On 5 November, over 800 people, including a delegation from IndustriALL, BHP unions from Australia, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, gathered along with representatives from social movements in the ghost town of Bento Rodriguez to demand justice for those affected by and punishment for those responsible for the dam collapse in 2015.
The event was organized by the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (MAB), a social movement that defends people affected by dams.
Addressing the crowd, IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan said:
“We bring a message of solidarity from the global family of mineworkers to all those affected. This was no accident; it was a premeditated crime. We are deeply saddened at the devastation and loss of life. But we are also angry, angry that companies continue to put profits before people.”
The Fundão dam belonged to Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between two of the world’s biggest mining companies, Australia’s BHP Billiton Ltd. and Brazil’s Vale SA.
Samarco, one of the world’s largest exporters of iron ore pellets, started building Fundão in 2007. Although there had been serious problems with the dam since the beginning, it did not stop Samarco from ramping up production in order to offset falling commodity prices.
The collapse on 5 November 2015 unleashed a meters-high tsunami of toxic sludge swamping the river and obliterating towns along its stretch as the wave of mud travelled 700 kilometers down the river to the Atlantic Ocean.
Most of those killed were mineworkers working on the dam at the time it collapsed. Had the dam collapsed during the night, the 600 residents of Bento Rodrigues would almost certainly all have died. As it was, in the absence of a proper emergency system as required by law, they escaped with only the clothes on their backs.
“I was born and raised in Bento Rodriguez,” says Antonio Martíns Quintão. “But all of that was swept away in the space of eight seconds just after 3:30 in the afternoon of 5 November.”
Antonio and other residents left homeless have yet to receive compensation.
“Every day when I wake up, the first thing I do is look to see whether any action has been taken against those responsible for my husband’s death,” says Alinne Ferreira Ribeiro. Her husband Samuel, an operator employed by a Samarco contractor, was one of the 19 people who died that day.
In June, Brazilian federal prosecutors filed homicide charges against current and former executives of Samarco, BHP and Vale. S.A. and their joint venture Samarco. Prosecutors say the company had prior knowledge of the risks to the structure and that stability reports were falsified.
Earlier, Brazilian prosecutors filed a US$44 billion civil suit against the three companies for the enormous human and environmental damages caused by the dam rupture.
Says IndustriALL General Secretary Valter Sanches:
“IndustriALL stands shoulder to shoulder with all those affected: with the families of those who died, the residents who lost everything, the 20,000 or so workers who don’t know if the mine will ever reopen, the communities that depended on the mine, and all those who have lost their livelihoods.
“We support the struggle to hold those responsible to account and to ensure that action is taken to ensure something like this never happens again.”
Prior to the event, the IndustriALL delegation held the first meeting of the global network of BHP Billiton and its spin-off company, South32. A detailed plan of action includes measures to address the companies’ unacceptable labour practices around the world and to hold BHP accountable for the Samarco disaster. The meeting adopted a declaration of support to the Samarco victims.