Care for common home in mining disasters

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On 25 January 2019, the tailings dam of a deactivated iron ore mine in the Brazilian municipality of Brumadinho failed, releasing toxic mud that caused devastation and 117 deaths and intergenerational ecological and economic consequences.

Animals trapped in mud in Córrego do Feijão near the town of Brumadinho, Brazil, a day after the collapse of the dam in a mine belonging to Brazilian Vale. (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)It should, and could, have been prevented by the company, Vale, who was also responsible for past tailings dam destruction. Today the polluted mudflow, which is leftover redundant mining materials, is still impacting communities downstream from the main river in the region, affecting thousands.

The Brumadinho mining disaster is not an isolated incident and comes after two other recent tailings dam failures in the country, of which both have been found to be preventable. It is the tip of a complex issue that reflects a deeper regulatory and moral problem where profit is prioritised over people, ecological communities, human and eco-systems, to the point of large-scale destruction. In this case economic livelihoods of local communities are not only diminished but, along with the habitat that sustains these communities, destroyed.

The impact is widespread and indeterminate as yet. It's not only the local town of 40,000 people; the toxic mud flowed up the main river impacting on livelihoods and ecosystems all the way to the Indian Ocean. The capacity to calculate the economic impact is impossible, as effects will be intergenerational and are yet to appear or even be predicted.

The common usage of the word 'disaster' implies large-scale accidents or natural events that cause widespread harm. We live in an age where a natural disaster is never a purely natural event. Especially when it comes to mining and extractive industries, the causes of the harm are readily traced to human activity. Some claim these are not sites of failure, disasters or accidents, but are crime scenes. We live in an interdependent relationship with nature, ecosystems and our habitat, with subsequent ethical responsibilities to care for these vital, life giving relationships.

This event is not isolated, with similar situations occurring all over the world in various manifestations and ways (small to large). The outcomes of this kind of ecological destruction point to a failure of law and governance in setting limits on the negligent and harmful activities of markets and industries. Current global governance is failing short in ensuring widespread protection of the commons and solidarity with the poor, and is consistently complicit with the profit imperative which drives many decisions. While this disaster has occurred as a result of corporate decision making of the companies involved, Vale in particular, the role of the state as a caretaker of the land and ecosystems within its care is notably absent.

In the background of many ecological industrial destruction events is a complex causal chain which should be analysed against the question of whether the imperative to make a profit was made at the expense of the common good, solidarity, respect for local peoples and healthy eco systems.

 

"This Faustian deal, to gain short-term economic gain over intergenerational health and wellbeing, is replicated the world over."

 

The common good, our common home, includes not only our human community but also the rivers, forests, built environment, seas and air. It is becoming apparent that activities that were initially justified, and given approval for, on the basis of benefits to local economic livelihoods end up causing mass destruction. The justification of extractive industries for approvals and permits is often based primarily upon the economic benefit to local communities in the short term.

This Faustian deal, to gain short-term economic gain over intergenerational health and wellbeing, is replicated the world over. Indigenous people, often the most economically marginalised, often feel forced into having to choose between protecting their lands or economic survival.

Our understanding of justice and responsibility needs to expand to face the challenges of our time. Too often the ecological legacy after companies have made their profit, decommissioned mines and moved on, is a toxic time-bomb that strips communities of life, livelihoods and healthy eco-systems for generations to come. Human and civil rights without ecological protection and care prove useless in situations such as this event in Brazil.

Governments at all levels, the world over, have a responsibility to respond to the problems of local communities within their care. It is also a responsibility of the international community and more economically powerful nations, where many of the most exploitative extractive companies are based, to create good governance that protects eco-systems and marginalised communities even outside their own countries. Care for our common home and intergenerational equity could expand legal and ethical tenets such as the precautionary principle so that it is used to minimise both risks and maximise the health of the communities and environments governments are mandated to govern for and with.

Since the Brumadinho destruction, the United Nations Environment Program has released a report predicting more tailings dam breakages are to be expected globally. There is an increasing awareness that short-term profit should not be prioritised over safety and wellbeing of affected communities, inclusive of intergenerational ecological impacts.

What does care for our common home mean in light of these events of environmental destruction? There is an increasing call for legal consequences for those whose decision making cause such destructive outcomes. These include prison time for company directors, fines that have a significant impact on the company's bottom line and a change to international culture that would see businesses held responsible for protecting human and environmental rights.

The moral responsibility to repair damage done by perpetrators remains. All too often this responsibility has been shirked by the manipulation of legal processes as seen in the Chevron/Texaco case in Ecuador.

