The Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado visited the Serra Pelada gold mine in 1986, but the scenes he captured look like something from before the industrial revolution. Thousands of mud-slathered men hoist heavy sacks on their shoulders, climbing crude wooden ladders up the earthen walls of a vast open pit. In the jargon of the mine, which was located in the north of Brazil, each of these men was an “ant”; each dangerous ladder, a “goodbye mommy.”
The “ants” earned just twenty cents per trip, but sometimes they were allowed to keep a sack for themselves—a kind of lottery meant to sustain their hopes of striking it rich. They very rarely did, of course; the lion’s share of the profits went to the mines' so-called “owners,” who initially staked their claim to plots through brute force. The operation used copious amounts of mercury to separate gold from earth, permanently contaminating the region’s soil.
Fast forward to 2019. Life remains cheap for miners in Brazil; the environment remains expendable. Last month, a dam collapsed in the southeastern municipality of Brumadinho, unleashing untold tons of muddy waste from an iron-ore mine. More than three hundred people are feared dead, and the mine’s owner, the Brazilian mining giant Vale, allegedly knew the dam was at risk of rupture.
Another dam, co-owned by the same company, had already collapsed in nearby Mariana in 2015. In that incident, thought to be the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history, 55 billion liters of iron-ore tailings poured into Rio Doce—the Sweet River—eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean, four hundred miles away. The reddish-brown flow killed ten tons of fish and rendered vast stretches of soil infertile.
These disasters offer a strange curve to Salgado’s own career. Long before he became one of the world’s most celebrated photographers—subject of a 2014 documentary by Wim Wenders—Salgado grew up in the town of Aimorés, on Rio Doce’s banks. He came to photojournalism after training as a Marxist economist, a perspective that is evident in his depictions of human precarity. Ironically, though, he ended up partnering with the company that took over Serra Pelada—Vale, which would later devastate his hometown’s river.
In recent years, Vale has sponsored a major photographic project by Salgado, called “Genesis,” as well as an environmental nonprofit he founded. After the Mariana dam collapse, Salgado vowed to aid in the clean-up, and his nonprofit, Instituto Terro, itself devoted to mitigating deforestation, planted trees in the area. But he also came to Vale's defense, arguing that, while it should pay for the damage it caused, “we need these companies in the society we live in.” Thus far, he has remained silent about last month’s catastrophe in Brumadinho.