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3 Feb 2022

Juan Carlos Ochoa and Nadia Saracini, Christian Aid

"The mud went through my soul": Voices of women affected by the Brumadinho dam rupture

In the last three weeks, more than 28,000 people have been displaced and at least 15 others have been killed by floods and landslides in the state of Minas Gerais, in south-eastern Brazil, due to torrential rains. The areas affected included the Paraopeba river basin, including the municipalities of Brumadinho and Juatuba, which were badly affected by the rupture of the Brumadinho dam three years ago, on 25 January 2019.

The floods exacerbate the already very difficult situation that local communities and women in the 26 municipalities of the Paraopeba river basin have faced since Dam I of the Córrego do Feijão Mina Complex in the municipality of Brumadinho, owned by Vale, collapsed and spilled 11.7 million cubic metres of toxic waste and mud from mining activities, burying homes and infrastructure and contaminating the Paraopeba river, which was the lifeblood of local communities.

The dam rupture has had profound effects on human rights and living conditions, particularly for women who have been disproportionately affected. Now, there is a danger these effects may be compounded by the floods, which could further spread the toxic materials and mud which scientists say are still present in high quantities in the riverbed (see also press reports providing some evidence on this proposition in relation to recent floods) and exacerbate high levels of anxiety and mental illness among affected communities, as some reports on recent floods indicate.

The situation of affected women can only be overcome through reparative measures that are gender-transformative and address intersecting inequalities.

A report recently published by Christian Aid and Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (MAB), The Mud Went through my Soul: voices of women affected by the Brumadinho dam rupture, documents how, three years on, the devastating environmental and social impacts of the Brumadinho dam rupture continue to undermine human rights, particularly for women, in the affected communities. Research undertaken with the MAB Women’s Collective demonstrates the human rights harm the Brumadinho tailings dam rupture has caused for local women, specifically, in relation to access to water and to a healthy environment, gender equality and freedom from violence, decent work and income, and mental health. It describes how this has exacerbated gender inequalities by disproportionately affecting women in poor and marginalised communities who already faced multiple and intersecting barriers to exercising their rights; and how reparation efforts led by Vale have been insufficient to guarantee women's rights. The report shows that these violations have generated specific concerns and differential burdens on women which, if not adequately addressed, will contribute to a vicious cycle of poor health, gender-based violence and poverty.

MAB Women's Collective

An arpillera made in August 2019 in Brumadinho portrays collective trauma and grief, including dramatic rescue efforts, deaths and the suffering of families in the immediate aftermath of the Brumadinho dam rupture. Source: MAB women’s collective.

The situation of affected women can only be overcome through reparative measures that are gender-transformative and address intersecting inequalities. These should not only address the differential impacts of the disaster on women and men but also support affected women’s leadership and agency, increase their access to resources, and guarantee their freedom from discrimination and violence. However, the research findings clearly point to an absence of gender-differentiated response by Vale and attention to the harm caused to women.

The affected women, many of whom still do not have adequate access to clean water, have been collectively demanding adequate reparations. They are calling on the governments of Minas Gerais State, the federal government of Brazil and Vale to mitigate and repair the damage caused to their lives and communities by the dam collapse. The affected communities need support to restore lost livelihoods, access to sufficient water and healthcare, independently verified information about the risks of the contamination to food production and fishing, and interventions to prevent and address gender-based violence which has increased since the disaster.

More broadly, it is essential that the lessons from the Brumadinho disaster inform the drafting process of a legally binding treaty on business and human rights. This should incorporate effective accountability mechanisms to address human rights abuses perpetrated by companies, effective regulation of large-scale mining operations, mandatory gender impact assessments of business activities, and gender-sensitive justice and remedy mechanisms.

Juan Carlos Ochoa and Nadia Saracini