A quick scroll over the website of mining company Vale and its mission statement of the company pops up on the screen. According to one of the biggest mining companies of the world, present in ten countries, and on almost every continent, its main goals are, in order of appearance: Life matters most; Value our people; Prize our planet; Do what is right; Improve together; and Make it happen.
None of those values seemed to be present when hundreds of human lives were taken, buried under a dense mudslide on the town of Brumadinho, Minas Gerias, last Friday.
Like a modern Pompeii, people were swept away by a wave of thick debris and mud with no time to escape, their bones crushed in what seems to be the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history. The silence afterward was overwhelming. Although all hospitals in the region were on a high alert, few victims actually made it to the emergency rooms. The reason the hospitals weren’t overflowing with the wounded is terrifying: hundreds of missing people are presumed dead and their bodies unable to be recovered from the sea of sludge.
The extent of the damage is hard to measure by human standards. As it occurred with the deluge of mud, the harm, the pain, and the damage will also come in waves. First, families will mourn the dead. Then, if they are lucky, they will get to bury them, then a city will wake up to the fact that it will never be as it once was. And finally, Brazil will have to deal with the fact that part of its ecosystem is dead, a large strip of land rendered worthless for generations to come, and the fact that this wound may never heal. Instead of a cheerful village near the largest outdoor contemporary museum, Inhotim, Brumadinho will become a fossil, an archaeological site, a disfigured stain on Google Earth.
The silence is deafening. As time passes, the possibility of ever finding the remains of the hundreds still missing after the Minas do Feijão dam rupture running over one of the richest natural regions of the state of Minas Gerais dwindles. A state once proud of its mining heritage, today is a graveyard.
It is not the first time nature charges human ambition for its careless abuse of the environment. Just three years, earlier a branch of mining company Vale called Samarco was the protagonist of yet another disaster that caused the loss of 19 lives and ended the history of a century-long city called Mariana. And it could be the second time in Brazilian history that the perpetrators of such crime go unpunished. Vale mining company, a world renowned enterprise, never paid the US $300 million fine that could have helped victims to rebuild their lives in Mariana. Those people are still housed in temporary settlements, waiting for a compensation for something so irreplaceable such as human lives.
The mud that lies over Brumadinho is not that different from the dense sludge covering Brazilian politics today. As in the Brumadinho tragedy, in which the consequences will be felt gradually, the responsibility for this disaster is also a combination of unfortunate events and negligence by the government and its representatives. Years of politics deaf to both nature’s and citizens’ needs. The Brazilian government not only failed to inspect the dams, it also went along with the loosening of the legislation that could have been crucial in avoiding the tragedy. As an illustration, of the 79 elected members of congress in 2014, 49 did so with campaign funds coming from mining companies.
Newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro has openly spoken about his low regard for environmental activists. “We have to fight the [fines of the] environmental industry which punish rural businessmen,” he stated. As Vale’s shares plummet, it becomes clear that is not the fines that are harming the agribusiness, or any business for that matter. Instead, the disregard for nature and human lives are far worse than the bureaucratic process that entails environmental licenses in Brazil.
The idea of a self-regulating industry just crumbled before an astonished new administration. If something good will ever emerge from this horrible event, it is the fact that will become harder for President Bolsonaro and his anti-environment officials to carry on with tearing down the country’s environmental legislation. It’s hard to imagine that this government will have any other option than to enforce tougher inspections, harsher punishments for those skirting the law, and safer standards on related issues. But again, in a Brazil, drowning in its never ending corruption and ambition, anything is possible as memory fades.
And as corporate lessons go, it is a dark irony that a company which name in English translates to the word “valley,” evoking light telluric landscapes, is being called by the national media a “death valley,” a testimony to all that can go wrong when ambition grows bigger than nature itself.