Two years ago in the heartland of Brazil’s mining country, the Fundão dam collapsed and unleashed 62 million cubic tons of mud (the equivalent of 21,000 Olympic-sized pools) into the Rio Doce. The mud, contaminated with toxic iron ore waste from a nearby mine, all but destroyed four of the rural, marginal communities in its path along its 650-kilometer journey to the ocean. Nineteen people were killed, and more than 500 displaced.
Immediate actions were taken; it was impossible for Brazil to ignore the orange slew of liquid slowly spewing from the river’s mouth and into the Atlantic. Search-and-rescue efforts sprang into action, and within days Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama had already declared the spill the country’s worst environmental disaster in its history. Already, there was talk of reparation payments from the two companies responsible for the dam, Vale and BHP Billiton, and the mine’s operator Samarco.
When the dam collapsed, Sérgio Rossi had already been working in the municipality of Mariana for two years. A psychologist working with the local health secretariat, he has noticed a change in the mental health of those who he sees since what has become widely termed ‘the Mariana tragedy’. There was, of course, the initial trauma that one might expect when one’s home and livelihood is suddenly beyond repair. But, Rossi says, the toll on the dam collapse’s mental health is still heavy for residents two years later.
“The disaster wiped out at least two communities here in the municipality of Mariana. Friendships, family links were weakened, because they left communities that were already established,” he told The Brazilian Report. “I can’t speak in quantitative terms, but we have observed that there was an increase in alcohol abuse, principally, and depressive spells – not necessarily depression, but spells, anxiety, anger.”
These conditions, Rossi says, are aggravated by the socioeconomic conditions that have since developed in Mariana. The municipality registered an unemployment rate of 27 percent in July 2017 – more than double the rate of unemployment for the rest of the country, which was 12.8 percent at the time. Many of those working in the mine lost their jobs, while those displaced by the flooding and uprooted to an urban environment could no longer live off farming or fishing as they had before.
But of the 13,000 recorded as unemployed by the city government, the National Employment Bank estimated that as many as 70 percent of these are as a direct or indirect result of the dam’s collapse.
For residents of Bento Rodrigues, one of the rural communities first hit by the waves of thick, sludge-laced waves in 2015, returning is impossible. The area where the community once sat remains uninhabitable. Fundação Renova, a local socioeconomic and environmental watchdog, recently asked in its local newspaper: “Is the river water already clean enough to swim in, to wash clothes and to bathe in? We still don’t know.”
When the toxic iron sludge first swept along the Rio Doce, it was followed by thousands upon thousands of dead fish and crustaceans. While BHP initially said that this was most likely due to the volume of waste leaked into the water creating a lack of oxygen for marine life, the UN said that the waste “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals”. Biologists and environmental scientists also believe that some of the toxins released into the water are not biodegradable and have the potential to chance the water’s PH levels. Meanwhile, the toxic sludge is still flowing through as many as 20 of the Rio Doce’s tributaries today.
The results from the first marine life monitoring tests in Espírito Santo should be released in the first six months of 2018, but it seems unlikely that the river – once famed for its biodiversity – will again become an abundant fishing site. The impossibility for residents from Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and other riverside communities of returning to their homes and previous lifestyles is one of the reasons that Samarco, Vale, and BHP have been forced to commit to large reparation payment schedules, as well as to fixing the damage caused.
A city divided
By March 2016, Samarco had reached agreements with the federal government as well as the state governments in Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo regarding reparations. Judges, however, didn’t sanction the agreement until two months later, insisting on the participation of those in affected communities in the handling of the aftermath of the tragedy.
At the time, spending was expected to reach 4.4 billion BRL before the end of 2018 for Samarco on river recovery efforts alone. Between 2019 and 2021, they are estimated to vary between 800 million and 1.6 billion BRL. Samarco has since asked for judicial leniency regarding some of its other fines, on the basis that it is fulfilling its promises regarding reparation efforts.
Meanwhile, only scraps of the fines owed have actually been paid out. State governments in Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo delivered a total of 68 notices of fines to Samarco, which should see the company paying a total of 522 million BRL. But sixty-seven of these are also in the appeal phase, and only one – equalling less than 1 percent of the total – has been paid.
On a national level, a similar pattern is being followed. Ibama served the mining company with 24 notices of infractions related to the dam collapse, totaling R$344.85m. But none of this has yet been paid, as all of the judicial decisions are currently awaiting review; two have been taken to second appeal, and the other 22 are on their first appeals. If the decisions are upheld, Samarco can appeal to the federal courts. Additionally, criminal proceedings for the 22 figures deemed personally responsible for their roles in the dam’s collapse, which includes the heads of Samarco, Vale, and BHP, has been suspended.
But reparations are causing rifts among the residents of Mariana. Locals who lost their mining jobs in the aftermath of the flood blame the displaced residents of nearby communities like Bento Rodrigues for their unemployment, believing that the civil actions against Samarco are impeding their return. Others, meanwhile, see reparation payments which go towards paying for housing for the city’s displaced rural residents as a form of benefit to which they, having lost their jobs, should also be entitled.
“The displaced have been hostilized,” Rossi explains. “People often don’t have adequate information, and end up in one manner blaming them for what’s happened. It’s maybe easier for you to blame your neighbor for your unemployment than one of the world’s biggest mining companies.”