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Care for common home in mining disasters

  • 03 March 2019


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.

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