From a Dam Disaster to the Amazon Fires – a tough year for Brazil’s Environment

Brazil experienced a tough year in 2019 when it comes to the environment. It saw the dismantling of federal environmental governance, a dam disaster, oil spills and the Amazon fires. It saw the president utter absurd statements, give up hosting the COP25, and question data from INPE — the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research — and NASA.

Yes, it has been an … interesting year.

I’m still trying to process all the events that took place this year in Brazil. Writing this blog post will help me do that and hopefully do the same for you. And maybe we together we can emerge in a place where we can take constructive action.

In this post I’ll give you a brief overview of each disaster and then I’ll write a short analysis about what I make of all of these events. I do tell you in advance though that I won’t go in depth in the Amazon fires in this post — that deserves a post of its own!

Brumadinho

O antes e depois da tragédia de Brumadinho Foto: Reprodução
Before and after picture of Brumadinho. Photo: Globo.

In January 25, Brazil experienced a dam collapse that left 256 people dead, with 14 people still missing. It released around 12 million cubic meters of iron ore tailings, which could contaminate around 300 km of river according to the National Water Agency (ANA), and it essentially killed the Paraopeba river. The criminal process is still in progress, and there’s no word on the environmental recovery of the area.

The dam belongs to Vale, the same mining company who owned the dam that collapsed in 2015 in the Mariana disaster, the biggest environmental disaster in Brazilian history, killing 19 people and destroying the Rio Doce river basin, host to countless wildlife and source of subsistence for thousands of people. Nobody was arrested for this disaster, the judicial process is stalled and out of the 68 environmental fines the company was issued, only one is being paid (… in 59 installments). Plus, nothing on the environmental recovery projects so far.

Oil spills

Photo: Poder360

On August 30, 2019, crude oil spots were detected in the state of Paraíba. Soon after, more and more of these spots were detected in what was to become the biggest oil spill in Brazilian history: more than 3000 km of coastal areas have been affected thus far. Some public employees but mostly volunteers have been doing their best to clean the oil brought ashore, in unsafe conditions.

Researchers identified the oil as being originated from Venezuela, but nothing has been officially confirmed. There’s also no identification — although there’s some speculation — on the ship that likely caused the spill. So, another manmade disaster goes legally unaccounted for.

The Amazon: deforestation and fires

Photo: Reuters.

The Amazon fires in August 2019 captured worldwide attention due to their intensity, extension, relationship to deforestation rates and Jair Bolsonaro’s policies and rhetoric. According to INPE, there were 30.901 registered foci of fires in August, a record in 9 years.

While July and August are dry season for the region, which can create conditions for wildfires, it wasn’t enough to create the amount of fire we witnessed during that time. The dimension of these fires are definitely due to human practices, i.e. land clearing for farming and cattle raising.

In addition to the fires, deforestation in the area has increased considerably in 2019. According to data from PRODES — a project from INPE for monitoring Amazon deforestation via satellite — it’s estimated that from August 2017 to August 2018, deforestation in the Amazon was up to 7.536 km². This year though, from August 2018 to August 2019, that number rose to 9.762 km² — an increase of 29,54%.

The Amazon crisis comes about within the rhetoric of Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly dismissed environmental concerns in benefit of agribusiness in a very aggressive manner. This can and does influence some farmers and ranchers who then feel legitimized by Brazil’s top power to do whatever they want with the forest. In fact, many of the fires started in the Amazon that contributed to the crisis were organized and coordinated by farmers, loggers and businessmen, who led a “day of the fire”, on August 10 and 11.

Analysis

Brumadinho, oil spill, Amazon fires.

Every single one of these disasters were manmade. And for every one of these disasters, culprits have either a) not been found or b) not been brought to justice.

For Brumadinho, Vale got a fined for a number of environmental crimes and different public entities. How much has it paid? Do we even have access to this information? I have not found a source that states how much Vale has already paid for Brumadinho — or if it has at all. Will it use its billions to repair the damage it caused? They still haven’t even paid for the Mariana disaster. A company this size should at the very least be mandated to repair the environmental and human damage they caused. Where is law enforcement? And what are we going to o about the other dams in Brazil?

