MAC: Mines and Communities

Samarco update: Samba school tackles mining disaster in Rio Carnival

Published by MAC on 2017-03-01
Source: BBC, Greenpeace Brazil, The Australian

One of Rio de Janeiro's leading samba schools has shone a spotlight on the Mariana mining disaster at this year's carnival. The Portela school used one of its floats to interpret the 2015 dam failure in Minas Gerais state, where nineteen people were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Brazil's carnival is often associated with frivolity, but the parade often carries deeper meanings and can cause controversy.

See previous on MAC:

2016-10-22 Back to tragedy: more news of the BHP Billiton/Vale tailings dam collapse in Brazil

2015-11-27 Samarco tsunami: "There may never be an effective remedy for victims"

2015-11-07 Mining tsunami hits after tailings dams burst in Brazil

Rio Carnival: Samba school tackles mining disaster

28 February 2017

One of Rio de Janeiro's leading samba schools has shone a spotlight on a Brazilian mining disaster at this year's carnival.

The Portela school used one of its floats to interpret a 2015 dam failure in Minas Gerais state.

Nineteen people were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed in the mudslides in the Mariana area.

Portela's carnival float featured the giant figure of fisherman, crying out in distress over pollution.

Other members of the troupe walked alongside, carrying placards with emotive messages such as "Sadness", "Justice" and "SOS".

Thousands of fishermen sued the Samarco iron-ore mine for loss of earnings after the dam collapse saw millions of tonnes of toxic waste flow into nearby rivers and on to the Atlantic Ocean.

The two firms behind the mine, Vale and BHP Billiton, have been ordered to consolidate and settle compensation claims by the end of June this year.

The Portela school chose an overarching rivers theme for all its floats this year and paraded through Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Brazil's Globo newspaper said the atmosphere was tense when Portela's show began, as it followed a performance by the Unidos da Tijuca school. The the top of its float collapsed and dancers were thrown from a raised walkway.

However, Portela carried on and are now among the favourites to win the competition, which sees each school parading in turn in front of a panel of judges.

Brazil's carnival is often associated with frivolity, but the parade often carries deeper meanings and can cause controversy.

This year, the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school themed its entry on land rights of indigenous people, which was interpreted by some as an attack on agricultural businesses.

Brazil's Association of Cattle Breeders said in a statement: "It is unacceptable that the most popular Brazilian festival, which has the admiration and respect of our sector, should stage a show of sensationalism and unfounded attacks."

Ahead of the parade, indigenous leader Alessandra Munduruku told the Reuters news agency: "We will make carnival a political event until the attacks on us and our way of life are stopped."

Rio Doce: 1 year of mud and fight

Greenpeace Brazil press release

5 November 2016

[Photos are available at:]

The word JUSTIÇA (justice) emerges from the ruins of Bento Rodrigues' school as its last lesson and a shout-out from those who perished or had their lives affected due to the mud that destroyed the Rio Doce basin.

This Saturday morning (November 5), Greenpeace's activists joined approximately 1,000 people of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens, MAB) to ask for justice to the millions of people affected by the mud from the mining companies Samarco, Vale and BHP. One year after the collapse of Fundão dam, destroying the Rio Doce basin, the companies did not do much to repair the damages caused.

In order to spread the word of this indignation to Brazil and the world, demand repairs and avoid the oblivion of this disaster, Greenpeace and MAB installed 21 crosses in the mud symbolizing the people who lost their lives due to the disaster. They also wrote the word JUSTIÇA in a 320 m2 area on the school walls that endured, as a last teaching lesson for those who insist on neglecting human rights and the environment.

"We want to prevent new tragedies like this one from happening, and that's why we cannot forget what happened here. Rio Doce and those affected need justice, and that Samarco, Vale and BHP fulfill their reparation responsibility," says Fabiana Alves, from Greenpeace's Water campaign.

The manifestation was pacific and not intimidated by the rain that fell early in the morning, worsening the muddy condition of the place. People affected arrived from different places at around 10 a.m. Amongst many touching memories from those who, once again, had to see their houses completely destroyed, they made it clear: "We are alive and we are a lot." During an ecumenical service, 21 young people from MAB and Popular Youth Uprising (Levante Popular da Juventude) also made an artistic intervention, covering their bodies with mud and holding crosses, dramatizing the pains of those who lost family members, their homes, their own dignity.

The number of victims of the mud was updated with the death of the rural producer of Bento Rodrigues, Henrique Gonçalves Bretas, 50, in October 15, due to depression and health problems resulting from the disaster.

In October 31, 400 people left Regência, on the coast of Espírito Santo state, where Rio Doce mouth is located, to travel the 700-km extent of its margins, going past 9 cities before arriving in Mariana, Minas Gerais state, in November 2.

"We want that Bento Rodrigues be rebuilt as soon as possible and that people affected be heard and participate in the decision-making processes. After one year, only the emergency was taken care of, and a lot of people have not yet received any indemnification or help," reports Soniamara Maranho, member of MAB's national coordination.

In solidarity, social movements and supporters from 12 countries sent their representatives to the act, such as similar bodies to MAB from Argentina and Colombia, those affected by Chevron in Ecuador and Vale workers’ union in Canada.

