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Have Vale and the government learned nothing from Fundão?


Leo Heller*


Dams do not break by a divine design. Collapses are caused by physical, mechanical factors. And these factors only lead to disasters in the face of neglect and omission framework. That is, neither God nor Newton should be blamed for the tragedies of the dam collapses, but the negligent companies and the omissive and permissive state.

After the Samarco tragedy in November 2015, UN Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights warned and repeatedly charged the Brazilian government and companies - Samarco, Vale and BHP-Billiton - that disaster management should place the framework human rights in front of any measure.

In their various communications, they demanded that the Brazilian government address the remediation of the effects of the disaster based on the human rights of the victims, urged the government to ensure access to safe water for people who have been restricted in supply, questioned judicial agreements without transparency and without participation of those affected. One year after the disaster, they demanded that the Brazilian government and the companies involved immediately solved the numerous impacts on human rights in progress. They stated that "the measures taken were simply insufficient to deal with the massive extension of the human and environmental costs of the collapse."

Samarco's tragedy has shown that time is allied with human rights violators. It also showed that the mechanisms available in the country - hazard classification of dams, environmental licensing, inspection - are abstractions incapable of preventing such tragedies. Nevertheless, many of us hoped that Fundão would play a pedagogical role, being forever recorded in the memory of institutional and business agents and teaching them what not to do.

Three years later, however, Feijão belies expectations: the lesson was not learned.

One more dam collapses. As the previous one, also classified as low-risk, and worse, holder of environmental licensing for its expansion in a strangely expeditious process. It collapses without sirens and in total deprotection to the direct and outsourced workers. This time we do not talk about dozens of dead, but hundreds. The effect is devastating, tragic, heartbreaking. The next few days will be of increasing identification of dead people, of manifestation of despair of families and of unconvincing explanations.

The moment is to sympathize with the victims and to support them. But it is also time to say in a loud and clear tone that the Minas Gerais and Brazilian governments will not be excused if they do not address the consequences of this tragedy with absolute respect for the human rights of the victims. It is time to say that Vale and other mining companies must put the serious and consequent risk assessment of existing dams at the forefront of their productive advantage and implement strong preventive measures. Also to say that a moratorium on the licensing of new dams and the immediate reversal of permissiveness of the licensing are in order. And to expect from the federal and the Minas Gerais governments sincere apologies for having considered the idea of relaxing environmental policy in favor of progress for the few.

*Fiocruz Minas researcher and Special Rapporteur of United Nations for on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. 
The text was originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo (30/1/2019).

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