Swedish colonialist neutrality

Engraved and hand coloured map of Scandinavia from the early days of the Swedish Empire in the 17th century. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

by Roger Blomqvist

Old colonial relations cast a shadow over today’s environmental politics. But when accusations of historical abuse pop up, some nations manage to fly below the radar in spite of extensive colonial involvement. Due to their so-called higher standards of behaviour they may even gain advantages in the global competition for control of natural resources. ‘Neutral’ Sweden is one of those nations.

In this essay, I weave together depictions of Swedish colonial history with recent political events. I thus hope to shed light on the way that professed concerns with sustainability in Sweden and Northern Europe interact with postcolonial power structures today. Much of the historical research that I build on is derived from two recent books which have contributed to a rethinking of Swedish and Scandinavian involvement in colonialism: the research anthology Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (2013), edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin, and Våra kolonier, de vi hade och de som aldrig blev av (‘Our colonies, the ones we had and those never realized’; my translation), by Herman Lindqvist.

Double standards in Northern European environmental politics

An odd thing happened to the mainstream image of Northern European environmental politics following the wildfires in the Amazon rain forest last year. In August 2019 the G7, or Group of Seven, countries offered Brazil a $20 million relief effort—allegedly to reduce the risk of climate change by counteracting extensive forest fires in the Amazon. The offer was however turned down by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who confronted the G7 leaders and said that they were treating Brazil ‘like a colony’. Bolsonaro eventually had second thoughts and accepted the aid, but the controversy nonetheless brought the question of colonial guilt and contemporary postcolonial power relations to wider public attention.

What makes Bolsonaro’s scoffing particularly interesting is that he directed it toward nations that tend to be depicted as humanitarian and climate heroes: Germany and Norway. Those two countries had withdrawn financial support from the Amazon Fund in order to pressure Bolsonaro’s administration to take action against the Amazon fires. While influential social scientists have celebrated Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Germany as ‘clean and green’ utopias, Brazil’s right-wing president unexpectedly—and even against his own anti-environmentalist politics—opens the door to an environmental justice critique of Northern European countries. He accurately ascribes double standards to Norway and Germany, Norway as a whaling country and Germany as needing reforestation. At the same time, his own administration engages in even more absurd forms of anti-environmentalism—as when the director-general of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research Ricardo Galvão was fired and labelled a ‘traitor’ after the Institute issued a report in 2019 on the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon.

The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed.

Activists and NGOs used the attention which both the Amazon fires and Bolsonaro attracted to point out that the Brazilian president, although he himself wants to practice environmental destruction at home, does sort of hit the nail on the head when he criticizes Northern European countries for not wanting to change anything in their own backyards. As a Norwegian news site writes, ‘Norway’s rain forest preservation programs have not been without controversy, with critics suggesting Norway has opted to finance climate measures abroad instead of cutting more carbon emissions at home by curbing oil exploration and production.’ The clean and green façade of Northern Europe begins to crack as its lack of climate action at home is revealed. Also, the postcolonial interests of rich countries are still evident: the $20 million relief effort may contain a hidden agenda and climate care can serve as a perfect alibi for retaining economic influence—provided that the commitment to sustainability and fair distribution of welfare and resources is made credible. In 2018, the Brazilian vice president, general Hamilton Mourão, expressed suspicions about such professed commitments: ‘The rich world uses the climate debate to continue to dominate.’

There is a historical continuity to point to here: the poor have suffered the most from environmental impact and unjust conditions caused by the wealthy. And scientists project that this tendency will escalate with global warming, as a future scenario with extreme heat threatens the global South in particular, with consequences like decreased labour productivity, lower crop yields, and impoverished human health. And the ‘clean and green utopias’ of Northern Europe have a part in this unequal system. Equitable distribution of environmental load and economic benefits is not a core shareholder value in the global economy.

Sweden is one of the countries who are keen on business in Brazil. The Swedish Minister for rural affairs, Sven-Erik Bucht, went there in 2017 with major Swedish forestry actors and researchers, establishing relations for Swedish businesses under the guise of sustainability. The Amazon is a target for Swedish exports of technology and forestry know-how. Since Swedish forestry often includes criticized clearcutting, Greenpeace Sweden took the opportunity when the fires in the Amazon brought attention to deforestation to point to Swedish double standards when the country pressures Brazil to preserve the rain forest all the while replacing forests with tree plantations at a remarkable speed in Sweden. Since the same companies that are trying to gain access to Brazilian land are causing environmental harm back in Sweden, Greenpeace’s reaction against Swedish double standards could be taken even further. These double standards reside not only in the tendency to require better environmental protection in Brazil than at home, but also in how Swedish forestry actors would happily contribute to deforestation in the Amazon.

We can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

So what is going on with all this? How can widely celebrated ‘clean and green utopias’ engage in such dubious practices? By looking at the role of Scandinavia, and in particular Sweden, in the colonial era, we can in fact identify a continuity here; a repeated pattern of what we might call Swedish colonialist neutrality.

Swedish colonialism in thegreat olden days and today

Sweden’s ‘free lane’ into business profit in formerly colonized areas depends on the common perception that Scandinavian colonial violations were marginal, if they occurred at all. But however negligible the Swedish exercise of power has been, it is paradoxically depicted with great glamour. A telling example is the Swedish national anthem from 1844, including the patriotic stanza which begins ‘Du tronar på minnen från fornstora dar, då ärat ditt namn flög över jorden(You are enthroned on memories of great olden days, when honoured your name flew across the Earth’).

