A few days before the tragedy of Brumadinho, Anna Magdalena was with Camila and Luiz Taliberti. She never would’ve thought that it was the last time she would see them. Three years after the dam failure, she reflects on those days and how she’s been dealing with her lost, feelings and thoughts about the event. She’s the author of “About mudflow, taxes, the myth of modernity and risk-certification”, an undergraduate thesis that also brings up themes like the mud devastation risks, economic interests and problems that comes with disasters like the one in Brumadinho. Here is the complete work for your reading.
About a Mudflow, Taxes, the Myth
of Modernity and Risk-Certification
On January 5th, 2019, I landed in São Paulo. I had traveled to Brazil with three intentions in mind: figuring out some personal ‘diaspora-child-issues’, spending time with my beloved family and, the firmest intention of all, celebrating my 20th birthday with the family of my godparents, the best friends of my father. On January 25th, 2019, my godparents’ children as well as their loved ones, were killed around noon by the mudflow released by the collapse of the reject dam B-I of the iron ore mine owned by the giant Vale S.A., in Brumadinho. They were on a family trip. The workers of the mine were dining in the cafeteria when they suddenly were buried under tons of mud. Like an enormous venomous serpent or a giant deathly train, the mud made its way through the valley, uprooting every tree on its way, crushing with ease all the houses, farms, people, and animals under its weight. It destroyed livelihoods, sanity, lives, futures. On February 2, 2019, the day of the said birthday, we gathered in a chapel for a first funeral ceremony. On March 17, 2021, I attended an online panel discussion of the Responsible Mining Foundation (RMF), based in Switzerland. During the one-and-a-half-hour-long panel, I had trouble focusing, trying to figure out – without being too cynical – how a foundation with such a name could exist.
For me, absurdity has penetrated many aspects of what happened in Brumadinho. It gets increasingly absurd the more one learns about the collapse. There is, for example, the existence of a previous and much too similar dam failure in 2015, in Mariana, also owned by Vale. There is also the fact that the dam in Brumadinho was already in bad shape long before the collapse and that Vale knew about the potential danger. In addition, Vale’s shares have – unsurprisingly – more than recovered since January 2019. How did we get here? What connections, practices and dynamics has Vale been involved in? What led to the collapse? What kind of system enabled Vale to turn a blind eye to a defective dam the company knew could collapse?
The following essay will explore some relevant aspects of a system made up of complex supply chains and interconnections between states, subsidiaries and different actors across the globe which led to, and frame, the collapse of the dam. This will be done in four steps. The first, Ground 0: Neoliberalism, focuses on the neoliberal context in which Vale has been operating. Because of the importance of the context for the understanding of the relevance of the subsequent parts, this step is also the longest one. The three following sections, focusing on different parts of the world, help to illustrate how the global neoliberal system plays out in more concrete and localized ways. The second part, Switzerland: Capital Transfers and Trade Misinvoicing, focuses more specifically on the company’s ties to Switzerland which have been crucial for the company’s capital accumulation. Thirdly, in Brazil: Modernization and Ecological Racism, we include some thoughts on the little attention given by the Brazilian state to the violence and impact of the mining industry on the country. Finally, the fourth step, Germany: Competition and Risk-Certification, reveals how far the German certification firm TÜV-SÜD was willing to go to stay in business with Vale. Closing these few pages, we will offer some Final Thoughts by shortly pondering over the effect of such destructive global networks on the very intimate process of grieving.
Ground 0: Neoliberalism
To understand the context in which Vale has been operating, we must simultaneously take into account the development of the firm itself and consider the transformations of the international and global economic system over the last decades. Indeed, the result of these changes have led to the constellation of which Vale is part of and which Public Eye calls “die Interdependenz Grossunternehmen – Staat” (2013: 20). We argue that this is the mark of a very distinct economic (and thus also political) system: neoliberalism.
On the global level it is often characterized by the “opening of capital accounts, the raising of international liquidity and the deregulation of the financial market, which has led to greater freedom for international capital flows” (Morlin 2017: 4). On the national level, the neoliberal relationship between the state apparatus and private companies has led to a specific type of interweaving where the former becomes a vehicle for the interests of the latter. This has gradually emptied out the state from its (at least supposed and/or expected) democratic nature. Indeed, whereas liberal doctrine has mostly promoted the reduction of the size of state structures, neoliberalism has taken another approach by including the state infrastructure in its own calculations and interests.
