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Flood victims deserve swift justice after years of suffering

The mud that spilled from the reject storage dam killed 19 people and spread 50 million cubic metres of toxic material down 650 kilometres of river all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, destroying entire towns and many more livelihoods.

In the days after the disaster, the company and its joint-venture partner, Vale, a Brazilian mining giant, were required to create a foundation as part of a redress scheme.

Its name, Renova, means to renew. A promise thousands of people have clung to.

But hundreds are still waiting for their replacement homes to be finished. Others are waiting for them to be started. Many are waiting for compensation money that never came. Some hope for the day they will be able to stop receiving emergency financial assistance from Renova and rely on their river-based income again.

Many are waiting for virtual consultations now the coronavirus pandemic has limited the face-to-face assistance they can receive from the foundation.

Flood lines: the senior school at Paracatu de Baixo, downstream from the BHP-owned Samarco Fundao Dam, was engulfed in mud up to the second storey.

Flood lines: the senior school at Paracatu de Baixo, downstream from the BHP-owned Samarco Fundao Dam, was engulfed in mud up to the second storey.Credit:Lucas Godoy

Some 200,000 of them have waited long enough and are now suing the Anglo-British mining giant where one of its parent companies, BHP Plc, is headquartered, in England.

They accuse BHP of using delaying tactics and expensive legal resources in the already notoriously slow and over-complicated Brazilian court system to postpone settlement of myriad claims. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Samarco-linked legal processes under way in Brazil, some in state, others in federal courts. Some brought by people, others by public prosecutors working on behalf of citizens, others by governments, charities, businesses. Some allege the company ignored its own board’s advice and pressed on with increased production targets at the risk of a disaster.

BHP told the Manchester court on the first day of hearing that the case was an “attempt to export and duplicate the work being done in Brazil”, that it is “pointless and wasteful”.

Its lawyer, Charles Gibson, told the court Brazil had a sophisticated and fair justice system that provided access to timely justice. “One has to be quite cautious before casting stones at other systems of justice,” he said, according to Reuters.

But the people living on the mud-stained ground, in the rural landholdings that no longer produce an income and by a river that no longer has a soul, as put by indigenous leaders, do not believe that.

The November 2015 accident has been dubbed Brazil's worst environmental disaster.

The November 2015 accident has been dubbed Brazil’s worst environmental disaster.Credit:Steve Yolen

With the £5 billion ($8.9 billion) class action in England, they and their lawyers hope to cut a straight path through the maze of Brazilian lawsuits and the bureaucracy created in the foundation’s wake. They hope to hold BHP accountable in a jurisdiction where the law, they believe, can provide clearer and faster resolutions. A place where they say BHP can be held accountable to the developed-world governance standards to which the company aspires, not Latin America’s.

But the lawsuit first needs the court to determine it can hear the case in Britain. Preliminary hearings began on Wednesday, London time. They are to last eight days with the judgment expect around September. That’s not too much longer to wait.

Lia Timson is deputy foreign editor.

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