Common good?

Hydro, Vale, Samarco, and Bamin: companies make water-related conflicts grow in Brazil

In only one year, disputes for hydric resources in the state of Maranhão increased by 838%

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

São Paulo (SP) |
"Mining is an important factor in the increase in conflicts over water," says CPT coordinator - Creative Commons

Angela Vieira is, as she says, “born and raised” in Barcarena, a city in the northeast of Pará state. She is 63 and recalls the transformations that made this city an industrial hub in the 1970s. As a child, she lived where the Norwegian multinational mining company Norsk Hydro is now located.

When Albrás, the largest primary aluminum producer in Brazil, and the Alunorte refinery set in that region in 1985 and 1995, respectively, they were owned by Vale company. Hydro acquired these companies in 2011. “When we – 584 families – were removed from there, it was Vale that indemnified... No, it didn’t”, she quickly corrects herself, “the company deceived the people by offering a pittance. It gave each family a plot of land measuring 10m x 60m”, says Vieira.

The struggle of Barcarena’s riverside, indigenous, and quilombola communities for uncontaminated land and water gained international attention when, in 2018, the overflow of Hydro’s DRS2 tailings basin flooded the communities with muddy and toxic bauxite waters.

To this day, some of the harmed families only have access to uncontaminated water to drink and use due to a Transaction and Conduct Adjustment Term (TTAC, in Portuguese) signed between the Federal Public Ministry (MPF, in Portuguese) and Hydro. The agreement obliges the company to supply water trucks and mineral water to the affected populations.

“It only happened because we closed the streets. We protested in front of the company building”, recalls Vieira. “But they never isolated the beach, never”. A resident of the Vila Nova neighborhood, she only received drinking water for five months. “We continue to suffer in our community: our lands, basin, and everything else were affected”, she regrets.

That is why Barbacena is one of the most emblematic places in the dispute over water. This kind of dispute has been increasing in the country’s North and Northeast regions, according to an annual report on rural conflicts published on April 18 by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese).

Struggle over water in Brazil

According to CPT, between 2020 and 2021, water-related conflicts in Brazil’s North region jumped to 18%. The number of families involved in them skyrocketed to 54%. In the Northeast region, cases have gone up to 41%.

In both regions, the cases growth is out of pace, presenting a slight fall in the list of national disputes over water. In 2020, 350 of such conflicts were recorded in the country. Last year there were 304.

From these episodes, 30% were provoked by international mining companies, 19% by national business sectors, 14% by big farmers, 10% by hydroelectric facilities, 9% by governmental entities, and 8% by miners.

“While business sectors compete for the direct responsibility of more than 80% of the water-related conflicts, it’s worth noting the direct or indirect State participation, which should, instead, guarantee that water is respected in its legal imperative of public good and as a human right”, states the CPT’s analytical text wrote by Maiana Teixeira and Talita Montezuma.

Mining and illegal mining in North and Northeast Brazil

According to the CPT report, Maranhão was the state with the highest number of water-related strives: between 2020 and 2021, it increased by 830%. In Bahia state, the increase was 208%.

In Bahia, the mining activities in the São Francisco River Basin were the cause of the high conflict rate. The company leading the appropriation of hydric resources in the region is Bahia Mining (Bamin), with the Pedra de Ferro Project in the cities of Caetité and Pindaí.

“Some states had a low rate of conflicts, but in 2021 went to the top of the list”, highlights Isolete Wichinieski, one of CPT’s national coordinators. “That’s the case of Roraima: it wasn’t on the list in 2020 and is now there mainly because of illegal mining in Indigenous lands".

Pará is the second state in Brazil with the highest number of disputes over water resources and has recorded an increase of 52%. In Barcarena and Abaetuba, Angela Vieira is one of 120,000 people from 112 riverside communities affected by the actions of the mining company Hydro.

According to the CPT report, among the traditional communities that are part of the populations most affected by disputes over water are, in that order, the riverside, indigenous and quilombola peoples.

Commodity vs. public good

Described by CPT lawyer Andréia Silvério as “environmental crimes of an immeasurable dimension”, the burst of Vale’s dams in the city of Mariana in 2015 and Brumadinho, in 2019, both in the state of Minas Gerais, “marked the water-related conflicts in Brazil”.

According to her, the surveys carried out by the entity in the years that followed the disasters made CPT head to Minas Gerais “precisely because of the situation of the communities that were dependent on the affected rivers”.

Silvério explains that as of 2021, most of the conflicts over water were recorded in the North region. “This is related to the mining activity, but not only. Legal mining authorized by the federal government uses huge amounts of water. And we know that mining is presented as what sustains the Brazilian economy”, she criticizes.

“Mining companies such as Vale, Samarco, and Hydro have a huge responsibility in the appropriation of places from which communities have access to water”, she states.

Resistance towards this process were also mapped in the CPT publication. In 2021, the entity registered 53 popular public demonstrations to denounce and demand rights related to mining companies. About half of them took place in Minas Gerais.

“It's a big dispute between water as a commodity and water as a common good”, summarizes Isolete Wichinieski. “There is exploitation, capture, commodification, and water contamination. And some put themselves in the fight based on their knowledge and experiences. They are the guardians of the water.”

Edited by: Felipe Mendes