To make a smartphone requires 50-60 materials and 1,000 substances: 25% silicon, 23% plastic, 20% iron, 14% aluminum, 7% copper, 6% lead, 2% zinc, 1% tin. 90 kg of stone, gravel, and tailings are mined for every smartphone.
“In Brazil and Minas, it is the ore above everything and everyone,” says anthropologist Andréa Zhouri. She explains that the tailings dam disasters in Brazil are not "natural disasters," but rather "political-institutional failures." Minas Gerais is a Brazilian state rich with minerals. It is a chapter in the story of mining in South and Central America that is one of colonialism, genocide, slavery, dumping, the careless and cruel destruction of Nature.
In 1696, Mariana was the first city founded by Portuguese colonizers in Minas Gerais, as they sought to exploit the huge gold reserves. “When the gold exploration began in the area, there are records of impacts related to the activity, like the siltation of the rivers and the great floods that took place in the town of Mariana,” historian Carolina Capanema explains. In the 1730s and 1740s, the floods of toxic wastewater were common in Mariana. Always, mining interests came before life, health and Nature.
The persecution of poor people, indigenous people and Nature was relentless and continuous, even to modern times. In 2021, a Brazilian court condemned Brazil’s government for human rights violations against the Krenak indigenous people committed under the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. During that period, indigenous people were beaten, tortured, put in solitary confinement and delivered to forced labor in concentration camps. Their ‘crimes’? They dared to speak their own language. They resisted land invaders, robbers, thieves.
And all the while, the mining relentlessly scarred and poisoned the Earth. Nature was crushed with religious zeal. As Héctor Alimonda writes, Nature “is viewed by global hegemonic thought and regional elites as subaltern space that can be exploited, obliterated or reconfigured, according to the needs of the current accumulation regime.”
In 2015, Mariana suffered a monumental disaster as the Fundão tailings dam burst and the city was flooded with 25,000 Olympic-size swimming pools of toxic sludge. The toxic sludge travelled on a further 650 km to reach the Atlantic Ocean. “Tailings dam failures inflict a huge impact in terms of loss of life, environmental effects and social damage,” Dave Petley, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Sheffield, states. “It is well established that the impacts can extend for tens or even hundreds of kilometers downstream – the Ok Tedi tailings failure in Papua New Guinea for example extended for 1,000 km and disrupted the lives of 50,000 people.” Despite the human and ecological disaster in Mariana, in 2017—just two years later—“the Minas Gerais State Board of Environmental Policies published a Normative Deliberation which lowered the environmental licensing criteria for operations and activities that use environmental resources in Minas Gerais,” Carolina Capanema explains. “This measure has been considered by experts as one of the responsible factors for another great disaster in Brazil’s mining sector: the collapse of another tailings dam—also controlled by Vale SA—in the town of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, in 2019.”
On January 25th, 2019, about 78 miles from Mariana, Brumadinho tailings dam burst. “These dams are time bombs that can explode at any moment,” stated the superintendent of the Brazilian Association of Environmental Defense, Maria Dalce Ricas. “A good part of these dams are inactive, but this one was also inactive and even so it collapsed.” The failure at Brumadinho “occurred with no apparent signs of distress prior to failure,” Dave Petley wrote. “High quality video from a drone flown over Dam 1 only seven days prior to the failure also showed no signs of distress. The dam was extensively monitored using a combination of survey monuments along the crest of the dam, inclinometers to measure internal deformations, ground-based radar to monitor surface deformations of the face of the dam, and piezometers to measure changes in internal water levels, among other instruments. None of these methods detected any significant deformations or changes prior to failure … No other area of geotechnical engineering would tolerate a failure rate like this, and no other area of geotechnical engineering would be allowed to operate in the area of the risk / consequence matrix occupied by tailings dams. That this situation is allowed to continue is an absolute disgrace.” Except for a mining company, of course, digging up the future of green technology in a poor country where only the poor and Nature will suffer.