Many Swedes probably tune into the song with a sense of pride—most commonly at sport events—and a vague notion of its references to the Swedish Era of Great Power in the years 1611-1718. Sweden was then a colonizer, although admittedly on a smaller scale than Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France—and allegedly of a benevolent type.

But the Swedish Crown and power sphere were in fact heavily involved in the European colonization project with all its atrocities. This is convincingly shown in the anthology on Scandinavian colonialism from 2013 edited by Naum and Nordin. In more than a dozen close-up descriptions of colonial encounters, a continuous whitewash of Scandinavian history is revealed. The anthology displays Swedish involvement on several continents: from expansion up North to the New World, Africa, and Asia. In 2015 this book was succeeded by Våra kolonier in which popular historian Herman Lindqvist uncovers a strong Swedish ambition to develop a colonial role. Conclusions in the two books align: dreams of gold, ivory, sugar, spices, and tobacco triggered the Swedish search for and foundation of colonies from the early 17th century in North America, West Africa, and later the West Indies. Ships were built to export iron, wood, and tar, financing increasing imports.

Swedish iron was a key ingredient—mainly for arms production—in the infamous triangular trade. Dutch-born entrepreneur Louis De Geer was an important figure in this as the Swedish Crown granted him a monopoly on copper and iron trade (he later got the epithet ‘the father of Swedish industry’). A curious fact is that iron in his forges was cast into bars that suited the backs of donkeys (!) used for transportation in Africa, as an adaptation to the slave economy: bent bars were replaced by slaves. With Royal Swedish support he also established a trading post in Cabo Corso at the African Gold Coast. 1,500-2,000 slaves were shipped by Swedes over the Atlantic. Ethics were no obstacle. The European colonial attitude depended on racial supremacy. A Swedish pastor doubted openly that African slaves were human beings. A Lutheran bishop in Copenhagen proclaimed that slavery was a natural state for heathens and punishment for their sins.

The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources.

Sweden has successfully avoided scrutiny partly because of a widespread understanding that it never got any major colonies. The word ‘colonizer’ is seldom used in Swedish sources, historical or popular. But Sweden did have several colonies for quite some time. Baltic provinces were annexed in wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, staying under Swedish control for 150 years. Regions in Germany and Poland were occupied. Swedish trade relied on indentured peasants in those areas. If the brutality of Swedes is absent in Swedish sources, it is all the more present in German, Polish, and Baltic ones.

An imagined peaceful meeting between Swedish settlers and Native Americans in New Sweden with warring Native American tribes in the background. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

The Swedish leadership also aimed for America. A detailed colonial trade plan was formed and New Sweden was established in Delaware in 1638, challenging Spanish control. The Swedish governor got royal instructions to treat the ‘wild people’ well to gain their confidence. The Crown was hoping that ‘higher standards’ would convince them to withdraw from competing traders. And the Swedes managed to cooperate with the Lenape and Susquehannock nations for some time.

In New Sweden, forest Finns were forced (by updated legal restrictions in Sweden) to cultivate the colony with their ‘slash and burn’ practise. They were roughly treated and historians have even used the term ‘penal colony’. The use of indentured labour was similar to the infamous use of the same system in British plantations in the West Indies.

There is evidence that the Swedish governor actually wished to eliminate the Indigenous population in the barren colony. He applied for sufficient numbers of soldiers to do so. The proposal was however ignored by the Crown, probably because of the urgent need for war resources in Poland and elsewhere.

The Swedish Royal council also planned other settlements in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia in the 17th and the 18th century. But plans constantly failed, until Sweden at last obtained Saint Barthélemy from France in 1784. The Caribbean island became an important trade hub with slave trade as the main objective. This trade relied on Swedish ‘neutrality’ in European wars.

It is revealing as well that leading Swedish merchants sold iron (for weaponry) to rebellious forces in the American War of Independence.

Photo from Swedish Saint Bartholémy, circa 1865. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

Back in Europe, the discovery of silver in Lapland in the 1630s triggered the Swedish Crown’s expansion north into Sápmi. In centuries to come, resources like fur, game, and minerals were extracted—and the Indigenous Sámi were ‘civilized’. The colonial attitude was obvious: Chancellor Oxenstierna referred to the northern parts of Sweden as ‘our India’. The ultimate purpose was to displace the Sámi people and deny them their independence and land rights.

The Swedish presence through settlers, bailiffs, entrepreneurs, and clerics in Lapland has not been seen as colonial domination by historians until the last few decades. Instead, terms like agricultural expansion, Forest Sámi assimilation, domestication, or civilizing have been used. But the compulsory boarding school attendance (with Christianity lessons) for Sámi children cut off from their families is not essentially different from the Belgian education of natives in the Congo or North American examples such as the Brafferton Indian School in Virginia.

Mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements.

Furthermore, the colonial legacy in Sápmi is still evident today. There are long-standing conflicts about land use in much of Sápmi, often in connection to the environmental impact of extractive industrial projects. For example, mining interests have repeatedly collided with reindeer herding and settlements. At the present time mining entrepreneurs, including several multinational companies, are searching for rare earth metals and iron, exploitation that is marketed by companies (and the government) as environmentally and socially beneficial because Swedish environmental protection and working conditions are superior to Chinese ones. In all this, the Sámi appear to have no say.