What does restorative justice mean in the face of deactiviated mines where volumes of potentially ecocidal materials have been left behind? What does restorative justice mean for the communities and eco-systems devastated by 'failures' or negligence? Do they, can they, rebuild? Is this an opportunity to re-examine our legal, ethical and community relationship with our common home? What responsibilities do we have towards generations to come?

The Brumadinho destruction is a consequence of a deep ethical and moral problem where obligations and responsibility towards each other, and our habitat, are not prioritised in law or reality. This needs to change.

It is a little known but historic fact that El Salvador banned metal mining in 2017. The Catholic Church, on behalf of local communities facing the choice between water, health and more mining, was a major player in the successful passing of that law. It is a realistic option to reorientate our cultures and laws towards solidarity with all creation and to protect future generations.

 

 

Julie EdwardsJulie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.

Topic tags: Julie Edwards, Brazil, mining

 

 

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Julie and Greg, Thankyou for two articles that remind us of our need to honestly care for our world. It was interesting to note how Julie mentioned how the Catholic Church in El Salvador helped ban metal mining. Let us never forget our roles as peoples of the Catholic Church to continue to speak against inequality, desecration of the world and justice for all. These days it is comforting although sometimes challenging to belong to this group of people some of whom make mistakes , some of whom are saints, and who if following the message of Jesus can make a difference by word and action..
Celia | 03 March 2019


Thank you Julie for reminding us of the environmental health problems humanity faces due to the irresponsible and criminal actions of the owners of industries and the politicians who go along with the way they manage their industries. Too many avoidable disasters have occurred because of dangerous shortcuts executives have taken in the operation of their industries and the dangerous handling and storage of their wastes. This is largely due to the fact that internationally laws safeguarding the environment are inadequate and are not effectively enforced. In addition, the media reports often hide the facts about the real causes. Over the years, far too many workers and people living near mines and large industrial centres have died or suffered terrible diseases when disasters have occured. And, as you have pointed out, the people living close yo mines and industrial works are likely to be the poorest in society. We have to demand that governments enact effective OH&S and environmental laws that are strictly enforced by well resourced inspectorates. Such a system needs to involve relevant unions and environment health experts. In addition, people worldwide need to pressure their governments through the UN through the International Labour Organisation to bring about an international scheme to control the pollution arising from industries and the disasters they cause. All too often, the large corporations have moved off shore from the developed nations to the Third World where they can increase their vast profits even more because of the lack of industrial, OH&S and environment protection laws and the repression of unions. It is not acceptable to put the profit making of a very rich, selfish and exploitative few before social justice and the health and welfare of peoples working in and living nearby mines and industries.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 03 March 2019


There are numerous examples of such negligence in our region, eg; Ok Tedi in PNG, the Pangea copper mine in Bougainville , gold mines in the mountains of Northern Luzon, Leyte and Mindanao in the Philippines, to name just a few. Closer to home, the Arsenic poisoning of the upper reaches of the Queanbeyan River at Captains Flat (southern NSW) is a continuing problem, more than half a century after the mine closure . The Asbestos issue in the Pilbara (WA) continues to impact the Indigenous peoples living there. So the list goes on. While the Catholic Church has been a voice in many of these issues, influential people use means, legal and illegal, to silence protest from the Church, particularly by the local clergy and activists.
Gavin O'Brien | 03 March 2019


Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si' ON CARE FOR OUR COMMOM HOME is a wonderful and very timely document, which can be downloaded and read online. Sadly, from my experience, very few Catholic Priests have ever given a homily on Laudato Si'. I urge them all to do so. Church leaders need to be able to read the signs of the times, but I see little evidence of them doing this. How many homilies have you heard on e.g. Laudato Si', other Social Justice issues such as the treatment of refugees or the plight of our indigenous people, and the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church? No wonder so many Catholics no longer go to Mass! Progressive Catholics no longer accept that they are there to just 'Pray, Pay and Obey!'
Grant Allen | 04 March 2019


Julie the dams need to be built with concrete and rock and should have separate lined side diversion channels for overflow in times of flood. Earth filled walls are the cause of this disaster. "The first stage normally involves the removal of loose rock and rubble from the valley walls and river bed. Concrete-faced rockfill dams require a footing (or plinth) to be constructed around their upstream edge. The plinth is made from concrete and serves as a foundation or connection between the dam and the valley walls and floor. It has an important role in preventing water leakage around the edges of the dam. The area under the plinth is waterproofed by drilling holes and pumping cement grout into cracks in the rock. The thin concrete face on the upstream side of the dam is connected to the plinth via stainless steel and rubber seals called waterstops. "(source Hydro Tasmania). The issue is taking short cuts and not planning for major flood events. The dams on the Burdekin and Ross Rivers didnt fail recently despite unimaginable flood water flowing over their walls. Its really a question of how the wall was constructed.
Francis Armstrong | 06 March 2019


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