In a globalized world system marked by neoliberalism, states are transformed in contact with the most influential companies of a certain region, country, and/or continent. States are reshaped to fit and become a vehicle for the interests of these companies. When this happens, there are some general patterns that can be observed. On the social and cultural front, the state takes on a minimalist and shallow presence. Regarding economic matters, it assumes a strict role devoted to the protection and extension of the space for free-market competition and to the increase in the deregulation of the labor market. Finally, it also embraces a ubiquitous presence when it comes to the carceral system, the police and army, and more generally to security discourses and practices. This constellation enables the political and economic elites to reaffirm and protect their position “just when the state claims and proves to be incapable of stemming the fragmentation of wage labor and of bridling the hypermobility of capital that converge to destabilize the entire social edifice” (Wacquant 2008: 56).
South America was already dealing with the implementation of neoliberal policies since the 1970s (notably in Chile after Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973), mostly due to the US’ mingling with and intervention in national politics (Berberoglu in Berberoglu 2020: 1), long before they imposed themselves on a global level in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Novaes (2016: 14-15), Brazil already had a predisposition for neoliberal political and economic policies. Indeed, the country has been inherently marked by and constructed upon the legacy of the slave trade which formally ended in 1888; of the establishment of the first Republic in 1889 led by oligarchs, and of two dictatorships (1930-1945 and 1964-1985) which all produced violent inequalities, repressive practices by the economic and political elites and undemocratic state forms on their own. In the 1990s, Brazil followed the ‘example’ of other South American countries which
[…] extensively opened their capital accounts, promoted privatizations, denationalized their infrastructure sectors and reformed their social security systems. Privatization programs, such as the ones in Brazil and Argentina, lead to “an unprecedented denationalization in the global economy” (MEDEIROS, 2003, p. 3). (Morlin 2017: 5)
In the case of Vale S.A., the company has never been a ‘national’ one in the first place. In 1942, it “‘nasceu voltada para fora’” (AIAAV 2021: 11). It did not wait for the neoliberal wave to open itself to the global market since it had been orienting its production according to the global demands already during WWII. The company has always been in an ambiguous relation with the Brazilian state: it has kept a close relation with it – it was a nationalized company at its beginnings and later, the government maintained some, although modest, control over it through golden shares (Moraes Vodopives 2020: 72-73 and AIAAV 2021: 13). During the following decades, Vale would exponentially grow and expand its activities in different countries all over the world and hold a monopoly position in Brazil. Its privatization and entry in the financial market in 1997 was controversial due to the ensuing restructuring of the company which included many layoffs, a stark limitation of worker rights and a decrease of salaries. A decade later, around 107 legal battles were still being fought by the workers in this regard (AIAAV 2021: 12).
Vale consolidated its position by following its doctrine of exponential growth and scale and by being at the right place at the right moment. When, at the end of the 1990s, China underwent its growth spurt and greatly influenced the global demand for the products of the mining industry, Vale knew what to do (Moraes Vodopives 2020: 69-70). Armed with a strategic plan, opportunistic practices and an aggressive vision of success, Vale has, since 2002, pursued relentlessly a position as global player (ibid.: 73). In 2017 Vale announced a change in the composition of its shareholders: in 2021, 55% of the shares of one of the biggest companies active in Brazil, exploiting and profiting from its soil and workforce, are in the hands of non-Brazilian and private entities such as Black Rock, Standard Life Aberdeen and Capital Research Global Investors (AIAAV 2021: 13).
Due to the deregulation and hyper-mobility of financial capital and the erosion of state structures through the expansion of neoliberalism, major companies have been able to leverage their accumulated wealth and power. Under the threat of delocalization, states are put under pressure to offer a ‘favorable’ environment to them. One of the strategies of globalized companies to reduce tax-related expenses has been to profit from the tax competition between states that look to attract foreign investment.
Switzerland: Capital Transfers and Trade Misinvoicing
According to Morlin, Switzerland is the most important tax haven on the globe: the sum of the assets located in the country in 2013 “totaled 1.8 trillion euros (almost a third of offshore fortunes)” (2017: 10). For some years, Public Eye has been keeping an eye on Vale’s tax practices and presence in Switzerland. In a report, the organization revealed that since settling in St. Prex (Canton of Vaud) in 2006, the company benefitted of an exception of taxes for a decade on the cantonal level and of an 80% tax reduction on the national level – which then was reduced by 20% after some criticism was raised about the matter (2013: 3).
