In the coastal city of Maceió, Brazil, a silent tragedy has unfolded over the past five years. The city’s neighborhoods have been slowly sinking into the ground, forcing almost 60,000 residents to abandon their homes and livelihoods. The root cause of this catastrophe lies in the overexploitation of rock salt mines beneath the city, a practice that has led to the formation of massive underground cavities, causing the ground above to collapse.
The first signs of trouble emerged in 2018 when cracks began appearing in buildings and roads. These initial fissures were followed by a series of sinkholes and earthquakes, prompting authorities to evacuate residents from several affected neighborhoods, including Pinheiro, Bebedouro, Bom Parto, Farol, and Mutange. In total, over 14,000 homes were rendered uninhabitable as the ground sank as deep as two meters in some areas.
The devastating consequences of this geological phenomenon have been likened to a “Brazilian Chernobyl” by the geologist and professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), Pedro Cortez. Similar to the Chernobyl disaster, the affected areas of Maceió have become uninhabitable, with no clear path to restoring normalcy due to the ongoing risk of further subsidence. Despite the severity of the situation, the company responsible for rock salt mining in the region, Braskem, has refused to acknowledge it as a disaster, instead labeling it a mere “geological phenomenon.”
“A family lived here”
Jornal da USP (2022),photograph retrieved from: https://www.jornaldocampus.usp.br/index.php/2022/01/rastros-da-destruicao-o-crime-da-braskem-em-maceio/
The human impact of this tragedy has been profound, with families torn apart, historic buildings abandoned, and entire communities uprooted. The once vibrant cultural hub, which had hosted festivals for over a century, has been reduced to almost nothing. The city’s soccer team’s training ground lies desolate, and nearly 20 schools have been closed, disrupting the education of over 7,000 students. To add to the despair, the closure of cemeteries in the affected neighborhoods has forced the city to bury 80% of its deceased in unmarked graves after the disoccupation.
The beginning of the company and the exploration of Maceió
The story of Maceió’s sinking begins in 1978 when Braskem, a Brazilian petrochemical company, set its sights on the rich rock salt deposits beneath the city. Despite warnings from environmental experts, including Professor Geraldo Marques, who cautioned against the risks associated with the project’s location, Braskem pressed forward, paving the way for the company’s exploration. Marques, who served as the coordinator of the state environment agency, was ultimately removed from his position. He is categorical in stating that he regrets being right.
In February 2018, the first signs of trouble emerged as cracks began to appear in buildings and roads across Maceió. The situation escalated rapidly, with a series of sinkholes and earthquakes prompting mass evacuations, making it necessary for the Geological Service of Brazil to investigate what was causing such problems. The results concluded that Braskem was responsible for such trouble and they would need to compensate the population for the destruction they caused.
“Tell me how much is worth the salt of our tears”
Meteoro Brasil (2023),photograph retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBUHV3MjBv0&ab_channel=MeteoroBrasil
In January 2020, the compensation agreement was sealed. But until today, Braskem has failed to adequately compensate the affected communities, offering meager payments that fall far short of covering the losses and hardships endured by the displaced residents. While the company went to COP 28 to discuss their green attitudes, they have yet to acknowledge and address the social and environmental disaster they have created in Maceió.
In the company’s website they claim that their goal is: “to be recognized as a company that promotes human rights and equity in our value chain and contributes to the local development of surrounding communities.”
Even claiming to value local communities and financing many “eco-friendly” projects, the company doesn’t mention the results of the exploration of mines in Maceió. Not only that, the company also omits its fault on the result of 40 years of exploration. In total, 35 mines were explored and in volume it can be compared to one Burj Khalifa building of minerals extracted from Maceió. Nowadays, the company operates in four different countries and has over 8,000 workers.
Therefore, Braskem’s practices could be seen as an example of the concept of greenwashing, a marketing tactic used by companies to project an environmentally friendly image while engaging in practices that harm the environment. This lack of accountability has severe consequences, as evidenced by the tragedy unfolding in Maceió and the city’s population.
The tragedy in Maceió highlights the urgent need for stricter regulations, stronger environmental oversight, and accountability for companies that prioritize profits over the well-being of the environment and the communities they impact.
Situations like this should never be repeated. It is a stark reminder of the consequences of unchecked corporate greed and the importance of environmental stewardship.
For Braskem, no one was punished by law or declared responsible for such actions. Not making hard punishments incentivizes deviant behavior by those companies, which perpetuates the cycle of exploration. Unfortunately, we need more than compensation for the people who are affected by disasters like that, but laws that guarantee inspections and punishments if those businesses don’t respect the environment and the communities. Besides, to truly prevent the recurrence of such disasters, we must move beyond regulations. A holistic approach involves a deeper understanding of the environmental and social contexts where companies operate. Companies should consider incorporating social and environmental specialists into their projects, even if it means spending a little more on their budgets. Only through stronger regulations, stricter enforcement, and a genuine commitment to sustainability by the government and the companies, we can prevent similar disasters from unfolding in the future.
HBO Brazil. (2023, June 26). GREG NEWS | MACEIÓ SINKS [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_KY7cVX6KY
Meteoro Brazil. ( 2023, August 2). MACEIÓ IS DISAPPEARING FROM THE MAP [Video].YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0N6RNPihKug
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Braskem. (No date). Alagoas. https://www.braskem.com.br/alagoas
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The Brazilian Report. (2023, September 23). Braskem to finalize sale of petrochemical unit. https://brazilian.report/business/2023/09/23/braskem-sale-petrochemical/
Diário do Poder. (2023, April 29). Consultant claims seismic tremors bent Braskem wells in Maceió. https://diariodopoder.com.br/brasil-e-regioes/consultor-alega-que-abalos-sismicos-envergaram-pocos-da-braskem-em-maceio