Tragedy in Mariana: With no settlement for affected people, companies come under pressure from international investors

Attempt at settlement formally ended in 2022, as international investors exert pressure

(Foto: Marcela Nicolas e Guilherme Gandolfi/Cáritas MG.) (Foto: Marcela Nicolas e Guilherme Gandolfi/Cáritas MG.)

Seven years after the collapse of the tailings dam operated by Samarco – the mining company controlled by Brazil’s Vale and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton – the people affected by the 62 million cubic meters of toxic mud in one of the largest environmental and social crimes in the country’s history have still not received reparations. Following legal disputes, there is not even a deadline to deliver the houses promised to the affected people.

According to Mônica dos Santos, a local leader and member of the Commission of People Affected by the Fundão Tailings Dam (CABF), the delay is due to the lack of interest on the part of the companies. “It’s incompetence,” she told Conectas. “In addition to violating more rights, they don’t want to solve the problem. Even the simplest things can get worse. Lots of people are making money from the delay. The only ones not making money are those affected, who are dying without compensation.”

Since construction began, 47 people have died without seeing their homes built. 

To learn how to negotiate with the companies, Mônica dos Santos decided to study law, graduating in April 2022. “Despite spending five years taking the course without believing in justice, I learned a lot. It showed me how resilient I can be, given the number of hearings that I attended,” she said, adding that she does not want the same fate as her colleagues who are no longer here. 

“The vast majority of us are sick and very scared that what happened to the 47 residents who died over the past seven years will also happen to us. People have depression, panic disorder, many have already attempted suicide, not to mention the fear of never getting their home.”

The burden of the delay

In September 2022, the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, together with the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Public Defender’s Offices, formally ended the negotiations over compensation for the tragedy without reaching an agreement. The attempt to reach a deal by the National Justice Council failed because Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton did not agree to pay the required amounts within the requested period. 

While the state governments are asking for R$214 billion, the companies are proposing R$110 billion, with almost half to be paid in 16 years. According to the official letter of the government to the National Justice Council: “The acceptance of these time frames would transfer the burden of the delay to those who most need the measures”.

The companies also refused to pay compensation for future damages from the disaster – those which still cannot be assessed. After 250 meetings, the parties were still at a stalemate. Furthermore, delays in compensation and in the implementation of programs promised by the Renova Foundation, which is responsible for handling reparations for the affected people, have resulted in more than 85,000 lawsuits.

Life interrupted

Some of these problems were followed closely by Doug McMurdo, chairman of LAPFF (Local Authority Pension Fund Forum), a British fund that manages US$630 billion and represents some 40 investors in the mining company BHP. 

For some time now, BHP has been pressured by investors to speed up the process of making reparations for the Samarco dam collapse. But on a three-week visit to Brazil in October 2022, McMurdo noted that these reparations were not occurring quickly enough. 

Furthermore, despite meeting with representatives of Vale, the representatives of BHP declined the invitation to meet, causing McMurdo to question the company’s competency. “To be denied access for a completely incomprehensible reason hits a very raw nerve,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Morning Herald. “It also raises a lot of questions for LAPFF members, and other investors, about how effective the company’s leadership and corporate governance are when the company refuses to engage on reasonable – and, in LAPFF’s view, important and necessary – investor asks.”

In McMurdo’s opinion, the companies should eliminate the intermediaries in the negotiations. “It appears to LAPFF that the Renova Foundation should be disbanded and that BHP and Vale need to take direct control and accountability for the remaining clean-up and reparations activities, including effective and meaningful engagement with affected community members and other stakeholders.”

For Mônica Santos, ideally the rights of the affected people would be upheld immediately, despite knowing that some things can never be replaced. “I miss absolutely everything, but especially the photo of my father, who died when I was seven. To remember his face, I used to look at old photos that, unfortunately, were all swept away by the mud,” she said. “Our expectation is that our little corner of the world will be returned to us so we can move on with our life, which was interrupted on November 5, 2015.”

Tragedy in Mariana: Seven years on, still no reparations for victims

Find out more

Receive Conectas updates by email