Photo by André Luiz Freitas Dias, January 28, 2021. Córrego do Feijão, Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil, where the tailings dam collapsed.
The mining integrated spectacle
Sustainable development is still a long way to go in Brazil. It is one of the cornerstones for the defense of the right to water and sanitation, especially in contexts related to mining activities. The protection of the natural resources is unequivocally a topic open to disputes in the national agenda, however, an even more complex issue when it refers to the participation of women in those occasions when the companies negotiate with public and judicial powers. Based on a legal and psychological assistance, the Polos de Cidadania Program, Faculty of Law, Federal University of Minas Gerais, has found in the female engagement one of the most vigorous forms of contestation against illegalities that have arisen alongside the mining activities in the State of Minas Gerais. Moreover, Polos has collected data indicating how women are frequently the majority of the affected individuals in areas where tailings dams show risks of collapse due to the inappropriate way the accumulation of toxic waste is stored. The program has also incentivized the photographic documentation of female protagonists in catastrophic scenarios like the ones in Brumadinho as a material proof for legal demands. The present article is a call on the importance of the female activism combined with the psychological, social, political and juridical support of epistemic communities and the production of information. It is also an alert against a male-dominant use of the Brazilian environmental legislation that ends up excluding gender aspects linked to the protection of the human rights. We understand the female voices emerged in the mining context as essential for the making of democracy and the enforcement of the International Law in Brazil.
For mining integrated spectacle, we understand the biased and partial narrative that the ore companies construct on sustainable development. It is a discourse immensely rooted in a sort of distributive justice in which socioeconomic development is able to socialize the costs and profits of the mining activities with the whole society. In fact, it is an economic enterprise connected to a global supply chain dedicated to the ore extraction that has benefitted from the environmental disasters and the the fragmentation of legal demands. The violation of the human rights and of the Brazilian environmental national legislation in Brumadinho refers to a systematic practice in the country as seen in other parts of Brazil as well. In addition, there has been evidence that the mining integrated spectacle usually implements corporate policies on the mining business controlling the access to information. In the surrounding areas of the Córrego do Feijão, the women affected by the collapse of the tailings dam are the main witnesses of that mise en scène. Many of them characterized by a feminist social mobilization raised their voices explaining how the public and judicial powers normalize the exclusion of women in the decision-making process concerning environmental disasters. That sort of amalgamation involving public, private and judicial powers has also been repudiated by the Comissão Pastoral da Terra and Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil. Since January 2019 when the Brumadinho’s dam collapsed, the talks and the deliberations sessions excluded the participation of the locals affected by the catastrophe being most of them women. In February 2021, an agreement was signed between Vale S/A and the State of Minas Gerais with a controversial sum destined to the compensation of the Brumadinho’s tragedy.
Women embrace International Law against the abuses of mining companies
The Social Movement for the Sierras and Minas’ Waters conceives the participation of women as decisive for the protection of the environment and the human rights. It is a counter-narrative based on scientific evidence that discredits the partiality of the public and judicial powers in the State of Minas Gerais, but it is simultaneously an appeal for justice under article 225 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Brazil (1988). Their request is underpinned by articles 2 (1) and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) in which each State Party is obliged to respect and ensure to all individuals the rights stated in the covenant without distinction or discrimination of any kind. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) confirms also that rationale in its article 2 (2). In Brumadinho, women have embraced that long tradition in International Law to fight against forms of discrimination. Since the protection of the black people and the formulation of national policies against racial discrimination are foreseen in articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), it is the duty of the Brazilian public and judicial powers to protect the most vulnerable people including black women and children against all forms of prejudice or stigmatization. Supported by articles 7 (c) and 14 (2) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), they have helped the international
