The dam collapse in Brazil last week that killed 84 was the second such tragedy in just over three years, pointing to weak oversight by the government and urgent need for reforms.
On January 25, a dam with mineral waste collapsed in the city of Brumadinho, leaving 84 dead and 276 missing in addition to catastrophic environmental damage.
About 150 kilometers away, a similar dam collapsed in November 2015 in the city of Mariana, in what is regarded as the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history. A criminal investigation for the loss of 19 lives and massive environmental damage is ongoing.
The Mariana dam was operated by a joint venture between Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton and Brazilian Vale. Vale also owns the Brumadinho dam.
Given the clear risks shown by the Mariana collapse, the government should have done more to prevent similar accidents from happening. The Brumadinho dam collapse comes as a tragic reminder of the weakness in the regulatory and monitoring regime.
In 2018, Brazil’s national water agency – ANA – reported that not all dams are officially registered and only 3 percent of those that are were inspected in 2017. The agency’s report also included a list of the 45 dams at highest risk. The fact that Brumadinho was not on that list raises serious questions about how Brazil monitors the safety of dams.
In order to prevent other tragedies, Brazil should monitor and effectively enforce compliance by public and private actors with its regulatory and environmental standards.
Guided by the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, released last year by the United Nations Rapporteur on human rights and environment, Brazil should also not reduce the levels of environmental protection and more generally, take robust steps to protect human rights.
During and after the election campaign last year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro complained that environmental licensing got in the way of infrastructure projects and described Ibama, the federal environmental agency, as “an industry of fines.” Upon taking office, his new environmental minister and the new head of Ibama said they would speed up environmental licensing.
After flying over Brumadinho, Bolsonaro promised to assist victims, investigate what happened, seek justice and work to prevent further similar tragedies. This will require stronger action to protect the environment from the risks posed by mining companies and other industries – a change in course from the promises of less regulation Mr. Bolsonaro made during his campaign.