SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Caritas Brazil has denounced the “grave violations of human rights” that followed two mining dam collapses in the state of Minas Gerais at a side event of the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In November 2015, a tailings dam operated by Samarco – a joint-venture of the mining corporations Vale and BHP – collapsed and spilled over 100 million cubic feet of a toxic slurry of iron oxides, manganese, and silica over a large rural area around the city of Mariana, destroying two entire communities and severely polluting the nearby Doce River. The disaster caused 19 deaths and huge ecological damage to an extensive river basin which even included coastal areas of neighboring states.
Earlier this year, on Jan. 25, another Vale-operated dam broke in the city of Brumadinho, close to the Minas Gerais state capital, Belo Horizonte. Over 40 million cubic feet of toxic sludge was spilled, killing 210 people – mostly workers at the Vale’s plant, but also nearby residents. Ninety-nine people are still missing, and the number of casualties continues to grow.
From the start, Catholic organizations and the Brazilian Church have been active in helping the victims of the two disasters.
Caritas Brazil took their concerns to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 19. In addition, they held a side event the same day, with an emphasis on what the organization called the “social and environmental crimes” of the mining industry.
According to Caritas Brazil’s statement in Geneva, in the Mariana case “injustice and violation of the impacted communities’ rights abound” in at least 41 cities in the area. Hundreds of victims have to this day not received emergency aid and at least 250 requests of financial or housing support were wrongfully denied by the mining companies. Caritas Brazil alleges the corporations and their executives have not been properly held accountable, and all settlement agreements have been established without an active participation of the affected communities.
Since the disaster in Brumadinho, the water supply of 16 cities has been impacted, due to the contamination of the Paraopeba River, which is now considered a “dead river” – inhospitable to aquatic life. The mud is still flowing into the Paraopeba and is now heading to the Sao Francisco River, a major artery in Brazil. The government, according to Caritas, did not execute adequate studies and reports on the possible impacts over the basins of the region.
“Both disasters are inevitably connected. […] Vale continued to run its business as usual, adopting a discourse of commitment to the highest standards of social responsibility without revising its business model, its processes and policies, and without effectively preventing the occurrence of new catastrophes,” reads one of the Caritas documents.
Caritas legal advisor Igor Ferrer said the Brazilian team in Switzerland also met with the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, with representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and with Franciscans International.
“They are important partners and can raise the attention [of the international community] on the disasters occurred in Brazil due to the model of mining activities that was adopted in the country,” he said.
The Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the relief efforts in both Mariana and Brumadinho. Caritas Brazil still supports Mariana victims with legal and technical assistance and is working on a dossier of all the damages suffered by hundreds of families. It has also been present in Brumadinho since January, working with its associate organizations.
Father Thiago da Costa Lopes, the vicar of San Sebastian Church, said that at least a hundred Catholic priests have visited Brumadinho so far, in a concerted effort to reach out to the affected families, give spiritual assistance to the people, and help the communities with food supplies.
“Our parishioners immediately created a solidarity network and had a major role in this process,” the priest said.
With the help of the archdiocese of Belo Horizonte and the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, the parish created a service station that offers legal aid, clothes, water, school supplies and social assistance.
“The greatest challenge, though, is to help people overcome the enormous grief that is now disseminated throughout the city. The community is also outraged and longs for justice – which is something that unfortunately does not reach everybody in our country,” Lopes said.
In his opinion, financial reparation is not sufficient. “Our community needs social programs and policies to stand up again.”
Caritas Brazil hopes that the event in Geneva will help to pressure the Brazilian government to impose adequate penalties on the companies, and to make the voices of the affected communities heard in the compensation process.
“We also expect the transformation of the current model of mining operations in Brazil, so to prevent crimes as those of Mariana and Brumadinho from happening again,” said Ferrer.
The situation in the state of Minas Gerais is still dangerous. On Saturday, Vale urged the evacuation in the area around the mining waste dam in the city of Barao de Cocais, after a rupture was said to be “imminent.”