One land use conflict is currently tried in the Swedish Supreme Court. The dispute concerns who should administrate hunting and fishing rights on the grazing lands of the reindeer herding community of Girjas: the Sámi community or the Swedish government. Girjas has won in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely serve as a precedent in similar cases, meaning that it can have far-reaching effects on how Indigenous land use and land rights are interpreted by Swedish courts in the future.

In the court proceedings, surprisingly blunt statements have been made by representatives of Swedish authorities about the Sámi as ‘inferior’, a characterization which echoes the old colonial depiction of Indigenous peoples. Throughout history many Sámi people have been hurt, humiliated, and oppressed by Swedish authorities. When the well-known Sámi public figure Johannes Marainen was recently interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, he concluded that ‘We Swedes are quick to engage when people in other countries are oppressed, but we have not really cleaned up in front of our own door.’ This is not the least apparent in the Swedish government’s continual restriction of who has the legal right to call themselves Sámi on ‘Swedish’ territory: reindeer owners of ethnic Sámi origin. All other Sámi people—like fishing and hunting Sámi—are by Swedish definitions not Sámi! The self-imposed governmental right to define, acculturate, and segregate the Sámi people is largely unbroken since colonial times.

The vast underground iron ore mine in Kiruna/Giron. Photo:
Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA 4.0

Scandinavian peculiarities within the European colonial project

In a discussion of colonialism in Scandinavia, it should be noted that Denmark maintained even more widespread presence in colonies around the world than Sweden did, in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies. Also, Denmark tried to control the North, with its whaling and fisheries, in a ‘colonial union’ with Iceland, North Atlantic Islands, and Greenland. The exploitation of Greenland has been similar to Swedish expansion in Sápmi. Greenland still remains Danish, with a restricted autonomy. American president Donald Trump recently made a surprising announcement of the intention to buy Greenland, demonstrating how strategically and economically attractive land areas still are seen as available for purchase. But the neocolonial bid was declined by the Danish prime minister. Following the old colonial pattern, the islanders themselves were not consulted.

Heavy violence was not a part of Scandinavian colonialism, at least not to the same extent as in British, Spanish, French and later German rule. But one of the most long-lived slave revolts in the Caribbean actually occurred in the Danish colony of St. John in 1733. For six months a group of slaves battled and killed Europeans and slaves of other origin, until French soldiers violently ended the revolt. Colonial competitors would often unite in this manner against enemies who threatened the colonialist structure.

Another difference between Scandinavian oversees colonies and those of other European nations was that the numbers of Scandinavian settlers in the colonies were on the whole few. However, this doesn’t mean—so Naum and Nordin write in the introduction to their anthology—that the colonies were negligible in geo-economic terms. The colonial purposes were similar to those of other European powers:

Scandinavia’s colonial expansion was motivated by and involved particular economic thinking, mercantilist drive for profit (to sell dear and buy cheap) and balancing national economies. Furthermore, it made use of the principles of natural law, which stipulated universal rights to trade, travel, explore and settle in foreign lands and justified violent actions if these rights were denied.

Naum and Nordin show how the quest for economic growth attracted Dutch capital and workforce to Scandinavia, bringing industrialization as well as capitalism. Books were written about the usefulness of trade and the need for founding colonies. Sugar refineries were built in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Swedish herring was traded as food for slaves. Merchants offered shipping of slaves to French colonies. Expeditions to America were made, even secretly in war time.

Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war.

The Swedish Crown, merchants, and political leadership shared a Eurocentric worldview and supported the right to conquer, dominate, and civilize in the name of superiority and technological advancement. But there was also a specifically Swedish twist to colonial ideology: Swedish neutrality turned out to be a strategic position and to offer competitive advantages in relation to colonial superpowers at war. When Britain and the Netherlands were fighting, Sweden exported cannons to the Dutch and iron for weaponry to the Brits. France could, when fighting Britain, rely on Swedish shipping of smuggled slaves, weaponry and other goods in the Caribbean. Also, hundreds of US trade ships managed to avoid customs by sailing under Swedish flag—and thus Sweden could maintain the lucrative Saint Barthélemy trade traffic.

There seems to be a line of continuity in Swedish ‘neutrality’ goodwill from colonial times up to this day. When defending delicate business agreements, Swedish rulers are well aware of the strong link between ‘nonprofit’ trademarks and the ability to secure market shares.

The self-image of Sweden as a peace-loving world conscience of human rights rhymes badly with Swedish arms exports. The last few decades there has been a public debate on exports to dictatorships and regimes at war—though it is at least not, unlike in the ‘great olden days,’ a question of illegal smuggling. On the contrary, the companies and the government take care to emphasise the morally responsible nature of the Swedish arms industry, using foreign policy watchwords like ‘equality,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ and ‘press freedom’. Trade is promoted by professing high standards of human rights and progressiveness.

But whatever ideals are invoked, Swedish exports of military equipment are frequent to countries where essential freedoms and rights are absent. The Swedish company SAAB recently delivered airborne systems of radar surveillance to United Arab Emirates. The suppression of human rights in the Arabic autocracy was never questioned. Amnesty noted that SAAB does little or nothing to check if delivered equipment is used in war crimes or oppression.

