Wednesday, November 18, 2015

And the two bloody dams burst!


On November 5, 2015 two dams holding mine tailings[1] collapsed near the colonial city of Mariana, in the historic mining state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The dams belong to the Samarco iron mine. One would assume as with the 2010 Chilean mine disaster which buried 33 miners, that the mine was a fly-by-night undercapitalized operation. Very much to the contrary, Samarco is jointly owned by two blue bloods of the industry, Vale of Brazil and British/Australian BHP Billiton. BHP is the world’s largest mining company and Vale the largest iron ore exporter of the world.



Thirteen mine workers who were working on one of the dams were flushed away and twenty local people are probably also dead. The toxic mudslide[2] has devastated thousands of square miles of land and by flowing into rivers has cut the water supply of the downstream population. As of today, it is suspected that expansion work on one of the dams caused the breach.

Fifteen years ago, when I was taking a keen interest in mining shenanigans, I could easily point out the usual suspects of mine disasters. On the one hand, the mine management was notoriously “culturally disconnected” from the eloquent-talking headquarters staff who are responsible for drafting the company’s policies and code of conduct. On the other, a capacity disconnect occurred between the policy drafting entities of the central government and the local mining agencies which are required to oversee implementation and certify compliance. By enhancing their good corporate governance (i.e. corporate social responsibility) and environmental stewardship, mining companies were falling all over themselves to become good corporate citizens. However, environmental protection and social sustainability come at a price: they increase production cost. Although they are in charge of their implementation, many hard hat managers took a dim view of them. Modern mining generates a huge volume of waste, and efficient tailings management is critical to protecting the neighboring population and its environment.

Tailings management was not considered the sexy or testosterone-infused side of mining. This was an area where the occasional female mining engineer would have been employed, notwithstanding her credentials. Employees assigned to the dumps were not as highly paid as those of mining crews and proper training was often lacking. In other words, management regarded tailings as peripheral and tended to give it low priority, with maintenance and surveillance often falling by the wayside. A fact of mining life is that mining dumps occasionally burst. Miners could mimic Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous comment: “stuff happens”[3]!

Low priority was also given by government’s agents who often lacked updated expertise in tailings monitoring, an expertise closely related to civil engineering. Local offices were commonly understaffed, under trained, under equipped and under paid. When dealing with the deep-pocket mining management, public servants were sometimes complacent and negligent, subjected to bullying and exposed to bribes. In other words, surveillance was given lip service. Because too many technical sectors were involved, no one felt personally accountable. When confronted with an accident and subsequent liability, no one took responsibility for it (diffusion of responsibility).


Now, I wonder what has changed!

The mineral-rich State of Minas Gerais is known to have more than 735 mining dams[4], and some may not be properly monitored. The Samarco mudslide made headlines, but both government and company reactions were very slow at best. Although the causes of the burst have yet to be fully investigated, Vale and BHP have taken responsibility for the accident.

The people affected by the toxic mudslide were pretty much left to fend for themselves, caught between the callousness and misguided decisions of the corporations and the inefficiency of the administrative layer cake. The government will give Vale and BHP multi-million dollar fines, and they will face liability claims also worth millions of dollars. In a country which distinguished itself by a leviathan-size corruption, this money will probably not benefit the victims. They may come to envy the 33 Chilean miners who spent 69 days buried under 700 meters of rocks but were pulled out alive by a caring government.

[1] There many names for the muck produced by mining: “Tailings, also called mine dumps, culm dumps, slimes, tails, refuse, leach residue or slickens, are the materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction (gangue) of an ore”. Wikipedia.

[2] 62 million cubic meters (O Globo, November 17, 2015).

[3] Donald Rumsfeld is a former US Secretary of Defense. He made this infamous comment on the rampant looting which took place after the fall of Bagdad in 2003.

[4] Folha de São Paulo, November 7, 2015.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stranded in the Borneo Jungle.


We were stranded for two days in the Sarawak rainforest. On the first day, a thick haze resulting from the burning of the rainforest prevented planes from landing and on the second, planes were ground by heavy tropical rain. The rainforest is literally burning itself to death in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo and in Sumatra, the largest Indonesian island. September, supposedly the dry season, is the beginning of the slash-and-burn devastation, an ancestral technique of chopping trees and burning them in situ to clear the rainforest for commercial crops. The acrid cloud of smoke drifts over thousands of miles westward towards Malaysian Sarawak, Sabah and the mainland as well as Singapore and Thailand. Not surprisingly, Indonesia has become the fastest rainforest-clearing country in the world as a result of its illegal logging and palm oil plantations. The country also holds the dubious record of being the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas after China and the United States.

