Water Diplomacy Talks - A Call For Justice For Dam Disaster Victims

Include Indigenous Peoples In New York Conference 2023

28 Jul 2022 by The Water Diplomat

Water Diplomacy Talks is a series of guest columns written by participants in different parts of the international water community. 

Paulo Carvalho Shinji Yoshimoto has a master’s degree in development studies from the Geneva Graduate Institute specializing in Environment and Conflict. He is a Bertha Challenge Fellow, young LGBTQIA+ person, water activist, and co-lead of the World Youth Parliament for Water with experience working in International Organizations. Currently, Shinji has been travelling Brazil in a jeep-home, working with communities who are key in the protection of water resources.

When participating in international spaces dedicated to water, I have noted a silence on a key subject. While on the one hand concerns about plastic, biodiversity, global warming and melting glaciers were fortuitously present in the World Water Forum at Dakar, and at the Dushanbe Water Process on the road to the UN Water Conference in 2023, mining, on the other hand, was a subject that remained unseen and unspoken. An issue that ought to gain more visibility now that the Mariana tailings dam rupture has reached the courts in the United Kingdom in a 5 Billion GBP lawsuit.

This case also brings importance because mining has specific and deleterious effects over indigenous territories. It with hope that, as we seek for greater inclusion of indigenous peoples at the UN Water Conference in 2023, these issues may be properly addressed.

The Mariana tailings dam broke in November 2015, killing 19 people and causing incommensurable social, psychological and environmental loss. A few years later, in January 2019, the Brumadinho tailings dam ruptured, killing at least 270 people, releasing a wave of toxic mud that devastated the Paraopeba River basin, contaminating the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of kilometers away. This rupture has been nationally deemed an environmental crime, but compensations are still far from becoming a common reality. Vale S.A., the company responsible for both crimes has not paid due compensations, and is notoriously far from recognizing the differentiated impacts it has on indigenous and traditional communities.

In particular, the Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe peoples suffer with consequences that would shy most of our dystopian writers. One of their main deities is called Txopai, the God of water, and they say they were called to help save the Paraopeba River. Ever since this calling, they have been fighting against Vale S.A., the mining corporation behind the dam rupture.

It is probably not a coincidence that after the rupture, the Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe peoples were left in the direst of conditions. Their village was buried in mud, and they had to live in slums for a while, and then, once they heard of a forest being devasted near the Paraopeba, they reclaimed that forest as environmental defenders.

And after all of these injustices, they depend on the good will and gratitude of their neighbors for survival. Before the crime, they would fish on the river, grow small harvests and sell their crafts in street markets. Now, they rely on donations. And Vale S.A. delays compensations and holds back emergency support.

The Pataxó face armed private forces raiding their land, sent by no-one-knows-who, and their youth have been beaten by police officers. And sickness spreads in the community due to their living conditions and the contaminated water.

But this is not the worst of it. What they told me is that their God has died. With all the water contaminated in the region, all their possible connections with their deity have been cut. It is not simply an environmental crime, it is a religious crime. To imagine the same for those of a more familiar religion, to imagine holy sites, churches, mosques, or synagogues being irreversibly destroyed and its rubble becoming toxic is totally unthinkable. For the Pataxó, it is their reality. And yet, our law does not take that into account.

It is with hope that we look at the Mariana case being judged in the United Kingdom. That it may generate precedence from which activists and decision-makers in Brazil may add pressure for victims of the Brumadinho case may also receive justice. And much of our highest hopes are that examples such as the one from the Māori  in New Zealand, when the Whanganui River had its legal personhood recognized may spread, and that indigenous worldviews may be integrated into legal systems.

These examples should be starting points at the UN Water Conference in 2023, seeking for a meaningful commitment towards indigenous rights and water, and one that includes mining as the serious issue it is.

Paraphrasing Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs from the Netherlands, our aim is that the 2023 UN Water Conference be historical, not because of being the first in decades, but by the achievements the conference will bring