The ongoing SAAB delivery of 36 fighter aircraft to Brazil causes no troubling debate in Sweden. But when exports to warring countries are highlighted the government is forced to act; recently exports to Turkey were stopped because of the war in northern Syria (the contents of the exports were secret, however—protected by law).

Continuing on or contesting colonial relations

As suggested earlier, ‘climate action’ is becoming another useful sales argument for rich countries like Sweden. But when it comes to climate offsetting, rich countries gladly export it. Swedish funds support tree plantations in Kachung in Uganda in a project which has meant that local farmers have been forced to move, thus losing their small income. The project has even been considered a form of ‘landgrabbing.’ Now the farmers cannot afford to send their children to school; some even starve. Ugandan David Kureeba, chief at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, called this ‘climate colonialism’ in a major Swedish newspaper. The colonial pattern is there, in compensations for emissions of carbon dioxide as well as in exports of garbage to Africa. In a similar case, it has been revealed that Swedish government agencies have bought carbon offsets in Brazil from a multinational corporation that has now been sued for poisoning the land of the Guarani people. The offsets were bought to compensate for air travel by employees at agencies like the Government Offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Another example of Swedish ‘high standards’ being more like double standards can be found in the story of the Ethiopian/Swedish cardiologist Fikru Maru. In 2013 he was imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he was detained for five years without a trial, falsely accused of bribery. His daughter—a Swedish resident—was informed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry that his prolonged detention time could not be questioned, since Swedish detention restrictions are lacking too (UN, the European Council, and several NGOs have criticized this). It would therefore be inconsistent to put pressure on Ethiopia. But alas, there were other reasons to be silent: Sweden was depending on Ethiopian support for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council and did not want to annoy Ethiopian colleagues by criticizing unlawfulness. This is revealed in a Fikru Maru biography which came out in October 2019.

As we have seen, there is reason to conclude that Swedish ‘higher standards’ to at least some extent have been tactical more than factual—a strategic colonialist neutrality. Some may even call Sweden’s world conscience rhetoric hypocritical. In any case, regardless of how one interprets Swedish neutrality, it is a fact that Sweden fully participated in the colonial expansion and supported it; colonies added to the power and glory of those ‘great olden days’ that are commemorated in the national anthem.

There has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this.

What differentiates Sweden from, for example, Britain and France is that there has been no decolonizing moment during which Sweden has had to rethink its legacy. But some are trying to change this. Swedish artist Carl Johan De Geer, a descendant of the industrialist Louis De Geer mentioned earlier, designed an art exhibition in 2019 (in Norrköping Art Museum) to discuss colonial guilt. De Geer wants to process the past in a way Swedish schools and art never have. For him, the triggering factor was his own encounter a few years before with a descendant of a slave sent to Brazil by his forefather (!).

The Church of Sweden also calls for a rewriting of history: ‘Sweden must deal with its historical debt to the Sámi,’ Archbishop Antje Jackelén officially declared in 2016, aware of the Swedish lack of international credibility due to the state’s and the Church’s treatment of the Sámi. As part of the Church’s self-examination several books have been published, including one with scientific white papers. The Church supports the Sámi Council’s request for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to the one in Canada, but the Swedish national parliament has as of yet failed to act on this.

Other states have at least partly begun to deal with their guilt. Germany is perhaps the best role model. Its World War II atrocities including the Holocaust have caused a processing in literature, art, education, and public debate. This has been termed ‘Vergangenheitsbemächtigung’, i. e. the processing of the past, and may be the key to Germany’s remarkable ethical recovery in the eyes of the world. But at the same time, the immense German colonial abuse in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has largely remained unexposed. Germany’s unwillingness to owe up to its colonial past is evident in the strained relations between Germany and Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa) as the countries are five years into unsuccessful negotiations of the terms of an official apology and compensation from Germany for the genocide of 1904-1908.

It is disheartening (although perhaps not surprising) that there is a similar absence of processing of historical crimes in current superpowers. In Russia, Stalin is idolized to this day by one-eyed history writing—spelled out even by president Putin, the new ‘tsar’—despite all Soviet atrocities. Notable literature by Nobel Prize winners Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Alexievich uncovers a broader picture, but has not had an impact on the history that is told by the state. In China, the Communist Party nurtures a leadership cult around Mao Zedong as part of the government’s effort to legitimize continued power concentration and repression. And the one-sided description of the conquest of America, which glosses over genocide and traumatization of Indigenous peoples as well as the atrocities of the slave economy, plays a role in continued racism in the U.S. in the 21st century.

Any benefits that can come from the infrastructures and technologies of modern, globalized society will be effectively undermined by continued abuse and uneven distribution of wealth. In a world of increasing inequalities, where material wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and environmental load is placed disproportionately on the poorest, there is certainly a need for both processing of colonial guilt and a decolonization debate.

If history is unprocessed and allowed to repeat itself, ‘clean and green utopias’ like Sweden can continue to use their good reputation and depict themselves as ‘neutral’ actors to get strategic advantages in global trade. A scrutiny of historical roles in the colonial era shows how the same old patterns are at work. Although political control over vast colonies is history, economic structures ‘invisibly’ serve the same function (and in a way that is often cheaper than managing empires). Today formerly colonized regions largely depend on foreign company investments to develop a role in global trade. Differentiation of production is driven by market laws; cheap labour and access to raw materials are essential to make post-colonial wheels spin. Environmental harm is part of the equation. And in this postcolonial world economy, Sweden uses the same strategies to promote its economic interests as during the era of European colonial expansion.

