SPECIAL BRUMADINHO ‘Contamination of the São Francisco River can be a tragedy with an immeasurable proportion’

Moisés Borges of the national coordination of Brazilian Movement of Dam Affected People– MAB analyzes the perspectives of the crime of Brumadinho for the São Francisco River.

It was with great sadness and revolt that we accompanied yet another terrible environmental crime provoked by Vale. The development model and the predatory mining that produced rupture of the dam in Mariana and ruined the Doce River, is now headlining another environmental and human rights violation in Brumadinho. Until now there are 165 confirmed deaths, 155 missing persons, 133 displaced persons and an additional 369 firefighters involved in the rescue.

The rupture of the dam has released 12 million cubic meters of ore tailings in the Córrego do Feijão. The toxic sludge crossed seven kilometers and reached the Paraopeba River, one of the tributaries of the São Francisco. The expectation is that the mud will arrive at the Três Marias hydroelectric plant by February 15. If it goes beyond  this stretch, it will contaminate the largest river in the Northeast.


Crédito Daniel Marenco

In a conversation with CESE, Moisés Borges of the National Coordination the   Brazilian Movement of Dam Affected People(MAB) gives an overview of recent events in the region and describes the impacts of this criminal disregard on the lives of the people of the São Francisco River: “Unfortunately, it is inevitable that the São Francisco River will be contaminated. At the moment it is not possible to predict the level of contamination, because this will depend on how this waste will reach Três Marias. “

Moisés pointed out that heavy metals present in the mud that killed the Paraopeba River, will move to the São Francisco River, even with the use of the Retiro Baixo barrier. These metals are much like the ores that left the watershed of the Doce River virtually lifeless.

MAB’s  representative warns that the scenario is very unstable and there is the possibility of a tragedy for the Brazilian Nile with an incalculable proportion: “With increasing rainfall, which is happening in the region, some of the sludge that has solidified in the Córrego do Feijão  can be diluted. Furthermore, Brumadinho is at risk of breaking the water containment dam, the B6, also owned by Vale. If this happens, it will create even greater chaos. The mud will descend with more speed and strength to the Velho Chico [Velho Chico is the way locals call São Francisco River].”  Read the full interview:


When will the sludge reach the communities bounded by the São Francisco River?

It’s an issue that worries us a lot, mainly because we are here in Bahia. Following a little of what happened in Mariana, the entire river was devastated. With the breaking of the dam of Fundão, the mud spread very quickly and arrived swiftly at the mouth of the Doce River. Brumadinho’s mud is more dense and slower in its movement along the river. This favors their containment of this mud as waste.

Although they have different characteristics, both have heavy metals. The first report of Minas Gerais Institute of Water Management (IGAM) shows that the heavy metals responsible for killing the Paraopeba River, a tributary of the São Francisco River, are very close to or equal to those found in the Doce River. High levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead, chromium, nickel, mercury and copper have already been found. It is these contaminants that concern us. The mud as residue will not go further than Três Marias. But these toxic metals are probably already diluted in the water below the mud, because they dissolve faster than the residue itself.

Unfortunately, there is nothing that can stop the São Francisco River contamination.  It is such an important river to the Northeast. At the moment it is not possible to predict the level of contamination, because this will depend on how this waste will reach the hydroelectric plant of Três Marias. The arrival of the tailings is scheduled for February 15.


Some measures are being taken to contain the advancement of the mud, such as the use of dams and tailings’ containment curtain. Are there alternatives? How should communities prepare?

The Vale and the government have placed three waste containment membranes, but in particular for the restraint of organic matter in an attempt to hold mud along the Paraopeba River. The barrier that is expected to contain the largest amount of waste is the hydroelectric plant called Retiro Baixo, owned by Furnas of the Eletrobrás systems.

The plant will be emptied to contain as much of this mud as possible. However, there is the possibility that this barrier cannot restrain all of the waste and is exposed to the danger of rupture. So there is a very real prospective that there will still be mud tailings reaching the Três Marias hydroelectric plant, which is the responsibility of CEMIG, Minas Gerais Energy Company.

