One of Brazil's largest socio-environmental and labor tragedies – five years on

Aerial view of the Brumadinho dam collapse, February 2019 The aftermath of the Brumadinho dam collapse (© Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA)

Jan 26, 2024

The Brumadinho dam failure still haunts Brazil five years on as legal battles continue. The disaster reverberated across the world in January 2019 when 272 lives were lost at the Córrego do Feijão mine site.

One year following the catastrophic event, in early 2020, a Brazilian judge accepted the prosecutors' complaint, marking the commencement of criminal proceedings against 11 individuals connected to the Brazilian mining behemoth Vale, including its former CEO. Additionally, five employees of the German auditing and certification company TUV SÜD found themselves in the legal crosshairs. Their charges range from murder (double-qualified intentional homicide) to negligence and environmental damage. Allegedly, they were well aware of the looming threat of dam collapse.

At the close of 2022, the Brazilian Supreme Court delivered a verdict, asserting that the case had been incorrectly handled in the state court jurisdiction. As a result, in January 2023, the legal battle had to recommence from square one, now in the Federal Court in Belo Horizonte. Currently, the case is in the initial stages of notifying the defendants about the impending criminal procedures.

Seeking accountability beyond borders

Brazil's criminal prosecution falls short of holding accountable those responsible beyond its borders. With this in mind, five Brazilian relatives of the victims, in collaboration with the organizations Misereor and ECCHR (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights), have filed a criminal complaint against TÜV SÜD and one of its employees in Munich, Germany. Their aim is to instigate investigations into potential criminal conduct by German actors linked to the dam's failure.

The principle of responsibility extends to German companies, both for their direct actions and those of their subsidiaries. German jurisdiction comes into play due to the presence of German citizens and a German company, collectively presumed to share responsibility for the tragic dam failure in Brazil. As of now, the Munich prosecutors have yet to conclude their investigation.

Impunity and related challenges

Despite the existence of relevant legislation and competent authorities, these measures often remain on paper without robust enforcement. Public vigilance and organized action are indispensable and the only means of sustaining the quest for justice.

Those affected have reported a series of violations, ranging from inadequate reparations to the persecution of community leaders. According to the victims' families, the delay in holding companies and individuals responsible for the crime accountable has allowed Vale to dictate its actions in the affected territories, perpetuating the very mindset that culminated in the dam collapse in 2019. They assert that the mining giant has employed tactics to inhibit, oppress and stifle opposition to it, creating a hostile environment by intimidating and demoralizing community leaders and attempting to sever their ties with their communities.

Meanwhile, Vale continues to maintain control over the compensation process, perpetuating its tactics of pressure on outsourced workers, disregarding community demands, exacerbating physical and mental health issues, and persecuting those who dissent from its narrative. There have been both indirect and direct threats, including death threats. Several individuals from the territories impacted by Vale's actions find themselves in protection programs for human rights defenders.

Adding to the apprehensions about safety and environmental risks, 23 dams belonging to the mining company Vale in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais are currently on alert or at emergency levels, with six dams in the Metropolitan Region of Belo Horizonte classified as being at emergency levels.

This post is based on information shared by lawyer Danilo Chammas and organizations dedicated to seeking justice for the victims in Brumadinho:

  • Atingidos pela Vale – A network of people affected by Vale
  • AVABRUM - An initiative with a focus on justice, criminal accountability, the preservation of memory and the search for victims whose bodies have not been recovered.
  • Observatorio das Açoes Penais sobre a Tragedia em Brumadinho / Observatory of the Criminal Proceedings of the Brumadinho Tragedy – An organization documenting ongoing criminal proceedings in Brazil and Germany. The Observatory monitors the performance of justice institutions and provides reliable information to the public. Simultaneously, it archives case materials to establish a comprehensive documentation center online.

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