Human rights violations by mining company Vale: where is the line for Dutch financial institutions?

07 September 2022

This is Natália Oliveira, she lost her sister Lecilda Oliveira in the deadly dam breach in the Brumadinho region in Brazil on January 25, 2019. In the documentary Histórias Atingidas (only in Portuguese - AEDAS - 2022) she talks about the disaster and the negligent role played by the Brazilian mining company Vale.

The dam breach was not just an accident. It could have been prevented and the number of victims could have been much lower if Vale had taken the right steps. The consequences are immense, the dam breach caused a tsunami of mud, about 11.7 million cubic meters. 271 people were buried under the mud and did not survive. In addition, the dam breach caused unprecedented damage to the environment. Damage that is still not fully repaired. Below we can read more about this disaster and what role Dutch insurers and pension funds have in this.

The day of the disaster

Natália Oliveira (50) is a teacher at the municipal school in Brumadinho, the city where she was born and raised. On January 25, 2019, she is at home when she receives a text message about the dam breach. She immediately calls her sister, who works for Vale, but can't get hold of her. When she then walks into the street, it seems as if she has ended up in a war zone.

Natália's sister had been with Vale for nearly 30 years and was on the company's property when the dam collapsed. Her sister was in Vale's cafeteria at the time of the disaster. Vale's sirens, which are supposed to warn of danger, did not go off. As a result, the death toll from the disaster has become much higher; nearly 1 percent of the city's inhabitants. There were so many funerals on those days that the same family sometimes had several vigils in one day.

The long wait

The mining company was slow to take action after the disaster. Natália says it took three years for her sister's body to be found. "For the family, after the reunion with Lecilda's body, it is as if she has come home. She is no longer buried there in the mud, so when I walk through the area now, I can look at the area with a softer look, because it was very painful for us as a family to look at the disaster area and wonder where she was."

Natália believes that in the past there was a romantic image of mining. But after the disaster, she started to look at it in a different way. Now she knows that life at an ore dam can be life-threatening. She wonders, "which [dam] will be the next one to break?". The dam in the Brumadinho region is not the only dam of Vale where there are major risks. There are still 83 that have been assessed by the Brazilian government as very vulnerable.

Women fight for justice

According to Natália, it is striking how many women are at the forefront of organizations in the affected communities. "The first association of affected families in Brumadinho was founded by ten women and one man." With the disaster, she learned to take a stand: "I am not only Natália Oliveira, I am also a relative of a fatal victim, a representative of the Association of Relatives of Victims and Affected People from the Collapse of Brumadinho Dam (Avabrum), and all this makes for a much greater responsibility."

Insurers and pension funds

In 2021, we investigated which insurers from the Fair Insurance Guide and in 2022 which pension funds from the Fair Pension Guide invest in Vale. This showed that the insurers Allianz, Aegon, NN Group and VGZ, and the pension funds ABP, BpfBOUW and Pensioenfonds Detailhandel invest in Vale. As shareholders in the company, they can, among other things, co-determine the course of the company through shareholder meetings and votes. They can also enter into discussions with the company in order to force improvements (engagement) or exclude the company from investments if it does not implement improvements.

For example, Vale has already been excluded from investments by BPL Pensioen en Pensioenfonds Vervoer because of violations of the UN Global Compact principles. Pensioenfonds Detailhandel, BpfBOUW and ABP also indicate that they expect companies in which they invest to comply with the UN Global Compact principles. They do still, however invest in Vale. ABP has already called Vale a "laggard" in 2020, but is still investing nearly $180 million in the company in 2022, while the desired improvements have not been made.


This article is by the Dutch Fair Finance Guide -  Eerlijke Geldwijzer - and can be accessed in Dutch here.