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Brazil's policies stuck in the mud

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Science  08 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6431, pp. 1046
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8293

The Brumadinho, Brazil, dam rupture, which caused the mudslide and rail bridge damage shown here, may have been preventable.

PHOTO: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In 2015, the rupture of a dam in Mariana, Brazil, caused a massive mudslide from iron ore mining to flow downriver, severely affecting more than 1 million people living downstream along the most important river basin for biodiversity conservation in southeastern Brazil (1). This tragedy was directly linked to negligence and monitoring failures by the Samarco mining company (co-owned by the Brazilian Vale and Australian BHP Billiton) (1). Less than 4 years later, a similar tragedy has happened once again: A large broken dam in Brumadinho generated a mudslide avalanche, severely flattening the landscape and leaving hundreds of people missing (2). This tragedy occurred despite warnings in Brazil, where some 23,000 mining dams are exposed, 45 of which are under threat of imminent collapse (3). Meanwhile, the government proposed a new plan to boost mining activities and fast-track poorly executed environmental licensing to rubber-stamp mineral exploitation (4). Even more alarming are the new Bolsonaro administration's plans to roll back environmental protection, starve federal science programs, and implement an aggressive pro-development agenda to facilitate agricultural, industrial, and mineral expansion (5).

Propelled by economic growth, emergent tropical economies such as Brazil, Guiana, and Congo have historically allowed extractive industries, including mining, to generate jobs and tax revenues at great risk to the environment and local communities (69). Governmental environmental agencies in developing countries, especially Brazil, are relaxing licensing laws and penalties (5, 10, 11). Instead, these governments should be striving to incorporate better environmental performance, strong regulatory measures, comprehensive impact assessments, and risk monitoring into all major government plans (1). Civil societies and policy-makers in development-ravenous emergent economies must rethink their strategies to reconcile the imperatives of development with environmental sustainability.

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