Samarco mine disaster in Brazil: the tragedy of the commons at work

| November 13, 2015

The recent collapse of a dam in Brazil killed 11 people with a dozen still missing. Max Thomas says disasters like this will keep occurring while the desire for more of everything as cheap as possible exists.

Severe drought has affected much of Brazil for some time. Water shortages have caused agricultural production losses and storage dams are at low levels. The prospect of electricity and water supply emergencies in a vast city like São Paulo is terrifying. However, as we expect El Niño to bring drought to southeastern Australia in the coming months, it is expected to cause severe flooding in the southeast of Brazil where the Samarco-owned Germano mine is located. The mining company Samarco is a joint venture between the Brazilian mining corporation Vale and Australia’s BHP Billiton.

With another tailings dam failure a distinct possibility, I would question the original design and construction of the facility. The dams appear to be situated adjacent to the River Gualaxo do Norte. The dams are reportedly constructed mainly of sand and washed tailings, not ideal anywhere and certainly not where very intense rainfall is a seasonal feature. There are suggestions that a dam was being ‘enlarged’ when the failure occurred, possibly by increasing the height of an embankment. Given the collapse of iron ore prices, is seems reasonable to ask if this was being done to allow increased production. With the prospect of heavy rainfall due to El Niño being discussed across the country and with the wet season approaching, who in their right mind would commence major dam works?

I understand the outrage, but anyone who has money in a superannuation fund or even a bank probably has to accept a share of the responsibility for pollution caused by resource extraction and other activities that support ‘advanced’ societies.

Here in Victoria, we are still paying for the damage done in the search for gold in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most people have no idea about that legacy and the sheer scale of it. A disaster similar to those that have occurred all over Africa happened not long ago on our doorstep in Papua. Cries of outrage at the behaviour of the company responsible did not prevent the recent collapse of the Germano mine tailings dam in Brazil.

Demand for cheap goods and high dividends are the main drivers that cause costs to be externalized to the environment. Who will be the first to forego their desire for more of everything as cheap as possible? This is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ at work. Nothing will change until the economic distortions and environmental degradation attributable to this insidious human dilemma are generally understood and accepted.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    November 17, 2015 at 11:17 pm


    Hoping to remain profitable by producing more at a lower price is what produced the dustbowl in the US mid-west in the 1930's when enormous amounts of precious topsoil was lost. Few could afford to buy, even at a lower price, so demand for the produce fell as it has in China. 'Twiggy' Forrest suggested reducing iron ore production in the way that the OPEC does with oil but he was shouted down.