1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Victims seek justice in Brazil dam disaster

Nadia Pontes Brumadinho
July 25, 2019

On January 25, a dam operated by mining company Vale burst in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, killing 270 people. To this day, emergency services are still searching for human remains.

Patrick Tavares Gomes observes clean-up work at the site of a dam disaster in Brazil
Image: Nádia Pontes

At Bravo commando post, investigators wait for the arrival of newly discovered human remains. It is here that the search for victims of the Brumadinho dam collapse, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, is being coordinated.

On January 25, the dam collecting waste from an iron ore mine burst, releasing a stream of mud that flooded a vast area. Some 135 firemen are still searching for victims of the catastrophe. On this day, they have found human remains that could belong to one of 22 people who are still missing.

The disaster left 270 people presumed dead. There are more than 100 human remains waiting to be analyzed at the forensic science institute in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais. They were retrieved from the mudflow, which is up to 25 meters (82 feet) deep in some areas.

The remains of Eliane, the sister of engineer Josiane Melo, who works for Vale mining company, were found 68 days after the catastrophe. Eliane was five months pregnant and had just started working for Vale thanks to a recommendation from her sister.

Josiane Melo (Nádia Pontes)
Josiane Melo lost her sister Eliane in the dam disasterImage: Nádia Pontes

Josiane, who is also known as Josi, works in the dam's control center but was on holiday when the accident happened. Her brother who also works for Vale survived only because he was working in a different area that day on orders from his boss, who died in the disaster.

"Management knew of the risk, they should have made everyone leave," says a relative of one of the victims who wants to remain anonymous. "They knew that people would have had just a minute to flee to safety, and that this is impossible." 

Josi says she lost has 10 kilos (22 pounds) since the disaster. One-hundred-and-thirty-five of her friends died in the accident, including her entire work team. "I am fighting for justice," she says. "I want to see those responsible held accountable and Vale severely punished."

Video of the Brumadinho dam disaster
Surveillance video captured the moment the dam brokeImage: DW/N. Pontes

Compensation for victims

In April, judicial authorities struck a deal with Vale to expedite financial compensation payments to the victims. But many victims criticized the deal as they were not consulted beforehand.

"Brazil is the only country in the world where a company that perpetrates a crime is allowed to assess the damage caused, be present an the scene of the crime and determine the extent of compensation to be paid out," says lawyer Camila Oliveira of the Movimento Aguas e Serra de Casa Branca social movement. Oliveira is from a rural part of Brumadinho, near where the dam collapsed.

So far, 87 agreements have been reached in 173 compensation cases. They include a range of people who lost their homes or work equipment, or who suffered financial losses. Once an agreement has been officially confirmed, Vale pays out compensation within five days. Some payments exceed the equivalent of €250,000 ($279,000). One agreement entails monthly payments of roughly €250 to the 40,000 residents of Brumadinho for a year.

Brasilien | Brumadinho-Zeichen
Locals in Brumadinho are calling for justice for the victims of the disasterImage: Nádia Pontes

Ongoing investigation

Earlier this month, a court in the state of Minas Gerais convicted Vale for damages caused by the disaster, though exactly how much money the firm will have to pay is not yet clear. The dam break investigation's findings are being kept under wraps. Investigators have yet to publicly comment. The judiciary, meanwhile, has partially suspended Vale's license to operate — it is based on a review by German inspection company TÜV Süd, which had deemed the dam safe. Vale says it wants transparency and is cooperating with the investigation.

Josi, who has worked at Vale for 14 years, says she had always felt safe at the company. "I have lost everything; the company's maxim was 'Life comes first' but it appears it has chosen death instead," she says.