community understand the mise en scène of the mining business in Brazil. A report published by the Brazilian National Council for Human Rights highlighted the vulnerability of the children, the elderly, women and people with disabilities after the Brumadinho’s tragedy as well. In the document, Vale S/A is strongly recommended to create a transparent system of information and receive the complaints observing that the affected communities were subjects of the human right to water, work and income. In January 2019, that view on the facts was defended in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
What are the legal implications in the case of the Brumadinho’s disaster? First and foremost, the Federal Act 12.334/2010 affirms that the Brazilian authorities are responsible for the national policy concerning the dams and their control including social participation and transparency in the production of information. On the other hand, it also states that the mining companies are in charge of the security measures to avoid the leaking, malfunctioning or the break of the dams. In case of accidents, the private initiative is expected to repair the damages even when they are not caused by the negligence of the companies with reference to technical issues. Another legal ground to frame the responsibility of Vale S/A is the Federal Act 6.938/1981. It comprises more strict criteria for the elaboration of the national policy for the environment protection in line with international treaties and environmental programs. This act also refers to the importance of the knowledge acquisition and the active participation of the communities in the defense of the natural resources. Regarding those economic activities that may be harmful to the environment, the Federal Act 9.605/1998 avers that there are legal consequences in administrative, criminal and civil courts against the individuals directly implicated in the environmental disasters. The other legal implication concerning the production and access to information is stated by the Federal Act 10.650/2003. It says that the public, private and judicial powers are bound to report the facts related to the quality of the environment, to the monitoring of the harmful substances that may harm wildlife. The purpose of that legal framework is to enforce the protection of the biological diversity through information and local participation. In this sense, specifically article 22 of the Federal Act 12.527/2011 affirms that all particulars involving the violation of human rights are not susceptible to any sort of restriction among other things information. It is known that the Court of Minas Gerais denied the request of the victims to access to terms of the agreement settled between Vale S/A and the State of Minas Gerais. Nevertheless, all these legal consequences framed by the Brazilian environmental legislation are established on the constitutional principles and fundamental rights to protect the physical and psychological well-being of the nationals. In this sense, the experience of Brumadinho goes beyond the material damages, because the national laws have a wide notion of life including bodies, territories and nature. As we have seen, since the beginning women have been the main actors trying to show such comprehensive perspective. They were categorical in objecting to the partiality of the official narrative behind the agreement discussed by Vale S/A. A negotiation which was unilaterally conducted by the public powers with the backing of the judicial system.
Women, Nature and the laws of a critical contestation
In the book The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord mentions that the process of commodification is one of the natural rules of a productive system that has the capacity to annul a great deal of our human condition. It is a process of dehumanization that inevitably affects institutions, governments, legal systems and social forms of organization. Therefore, the trade-off imposed to the enforcement of the law tends to become a real dilemma which
ends up reinforcing the global process of capital accumulation relying on the depredation of the commons. In other words, the commodity relations inevitably interfere in our human condition. In less industrialized countries such as the nations in South America, the supply chains of ore extraction have literally compromised entire societies. Mariana, Brumadinho, Barcarena and other tragic episodes of environmental disasters happening now are the evidence of how integrated mining activities have intoxicated bodies and depredated territories. Why are the women the most resilient actors in this process bringing forward a critical contestation?
In the real struggles carried out daily in the bodies-territories invaded by the mining integrated spectacle in Brazil, the centrality, autonomy and prominence of the communities affected by the environmental disasters have mostly relied on the decisive micro-political actions of women. Not only have they been involved and weaved protection networks with plural forms of existence/resistance, but also promoted diverse and differentiated modes of contestation compared to those imposed by the mining companies. In addition, women have played an important role to safeguard the human right to water, to a healthy environment and to protect their children. They have questioned the unilateral actions of governmental actors which are usually certified and legitimized by the institutions of the Brazilian judicial system. As insurgents in acts of civil disobedience, they opted to transgress the mise en scène logic of the mining companies through female networks to shield forms of otherness. Their existence/resistance have also been systematically criminalized and socially pathologized by the use of fake news.
