Since February 6 (today 44 days), the bodies of workers Joaquin Beltrán and Alberto Sololuce have not been found.
More than a year later, 11 bodies of the 272 dead in the Vale en Brumadinho crime have still not been found.
One year (and 12 days) after one of the greatest ecological and social disasters in the history of Brazil and certainly of the Planet, that of Brumadinho, as soon as I returned to the Basque Country from there, the Zaldibar dump disaster happened. Both seem unrelated events, but there are many elements in common. To begin with, both are two avalanches, one of the land and the waste, the other of mining lodges, tailings. Both the product of overcoming limits and bad conditions.
The Brumadinho disaster is presented as a dam disaster, but it is not, or at less not the conventional water dam, but rather a mining waste deposit. It is also not the same as a dump like Zaldíbar, but in its case also, that waste, the rock sludge, is highly contaminated with heavy metals from those rocks and also from the chemicals used to separate the iron. These contaminated the 300-km-long Paraopeba River, which supplies thousands of people, as well as ecosystems, leaving it dead a year later. In total, the affected population stands for 1 million.
Both Zaldibar, and Brumadinho operated with irregularities, avoiding inspections, etc. But above all, the common fact is the collapse of both including lives. Obviously the case of Brumadinho, with 272 deaths seems bigger than the two in Zaldibar, but no less dramatic. Moreover, in both cases the deaths involved workers. In the case of Brumadinho, not all of them, but the majority, since the avalanche of mud fell on the very premises and canteen of the Vale mining company.
Another common aspect is that in both cases the critical situation had been alerted, and in both cases by the workers themselves. In each case, those who had warned of the conditions even perished in the accident itself. In recent days it has been reported in the media that one of the two workers buried in Zaldibar had shared with his family his concern about the stability of the land and the possibility of a collapse like the one that occurred, and also that more dangerous substances than those permitted were being dumped in the landfill.
We cannot say for sure, but we sense that their warnings were not taken into account, and instead, those workers, the one alerted about the risk paid for the ineffectiveness or passivity of those who had the capacity and the obligation to act.
In the Brumadinho case, seven months before the crime, the Vale company sent a geotechnical engineer and a worker to assess the state of the reservoir’s retaining wall, as they had evidence of its corrosion. The worker, Olavo Coelho, warned that the proposed solution was insufficient and that the dam was definitely condemned. Coelho would later perish in the disaster, one of those 272 victims. The fact that they both detected and warned of the failures added more tragedy to their deaths, along with the fact that they ended up paying for the negligence of others when they did the dirty, poorly paid work, etc.
In Brumadinho, too, most of those who perished were outsourced workers, hired through second and third parties to deny them rights such as security, association or to pay them less. That’s why the BBC also referred to the crime of Brumadinho as “the biggest workplace accident ever recorded in Brazil. In 2007, of the 14 fatal accidents that occurred to workers of this company, 11 were related to subcontractors. In 2009, 60% of Vale’s workers were outsourced.
Another aspect that has become firmly established in public opinion is that the reason for Zaldibar’s collapse lies in greed, in the pursuit for more benefits by ignoring situations, rules, consequences, risks. In the case of Brumadinho, this is clear. Because this formula of accumulating mining waste (tailings) is banned in many countries of high mining activity, such as Chile and Peru, and will soon be banned in South Africa. To these reasons, one could add all the formalities that had to be completed and which were not complied with or were falsified. Now, one year after the crime, all the aid and compensation that the victims are denied.
More than four years ago (November 5, 2015) the same company Vale, (in a consortium, as Samarco) incurred in the same type of crime in Mariana. That is why it is also said that Vale is a “repeat criminal”. The Mariana crime caused the death of 19 people and 362 families lost their homes.
Not a single one of those families, more than four years later, has seen their house restored. In spite of all these accidents. Vale has continued to add to its profits, this year surpassing its record from last year by 13.7%: 1,370 million Euros. And its president was the best paid of all Brazilian transnationals.
These days it has also been stressed that we are not dealing with an accident: when something happens with knowledge, not respecting the law, the rules, exceeding the capacities, etc, we are dealing with a crime. A crime in which the institutions that watch over the safety of the population, of the workers, of the environment are also co-responsible of. In Brumadinho, MABś (Movements of People Affected by Reservoirs) companheiros always insist on this aspect: that it was a crime, and that Vale is a criminal company.
In both cases, we find, without a doubt, the results of a system that predisposes resources and the environment, and that does not take into account the impacts. A system that does not think about the consequences and for which never is enough. Growth fever: last year’s macro-profits are not enough and more are needed, despite the fact that we have to pay compensation and fines; more rock has to be extracted and crashed, more and more iron has to be mined; more rubbish has to be brought in; export, consumption and GDP targets have to be surpassed. One ton of rock produces one ton of waste (in the case of iron). In the case of gold, silver or copper it is much higher: it can be as much as 30 tons. In Brumadinho, 26.3 million tons of iron were extracted in 2017 alone. That means 26.3 million tons of waste in one year, which is also sludge (suspertoxic sludge), making it more difficult to store. That is why it is impossible to store so much.
In both cases the similes of sweeping under the carpet, or of the ostrich hiding its head, are more than adequate. Our planet suffers, the symptoms of climate change are increasingly perceptible, as perceptible is that on the part of the powerful and institutions there is no will to confront it and not everything else that accompanies it (deforestation, desertification, loss of oxygen in the water, extinction of species, loss of biomass, etc. etc.), problems that despite the alarm do not slow down the pace of capitalism or the greed of the rich. The collapse is here. And both cases, Zaldibar and Brumadinho are clear examples of this. It seemed so far away to us and we have it here. The fact that all that shit fell on top of a motorway makes it even more metaphorical: the collapse of the system, finding itself, obstructing two of its main references, speed, cement and the asphalt of the great infrastructures on the one hand, and the unwanted product, invisible, hidden from our consumerist practices, all that rubbish, on the other.
In this sense also, as a model, as infrastructures, as a glorification of engineering, of technology, both cases remind us that these projects are not infallible, that despite so much progress there are things that fail, and things that cannot be allowed, that we cannot assume. They confirm that not only we can be right, but we have the right to oppose many of these alleged macro-solutions, because many times – as these events also show us – they only obbey to elitist economic interests. Because they are not only Brumadinho and Mariana. As far as dams are concerned, it was also Patel in Kenya with 47 deaths, or Panjshir in Afghanistan with 10, or Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy in Laos with 36, or Swar Chaung in Burma with 4 deaths, all of them in 2018; or Tiware in India with 23 deaths in 2019. Or now with Zaldibar. They confirm that it can happen and that opposition and fears such as those of the inhabitants of Agoitz with Itoitz or of Zangoza and other villages of the Aragoi basin with Esa (both in Navarre, Basque Country) are not unfounded.
We will be ignored, ridiculed and criminalized, but these crimes only give us more reason to continue opposing useless and unwanted infrastructures; their incompetent model of generating and treating waste; their predatory, destructive and ecocentric model; their greed above individuals, peoples and the Planet. We will continue to oppose them and create alternatives.