Five years after Mariana disaster, families still await compensation

. Nov 05, 2020
mariana dam burst José Barbosa, like most former residents of the Bento Rodrigues district, lost everything in the 2015 tragedy. Photo: Gustavo Basso/Shutterstock

At 4:20 pm on November 5, 2015, in the small town of Mariana in Brazil’s Southeast, a failure at the Fundão dam released around 60 million cubic meters of iron ore tailings into the surrounding region. The wave of toxic sludge inundated the Gualaxo do Norte river, flowing into the major Doce River waterway and travelling some 663 kilometers to Brazil’s coast. The rupture of the dam — owned by mining company Samarco, in turn controlled by Vale and BHP Billiton — caused the death of 19 people and untold environmental, social, and economic impacts, affecting 39 municipalities across two Brazilian states.

The largest environmental tragedy in Brazil’s history, the Mariana dam collapse did not just cause human casualties. Communities and plantations were swallowed up by the mud, and the Doce River basin is still largely dead, five years on.


the environmental catastrophe has yet to be reverted, none of the affected populations have been properly compensated. Whether they be farmers, fishermen, or small merchants, the avalanche of trauma and financial losses is still very present today.</p> <p>Just 10,885 registered families have received any form of redress as of August 2020 — equivalent to 34 percent of the 31,755 households who qualify for compensation. When compared to the 2019 tragedy in Brumadinho — where a Vale dam collapsed not far from Mariana and left 259 people dead — over 100,000 have received some form of compensation. </p> <p>However, victims of both catastrophes are still waiting for justice, as <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> <a href="">has explained</a>.</p> <p>Half a decade after the Mariana disaster, no individual or company has been punished. After accepting a complaint from the Federal Prosecution Service against three corporations and 21 people, federal courts have progressively removed defendants from the case and altered the charges from homicide to the crime of causing inundation resulting in death. As things stand, the case includes three firms and just five individuals.&nbsp;</p> <p>In September, public prosecutors and public defenders demanded the resumption of a public interest civil action suspended in 2018, against the mining companies, the federal government, and the state of Minas Gerais. The case demands reparations totalling BRL 155 billion (USD 27.3 billion).</p> <p>&#8220;The disaster that destroyed the entire Doce River basin, an area the size of Portugal, continues. Five years on, nothing is concluded, everything is left to do,&#8221; says federal prosecutor Silmara Goulart, in charge of the task force monitoring the reparation process. &#8220;Not even the district of Bento Rodrigues, destroyed in the disaster, has been rebuilt.&#8221;</p> <h2>Delays in 42 reparations programs</h2> <p>In order to redress the damage of the Mariana dam collapse, the mining companies responsible for the tragedy created Fundação Renova (Renew Foundation) in an agreement with federal prosecutors. Its actions are overseen by consulting firm Ramboll, which has identified delays in 42 reparations programs, &#8220;principally those concerning the resumption of income and [those related to] the environment.&#8221;</p> <p>Five years after the tragedy, 29,039 people still depend on trucks for their supply of clean water, an issue that <a href=";utm_content=error-cookies-turned-off&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_source=Publicate">became even more severe</a> during the <a href="">coronavirus pandemic</a>. The deadline to reinstate working water supply systems — agreed between prosecutors and mining companies — was 2018. As of August, only 41 percent of projects had been completed.</p> <p>According to monitorings of the educational programs carried out by Fundação Renova, support for students is still &#8220;far from the level necessary.&#8221; As an example, an initiative to recover and reintegrate affected school communities is still using temporary facilities which have structural problems.</p> <p>“The schools in Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu de Baixo [the two communities closest to the Fundão dam] have no accessible structure or space for full-time activities. The school in [nearby community] Gesteira — which is the only one with a permanent facility — is showing problems in construction, such as leaks and floods, and has now been abandoned.”&nbsp;</p> <h2>Mariana foundation blames pandemic and red tape</h2> <p>Last week, representatives from Fundação Renova took part in an online press conference to analyze the aftermath of the Mariana tragedy, five years on. According to the body&#8217;s president André de Freitas, reparation efforts were delayed due to the pandemic. He affirmed that in four years of work, roughly BRL 2.6 billion were paid in compensation and financial aid to those who were able to prove they had incurred damages.</p> <p>Mr. Freitas mentioned a &#8220;barrier&#8221; to assisting those who have been unable to prove they were affected by the disaster, as Brazilian law states compensation can only be granted with proof of damages. He added that the foundation has carried out activities to improve sewage and water treatment in the region.</p> <p>Built away from its original site — which was buried under toxic sludge — the new district of Bento Rodrigues was meant to be ready to house 210 families by August 2019, as promised by Renova. Even so, Mr. Freitas blames the delays on the coronavirus pandemic, which only began this year. Suspended on March 23, work briefly resumed in May but only returned to full capacity on June 15.</p> <p>Asked about the progress of rebuilding Bento Rodrigues, Renova said that &#8220;over 170 concept projects of houses and lots have been completed or are in progress&#8221; and that work on sewage, electricity, water supply, and paving are ongoing. However, the foundation did not establish a deadline for families to move in.</p> <p>In Paracatu de Baixo, roughly 100 families will be relocated. According to the foundation, landscaping work is continuing, but the old residents of the neighborhood point out that not a single brick has been laid on their promised new homes.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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