Mining giant BHP has been accused of putting “profit over people’s lives” as indigenous protesters have called for justice over a dam collapse that caused a historic environmental and humanitarian disaster in Brazil.

The Anglo-Australian company, which denies liability, is arguing for Brazilian mining firm Vale to be a co-defendant in a UK lawsuit, which has been brought by 700,000 claimants affected by the collapse of the Fundao dam in 2015 in eastern Brazil.

Some of the claimants travelled from Brazil to protest outside the hearing at the High Court in London, where BHP is listed, on Wednesday.

It comes as the firm faces paying £36 billion in damages for its role in the mining disaster that killed 19 people and caused an enormous area of land to be flooded with toxic mud.

Indigenous communities protest outside the Technology and Construction Court in London
Indigenous communities protest outside the High Court in London (Matt Pover)

Among the protesters were members of the Krenak, Guarani, Tupiniquim and Pataxos indigenous communities, who wore headdresses, sang songs and played the maracas.

They carried signs which read: “BHP/Vale = Climate criminals” and “Justice for BHP Billiton and Vale’s crime in the Doce River”.

Dirlene Krenak, 52, grew tearful as she told the PA news agency that they were singing a song for the river, which they consider sacred and was integral to their everyday lives before it was polluted with toxic mud.

Ms Krenak said: “We used to sing this song for the river, because it was very rich. There were plenty of fish and it’s very hard to sing this song nowadays because there’s nothing there anymore.

Dirlene Krenak and Rondon Krenak protest outside the Technology and Construction court in London
Dirlene Krenak and Rondon Krenak protest outside the High Court in London (PA/Rebecca Speare-Cole)

“It was where we got our food from, it’s where we baptised our children, it’s our place of recreation and we’re never going to get that back.”

She added that the court case in London is a “cry for help for this country to look at us, to look at us there, at what happened and how the company should be held accountable”.

“We don’t feel well to have to come this far, leaving our families and children behind to ask for help,” she said.

Monica dos Santos, from the resistance group Loucos Pelo Bem, told PA that the victims are living with the consequences of the disaster everyday.

Indigenous communities protest outside the Technology and Construction Court in London
Indigenous communities protest outside the High Court in London (Matt Pover)

“It affected us enormously. It completely affected the animals, the forests, the indigenous people. It destroyed our lives, our materials, everything.

“It is eight years since the crime,” she added.

“In Brazil we haven’t been compensated. We haven’t received anything. We haven’t even received the land to be resettled.

“We came here to ask for justice because we trust the justice system here.”

Tom Goodhead, global managing partner of Pogust Goodhead, representing the claimants, accused BHP of putting “profit over people’s lives time and time again”.

He said: “This is yet another desperate attempt by BHP to delay facing the consequences of the pain and devastation they have caused.”

“The victims of Brazil’s worst ever environmental disaster will be horrified to see the world’s two biggest mining companies fighting each other in court instead of providing full and fair redress.”

Monica dos Santos from the Loucos Pelo Bem resistance group
Monica dos Santos from the Loucos Pelo Bem resistance group (PA/Rebecca Speare-Cole)

“Alongside their total failure to provide full and fair compensation to the victims, BHP have also exposed their investors to extraordinary levels of risk in relation to the unprecedented compensation bill they now face.”

Felipe Hotta, a partner at Pogust Goodhead working on the case, said very little compensation has been granted to victims in Brazil.

He said: “Our clients are tired, they just want to move on with their lives. It’s not even about the money itself for most of them. They just want to put an end to this and move on.”

During the hearings this week, Vale will challenge BHP’s claim that the two companies should split any damages.

Vale is also being sued in Brazil for its role in the disaster.

Both companies set up the Renova Foundation to pay reparations to victims following the disaster with BHP ring-fencing nearly £3 billion.

But the claimants’ lawyers say this sum is not nearly enough to cover the extent of the damage and loss the victims have suffered.

A spokesperson for BHP said: “BHP will continue to defend the UK group action and denies the claims in their entirety.

“BHP Brasil continues to work closely with Samarco and Vale to support the reparation and compensation programs implemented by Renova Foundation under the supervision of the Brazilian courts.

“To date, Renova has provided financial assistance and made indemnification payments to over 417,000 people and spent more than 30 billion Brazilian Real (£4.8 billion) on reparation and compensatory actions.”