People & Power

Brazil’s River of Mud

We investigate the events leading up to the Fundao dam disaster. Is enough being done to avoid future recurrences?

Editor’s note: On January 25, 2019,  another mine tailings dam burst in the same state of Minas Gerais – this time near the town of Brumadinho. At least 166 people were killed. Almost 200 more are still missing. It had been constructed in the same way as the Fundao dam.  On February 15, prosecutors said they had arrested eight employees of Brazilian mining company Vale SA as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

Last November, the Fundao mining dam in Southeastern Brazil burst, unleashing a 50 million cubic metre tsunami of mud and mining waste which flowed across the region.

Nineteen people died, 6,000 were displaced and entire towns were destroyed. It was the country’s worst ever environmental disaster.

Eight months later, we travelled to the state of Minas Gerais, the centre of Brazil’s mining industry, to investigate events leading up to the disaster and examine worrying claims that local government is not doing enough to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again.


By Leila Lak

I first visited the area affected by the Fundao disaster three weeks after the dam burst. I filmed devastated local fishing communities as well as residents of the town of Bento Rodriguez, then completely submerged in mud, who had fled their homes. 

Their loss was so palpable and their story so in need of telling that I contacted Al Jazeera reporter Juliana Ruhfus and together we began work on an investigation into events leading up to the disaster. We were soon confronted by worrying claims that not enough was being done by local government to prevent a similar tragedy in the future, allegedly because of the huge influence mining companies have over both politicians and the economy in Minas Gerais. The results of our investigation would reveal that, in many ways, Fundao represents a microcosm of Brazil’s current political woes; a disaster borne from the influence of large companies over government and a lack of transparency in how both business and politics are conducted.

Our first discovery was that the company operating Fundao, Samarco, is co-owned by mining giant Vale, the fifth largest campaign donor to Brazilian politicians. This wasn’t illegal under Brazilian law, until last year when the Supreme Court banned future corporate donations to politicians and political parties, but it made us question what mining companies had been receiving in return for their generosity.

Police rescue a horse trapped in the mudslide [Al Jazeera]
Police rescue a horse trapped in the mudslide [Al Jazeera]

The industry is the principal source of employment for much of the state of Minas Gerais and both industry insiders and many local politicians argue that development and jobs must come before concerns about the environment. These views shed some light on how it was possible for Samarco to gain a licence in the first place, allowing the company to build and begin operating the Fundao dam in 2007, without even submitting an evacuation plan for local residents in case of a dam burst.

This licence was renewed in 2014, again without an evacuation plan in place. Since the accident, Samarco operations have been forced to cease until the damage is cleaned up, but many politicians in the state have been lobbying to allow the company to reopen its sites immediately, claiming job losses are devastating the regional economy.

In response to mounting public pressure, legislators have put together an Extraordinary Commission on Dams, responsible for writing a report about the disaster and using the lessons learned as the basis for a series of new laws aimed at improving safeguards. But as we discovered, more than half of the legislators appointed to the commission had either received substantial campaign donations from mining companies or were facing corruption charges for their previous actions in office, all of which appeared to call their impartiality and suitability into question.

We also obtained copies of reports from the police investigation into the dam break. They revealed that the structure was built from cheap substandard materials and that the company had ignored warnings from one of its own engineers about the risk of a breach. 

At present the Minas Gerais state mining authority, which is responsible for conducting dam inspections, only has four employees to cover 400 mining dams. As each dam takes 10 months to assess, it’s easy to see the deep flaws in this system of government oversight. And of those dams that have been inspected, many more are categorized as unsafe.

Yet mining companies are allowed to continue operating with little or no apparent intervention from the government and despite the considerable risks to nearby communities; communities like the town of Bento Rodrigues which was completely destroyed by the Fundao dam collapse. 

Rescue workers search for survivors trapped in the mud [Al Jazeera]
Rescue workers search for survivors trapped in the mud [Al Jazeera]

There we met survivor Marinalva Salgado and her family. They told us they had heard rumours that the dam was unsafe but had never expected it to collapse in such a dramatic way. And when it did, they never imagined they would be left alone to run for their lives.

No siren sounded and no one came to their aid, Marinalva said. Her family has since been put up in rented accommodation, paid for by Samarco, in the nearby city of Mariana. But they long to return to their small community and rural way of life. Marinalva is deeply concerned that if the laws and the way they are implemented aren’t changed more communities will be affected and perhaps next time the death toll will be higher and the devastation even greater.

The Fundao dam collapse is Brazil's worst environmental disaster to date [Al Jazeera]
The Fundao dam collapse is Brazil’s worst environmental disaster to date [Al Jazeera]