Vale International, the name of the subsidiary in the canton of Vaud, serves the primary purpose of shifting profit away from Vale S.A. in order to declare only a fraction of the income to the Brazilian state (Public Eye 2013: 4): “[d]urch diese Zahlungen wird der Gewinn am Hauptsitz oder von operativen Tochtergesellschaften geschmälert und in niedrig oder nicht besteuerte Unternehmensteile, z.B. jene in St. Prex, verschoben” (ibid.). The transfer of capital is done through ‘transit trade’ (Morlin 2017: 13) between the subsidiary and the holding company, also known as ‘self-intermediation’ (ibid.: 34).
In practice, this is reflected by the fact that Switzerland buys more than 80% of the iron ore exported out of Brazil (ibid.). However, the massive amounts of goods sold by Vale S.A. to Vale International at a low price never physically land on Swiss soil. Rather, Vale International then sells the goods again, this time at a higher price to, for example, China which has been Vale’s biggest recipient of iron ore for years now (Public Eye 2013: 9 and Morlin 2017: 34). The money flows between Brazil, Switzerland, and China whilst the goods travel directly from Brazil to China. In the process of ‘self-intermediation’, the strategy of ‘trade misinvoicing’ can be implemented: import and export prices can be over- or under-invoiced, meaning that they can be manipulated to “transfer financial assets between different countries without declaring them to the authorities” (Morlin 2017: 11).
Switzerland is an important piece in Vale’s strategy, but the country’s role exceeds the realm of Vale and of the mining industry. Whilst we will not be diving further into this matter, we can however add that research seems to corroborate the hypothesis that the average price of goods exported to Switzerland is lower than exported to other countries and that the same goods are then re-exported for higher prices by Switzerland than by other countries (ibid.: 12).
The transfer of capital and the over- or under-invoicing of prices for the purpose of avoiding or evading taxes has a direct impact on the state the taxes are supposed to flow back to. In the case of Brazil, not only does it weaken the state socio-economically by further limiting whatever is left of the Welfare state and of public policies increasing inequality (ibid.: 17, 42), it is also a political threat to its sovereignty since it impedes the state’s attempts to reduce inequality through tax collection and undermines the legal sovereignty of the country (ibid.: 16).
Brazil: Modernization and Ecological Racism
How do the elaborations of the sections above relate to the collapse of the dam in Brumadinho? The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) is an organization that has been very vocal about the event and has been involved in the legal procedures that have followed it. In one of its reports, the following is clearly stated: “[d]ue to budget cuts, the Brazilian government greatly reduced the size of authorities responsible for inspecting dams. Mine operators are now responsible for safety inspections and report findings to the responsible authorities” (2019: 3). Of course, this essay is in no way able to prove a causal link between the reduced budget of the Brazilian state, the collapse of the dam and Vale’s (or any other major Brazilian company’s) systemic tax evasions. Rather, being rooted in the larger neoliberal environment, these factors appear to be revolving around and feeding off each other. Indeed, what can be said is that, whilst we cannot affirm a causal link between the mining’s industry tax evasions and devastating effects on the environment and society, we can at least state that the fiscal evasions, power, and relative impunity this industry profits from fuels a kind of omerta on the national level on the massive issues this industry brings with it. In fact, very little attention has been brought to the topic: it has been mostly ignored by decision makers (Morlin 2017: 42). More generally, Taddei (in García-Acosta 2020) argues that ‘disasters’, not only those caused by the mining industry but also events such as droughts, are thought to be inexistant in Brazil – at least, they remain underdiscussed by academia and the media.
One can argue that the disregard for these events is due to the country’s elite genuine disinterest in the well-being of their fellow citizens and of their natural environment; this may be partly true, however it is not the whole story. Indeed, in the rare cases when ‘disasters’ make their way into public discussions, they are framed as only happening in the Northern region of Brazil. In fact, “[d]roughts are also accused of being responsible for the ‘backwardness’ of the semiarid Northeast region” (Taddei in García-Acosta 2020: 49). Therefore, the narrative about ‘disasters’ has continuously been framed by the projects of modernization that have deeply marked the country’s history (ibid.).