Murder charges have steeled BHP’s resolve over Samarco response

Robert Gottliebson

The Australian

28 October 2016

The position of BHP in the aftermath of the Samarco disaster could so easily have been much worse. In 2012-13, BHP had three good candidates for the position of chief executive to replace Marius Kloppers.

One of those candidates was Marcus Randolph who sat on the Samarco board as part of his BHP executive duties. Andrew Mackenzie was chosen as CEO and, as is normal in such situations, Marcus Randolph left the company and stepped down from his position at Samarco.

Now he is charged with murder (it is referred to as ‘qualified homicide’) although he was absent from the Samarco board for well over two years before the tailings dam burst.

Understandably, the bizarre situation of having current and former top executives charged with murder — an offence that in Brazil can carry a 54-year jail penalty — is having a profound effect on Australia’s second largest company. And the fact that one of the people charged could easily have been the BHP chief executive adds to the intensity.

But, just as bizarre is the story of Tony Ottaviano who is a middle-ranking executive in BHP’s Perth office who was appointed to the Samarco board in 2015. Ottaviano attended just one board meeting before the dam burst and at that board meeting there was no discussion of any tailings dam danger.

Nevertheless, Ottaviano gets charged with murder along with four other serving BHP executives and three past executives including Randolph.

Brazilian iron ore producer Vale was and is BHP’s partner in Samarco and a string of its executives have also been charged with murder along with Samarco executives.

Given that cracks are appearing in the BHP-Vale relationship, plus the charging of a former BHP executive who has not sat on the Samarco board for well over two years, I decided to look more closely at what is happening in Brazil.

First I want to take you back to the start.

We now know a lot more about what caused the Samarco disaster. The technology of tailings dams carries considerable scientific controversy. The Samarco board hired one of the world’s leading tailing dam consultants to report on the Samarco tailings dam three or four times a year.

Over the years, they made a series of recommendations all of which were either implemented or were being implemented at the time the dam burst. Because they were regular visitors to the tailings dam, consultants knew exactly what was taking place and at no time warned the board that there was risk of a collapse. Accordingly, the BHP people on the Samarco board had no inkling of the danger.

We know now that what actually happened was that the dam was designed so that there would be a large area of sand between the dam wall and what are called ‘slimes’ or waste liquids. In the construction of the dam, not all the draining systems worked as planned and a series of alterations were made — all approved by the independent consultant. In addition, the dam wall was made bigger to accommodate more tailings.

What nobody knew was that at the bottom of the dam the slimes were seeping below the sands towards to the wall and eventually hit that wall and began to permeate through the wall’s lower levels.

There was no way this could be seen from the surface and, meanwhile, the amount of tailings was increasing along with higher iron ore production.

The dam wall was made higher and there were other alterations. Again, what nobody knew, and certainly not the independent consultants, was that these changes, including the higher dam wall, would put extra pressure on the bottom of the dam where the slimes had seeped and this would burst the dam.

In most operating situations, if directors go to the operations site and talk privately to the people who work there, directors can usually find out what is going wrong because the reports from the people on the ground are often far more accurate than those that go to the board table. In this case, I am not sure that is right, given the role of the independent consultants.

Surprisingly, the independent experts have not been charged with murder but rather been enlisted as witnesses, so this account of what happened will be a major issue in any trial. BHP will say that if the world-renowned tailings dam experts could not see the looming problem, then the directors certainly would not have.

The Brazilian government has a poor reputation and, rightly or wrongly, is seen by many as being to be corrupt. The heroes in Brazil are the so-called ‘prosecutors’ who are funded by the government but are completely independent of control from the government.

They are public heroes because they bring to account drug lords and criminals and, like similar Australian organisations, they know how to play the publicity game. And, so, charging current and former executives from BHP and Vale with murder over the Samarco affair has increased the popularity of prosecutors.

In this case, the pre-trial preliminaries may extend over many years.

Meanwhile, the murder charges faced by current and former executives adds a new dimension to any corporate relationship, so it’s not surprising that strains in the BHP-Vale relationship are coming to the surface. The BHP strategy is straightforward. The Big Australian has decided to invest whatever it takes to defend its people and, in the process, a new steely resolve appears to have risen, not only towards the prosecutors $US48bn damages case, but also to what happens next at Samarco.

BHP now wants to complete the restoration of the village and restore the river (a much more complex task). It is likely that the cost will be higher than the$2.4 billion expected but the difference will not be substantial.

When that repair and restoration is finished the damages case may be seen in a different context but what about the Samarco operation and its debt?

BHP is adamant the $US4bn loaned by banks and others non-recourse to Samarco will only be paid from proceeds of production restoration. I have pointed out that the deeper BHP gets into the Samarco situation the more dangerous it is that these Samarco debts will become BHP debts (Pressure to build on BHP over Samarco, October 24). This appears to be part of the difference with Vale.

Meanwhile, there are two pits in the Samarco operation, which can be used for tailings without any major outlays. They are safe and deep enough to allow production to last for about five years. No doubt Vale has its own views on what should happen.

In BHP’s view, if production doesn’t start then Samarco’s $US4bn in non-recourse lenders will have lost their money (BHP does not plan to fund the Samarco debt). The villagers are currently being employed with BHP and Vale money. If production does not resume they may have houses but will lose their employment.

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