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© Erika Torres, 2019

Tragedies arising from mining operations in the state of Minas Gerais are not outliers, but clear indicators of an on-going threat, suggests musician, critic and professor José Miguel Wisnik in an interview.

In Maquinação do mundo (“Machination of the World”), published in 2018, José Miguel Wisnik sheds light on the relationship Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987), one of Brazil's greatest poets, had with the mining industry. In an interview, the author talks about this recent publication, reflects on the destruction of nature from environmental crimes perpetrated in the towns of Brumadinho and Mariana, and states that “we must continue to stand by Humboldt's thinking and everything that relates to this unveiling of human potential”. 

In the 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt postulated ideas that still underlie current environmentalist thinking, notably pointing out, for example, that the colonial system had dire effects on local populations and the environment. We are currently experiencing a backlash against the ideas advocated by the naturalist some 200 years ago. How did we reach this level of barbarity?
There's a Faustian impulse in modern times, symbolized by man driven by an ambition to dominate the planet, an impulse that has gained unprecedented voracity within the capitalist economy, which is a looting economy. We are now witnessing the clearly devastating impact of the unfettered exploitation of natural resources, which in Brazil's case has been personified by the repercussions from mining in the state of Minas Gerais. In the 20th century, a type of mining took root in Brazil that, in addition to extracting ore, creates precarious and fragile tailings dams, which pose a permanent threat to the surrounding population and wildlife.

For most Brazilians, the catastrophe in Mariana in November 2015—widely regarded as the worst social and environmental disaster in Brazil's history—in which the district of Bento Rodrigues, along with everything that stretches from the Rio Doce to the sea, was flooded with mine tailings stored by Samarco [a Vale and BHP Billiton joint venture], seemed to be an isolated accident. However, the environmental crime of Brumadinho in January 2019, caused by a dam owned by the very same mining company, Vale, which left hundreds dead and gravely impacted the Rio Paraopeba, showed us that these incidents are not outliers, but clear evidence of a mounted threat.
Among those harmed by the contamination of the Rio Paraopeba with mining sludge are the indigenous people of the Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe tribe. Humboldt had a progressive view, within the context of the nineteenth century, of indigenous peoples, arguing that they were neither “barbarians” nor “savages”. Why does Brazil treat its indigenous population so poorly?
It is important to reflect on this at a time when Brazil's current federal government is challenging the existence of the country's indigenous reserves, when there is a whole series of forces wanting to dismantle the arrangements put in place to protect these peoples. In my view, this is a brutish and petty vision, typical of devastating modernization, unable to consider the multitude of possibilities for life on our planet. What's happening in Brazil is the result of abject blindness. We must continue to stand by Humboldt's thinking and everything that relates to this unveiling of human potential.
In your book Maquinação do mundo (“Machination of the World”) you state that the work of Minas Gerais-born poet and writer Carlos Drummond de Andrade “was a trailblazer in hitting home what is now an open wound: the destruction of the environment and life in areas affected by a mining industry that has turned a blind eye to its own impact”. How did the idea for this book come about?
It came about in 2015, when I traveled to Itabira for the first time. In the book I say that there's something hanging in the air in Drummond's hometown, this feeling that over the years an unnamed crime has been committed, right there in the open. One of the victims is Cauê Peak, which Drummond wrote about in his 1926 poem, Itabira: “There's a piece of each of us on Cauê Peak”. This landmark on the Itabira landscape was completely razed, starting in the 1940s, by a mining company, the Vale do Rio Doce Company. On my visit to the city, traces of the past and signs from the present stirred my desire to reread Drummond's work, this time with a special eye to mining.
When did Drummond realize the damage caused by mining in Itabira?
In the post-war period, the Vale do Rio Doce Company would become perhaps the largest open pit mining company in the world. In 1948, Drummond, now living in Rio de Janeiro, went to visit his gravely ill mother in Itabira and flew over the city for the first time. From up above, he had a grandiose view of his birthplace, but he also saw that Cauê Peak had been ravaged by dynamiting by the Vale do Rio Doce Company. To my mind, it was at that moment that he had a cryptic feeling in his gut about contemporary fate, about the emergence of a world driven by geo-economic powers, science, and technology, whose voracious appetite was capable of swallowing whole, among other things, the city he once knew. This feeling led him write the poem The Machine of the World, published the following year in a Rio newspaper, and one of the most emblematic works of Drummond's career.
Shortly thereafter, in a series newspaper columns in the 1950s, Drummond began to denounce the rampant exploitation of Itabira by the Vale do Rio Doce Company...
This state of affairs became a recurring theme for Drummond as a columnist, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Drummond wrote that the company exploited Itabira, driven merely by the desire to hoard wealth, without offering the city any payment in return. He even goes so far as to argue that the Vale do Rio Doce Company should move its administrative headquarters to Itabira, as stated in its founding charter, instead of sitting in its castle in Rio de Janeiro, unaware of what was going on in the Minas Gerais town. Rarely has a poet come into such direct confrontation with an economic power.
Was Drummond a lone voice at the time?
In the 1950s, he teamed up with a quixotic group of Itabira locals, who in the book I call “the brave army of Brancaleone,” in order to raise concerns and grievances with the Vale do Rio Doce Company. Drummond described the company's stance, which either evaded discussion or paid no attention to the accusations, as a “comedy of stonewalling”. These concerns that we see out in the open today, stemming from the episodes in Mariana and Brumadinho, are of the same order as those raised by Drummond around six decades ago. He used every tool he had available in this fight, and left behind a powerful message, because, as poet Waly Salomão says, Drummond's poetry is the “Peak of Itabira that mining machinery cannot destroy”.

José Miguel Wisnik is a critic, essayist, musician, and a retired professor of Brazilian literature at the University of São Paulo.  His publications include: “The Choir of Contrarians: The Music Surrounding 1922's Modern Art Week” (1977), “Sound and Meaning: Another History of Music” (1988; 2017), “Poison Drug: Football and Brazil”(2008) and “Machination of the World ”(2018).