Five years since the collapse of the tailings dam in Brumadinho and the difficulties securing reparations and justice

The environmental and social crime is still being heard: the mining company Vale, the German consulting firm Tüv Süd and 16 individuals are defendants in the criminal case


Updated on January 26, 2024

Five years ago, on January 25, 2019, the B1 tailings dam belonging to the Brazilian mining giant Vale collapsed at the Córrego do Feijão mine in the town of Brumadinho, state of Minas Gerais. The structure could not support the weight of 12 million cubic meters of mud and waste. At the time of the collapse, 427 people were working at the site.

In total, 272 people died, including two babies still in their mothers’ wombs. Among the victims were workers, tourists and residents of the region. The dirty and contaminated water that flowed down the River Paraopebas affected 26 municipalities, devastating communities and the region’s flora and fauna. The environmental and social impact was enormous.  

A study by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, released by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in 2021, identified that the cause of the collapse was the liquefaction of the tailings during a drilling in the dam. During the procedure, the solid waste turned into fluid and overburdened the structure.

Despite the scale of this environmental and social crime, relatives of the people in Brumadinho who lost their lives when the dam collapsed are still waiting for justice. 

Two years after the dam collapse, in February 2021, a settlement agreement was reached. Vale agreed to pay at least BRL 37.68 billion in collective damages. Of this amount, nearly BRL 1.3 billion was for direct reparations to the families of the victims.

But the Brumadinho case is still being heard. Two companies are defendants: the mining company Vale and the German consulting firm Tüv Süd, which signed the dam’s stability report. Another 16 people are also standing trial in the case, including employees of Vale and Tüv Süd. They are accused of 270 counts of premeditated murder (when there is the intention to commit the crime), double aggravated, in addition to several environmental crimes. The lives of the unborn babies were excluded from the case.

See 5 points that explain the difficulties securing reparations and justice in the case: 

Vale’s silence with regard to the relatives of the victims

The relatives of the victims of the dam collapse in Brumadinho complain that Vale did not contact them to offer condolences or support, or to recognize the services provided by the employees who died while at work. Some of the employees had been working at the company for more than 30 years. This stance by Vale caused even more pain in the mourning of people who lost family members, according to Avabrum (Association of Relatives of the Victims and People Affected by the Collapse of the Córrego do Feijão Dam).

Disagreement over the amount of reparations for damages caused

The initial request from the Minas Gerais state government and the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the settlement agreement for environmental and social damages was BRL 54 billion. Vale did not agree. The disagreement led to an extension of deadlines and debates over the settlement amount. In February 2021, an agreement worth BRL 37.68 billion was sealed. The amount could be higher because the agreement provides for the full recovery of the environment, and this was made based on an estimate.

Conflict of jurisdiction between state and federal courts

It took a year for the first complaint to be filed and another three years to define where the case should be heard. This is called conflict of jurisdiction, i.e. determining whether the case should be judged in the state or federal courts. Ultimately, it was decided to use the federal courts.

Right of the accused to a full defense

The Brazilian justice system is considered “guaranteeist”, meaning that it respects the right of the accused to a full defense. If on the one hand this prevents innocent people from being sentenced without being able to present their defense, on the other, in practice, it implies a long legal process, which allows for appeals and requests for the extension of deadlines.

After the filing of the complaint, in January 2020, the defense counsels of two engineers who are defendants in the case requested an extension of the deadline to analyze the case, which already totaled 500 pages. They argued that the document platform of the Minas Gerais State Court had more than 1 million pages of raw files from the mobile phones of all the people involved. The court accepted the request and the deadline for the defense counsels to present their arguments was extended.

Pandemic, social isolation and digitalization of the case

The pandemic struck just over a year after the collapse of the dam in Brumadinho, which delayed the progress of the case when staff at the court had to work from home. Since the documents were not digitized, the procedure was entirely physical and could only be resumed after the lifting of restrictions on social contact.

Mobilization of the affected people

Since the tragedy, relatives of the victims, communities and all the other affected people have been mobilized to demand justice and reparations. This year, the Camila and Luiz Taliberti Institute, a collective initiative of friends and relatives of the two victims after whom the organization is named, launched a manifesto and a petition to ensure that the case is not forgotten. 

There are also other initiatives that try to amplify the voice of the victims. One is the Observatory of the Criminal Cases of Brumadinho, which was created out of the need for a system to make it easier for the relatives of the 272 victims and other interested parties to understand the legal cases and administrative proceedings underway in Brazil and Germany for the purpose of exposing the truth and applying criminal justice to all those responsible for the murders and other crimes related to the collapse of Vale’s dam in Brumadinho.

The chronology of the case

On January 25, 2020, the Minas Gerais State Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a complaint with the state’s justice system. The pandemic came soon after, requiring social isolation and delaying the case. 

In September 2021, the time began for the defense counsels to present their arguments. A month later, lawyers for the former president of Vale, Fábio Schvartsman, presented the argument that the case should be heard by the federal courts, since it includes charges of making false statements to a federal agency, non-compliance with the National Dams Policy and possible damage to archaeological sites – which come under federal jurisdiction. 

The Superior Court of Justice (STJ) agreed and annulled the receipt of the complaint by the state courts, claiming that it did not have the jurisdiction to judge these crimes. 

But eight months later, in June 2022, the case was returned to the state of Minas Gerais. The justice of the Supreme Court (STF), Edson Fachin, restored the jurisdiction of the state courts to analyze the case, and the process resumed where it had stopped. 

In December 2022, Fachin’s decision was reviewed by the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court, which accepted the argument of the defense and restored the jurisdiction of the federal courts to hear the case. 

In January 2023, the Federal Court of Minas Gerais accepted the complaint and the process was restarted from scratch.

Now, the defense of the former president of Vale, Fábio Schvartsman, is attempting to remove the charge of premeditated murder. In December 2023, his lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition. It was analyzed by the rapporteur of the Federal Appeals Court of the 6th Region, which includes Minas Gerais. The federal judge Flávio Boson Gambogi gave his approval to the request, signaling that, if the other two judges follow the same reasoning, Schvartsman will be discharged from the case. The analysis has been suspended due to a request for adjournment (when a judge asks for more time to analyze the case).

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