Former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce.

The possibilities of climate action

So where does all this leave us? Apart from scrutinizing their colonial history and identifying repetitions of historical patterns in the present, how might Scandinavian countries approach decolonization? This is a complex question which I can barely begin to answer here. I will say this though: we need to question the idea of economic growth as an ultimate bringer of welfare for all. In a world experiencing the devastating effects of climate change, this idea is less plausible than ever: as excessive consumption by a world minority threatens all of humanity’s existence, there can evidently be no equality unless wealth is distributed differently across the globe. This means that former colonial powers have a responsibility both for their material impact on the planet and the ideologies they enforce. Sweden—with its ‘higher standards’—is one of those countries. To advocate a greenwashed variety of ‘business as usual’ is to preserve existing power relations, instead of questioning vested interests. Selling Swedish fighter jets to Brazil and oppressing Sámi people at home while telling Bolsonaro to respect Indigenous rights—cashing in and washing our hands—is certainly not good enough.

But things can change. Slave trade and slavery were abolished as a result of widespread resistance and popular movements. It took centuries, but it happened.

We are now witnessing increasing pressure to change economic and political goals in an effort to counteract climate change. This may be the beginning of another dramatic shift of paradigms—if double standards hiding and justifying short-term profit interests do not stand in the way.

NOTE: Shortly after the publication of this text, the Swedish Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled in favour of Girjas reindeer herding community against the state. The court’s decision was unanimous.

Many thanks to Rut Elliot Blomqvist for eminent editing and language revision.

Roger Blomqvist is a retired current affairs reporter/researcher and producer of “life philosophy” programs at Swedish public radio (Sveriges Radio), presently a university student of history and culture.

What’s really threatened by the mining dam break in Brazil?

O rompimento da barragem de rejeitos da mineradora Samarco, cujos donos são a Vale a anglo-australiana BHP, causou uma enxurrada de lama que inundou várias casas no distrito de Bento Rodrigues, em Mariana, na Região Central de Minas Gerais. Inicialmente, a mineradora havia afirmado que duas barragens haviam se rompido, de Fundão e Santarém. No dia 16 de novembro, a Samarco confirmou que apenas a barragem de Fundão se rompeu. Local: Distrito de Bento Rodrigues, Município de Mariana, Minas Gerais. Foto: Rogério Alves/TV Senado
Damage following the dam break in Bento Rodrigues, Mariana, Minas Gerais. Photo: Rogério Alves/TV Senado.

by  Lise Sedrez, Robert Emmett, Stephanie Hood and Claire Lagier

The mine tailing dam break in Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 5 November 2015 has been described by the Brazilian government as the country’s worst environmental catastrophe. It killed at least 17 people and released a wave of toxic plume which devastated the Rio Doce river basin. The dam rupture, which happened directly after the 13th November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, was only superficially covered in mainstream international news outlets, and has mostly disappeared from media newsfeeds, although its far-reaching ecological and political consequences will be felt for decades. Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier sat down with Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich on 19 November and recorded the following conversation, which was originally published as a series of three posts on Seeing the Woods. On 2 March 2016 the Brazilian federal government and the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo reached a deal with Samarco Mineração (the joint venture between Vale S.A and BHP Billiton which owns the dam) and the latter agreed to pay 4.4 billion reais – 1.5 billion US$ – towards a 20 billion US$ fund which will be administered by a company-managed private foundation with the official aim of restoring the Rio Doce ecosystem and supporting survivors and the local economy. While Samarco, whose activities had been suspended, is already planning its business comeback, Brazilian social movements and the Federal Public Ministry alike are denouncing an agreement that is seen as prioritizing private interests. This interview gives some important insights on the agreement, which is being finalized more than three months after the deadly catastrophe, and long after the toxic mud wave reached the Atlantic ocean.

Robert Emmett: Those of us who don’t read Portuguese have to rely on what the media in English is saying. I’m curious about the language used to describe the event. I like to think “Let’s start with the facts,” but of course that’s exactly what is up to debate. I read that some seismic activity was recorded?

Lise Sedrez: I just don’t buy that one. If we go for the facts, let’s say that Brazil is on a very old tectonic platform. We used to say “There [are] no natural disasters in Brazil,” which of course is not true. There have been very few cyclones. We had one in Santa Catarina [in 2004] and it was like “Oh my God, that never happens.” The last time something like this happened was about 170 to 200 years earlier. But there are no earthquakes. What they registered was seismic activity between 1 and 2 on the Richter scale. We had larger seismic activity in Minas Gerais in the past, with no effects whatsoever. And there is a strong possibility that this recorded seismic activity happened as a result of the breaking of the dam.

RE: So what happened?

