In Brazil, thousands of people are still living under the threat of bursting mining dams

In Brazil, thousands of people are still living under the threat of bursting mining dams

Two weeks after the dam burst, 53-year-old Ademilson Custódio recalls seeing dozens of people being carried away in the stream of mud that enveloped the farm he worked at near the town of Brumadinho.

(Gustavo Basso)

Barely 500 metres separates the first houses in the Rio do Peixe neighbourhood of Itabira and the fifth largest mining dam in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. “If anything happens to the dam, we won’t have time for anything. We have been told it is a matter of seconds. We are risking our lives by staying here. If I could I would leave here immediately,” says Claudinei Ferreira, a 32-year-old mechanic who has lived in this town of 120,000 inhabitants for five years.

Located in the region known as the Iron Quadrilateral, in the centre of Brazil, Itabira is the birthplace of one of the country’s most famous poets, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, but also that of the mining company Vale do Rio Doce, today simply called Vale. “Between 1942 and the present, over the generations, Itabira and Vale have become one; 90 per cent of municipal revenues come from mining and our entire economy revolves around Vale,” says the city’s environment secretary, the engineer Priscila Martins.

The Brazilian multinational was involved in two serious accidents, one in November 2015, near the historic town of Mariana, and one in the Brumadinho region just two months ago. In both cases, a stream of mud consisting of mining waste that had burst forth from broken dams belonging directly or indirectly to the company swept away, killing hundreds of people, as well as having a huge environmental impact. The state’s history is bound up with the exploration of mining wealth – to the point that it bears the name “General Mines”. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was gold, then by the end of the 19th century it was iron.

Today Minas Gerais produces 60 per cent of the iron extracted in Brazil. This wealth creates jobs and income, but mining is increasingly being criticised for its impact. In 2015 the Fundão dam burst, sending 40 billion litres of waste into the Rio Doce river and killing 19 people.

Fear is now a daily fact of life for the people of the region. Itabira is surrounded by no less than 11 dams. One of these is Pontal, the biggest mining dam in the country, with a volume of 227 billion litres of residue water from the mining process [about five times the volume of the first disaster]. “After Mariana, we weren’t that worried, but Bruadinho scared us. Today I sleep badly, I barely close my eyes before I wake up again,” says Rosa Fortunato, a pensioner who lives in Rio do Peixe, next door to the Itabiruçu dam, which today contains 130 billion litres of mining waste water.

The feeling of anxiety is made worse by the lack of safety training. Despite the volume of materials that have been accumulated, the Plano de Ação Emergencial em Barragens de Mineração (Emergency Plan of Action for Mining Dams) for the Vale dams in Itabira was not drawn up until May 2018 and is still in its setting-up phase. “We have never had emergency training here,” says 77-year-old Geraldo Pereira who lives near the Pontal dam. According to the environment department, the mining company has only begun to visit each house in the danger zone this month to advise the residents.

Massacre or accident?

On 25 January 2019 the Córrego do Feijão mine’s no.1 dam burst for reasons as yet unknown and spilt 13 billion litres of mud, burying nearly 300 people [according to the latest report: 212 deaths confirmed by the Civil Defence and 93 people missing]. “There were lots of warning signs that the dam could soon burst,” says an activist from the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (MAB, or Movement of People Affected by the Dams), Eloá Magalhães, who went to the Córrego do Feijão mine the day after the disaster. “It was a foreseeable tragedy, and that is why we describe this dam burst as the ‘Vale massacre,’” says the 24-year-old woman. The movement has been campaigning for the nationalisation of all mining activity in Brazil for the last 30 years, so that the wealth that it generates is returned to the Brazilian people.

One of the warning signs was the blue tarpaulin partly covering the lower section of the dam for about four months. It was keeping secret the works to reinforce the dam, which even the company’s employees didn’t all know about. These workers were, furthermore, among the majority of the victims struck by the tsunami of mud which hit the company’s canteen, built at the foot of the dam.

The Minas Gerais state prosecutor’s office, which also suspects the dam’s management of criminal negligence, requested on 15 February the preventive detention of eight Vale engineers, responsible for the safety of the dam [Editor’s note: five other employees of Vale and the German company Tüv South, authors of the report that testified to the safety of the dam, were then arrested; they were later released by decision of the Supreme Court], as well as the seizure of computers and documents from four employees of Tüv South.

“Vale’s representatives insist that this is an accident, but the prosecution and the police are now convinced that a crime of intentional homicide has been committed, in which various entities took the risk of causing the death of hundreds of people,” said the prosecutor in charge of the case, William Coelho.

In addition to the loss of human life, the mud destroyed part of the towns of Córrego do Feijão and Parque das Cachoeiras, knocked down a 50-metre high railway bridge and contaminated the Paraopeba river, which helps supply the Belo Horizone metropolis, with heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, killing thousands of fish.

General alarm in the mines

Socorro, in the city of Barão de Cocais, 60 kilometres from Córrego do Feijão, is a ghost town. On 8 February, 453 residents from four neighbourhoods were evacuated from their homes at 02.00 and have not been allowed to back since then, not even to collect personal belongings and documents. “What annoys us most is that they knew since the day before that the dam was at risk and that we should evacuate; why didn’t they call the residents to warn them and give the time to leave calmly?” asks 39-year-old Maria Aparecida Batista, a hairdresser, who has shared a hotel room with her husband and their two sons for the last two weeks. “We want to go home; hotels are fine for holidays,” she says firmly.

From the day after the evacuation, Vale employees came to feed the pets abandoned in the evacuation. Equal Times gained exclusive access to the isolated danger zone to watch farm animals – pigs, horses, cows, etc. – being taken out at the request of the judicial authorities. We also saw lost dogs, some wandering along the access roads, others hanging around the houses waiting for their owners, who refuse to return to Socorro even though Vale assures them the dam is now stable.

“I may never return, because that kind of thing leaves its mark, and now we don’t believe anything the company says,” says 45-year-old Isabel Batista, vice-president of the Socorro residents’ association. Isabel broke her foot that night as she desperately tried to warn her neighbours about the dam burst. “At that point, nobody knew it was a false alarm; I only knew that I had three minutes to get to the security zone. What do you do in three minutes?” she says.

Since 25 January, at least 850 people have had to abandon their businesses for fear of another dam burst. Most of them are still unable to return home, to Itatiaiuçu, Barão de Cocais and Nova Lima. In Mid-February 200 residents of Nova Lima received calls from Vale employees warning them of the weakness of the Mar Azul mine’s dam. Some residents have refused to leave, even under the threat of the dam breaking. “I have a backpack, with clothing and my documents, and a car ready. If I hear a noise I will run out, but I am not going to abandon everything I have built up, just like that. If something happens or disappears who will pay?” asks 55-year-old Gilmar Pereira, a mason, who lives on the banks of the small Macacos river whose house would be affected as it is in the so-called Zona de autossalvamento (save yourself zone) – a euphemism for the areas which the authorities are not capable of reaching before the arrival of any tsunami of mud.

Throughout the state, at least eight other mines are at a standstill, while they remain the subject of enquiry or are banned from treating residues. The omnipresent danger limits the alternatives for the people who live in the State. “We have to leave,” says 20-year-old Celos Oliveira, a resident of Córrego do Feijão who has just buried his cousin, swept away by the stream of mud and whose body was only found two weeks later. “Leave for where, son, if everywhere poses a risk?” comments his mother, Luiza Oliveira. To that, he replies: “The only solution is to leave Minas Gerias. Here the cycle of gold has given way to a cycle of tragedy”.

This story has been translated from French.