With the Amazon fires and deforestation, this is a clear outcome of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and policies. He has been promoting the dismantling of Brazil’s environmental executive organ (IBAMA) since the beginning of his presidency. He has made clear he intends to use the Amazon for economic purposes and wants to end NGOs and environmental activism. In my personal opinion, the Amazon fires made visible to the world at large the unpreparedness of our government and the pettiness of our president. It highlighted this government is built on conspiracy theories, unfounded finger-pointing, and discrediting of scientific facts.

The same can be said for the oil spills. Our Minister for the Environment blamed Greenpeace for the fires, and our president blamed NGOs and Leonardo di Caprio for them — I mean, seriously, you can’t make this up.

All of this comes within the context of climate change, which cannot endure Bolsonaro’s type of discourse — we’re already walking on pretty thin ice here, and I don’t think enough people are aware of this. Greenhouse gases emissions have risen instead of diminishing, the COP25 led us further away from the Paris Agreement’s intention than closer to it, and natural disasters such as the Australian fires and the floods in Indonesia, happening right now, seem to carry an extra degree of intensity than what we’ve seen previously.

Having said that, I do think there’s a silver lining here. Global (mostly non-institutional) response to environmental destruction has been fast and towards environmental protection for the most part. And social media has been playing a key role in reporting these events and leading to political pressure. While this is not close enough to concrete action, it can lead to important accomplishments.

So yes, Brazil has seen a tough 2019. However, I do believe that these issues can help us improve environmental governance, both in a national and global scale, since we’re grappling with these them more frequently and with more globalized effects. We’ll see how much headway we can make here in 2020.

References

Globo. (2019). Técnicos avaliam extensão do dano ambiental de rompimento da barragem. Retrieved from: https://g1.globo.com/jornal-nacional/noticia/2019/01/26/tecnicos-avaliam-extensao-do-dano-ambiental-de-rompimento-da-barragem.ghtml

ANA. (2019). Nota Informativa – Possíveis impactos dos rejeitos de Brumadinho no rio São Francisco. Retrieved from: https://www.ana.gov.br/noticias/nota-informativa-2013-possiveis-impactos-dos-rejeitos-de-brumadinho-no-rio-sao-francisco

 Fonseca do Carmo, F.; et al. (2017). Fundão tailings dam failures: the environment tragedy of the largest technological disaster of Brazilian mining in global context. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation. Elsevier. 15 (3): 145–151.

Cordeiro, F. (2019). Entenda o vazamento de petróleo em praias do Nordeste e do Sudeste. Retrieved from: https://sustentabilidade.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,entenda-o-vazamento-de-petroleo-em-praias-do-nordeste,70003026922

Dantas, C. (2019). Óleo no Nordeste: veja a evolução das manchas e quando ocorreu o pico do desastre que completa 2 meses. Retrieved from: https://g1.globo.com/natureza/desastre-ambiental-petroleo-praias/noticia/2019/10/30/oleo-no-nordeste-veja-a-evolucao-das-manchas-e-quando-ocorreu-o-pico-do-desastre-que-completa-2-meses.ghtml

Mooney, C.; Dennis, B. Top scientists warn of an Amazon ‘tipping point’. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/top-scientists-warn-of-an-amazon-tipping-point/2019/12/20/9c9be954-233e-11ea-bed5-880264cc91a9_story.html

Brown, S. (2019). Amazon rainforest fires: Everything we know and how you can help. Retrieved from: https://www.cnet.com/how-to/amazon-rainforest-fire-whats-happening-now-and-how-you-can-help-update-indigenous-tribes/

Vick, M. (2019). Quais as causas e os tipos de queimadas na Amazônia. Retrieved from: https://www.nexojornal.com.br/expresso/2019/11/19/Quais-as-causas-e-os-tipos-de-queimadas-na-Amazônia

Camargos, D. Fazendeiros e empresários organizaram ‘dia do fogo’, apontam investigações. Retrieved from: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ambiente/2019/10/fazendeiros-e-empresarios-organizaram-dia-do-fogo-apontam-investigacoes.shtml

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