LS: Actually, we don’t know what exactly happened to provoke the dam breaking; this is still under investigation, and that has to do with the political context. This company, Samarco, is a subsidiary of Vale do Rio Doce, or Vale for short, and the Australian mining company BHP Billiton. Vale has a particular story that makes things so complicated. It was a state-owned company until the late 1990s, and it had several monopolies guaranteed for mining—Carajas, everything in the Amazon that you can think about, was a monopoly of Vale do Rio Doce. Other companies, especially during the military period, had to negotiate mining rights with Vale. With the consensus of Washinghton and the neoliberal project carried out by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the late 1990s, Vale was privatized. There are still many questions about that process of privatization. Basically, it was sold for a fraction of its value. And that has also been part of the debate. If it was a public company, would that have happened? Would it be an appropriate penalization to nationalize the company again? There are people talking about that. On top of that, as a private company, Vale is a major employer in the region, so everybody is very concerned about the interruption of its activities because that means leaving everybody, and I mean everybody, without a job, since all the other activities in the region, like fishing, have been affected by the spill. And Vale has contributed to the political campaigns of every single politician in Minas Gerais. And both of the big parties—PSDB, which is a center-right party, and PT, which I would say is a center-left party—both parties received large amounts. So the entire debate of how we call this particular event is also tainted by this, in small symbolic things but also in more dramatic moments. For instance, the announcement of the disaster made by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais was made from the headquarters of the Samarco company. And he’s a PT governor, a center-left politician. The previous governor, who was governor for eight years, and therefore responsible for the fiscalization (the fining process) and maintenance, Aecio Neves, is also the former Brazilian presidential candidate of the opposition, the center-right. He was also one of the first ones to say [after the dam break] “this is not a time to try to place blame,” because it’s not very convenient for him. So everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.

Everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.

RE: How are nonprofits responding?

LS: For instance, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has work in that area with the recovery of the degraded springs, water springs, which was funded by the Vale do Rio Doce, the company. So on the one hand he’s saying “look, the company has to make good to this work, and take responsibility,” on the other hand he says “well I know they are going to do that because they are a good, responsible company.” The president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has just issued a decree allowing workers to use their mandatory retirement savings, which normally you can only take when you’re actually retired or in very special circumstances, such as natural disasters. Now there is a special decree that allows you to take that money if you were a victim of a natural disaster. She amended the decree to include, for the purpose of taking away their money, breaking of dams as a natural disaster.

RE: The decree allows employees to take their retirement savings early?

LS: Yes. So the responsibility to deal with the immediate costs [of lost income] is put on the backs of the workers. It’s even more complicated than that. Legislation for environmental damage is about 15 years old in terms of setting penalties and fines. Samarco received several fines, each of them the maximum, but the total is still really low, because each of the fines has a legal ceiling. Overall, only in the state of Minas Gerais, there are over 200 unpaid environmental fines because companies appeal once, twice, and again, and another, and another, and can go on for ten or 15 years without paying.

RE: What would a meaningful fine be for a large transnational mining venture, in proportion to their daily profits?

LS: In this case the total fine that was given Samarco I’ve read is something around seven percent of its net profit. But I would be careful about that estimate for several reasons. First, the spill paralyzes all work in the area, which means a loss of profit for the company, which is large. Second, the fine does not exempt the company from cleaning up, so the fine comes on top of the entire cost of recovery for the area. However, this is also complicated because the public ministry has just signed an agreement for one billion reais for the clean-up. That may still be below what we need, and may be putting a ceiling on the liability of the company.

Satellite images of Bento Rodrigues before and after the disaster. Source: NASA.

CL: And there are heavy metals in the floodwater, so there are potentially much longer-lasting costs.

LS: Well, this is also a bit complicated. It’s not clear as there are several small cities affected, and one large one, Governador Valadares, in the way of the river. Some of the mayors made their own water testing. One of the cities found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.” However, the mayor of Governador Valadares showed a number of tests saying there [are] no heavy metals. Everybody is protesting that they don’t trust this kind of test. I’ve joined a group of over 2,000 volunteers including 700 scientists who are proposing to do an independent analysis of the environmental and social impact. It’s the first time that anything like this has happened in Brazil—not only the disaster but this kind of volunteer organization. The group has over 2,000 people right now, everybody from undergrad students to PhDs, and everybody wants to help, but it’s going to need lots of organization.

One of the cities [affected by the dam break] found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.”

CL: Are they organizing with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brazil, which is gaining momentum?

LS: Yes, they are organizing with that, they are making connections, although the experience of the MAB is mostly with water dams (not mining dams) and people who are being . . .

CL: . . . displaced.

LS: Yes. We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows. We are talking about a mud that is full of iron and probably arsenic and silica, and some aluminum. It’s heavy and it’s impermeable, so it passes through the river, creating a layer at the bottom where nothing can grow. On top of that all the fish are dying, since they have no oxygen. And all the animals—dogs, cattle caught by the water—are dying and decomposing. So it alters the water even if you have dilution from the river tributaries, for instance. Some cities are trying to capture the water from the tributaries, hoping to bypass the river and find a new source of drinking water. We’re talking about a city like Governador Valadares, with close to 300,000 people. Drawing from tributaries upstream means less water diluting the river. Even before the disaster the springs were compromised. If there are heavy metals in the heavy layers at the bottom, people are talking about the possibility of some of these metals getting to the phreatic water sheet. So as you see it’s a disaster of incredible magnitude, not only in terms of what happens to the ecosystem, but also in terms of political, economic, and social impacts—it goes in all directions. And it is a big question mark. We have no experience with that. And the fact that it happened just before the Paris attacks made it disappear from the public eye.

We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows.