The mining integrated spectacle has its functioning structure based on racist, colonial and modern economic activities that obliterate Nature. That appearance of sustainable development is accomplished through the imposition of a single history which has been silencing, persecuting, criminalizing, pathologizing and disqualifying other modes of existence, local political actions and non-spectacular perspectives. It uses the International Law to legitimize its practice. An example of that mise en scène is how Vale S/A does not include real sustainable solutions to benefit communities and how it uses the Brazilian commitments to the Paris Agreement to reduce their costs of operation in a long-term period. By 2022, the company will inaugurate a photovoltaic plant in the Municipality of Jaíba, Minas Gerais, and, consequently, diminish its dependency on the consumption of energy. The intention is to reduce around 13% of its costs in their energy consumption by 2025. Nowadays, its demand is already supplied by private investments in 60% of their operations. The wind power stations in Gravier and Cauã, respectively, in the State of Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, strengthen the sustainability discourse of the mining company in favour of international agreements. However, it is much more a plan of self-sufficient energy generation with a territorial enclave that reminds us the Brazilian colonial times. In addition to that, the company has introduced the price of a cleaner commodity in the international market forcing importers to respect the International Law when its marginal gains rely on the unsustainable business of ore extraction.
The economic mining oligopoly, in which Vale S/A participates, has had under its control the future of entire communities. Since the environmental disasters have annihilated urban spaces and decimated forms of life, the existence, knowledge and power cultivated by women against the ore companies have been a fundamental key to resist a racist-colonial-patriarchal-modern-neoliberal world system. Vale S/A is just a piece in the commodity dependence chain as many other countless global enterprises extracting natural resources in Latin America. Multinational companies and their shareholders, among them States and the financial sector, have been on the stage with the approval of judicial systems. The United Nations special rapporteur John Knox addresses most of these issues in the document Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment. He suggests that States should be dedicating their efforts to train national authorities and judicial officers to enforce the environmental laws in connection with the effectiveness of human rights.
At the same time, the rapporteur John Knox indicates that the protection of the environment can only coexist with other rights such as the right to freedom of expression and association, to education and to information, to participation and to effective remedies. The mining integrated spectacle has to be exhaustively described, denounced, analyzed, critically reflected, opposed and fought by researchers, socio-environmental activists and legal practitioners. The female organization in Brumadinho has alerted the epistemic communities and communicated the independent press the politics behind the environmental depredation from a global perspective. It is not a coincidence that information and participation are categorically stated as human rights by the principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. This is why the female activists, journalists and researchers at universities have used that international commitment to demystify the mining integrated spectacle. Some of these women are Andréa Zhouri, Cristine Takuá, DaiaraTukano, Eliane Brum, Gloria Chicaiza, Maria Teresa Corujo, Maristella Svampa, Miracy Gustin, Renata Machado Tupinambá and Sara Larraín. In their networks, they also have the support of names like Ailton Krenak, Alberto Acosta, Eduardo Gudynas, Héctor Alimonda, Horacio Machado Aráoz and many others.
Among the epistemic communities from the Brazilian public universities critical to the mining integrated spectacle, we mention the Projeto Nova Cartografia Social da Amazônia, coordinated by Prof. Dr. Alfredo Wagner Berno de Almeida, with the presence of female scholars producing scientific works. Another one is the Polos de Cidadania Program, which is a transdisciplinary program of teaching, university extension, and applied social research at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Polos-UFMG). Polos has worked in several territories involved in socio-environmental conflicts mostly caused by the mining activities for more than two decades. Since its creation in 1995, the program has defended the enforcement of the human rights alongside people, families and communities with a history of social exclusion and exposed to different forms of violence perpetuated by governments and the ore exploitation. In order to defend the right to the existence as a legal principle, it has conducted theoretical and empirical investigation based on the academic production of Bruno Latour, David Lapoujade and Peter Pál Pelbart. The search for references with rigorous conceptualization of scientific categories relies on a plural perspective in which the possibilities and needs for the coexistence of multiple life plans and trajectories are constantly in re(construction). In short, these two epistemic communities have attempted to escape the symbolic and objective forms of reality that have attacked systematically the International Law, especially when it refers to the rights of women. That prevailing mise en scène logic, which has subsumed the environmental protection and the possibilities of its enforcement in Brazil, reveals itself as a social normative structure. However, like women fighting to defend life dignity in Brumadinho, these epistemic communities have been alerting to the passages, moments of transition, fissures, gaps in the inter-modes and the inter-betweens which are trying to shape our bodies, territories and human rights.