For the past twenty years, haze and smoke have disrupted people’s livelihoods. Because the smoke is thicker this year, it has increased the usual human misery and economic loss: respiratory illness, school closing, air travel disruption and global warming.


                                       Hazy day in Mulu.

Governments engage in their annual futile and dishonest political blame-game. Indonesia is blamed for being unable or unwilling to fight head-on the powerful corporations that run the palm oil and paper plantations. They are responsible for illegal slash-and-burn over large expanses of rainforest and peat land. Palm oil is a growing moneymaking business and a vital foreign currency earner for Indonesia. The decision to resort to slash-and-burn is a no brainer as it is much cheaper and faster than mechanically clearing the land. Many palm oil companies have been fined for resorting to this crude method to clear their own plantation! Every 15 to 17 years, palm trees are uprooted to give way to more productive new ones. Indonesia has tried to defend itself by blaming the investors who are behind the palm oil growth; many are from Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia which has a flourishing but better controlled palm oil business of its own. By destroying habitats, the unrelenting world demand for palm oil is threatening the livelihood of the indigenous people of Borneo and the survival of the mythical orangutan as well as increasing greenhouse gases.

In 2015, for the first time, the slash-and-burn issue is a front-and-center item on the regional political agenda. The new president of Indonesia has been more proactive and many lawbreakers have been sent to jail. Hopefully, when the rainy season resumes (November) this burning issue will not be put on the back burner as in the past.

For a tourist, Borneo’s dry season very much looks like the rainy season. Between daily rain showers, the sky remained dark (smog) and the air was very humid. Borneo’s jungle, or what is left of it, has a reputation of ultimate wilderness, roaming head hunters, infamous blood suckers like leeches, man-eating snakes, dinosaur-size lizards, carnivorous plants and millions of bat colonies to name a few of its less attractive denizens. We survived all of this. During our “downtime” at the airport, a 15 centimeters-long black scorpion paid a visit but was quickly surrounded by some 40 bored tourists eager to snap a close-up. After its five minute of fame, the scorpion was released unharmed into the forest.

So we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in Mulu National Park, a World Heritage site, near the border between Sarawak and Brunei. If the tarmac was idle, the 5-star resort was very busy with all the stranded tourists. We took it in stride, even knowing that our catch-up program was going to be less laid-back.

Borneo is an island of superlatives: the third largest island in the world (Asia’s largest) and the first for the rate of deforestation.  Fortunately most of Borneo is still covered by rainforest; tourists do not come to visit palm oil plantations and illegal logging camps.  Being the land of many exotic but severely endangered species, Borneo had been on my bucket list for some time, and I decided to sample the Malaysian parts of it, i.e. the states of Sarawak and Sabah. Unfortunately, many of Borneo’s exotic sites are only accessible to young energetic backpackers, so this blogger joined a package tour for middle aged and middle class tourists. What was sacrificed in discovery was gained in comfort. In addition to orangutans, we were lucky to spot pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, scores of other weird looking monkeys and the mysterious flower rafflesia, the largest in the world.


           Rafflesia Flower: 1m diameter. Kinabalu National Park

Borneo prompts comparison with the Amazon rainforest, with a plus: the orangutans (the people of the forest in the local language).  For visitors on a schedule, the Semengoh Orangutan Sanctuary near Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, is picture-perfect as the primates can easily be seen and photographed! For one hour, some 70 tourists from different continents were able to watch three orangutans at feeding time: a laid-back male and a mother and her seven-year old son.  It was this blogger’s first encounter with orangutans in their natural habitat and she was really amazed by their gentle demeanor. It was business as usual for the apes, selecting the fruits on offer and gazing at nothing in particular. Then they left for the tree canopy, their dwelling. The mother and her kid walked together for a while near us, a heart-warming sight (see pic).


                             Semengoh Sanctuary: Mother and child.