RE: This relative lack of exposure to the dam break is definitely something I hope we can talk about. It seems like there are several durations involved and also questions of how the media has covered or not covered the spill. Some of the coverage has focused on the company and the economic impact of closing down operations and has pointed out that the price for iron has been relatively low in the last ten years, because of the decreased demand for export. There has been a shift in the conversation from describing the event in concrete, biological terms to an abstract conversation about the commodity exports, iron pellets as raw material for industrialization. There is the time frame of the cost of the good that was extracted, and there is the other time frame, which is the life cycle of aquatic life [that] has been impacted for a generation, particularly larger forms of aquatic life, like fish, which won’t recover for a full lifetime.

LS: Some species that were endemic to the area are lost, gone forever.

RE: There is a sense that there is a longer emergency of climate change and then these punctuating events, sometimes described in the sense of industrial operations. When dams or pipelines fail, the consequences are so out of proportion, in the sense that we think a dam may last another five or ten years and then the life of a stream is wiped out suddenly and permanently, with species gone. Where does this incongruity show up in media?

LS: It also is true that it showed how we have changed the way we read. I mean, ninja media and the alternative media have been very important in the process because the big newspapers are putting t the disaster on the second or third page. They found out that they can’t ignore it completely because alternative media, and Facebook and ninja are keeping it alive.

CL: I also felt this very strongly. On my Facebook feed for example, Brasil de Fato, which is a main Socialist newspaper in Brazil, and Nova Democracia, which is another alternative newspaper, are covering this a lot, posting pictures and also getting people to tell their stories on social media. People are interacting with each other outside the mainstream media, taking things into their own hands.

LS: It is also true that environmental issues had become in recent years a theme for the left. However, this disaster, in the way that Vale ed may be connected to the current administration or of PT, brought it back as an issue for the right as well. I’ve heard about the disaster from Mariana from my friends on the left as well as my friends on the right. It’s one unifying point of protest. How they are going to read the disaster is very different, but it’s there, and it’s very strong. I found it interesting because the newspapers did try to kind of [suggest that] Paris is more important and this alternative media kept [the disaster] alive. I would like to go back, however, to the point about extension. One thing that was very interesting is to see some of the disciplinary boundaries and the different views of the disaster by scientists. Thus  you have engineers and geographers who are just saying “okay, calm down, the river is coming back,” while biologists and ecologists are in panic.

RE: I’ve heard that in Appalachia, where different scientists have totally different discourses around streams and tailing ponds in post-mining landscapes. I’m curious to hear how disciplinary differences in perception are working out in this case?

Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on.

LS: I find that fascinating as well. We all joined this group of 2,000 volunteers, probably 400 or 500 PhDs from all areas of Brazilian academia, who all want to help and we all want the company to pay. The geologists and geographers are going to have this idea that the river is coming back. Biologists are furious: it’s over, it’s dead. Among all this mess, I’ve read about this very beautiful initiative by the fishermen, the Noah’s Arc. It was gorgeous but absolutely useless.

RE: Taking the fish from the spill area and transporting them to small aquariums?

LS: And to lakes, which have their own ecosystems and work at the optimal level of biomass. If you’re bringing an endemic species, although you can save some genetic material, the impact is mostly negative. What was important was for the communities of fishermen to feel they were doing something. It was much more a political, social activity. What we should be looking at is a new river, probably in the next 30 years. Water is going to find other areas to go. Even for geologists, even if you don’t consider the life of the river, we are talking about a game changer. Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on. The Doce was the river through which so much of this material would pass. It was also the area where traditional populations from the colonial times would negotiate the space and dispute with the settlers. Right now you still have some of the communities like Krenak that depend on the river, and they are desperate. It’s a river that is really, really important for the communities. A famous biologist, Andre Ruschi, has a famous preservation area of  Colibri in the Atlantic Forest right by the margins of the Rio Doce. We are all expecting the mud to pass through and destroy it. Once arriving to the sea it’s not going to disperse easily so the marine reservation, the Parque Nacional dos Abrolhos, could also reach this platform. This particular disaster is going to pass through the heart of some of the remains of the Atlantic Forest. What are we going to do?

Contaminated Rio Doce water flowing into the Atlantic. Source: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

RE: Well, one thing you’re doing is going back to Brazil to work with SOLCHA, Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental, and I imagine this is going to be front and center for environmental historians in Latin America. Are there plans to have the 2,000 volunteers involved in citizen science, collecting data?

LS: Right. What I’m planning to do is to get volunteers from my University and organize a history of the area and of the river, and find out more about other examples of similar disasters. What we can offer to this group is the historical perspective.

RE: In May 2016 there is an event planned with Wisconsin’s Center for Culture, History and Environment focusing on the Mississippi River and the following year on the Danube. It’s a transatlantic environmental history workshop, histories of continents and nations through rivers. It’s similar to the project that you are describing and I think of these things as networked together. And the connections that scholars make who are looking at rivers and in the way you tell stories through the trajectory of a river.

[With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics.

LS: I think you are totally right. [With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics. Any step is very sensitive. Mining in the area may have slowed down, but this is an ongoing disaster. There are three dams in that particular mining area. The others are both below [safety] levels but if these two break, especially the largest one one . . . what we are seeing right now will look like a pre-disaster. They are going to have to consider the possibility of the breaking of these two other dams against the profit that they can make with a low price product. As for now, Samarco is placing itself a victim of the disaster.

CL: Mainstream media in Brazil is very much backing that image.

LS: Yes. I mean, this entire thing about a small seismic event being considered responsible for breaking the dam . . .