Nevertheless, this scenario is very unstable. With increasing rainfall, which is happening in the region, some of the sludge that has solidified in the Córrego do Feijão  can be diluted. Furthermore, Brumadinho is at risk of breaking the water containment dam, the B6, also owned by Vale. If this happens, it will create even greater chaos. The mud will descend with more speed and strength to the Velho Chico[1]. Therefore, we have to follow up and monitor, day by day, almost hour by hour the whole process.

MAB together with movements of the Via Campesina, pastoralists and unions, have done humanitarian actions in the region of Brumadinho to guarantee the right of the families. For the São Francisco River we are organizing a denunciation process, because not everyone has the dimension of what can happen and the real risk of contamination. We are also making contact with the State Government to initiate the monitoring of the river in Bahia and to make comparatives of the water of today with the water after the arrival of the tailings. This monitoring is important so that the population has another water source in case of confirmation of the contamination.

In addition, we are calling the entire population for acts that we will carry out on February 25, when it will be a month of this crime committed by Vale, in Brumadinho. We want to draw attention to this situation. We had seven persons from Bahia who were killed by a murderous company and deserve our solidarity.


What is the perspective of the size of this crime / tragedy for the São Francisco River and the number of people affected?

The size of this crime on the São Francisco River is still difficult to calculate, an alarming level as a basin. The size of the crime in the social perspective is much larger than Mariana. From an environmental perspective it will arrive close, although the amount of mud in Brumadinho is smaller. They were around 12 million cubic meters of tailings. Mariana was three times more than that.

Socially it is a disaster to have 300 people killed and 95 km from the Paraopeba River already dead. Três Marias is a big producer of farmed fish, probably all will die. This causes a great impact, including economic, especially for the riverine populations that live around this region of the river.

Regarding the São Francisco River, when arriving in Três Marias, it is not known what the contamination will be. But if the concentration is high, the water consumption must be immediately suspended, either for animals or for human consumption. And it will be necessary to provide another type of water supply.

Just to have the dimension, the Velho Chico includes five states, four from the Northeast: Bahia, Pernambuco, Sergipe and Alagoas, and one from the southeast: Minas Gerais. Of these five regions there are at least 521 municipalities in the border that depend directly on the river, in addition to other localities that depend on water. According to data from the ASA (Articulation of the Semi-Arid) there are around 14.2 million people who depend directly on the San Francisco River. So, it can be a tragedy with an incalculable proportion.


One of the promises of the current president is to relax the rules in mining and include the Amazon in the mining route. How do you evaluate this perspective of less enforcement and less environmental control?

I rate it as a great hypocrisy! The president has affirmed that it is not a problem of his what happened in Brumadinho, but on the other hand, he advocates the easing of environmental laws, being this one of the reasons that led to the rupture of the Córrego do Feijão. Flexibility opens loopholes for corruption, fraud of technical reports, manipulation of information, reduction of dam safety costs and increased exploitation on the worker and the nature. Placing the supervisory process in the hands of the private sector means that money speaks louder than lives.

Seeing the environment minister say that the Brazilian obstacle is the rigidity of environmental laws is a great absurdity. This is disrespectful to the 300 families who lost their loved ones. It is a disrespect with Brazil. It is shameful to have a government with such an attitude that even in the face of such a crime insists on the prospect of flexibility. For us this statement has no place, on the contrary, it is necessary to increase the rigidity of environmental licensing and inspection so that it will never happen again.

Although we have warned several times about the risks of Mariana and  Córrego do Feijão, unfortunately nothing was done. It is important to keep up with the denunciations and repudiate these statements.


We know that for more than 20 years MAB has done a great job with the communities affected by dams, and in this critical moment launches a collection campaign in support of the affected population in Brumadinho-MG. How does this campaign work?

The movement has dealt with this issue on a very voluntarily basis and with the solidarity of national and international organizations. We have more than 30 people working in Brumadinho and 15 people in the São Francisco region, with real costs of food, clothing, transportation and others. As a result, it launches a fundraising campaign aimed at raising funds to strengthen the organization of those affected on the spot, sending brigades, supporting the displaced families of the victims and their relatives, and guaranteeing their rights.



To access the campaign click here!






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