The responsibility for the destruction of the environment and human life is thus denied, reformulated and/or rationalized as a collateral but necessary damage for the never-ending pursuit of ‘modernization’, accumulation of wealth, ‘civilization’ and redressing of those that do not fit or laud its ‘advancement’. In the continuity of the modernization project, Brazil’s Northeast, home to a majority of Afro-Brazilians, since the coastal region was a central part of the triangular slave trade during centuries, is framed as needing redressing in comparison to the rich and ‘modern’ Southeast. In 2005, a drought hit different regions of the country at the same time. Taddei recalls how “‘[t]his is a situation we only saw in the Northeast, on TV’, was a phrase frequently repeated in São Paulo, with a tone that suggested that the drought was being accused of geopolitical insolence” (in García-Acosta 2020: 52).
The author also considers that the events happening in the southern region of Brazil (such as those in Mariana and Brumadinho linked to the exploitation of natural resources but also the consequences of the climate crisis increasingly hitting regions previously spared by its direct effects) may change the disregard for the urgency of considering environmental and social issues taking place in the Northern region (ibid.: 49). This may be the case. However, even when they take place in the Southeast like both the Mariana and Brumadinho cases have, these ‘tragedies’ participate in the ecological racism at play in the entire country. Not only are the dams storing dangerous waste mostly located in territories where predominantly Black and Indigenous Brazilian citizens and/or of citizens of lower socioeconomic classes live, but these dams are also systematically of lesser quality and more unsafe than those in regions with other demographics (AIAAV 2021: 32-33).
Germany: Competition and Risk-Certification
Encouraged by the inability and unwillingness of the Brazilian state to deal with the bad conditions of its massive infrastructures, companies employ certification firms supposed to ensure their safety and quality. In a globalized fashion, these firms can be chosen in the highly competitive certifier market all over the world.
Vale chose the German TÜV-SÜD. According to the public prosecutor in Brazil, Vale had threatened to fire and hire another firm if the safety tests TÜV-SÜD was doing produced results that went against the best interests of the company (ECCHR et al. 2019: 3). Encouraged by the competitiveness on the market, TÜV-SÜD faced a deadly, irresponsible, and cynical conflict of interests. Fearing to lose a valuable client and a considerable cheque it entered the deal. Already in March 2018, TÜV-SÜD’s subsidiary in Brazil noticed that there were serious issues regarding the condition of the dam B-I.
Instead of refusing to issue a stability declaration, the responsible employees looked for new calculation methods to achieve the desired result. They also consulted TÜV SÜD’s head office in Munich. In the end – against its better judgement – TÜV SÜD did not prevent its subsidiary from certifying the dam’s stability. As a result, neither the mine operators nor the authorities initiated effective stabilization or evacuation measures. (ibid.: 2)
In September 2018, TÜV-SÜD, most likely fearing to lose a valuable client and a considerable check, therefore confirmed the safety of the dam in Brumadinho, just four months before its collapse (ibid.: 1).
The way to the involvement and the involvement itself of the German firm in the business of the Brazilian company is a typical practice in a (neoliberal) globalized market: between both, a ‘supply chain’ is created (Momsen and Willumat 2019: 323-324). In a similar way as the ‘self-intermediation’ between subsidiaries (and holding companies), certain supply chains can serve the purpose of lowering expenses. Infrastructure can therefore be operated with minimal costs because there are no authorities – such as the Brazilian state, deprived of some budget because of the large-scaled tax evasion in the country and corruption – verifying if there is a sufficient budget for the upkeep.
The responsibility for the security of the infrastructures, once de-nationalized and subjected to the diktat of competition and the financial market, is moved around, bouncing back between enterprises and third parties. Responsibility is made abstract, enters a grey zone, and can easily be denied or transferred. In such a system, the connections between the different actors become so opaque that a crime is often discursively transformed into a ‘tragedy’ or ‘disaster’ by mainstream reporting and discourse. In the RMF report for example, Brumadinho is turned into a ‘tailing disaster’ (2020: 7) – completely depoliticizing the irresponsibility and interests of Vale’s leaders (Taddei in García-Acosta 2020: 47), of TÜV-SÜD’s experts and of the hide-outs Switzerland provides for subsidiaries of deadly companies.