RE: The Brazilian media is coming to the company’s defense? Is that because the company has an economic monopoly?

LS: I think you are right in a sense, because of the power of the company in this area. I think it’s also because our media is [politically] right of center and the Vale until now was hailed as the big success of privatization. They would love to see this (privatization) happening to Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. But to see Vale lose value and be challenged as a company, as this model company, would also jeopardize the entire idea that private ownership is better than public ownership.

RE: In other words, you’re saying there is a deep public interest perceived in this single privatized mining company . . .

LS: Oh yeah.

RE: It’s hard for people to articulate the difference between what the interests of that company and the interests of the region. You see this in Appalachia for a long time, where coal companies would say “what is good for coal is good for Appalachia.” And it became difficult for anyone to actually have any space in which to critique that because to critique means you’re potentially also taking a job from neighbors or your relatives.

LS: Just yesterday there was a rally of the residents of Mariana, with the worker unions asking for the company to remain in Mariana. They had t-shirts written with slogans that said “Yes; No to Unemployment.”

RE: This is the miner’s union?

LS: Yes. But you have to understand that it’s not only the miners, it’s not only the direct workers, but everything in the region that is connected to the Vale Company. It’s like FIAT for Turin: I mean if you don’t work for FIAT, you work for the company that sells FIAT cars, or you work for the company that sells tires for FIAT cars. And I repeat: even environmental organizations. We don’t have the tradition like in the United States and in Europe of nonprofits supported only by the membership fees. I know very few nonprofits in Brazil that don’t depend on private company or government funding. Most cities like Mariana or the nearby cities can pay their employees just because of the fees and taxes paid by Vale. If Vale were to disappear from Mariana that would mean a loss of municipal taxes that would make it impossible to pay the public employees.

RE: Is Vale perceived as a company that takes risks or as a company that doesn’t value worker’s safety?

LS: I couldn’t say . . . no more or less than any other company in Brazil. People cut corners in Brazil. What is concerning, however, is that the mining code of Brazil is very strict. It’s just not enforced. Now there is discussion of a new mining code, and some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly.

RE: So the disaster is an excuse for pushing through the process?

LS: Measures that would never be accepted in normal times. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today. The government is the problem in this narrative. Environmental regulations are the problem. There are other issues like for instance there are hundreds of unpaid fines in the environmental agency in Minas Gerais, still to be processed, and there’s no way the state government can process all of them. So they’re going now to give a huge amnesty to the companies, hoping to clear up the bureaucratic mess.

Some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today.

RE: Is this because the agency is understaffed or underfunded?

LS: They are understaffed, underfunded and in my opinion it’s a tactic from the companies to let the number of fines accumulate and then see what happens. Many of these fines are going to be amnestied because they are very close to the statute of limitation. This entire thing is a perfect storm. It shows us not only the connections between city and the countryside, but [also] the connections between environmental protection, ecosystems, and policies, national and local, the dispute between right and left in Brazil, the bureaucratic nightmare in terms of legislation and the huge lobbies for the relaxing of environmental laws. At the same time, everybody is an environmentalist in Brazil, everybody loves nature, or so they say. And these big lobby groups argue that the best way to help nature is by taking away environmental regulations. If you talk to each and every one of these guys arguing about the mining code, they’re going to say, “No, we are going to save nature.” Besides, we must remember that the lobby against environmental regulations is one of the strongest in Brazil because it’s so connected to ownership of land, and land disputes are the most common causes for which people are killed in the countryside of Brazil. Many environmentalists were killed because they were challenging the use of land. An event like this raises all these questions about media and politics without even having to go for to conspiracy theories. Why do you need conspiracy theories when reality is so much more!

RE: You described this river as at the heart of a certain national imaginary. Is it fair to say that what people have in mind when they’re saying “nature” has to do with a sense that Brazil has a particular natural heritage, biodiversity? So what you would be saving if you’re saving nature is something that’s only here, only in Brazil?

LS: It’s more complicated, as we are talking about a 800-kilometer river where there is everything from a city the size of Governador Valadares to groups of indigenous populations to areas that are natural reserves, and therefore, no large human population. It’s also one of the regions to have witnessed anthropogenic action for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’re not talking about a pristine area. Some of the images that have more impact in the media are people, fire-fighters for instance, saving a dog or a cow. It is a region where people and nonhumans have interacted in many ways for so long that is part of the identity. And that’s what I found so interesting about the fishermen trying to save the fish. They do see this connection. They are not saving the fish because they want the fish to live forever in the aquarium, but because it’s their livelihood. And I think the Krenak had it really well. They don’t differentiate so much between the river, the land, the fish. If the river is dead, we’re all dead. I know it sounds like some fake Chief Seattle story, but that’s what we are saying right now. It’s less one pristine area untouched for whatever species, it’s more this long built-up predatory relationship, if you want, but also a transformative relationship between nature and society that was going on along this river. And now it’s really threatened.

Credit for article’s featured image: Waldemir Barreto/Agência Senado.

Special thanks to Livia Jacobina for her transcription work.

Lise Sedrez is an environmental historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and is currently completing a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Robert Emmett is a cultural studies and ecocriticism scholar and coordinator of academic programs at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Stephanie Hood is an editor at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Claire Lagier is a PhD candidate at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich and an editor at Uneven Earth.