A River Died in Brazil, Colltalers
The Amazon usually follows any mention of the words Brazil and environment, but not this time. On Nov. 5, an iron ore dam in Minas Gerais suffered a catastrophic failure, spilling 60 million cubic meters of mine waste and killing 13 people so far.
The disaster flushed tons of heavy metal-saturated mud into the Doce river basin, and has now spread out into the Atlantic. Sadly, despite its timing, it’s unlikely that the U.N. Paris Climate Conference that starts today will focus too much on it.
Brazil’s government is filing a lawsuit against the giant multinational miners Vale S.A. and BHP Billiton, whose joint venture Samarco operates the wastewater dam, to create a 20-billion reais fund to pay for the environmental disaster.
Pardon our skepticism but that won’t be enough, of course, even if it ever comes to fruition. The scale of the preventable accident, along with the many ways big companies can weasel their way out of responsibility, and Brazil’s not so stellar record protecting its natural resources, conspire against any optimism about a solution. So let’s keep our expectations low for now.
Despite the ‘20,000 Olympic pools of toxic mud’ estimated to have spilled into the river, according to U.N. special rapporteurs John Knox and Baskut Tuncak, Vale for one has already denied that a major catastrophic event even took place. The company did
detect led, arsenic, nickel and chrome along the river banks but nothing that they’d lose sleep over, apparently.
The envoys’ figure is appropriate to the situation, since Brazil is hosting the Olympic Games next year, in Rio, and has already been accused of lax oversight of the heavy pollution found in the Guanabara Bay, a site slated for water competitions.
It’s also fair to point the region affected, which practically lives off its river, whose name now sounds almost bitter – Sweet, in Portuguese – and the fact that Vale used to have it incorporated in its own name since its 1942 inception. It got rid of the Rio Doce denomination when it became a public company in the under-regulated fever of privatizations in Brazil in the 1990s.
It’s another big state-run company that used to be a proud centerpiece of Brazil’s economic prowess, along the now embattled Petrobras, which was also on the brink of being sold. Vale took the opportunity to grow exponentially, cashing on the demand for iron ore spiked during the emerging markets’ economic boom of the last decade of the 20th century and early 2000s.
Now, both Vale and BHP are pro-actively taking a page from the playbook oil giant BP has been using since the crisis of the 2010 mega oil spill it caused into the Gulf of Mexico, in the U.S., by trying to minimize the consequences of their actions.
If BP and its $20 billion fund can serve as an example, it’s unrealistic to expect that even a fraction of that, given the real exchange with the dollar, will be spent on the actual cleanup process, a massive and always inadequate undertaking.
It may get worse. There are still 11 people missing, and all estimates about the pollution’s impact on the region are preliminary at best. And then there’s the contamination of the open sea, as the wave of mud continues to expand into the Atlantic.
Brazilians usually adopt a defensive attitude whenever the world points fingers at their poor role as wardens of the environment treasures of their country. It’s one of the issues absent in the ongoing, and vicious, campaign against two-term president Dilma Rousseff, which invokes a number of issues, her critics say, that she’s irremediably failed at, to justify her impeachment.
Her spotty record on the care and protection of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, and the indigenous peoples who live there, however, was never among such issues. And it’s doubtful that what’s being called the tragedy of the Rio Doce will be added to them.
That’s a curious ambiguity about Brazilian politics, that some of the most visible matters that affect the future of their country, and the world, as the environment and land distribution, for instance, has been hardly ever part of the national dialogue.
Dilma, as she’s known in Brazil, won two grueling presidential campaigns by responding to a huge spectrum of challenges that never pressured her questionable decisions about the Forestal Code, for one, or arguable lack of original ideas.
As for the Climate Change Conference, to which over 150 world leaders are supposed to report their efforts and progress, and discuss some kind of global cooperation in the future, it’s already dominated by factors outside its original agenda.
Terrorism, obviously, will be a major point of discussion, even if no one will admit that, in the long run, it may not be more important than the threat of rising sea levels or extremely fast climatic changes. After the horrible attacks in Paris, that and the search for balance between security and privacy have practically dominated every round of global talks of any kind.
Even worse, there’s again pressure for more personal privacy compromises, even though it’s been proved to be a false equivalence; since 911, under the excuse of increasing security, a lot of concessions have been given without any visible signs of improvements in return. More often, it’s all used to settle government and corporation scores against individuals.
Then again, all of that may have the positive effect of undermining false promises and preventing grandstanding rhetoric, while bringing forth more actionable plans to reverse the effects of violent whether, already experienced by two quarters of mankind or more.
Fresh ideas on how to tackle the general apathy and lack of funds most environment-friendly, technology-driven projects face, would be welcomed to bridge the still huge gap between innovation and the practicalities of viability and costs.
We’ll see. But the catastrophe of Bento Rodrigues, the little town created around Samarco’s caustic mining operations, is not likely to be central to world leaders’ short-span attention, dining and wining on our buck, in the name of the environment.
It all may be too local to move their needle, specially as the situation keeps evolving on the ground. At the most, they’ll issue a note expressing their concerns. Which means, it’s up to Brazil and the Brazilians to own the issue and find the solutions to it.
That may be complicated, at least for now. Headlines in Brazil have been about corruption scandals in the government, and by elected politicians, which is good, and nasty racism and class prejudice erupting on social media, which is definitely not.
But there’s reason for some optimism, in the form of past experiences, the lack of proper regulation exposed by the accident, and even the lessons learned in the aftermath of the oil spill in the gulf. Brazil shouldn’t be alone tackling such complex issue.
And neither should be anyone pondering about yet another troubled year. For, yes, 2015 could’ve been a much better one, but at least it’s about to sign off. Hopefully it’ll also take with it the bad news it brought forth. Meanwhile, here comes December. WC