Vale’s CEO was charged with homicide in 2020, but there have been no convictions (yet) (Venditti 2021). The trial against TÜV-SÜD will probably start on September 28th of this year (2021), in Munich (Hegmann 2021). Where do we go from there? What can we expect from these procedures? Do I expect something from this trial? While I believe that many of the other victims and survivors of Vale’s practices would give a lot to be heard or at least represented in court, and, whilst I do think that a fair trial is a relevant and crucial part of the actions that can and must be undergone after all these deaths, I cannot shake off the feeling of emptiness when I think about these legal procedures.
What I presented in the few pages above may be one of the reasons for this feeling. Vale’s actions are to be understood in a wider neoliberal network and system that has been dominating major dynamics on this globe for a few decades. The collapse of the dam is rooted in the interactions between at least three places: Brazil, the birthplace of Vale S.A. and the soil on which the company grew its international connections by exploiting the country’s territorial, socioeconomic and racial inequalities; Switzerland, providing, through its tax policies, a way in which Vale International could increase Vale S.A.’s profits and could keep to itself what it owed to the people and land it profits from; and Germany, where interests were pursued and decisions were taken that would release millions of cubic meters of mud thousand kilometers away. There are individuals responsible for killing a part of my extended family which must face a form of trial. But the events were also the product of a system which is so much bigger than the actions of a few people.
How do we come to terms with that? Is there a response or a reaction, a sort of trial for the consequences of the neoliberal ecosystem we all evolve in? This essay will not change anything, but it is a response. Writing appears to me as being one of the only adequate answers I can provide for myself. Through writing I can remember, spell out and materialize facts and feelings, before they are forgotten, wiped away or drowned amongst other things that life, on the individual and collective level, brings with it. In this way, I try to contribute in a microscopic way to something that transcends me and that I cannot grasp fully. Sometimes I feel like, because my godparents’ children, their family and all the other individuals have been killed for profit, the grieving is made so much more difficult. But when everything else fails, when human justice (as I know it) is not enough anymore, there is still writing and the healing process of putting words on what is so infinitely overwhelming.
AIAAV (Articulação Internacional dos Atingidos e Atingidas pela Vale) (2021): Relatório de Insustentabilidade 2021.
Berberoglu, Berch (2021): Introduction. Crisis of Neoliberal Globalization and the Rise of Authoritarianism in the Early 21st Century. In: Berberoglu, Berch (ed.): The Global Rise of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century. Crisis of Neoliberal Globalization and the Nationalist Response. Abingdon and New York: Routledge. 1-12.
ECCHR (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights) (et al.) (2019): The Safety Business: TÜV SÜD’s role in the Brumadinho Dam Failure in Brazil.
Hegmann, Gerhard (2021): TÜV Süd rechnet mit weiteren Dammbruch-Klagen (June 20, 2021). Welt.
Momsen, Carsten and Marco Willumat (2019): Strafrechtliche Verantwortlichkeit von Unternehmen für Menschenrechtsverletzungen – Zurechnung von Verantwortung entlang von Wertschöpfungsketten. KriPoZ. 6: 323-337.
Moraes Vodopives, Hildete de (2020): Mining going global in the 2000s: Vale leaps forward. Entreprises et histoire. 99(2): 66-78.
Morlin, Guilherme Spinato (2017): Resource Extraction in Brazil – Trade Misinvoicing in the Mining Sector. Instituto Justiça Fiscal (IJF) and Red Latinoamericana sobre Dívida, Desenvolvimento e Direitos (LATINDADD).
Novaes, Dennis (2016): Funk Proibidão: Música e Poder nas Favelas Cariocas. [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Rio de Janeiro: Department of Social Anthropology, Institute of Social Sciences, National Museum of Brazil of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
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Taddei, Renzo (2020): The field of Anthropology of Disasters in Brazil. Challenges and perspectives. In: García-Acosta, Virginia (ed.): The Anthropology of Disasters in Latin America. State of the Art. London: Routledge. 45-62.
RMI (Responsible Mining Foundation) (2020): RMI Report 2020.
Venditti, Bruno (2021): Two years after Brumadinho, still no convictions (January 21, 2021). MINING.COM.
< https://www.mining.com/two-years-after-brumadinho-still-no-convictions/>. [23.06.21].
Wacquant, Loïc (2008): The Militarization of Urban Marginality: Lessons from the Brazilian Metropolis. International Political Sociology. 2(1): 56-74.
 Own translation: “was born facing outwards”.