On 5th November 2015, two dams from Samarco SA, a joint venture between Vale SA (50%) and BHP Billiton Brasil Ltda (50%) broke, creating a torrent of mud and mining wastes in the district of Bento Rodrigues, at the town of Mariana, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.
The first ruptured reservoir contained fifty five million cubic meters of iron mineral deposits. The second dam holding back seven million cubic meters of waste broke shortly afterwards (making a total of 62 million cubic meters). An avalanche of mud and polluted water submerged towns, fields and everything on its passage. The District is completely buried under this toxic mud, with access possible only by helicopter. This will create a dried cover over the soil, preventing all life to grow on this land. The waste flowing down the river Rio Doce will ultimately reach the ocean and three marine protected areas. The consequences will be felt over decades.
According to the latest news from the Brazilian authorities, the disaster caused the death of nine people while eighteen are still missing. CIDSE expresses its solidarity with the families and all communities impacted.
This social and environmental tragedy has a clear link with the discussions currently being held in Geneva on the occasion of the fourth Business & Human Rights forum (from 16th to 18th November 2015). While many States and private companies advocate for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles, CIDSE together with its partners denounces that the efforts so far have given little attention to concrete actions to protect women and men seeking to defend their rights in the face of harmful corporate practice or legal measures to improve access to remedy.
The Mariana disaster is yet another example of the abuses suffered by communities and individuals as a result of harmful business activities. For the communities living near the ruptured dams and polluted rivers, the UN Guiding Principles will not represent a reliable avenue to access justice. This dramatic event highlights the need for effective extraterritorial actions by States where multinational companies are based, as well as national due diligence obligations for parent companies applying to their relationships with subsidiaries and subcontractors.
In the context of complex corporate structures including transnational responsibility (as it is the case for the Mariana disaster that is the responsibility of two major mining companies, Vale from Brazil and BHP Billiton being an Anglo-Australian company), a reliable way to access justice could be helped by a legally binding instrument on transnational corporations. Such an instrument could address corporate legal liability for violations of human rights, both as an incentive for businesses to undertake proper human rights due diligence, and to repair harm done where they fail. For this case but also for many environmental and human rights abuses across the world, CIDSE and its partners believe that such an instrument would be an important additional tool to support the struggles of these communities.
Activists demonstrate in front of Vale’s headquarters.