents without drinking water. The most recent dam collapse has led to a re-evaluation of the circumstances surrounding the 2015 dam collapse and concern for the stability of the six hundred other dams in Minas Gerais which have been deemed at risk of rupture.
In addition to the growing number of deaths from the dam collapse, the lasting effects of the collapse are threatening the survival of indigenous communities. In particular, the Pataxó indigenous group lives along the Paraopeda River and use it to bathe, fish, and water plants. These communities have been told to refrain indefinitely from using the contaminated river water.
Discriminatory placement of hazardous waste disposal sites near lower income populations is a current problem in other nations such as the United States. Companies regularly choose cheap, low income areas to set up their waste disposal facilities and then fail to properly safeguard against dangers to the surrounding communities. Multiple arrests occurred following the Vale dam collapse because of the possibility of criminally poor maintenance of the dams and disregard of warning signs that the dam was unsafe. Vale knew about the dangerously unstable condition of the dam back in October of 2018, almost three months prior to the collapse. Despite knowing that the dam’s chance of collapse was twice the maximum risk the company’s own guidelines allowed, the company neglected to take action.
Under Article XIX of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (ADRIP), indigenous persons have a right to live in healthy environments. This includes the right to manage their lands in a sustainable way and to protect their lands from the deposit of harmful substances while placing a requirement on states that they “shall establish and implement assistance programs for indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.” In addition, the right to a healthy environment is further guaranteed by Article 11 of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights, which Brazil has ratified. For years, Brazil’s indigenous populations have protested the placement of dams on and near their lands. These efforts have been thwarted by companies who develop the dams despite protest and simply compensate indigenous communities after the damage is already done. The most recent dam collapse and subsequent awareness of the instability of hundreds of other dams throughout Brazil proves that there are some consequences of developing on or near indigenous lands which cannot be resolved with a check.
The new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has already taken steps to diminish tribal rights in Brazil. President Bolsonaro transfered the power to designate indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture at the beginning of January 2019 just after dismantling Brazil’s bureau of indigenous affairs. Researchers claim that these actions potentially foreshadow the complete annihilation of whole indigenous tribes in Brazil. These movements of the Brazilian government, coupled with the recent catastrophe of the Vale dam collapse could quickly lead to more than just a couple Vale executives facing jail time. Brazil owes a duty to its indigenous people to reinstate their rights and allow them to protect them from future catastrophes.