Are environmental disasters only environmental?

di Enrico Fedi - 1 Aprile 2021

 from London, United Kingdom

 DOI : 10.48256/TDM2012_00182

A critical reflection on the social construction of the Mariana Dam burst: a major Brazilian environmental disaster

Setting the context

Environmental disasters have always marked human history. Floods, earthquakes and tsunamis are narrated as the expression of natural and obscure forces. The planet is a welcoming but ambiguous home. It provides the means to survive but can destroy them in a second, leaving societies in a persistent dichotomy of “human” and “nature”. These concepts have resonated and influenced our thinking for centuries (Cronon, 1996).

From the 70s, the constructionist branch of sociology has questioned this narrative, highlighting that environmental issues do not simply emerge. They become “problems” through discourses, narratives and social processes. Accordingly, intense academic activity has centred on the social construction of natural disasters. The objective disaster’s biological evidence is not questioned. However, the analysis goes more in-depth, discovering broader dynamics and identifying latent social problems.

Questioning the power relations, the different narratives, and experiences of other communities behind a disaster allow identifying issues related to social justice. Arguably, a broader understanding of natural disasters’ causes and experiences can enable societies to tackle future events better and build fairer communities.

Given these premises, the following section aims to show the social construction of what is known as the worst environmental disaster in Brazil.


The case

On the 5th of November 2015, the Fundão tailing dam burst in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and released up to 63 million cubic meters of toxic mining waste into the environment. The event, widely known under the name of the Mariana Dam Disaster, is considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.

The numbers are impressive in terms of impacted ecosystems, populations, and services. The images show a previously green fertile area, which is now all reddish, revealing destruction patterns and an absence of life. Everything is devastated.

But that’s not all. The mud wave reached Rio Doce, ending up in the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, an enormous area, including two States, has been indelibly affected by toxic tailings. The toxic mud has poisoned ecosystems and has blown away entire villages. As a result, several communities have been isolated, without access to clean water, and eventually displaced.

The unclear and controversial causes of this disaster are found in two seismic loads that happened that day in November.

An aerial view of the Doce river, with mud flowing into the Atlantic
Photograph: Fred Loureiro/AFP/Getty Image

The disaster’s social construction

The mainstream narrative portrays the disaster as a natural one. However, this article questions this discourse, showing the social construction of the catastrophe. There is nothing natural about it. For example, we shall consider the international market pressures that led to weakened dam safety regulations, the lack of adequate infrastructural investments, and the dividend policies of the dam shareholders. What about the community displacements and the fragmented governmental response? And why, despite the global outrage and multiple protests, are compensations still a fuzzy domain? All these questions aim to shed light on the power relations behind the disaster.

Indeed, there is no doubt over the objective physical damages which affected the rich ecosystems. But it is essential to highlight the social aspects of such disasters too. How is it possible to define a disaster as “natural” when tailings cause it, and there is nothing natural in them?

According to the Brazilian newspaper Folha, in 2017, only one-fifth of the 24092 dams came under supervision, 42 are unauthorised, and 570 have no responsible operator. Minas Gerais’s wealth mainly comes from mineral exports (31,81% of GDP). Nevertheless, vulnerable communities contributing to this wealth are exposed to risks and diseases daily. How is that possible? Numerous interesting reflections arise. As defined by Nixon (2013), issues such as slow violence should be put on the table, questioning what is meant for wealth, risk, and environmental justice.

Clash of narratives

Different levels should go under scrutiny in an in-depth disaster analysis. Accordingly, one can argue that one disaster does not only happen on a specific date, as its causes can be found in deeper structural problems.

The disaster started years before the Dam burst. It began with a specific narrative of development and a lack of consideration for local communities’ views. Following the Critical Development Studies approach -closely linked to political ecology- the disaster can be denaturalised and historicised.

Minas Gerais is a state rich in resources, and mineral export represents an essential share of its GDP. According to Hart (2001), the logic behind dams’ construction responds to the theory of “big D” development. Following this concept, development projects are uneven, contradictory and respond to neo-colonial necessities of resource extraction. The Mariana Dam is precisely the case in which the processes that led to its construction react to a specific development narrative ambiguously aimed at empowering communities and economies. Specifically, Urquiza et al. (2019) argue that the idea of development behind the dam construction in the area of Mariana clashes with one of the Krenaks, a local indigenous community. Thus, it is possible to notice patterns of voicelessness and the power relations behind determining who establishes what development is (Bernstein, 2010).

The expanded spatial and temporal dimension of a disaster

The unheard voices of workers in the dam also reflect the catastrophe. They were aware of their endangerment. According to the Guardian (2015), employees were willing to quit because they felt insecure. As several sources have argued (The Guardian, BBC and Folha, 2015-2018), reports informed the dam owners of the structure’s fragility. Nevertheless, specific external factors, such as financial market pressures, influenced risk perception, resulting in not considering the risks for vulnerable communities and the environment. Again, this allows the identification of patterns of slow violence (Nixon, 2013). Furthermore, the disaster did not only happen in the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. It happened at multiple levels, within national and federal assemblies’ ambiguous narratives, and inside the companies’ blaming strategies.

Hence, the Mariana Dam disaster did not happen following the seismic event on the 5th of November 2015. It has its roots in neoliberal development practices bearing neo-colonial ideas of supremacy and resource extraction. Claiming the Mariana Dam disaster due to seismic events is an attempt to naturalise dynamics and not go more into depth without looking to patterns related to resource distribution and, more broadly, environmental justice.

After years, the disaster is still happening. There is no clarity on compensations, and more importantly, the controversial power relations that led to the breach have not changed and are causing injustices. Today, dams are still collapsing, populations are still displacing, and feelings of hopelessness circulate inside the communities. Many topics come to the surface when a deeper analysis of the event is conducted. In fact, by deconstructing and questioning reality, it is possible to identify how “environmental” disasters are socially constructed.

A case out of many

The above-mentioned case is one of a broad range of examples. One can find other similar dynamics in the flooding following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the monsoons affecting vulnerable communities in South East Asia. Therefore, Mariana Dam makes a case for a broad range of events that need a deeper analysis to understand social justice, representation, and environmental racism behind “natural” disasters. Many times, other narratives clash with one another. The dominant will then be the result of specific power relations and ideas.


Bibliography (B-C)

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Bibliography (H-U)

Hart, G. (2001). Development critiques in the 1990s: Culs de sac and promising paths. Progress in Human Geography., 25(4), 649-658

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Paperback ed. 2013. Print.

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Samarco Report (2016), One year after the Fundão Dam failure,

Urquiza, A., & Rocha, A. (2019). O DESASTRE AMBIENTAL DE MARIANA E OS KRENAK DO RIO DOCE. Veredas Do Direito: Direito Ambiental E Desenvolvimento Sustentável, 16(35), 191-218



Autore dell’articolo*: Enrico Fedi, studente di Master in Environment and Development presso London School of Economics and Political Science e Dottore in Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche presso l’ Università degli studi di Trieste. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.


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