Counting our blessings – and destroying them

by Isabela Messias

Brazil is a blessed country. We have no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no harsh winter. We have the largest tropical forest in the world, the Brazilian Amazon, which amounts for around 5 million square kilometers, and hosts an unparalleled biodiversity[i]. Moreover, Brazil also has 12% of the world’s freshwater, more than the European or the African continents. It is fair to say that when it comes to natural resources, we are an extremely lucky country. But we are ruining it. Little by little, with years of neglectful environmental policies, we are ruining it.

Mariana, Minas Gerais

The recent environmental disaster in Mariana blatantly showcases the results of the Brazilian government’s actions – or, rather, lack thereof. Mariana is a small town in the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais, with 60,000 inhabitants. It is home to an iron-ore mine, whose activities are carried out by Samarco, a joint venture between Brazil’s Vale do Rio Doce and BHP Billiton of Australia[ii]. Unfortunately, on November 5th, these activities took a disastrous turn: the damn that stocked chemical waste from the operations broke, and approximately 1.8 billion cubic feet of mud were released, which represents the equivalent of around 20,000 Olympic pools[iii]. The consequences of such disaster have been catastrophic, exceeding even the most pessimistic forecasts.

Immediately after the accident, Bento Rodrigues, one of the city’s districts, was completely wiped out by the avalanche. Most houses were destroyed, more than 600 people were displaced and left homeless, 13 people were killed, and 8 are still missing[iv].

Over the course of the following weeks, the damages were even more catastrophic. The toxic mud went down River Doce, killing 11 tons of fish so far[v], and depositing elements such as arsenic in the river’s water[vi]. Because the mud contaminated rivers and the region’s water, it also forced municipal governments of cities along the river’s margins, such as Governador Valadares, to cut water supplies to their citizens. Furthermore, the disaster also affected the area’s revenue, since fishermen from these cities are now incapable of making a living: The river is simply dead.

To make things worse, the river was not the only watercourse affected: the sea will also be contaminated soon. The toxic mud has now reached River Doce’s basin, invading the Atlantic Sea. It was an environmentally protected area, where sea turtles deposited their eggs, in addition to being a home to many other endangered species[vii].

As to reparation and damage control, neither the government nor the company has done much so far. Samarco has been trying to contain the mud from spreading further, but without much success. The government has merely distributed bottled water to the affected cities, and has been monitoring the situation. It is important to recognize that, after the repercussions of the disaster and public outcry, the government has recently decided to sue Samarco for U$5.2 billion to pay for the damages generated. The deed, however, is done. Regardless of how much money is spent in recovery, the impacts of the disaster will be felt for decades to come[viii].

The Amazon Forest

The Amazon forest is another area of concern because of the environmental neglect by the Brazilian government, even though some advances have been achieved in the last decade. In 2005, the Minister of the Environment at the time, Marina Silva, implemented a comprehensive and innovative plan of deforestation prevention and control. It encompassed three ministries, the federal police and the military, and it used advanced satellite technology for real time monitoring of the forest. The action plan was a great success: from 2004 to 2014, the deforestation rate fell 82%[ix]. Of course the ideal rate is zero, but it seemed as if the country was in the right path to achieving it.

Queimada na Amazônia
Man made forest fires near the BR 163 road and the Flona do Trairao (Trairao National Forest). West of Itaituba National Forest. Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Until this year. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, the deforestation rate started increasing again: the amount of forest lost in April was 282% larger than the amount in April 2014[x]. Once again, the deforestation rate is growing, with terrible consequences, such as droughts and irreparable loss of biodiversity.

Increasing deforestation can be partially explained by the new Forest Code, which has been recently approved by Congress. The law has been criticized by many experts for being a setback in terms of preservation, but, in the midst of an economic crisis, the President has done little to respond to environmental concerns[xi].

Now, in preparation for the COP21 in Paris, Brazil has presented in its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) the promise to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon – but only by 2030[xii]. As much as Brazilian commitments have received compliments when compared to other countries’, many environmentalists find that the INDC falls short of the country’s needs and action capacities. In an event in New York City last November, former Minister of the Environment Marina Silva summed up well the problem with the government’s policy: “One cannot promise to have 15 years of deforestation. It is like combatting violence – how could we say that the Brazilian population will suffer homicides for the next 15 years, and only then we will commit to ending it?”.


It is, overall, a dreadful, calamitous situation. Finding a silver-lining or a more hopeful perspective might seem impossible at a first glance. Nonetheless, on the verge of the COP21 negotiations, it is imperative that we try and see past the muddy immediate future. As catastrophic as it is, Mariana might teach us a lesson and have us questioning: what are we doing to our country, and to our planet? And, as importantly, how much more can it take?

As it becomes increasingly clear, not much. From my end, I will continue working for a more sustainable and lively world, while desperately hoping that negotiations in Paris have a positive outcome. Unfortunately, whether negotiations are successful or not, the Brazilian government has left its citizens with one mournful reality: it is already failing us at home.

Isabela Messias is a Master of International Affairs student concentrating in Economic and Political Development at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University.

[i] Brazil Protects the Amazon. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[ii] The growing environmental costs of a Brazilian disaster. (2015, November 27). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[iii] O que se sabe sobre o rompimento das barragens em Mariana (MG) – Notícias – Cotidiano. (2015, November 6). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[iv] O que se sabe sobre o rompimento das barragens em Mariana (MG) – Notícias – Cotidiano. (2015, November 6). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[v] Rejeitos de minério matam aves e toneladas de peixes no Rio Doce. (2015, November 27). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[vi] Vale confirma descoberta de arsênio no Rio Doce. (2015, November 27). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[vii] Folha de S.Paulo. (2015, November 21). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[viii] Quatorze dias depois, Samarco/Vale tentará conter chegada da onda de lama na foz do rio Doce. (2015, November 19). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[ix] Projeto de Monitoramento da Floresta Amazônica por Satélite (Prodes), Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (Inpe) (2015, November 14). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[x] Imazon aponta crescimento de 282% no desmatamento da Amazônia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2015

[xi] A LEI DA ÁGUA. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2015, from

[xii] Guimarães, T. (2015, October 30). Plano climático do Brasil não teve ‘pedalada florestal’, diz ministra – BBC Brasil. Retrieved November 30, 2015