Orangutans and humans share 97 % of their DNA.  When watching these primates’ behavior, we were eager to see what difference the 3 % make.  Not much, if one considers the behavior of Richie, the group’s alpha male.  Richie recently strangled his wife because she refused to have sex with him. It seems that female orangutans also have headaches! The two off-spring are being taken care of by a sister-in-law.  Apparently, Richie now feels lonely and despondent.  The sanctuary’s orangutans will not be released into the wild until they can feed themselves without relying on food provided by humans.  Free board and healthcare may be too much to forgo for the uncertainty of freedom in the wild: that 97% may carry complacency and opportunism.

IMG_3740bis  IMG_3730

                              Sepilok Sanctuary: Enjoying lunch.

With his powerful binoculars, our guide spotted a wild orangutan when we were in Sabah state. It was very far away in a tree, a slow moving black shape. We were happy to trust his word. Not surprisingly in the past ten years, the ape population has decreased by fifty percent in Borneo and some thousand, mostly in Kalimantan, may be killed each year. Research indicates that the majority of the victims are killed by of palm oil plantation workers. Orphans are brought to rehabilitation centers like Sepilok where we saw many of them literally learning the rope.

Mulu National Park, a UNESCO Heritage site, is only accessible by turboprop plane, weather permitting, as we learned.  The park, which is in the middle of the rainforest, got its UNESCO credentials thanks to its mountains, sharp limestone pinnacles and mega-sized caves.  What these caves lack in beauty, they make up in size: some are kilometers long.  This blogger is not a cave enthusiast, holes in the ground don’t inspire her and without chauvinism, caves in the south of France are much more picturesque than that of Mulu.

IMG_3667  IMG_3675

                     Mulu National Park: Cave and evening bat flight.

This being said, one cave deserves attention, not because it is one of the longest in the world but because it is the creepiest.  From the entrance, visitors are put off by its foul smell and mucky soil.  The cave is named Deer Cave, but it is a misnomer, it should be renamed Bat Cave since it is home to millions of bats huddled together in the roof crevices, hence the stench and droppings.  However, there is a reward to visiting such a filthy cave, but it takes place outside.   Weather permitting, at dusk all the bats fly out of the cave to enjoy their daily mosquito dinner. They may eat some 30 tons of the insects every night.  Their snake-like flights are awesome to watch in a mosquito-free environment.

                         colin's bats

                            Deer Cave. Bat Family. (photo C.P.)

The wildlife exploration proper took place in the State of Sabah where many comfortable lodges have been built on the river banks. Most wildlife watching takes place on boat. Pygmy elephants are endangered, also victims of the palm oil obsession; fortunately they are not as easily disposed of as the orangutans. Plantation owners and wildlife organizations are increasingly establishing reservations where they roam freely. Many large families were seen peacefully but noisily foraging by the river.


                          Kinabatangan Pigmy Elephants, Sabah State.

The weirdest looking denizen of Borneo is without doubt the proboscis monkeys, endemic to the island. They live in trees near the waterways, and are keen swimmers. In a monkey beauty contest, the proboscis stands at the bottom; even baby proboscis monkeys cannot qualify as cute! Males display a prominent, bulbous and pendulous nose which grows with age hence their name. During the Dutch colonization, local people nicknamed them Dutch Monkeys! The larger the nose, the higher the male is in the pecking order! Lady monkeys cannot resist a big nose and a respectable sized penis always on the ready! Binoculars don’t trick. Both genders also display a very unappealing figure with skinny limbs, a long tail and a bloated stomach resulting from their odd diet. According to wildlife biologists, they fart a lot. All these unappealing attributes are compensated by a beautiful reddish coat, and big males look like they are wearing a bomber jacket.

The Borneo population (approximately 18 million) is a friendly mosaic of culturally distinct indigenous groups generically named Dayak. They have mixed with people who came from afar, mainly Malays and Chinese. Generations of Dayaks were head hunters, a tradition that persisted until the beginning of the 20th century. It was revived during WW II and many believe that the occupying Japanese soldiers provided the skulls which are still proudly displayed today. After spending ten days in Malaysian Borneo, there is plenty more to write on this exotic experience. Borneo is worth a trip except in September/October when visitors risk being both stranded and choked by toxic fumes. The Indonesian government estimates that this year the fires have cost US$ 30 billion to the country. It may be a blessing in disguise and next year’s fires may be better contained.