Three years ago, Brazil experienced the worst environmental catastrophe in its history when a dam broke and released tons of mining waste, which spread out over 650 kilometres.
This month, a group of survivors of the disaster organised a march that retraced the path of the “red wave” that destroyed everything in its wake. The group, which calls itself People Affected by the Dam or MAB (the acronym for their name in Portuguese), wants justice.
On November 5, 2015, the Fundão dam broke, releasing 56.6 million cubic metres of waste from an iron mine. The giant wave of toxic mud followed the path of the Rio Doce river, the fifth largest river in Brazil, and travelled across the state of Minas Gerais and into the neighbouring state of Espírito Santo. Nineteen people died in the disaster. The wave of waste destroyed huge amounts of flora and fauna, swallowing up three villages.
>> Read on The Observers: Avalanche of mud destroys Brazil’s southern coast
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At the time, the Samarco mining company, which belongs to multinational corporations Vale and BHP Billiton, called it an accident. The victims, on the other hand, called it “an environmental crime”. Three years later, the river is still polluted with heavy metals and it is still impossible to fish in its waters.
Using money donated by Samarco, BHP Billiton and Vale, the Renova foundation set up a fund to pay for research into the disaster and to compensate the victims up through 2030. Each month, people living in affected areas get close to 1,000 reais (about 230 euros). Shopkeepers, hotel owners and fishermen are also receiving compensation.
But the damage is massive, and victims are calling for reparations and help to rebuild. To denounce what they called “three years of injustice”, hundreds of people joined a march that ran from November 4- 14.
The demonstrators began in Marina, where the disaster began in 2015, and visited about a dozen other affected communities to meet residents, hold meetings and raise awareness of the issues amongst local authorities.
"If they haven’t yet rebuilt the houses destroyed by the mud, which is the most visible problem, then imagine for the rest…”
Tchenna Maso, a lawyer and an activist with MAB, participated in the march. She said that she doesn’t want the disaster to be forgotten.
The aim was to make sure that the disaster isn’t forgotten. All along the route, we organised community meetings and meet-ups as well as cultural events. We call it three years of injustice because the people affected still haven’t had access to justice. The reparations process, which is being led by the companies at the heart of this matter, are also leading to rights violations.
For example, during the march, we really wanted to draw attention to women who were victims of this crisis, who are not always recognized. Some of them have become financially dependant on their husbands [Editor’s note: Last April, the public finance ministers in Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo asked Renova Foundation to fix several irregularities, including the fact that payouts were being given out to men but not women].
Along the coast, you can still see a ring of mud that still hasn’t disappeared. Fishermen will show you fish and crabs that are deformed. When it rains, the mud resurfaces in the river.
There are people who get rashes, who lose their hair and who have digestive issues. Recently, 14 people were found to have high amounts of heavy metals in their system [Editor’s note: The local press reported that only 11 people were diagnosed]. Samarco claims that those are separate issues.
We’ve also noticed an increase in rates of depression. You see it a lot amongst the fishermen, because, even if they are getting payouts, their way of life has changed. They don’t know when they will be able to fish again.
Many families have a lot of anxiety, since they still don’t know if it is safe to use water from the river.
Three districts were completely destroyed by the wave of mud, including one called Bento Rodrigues. Samarco has embarked on a process to rebuild Bento Rodrigues but they said that it wouldn’t be finished until 2020 and, in the meantime, former residents are being housed in rental units.
If they haven’t yet rebuilt the houses destroyed by the mud, which is the most visible problem, then imagine for the rest… like the effects on the mangroves and the tributaries of the Rio Doce, which are not being cleaned or treated in anyway.
There are also other looming problems. For example, the dam on Rio Pequeno, which was built to hold back the mud in Linhares, a place near the coast, could also break. If that happened, the mud would contaminate a series of lakes [Editor’s note: According to Renova, there is no chance that the dam will burst but there are flooding risks in the rainy season].
"We wanted to show that behind the demands, there are real people”
MAB activists posted photos and videos of the march on Facebook. They also posted testimonies from survivors. Maso says it is important to get the human story out there:
We wanted to give visibility to the people affected. It’s important to share the testimonies alongside a photo and a quote to show that, behind the demands, there are real people.The company is going to start its mining activities again someday soon, so how will we avoid another disaster? We don’t want this crime to go unpunished.
Jandira, lived in the town of Governador Valadares for 40 years: "After this environmental crime, the water has a strong smell. If you drink it, you get diarrhea and rashes. I just want them to pay attention to our Rio Doce."
Maria Tupiniquim [Editor’s note: the Tupiniquim are an indigenous group in Brazil] is a survivor of the disaster who lives in Espírito Santo: "Our river was completely contaminated. Historically, we depended on fish, yet we’ve had to buy food for the past three years. How long will it go on? "
Some residents look at Samarco with a kinder eye. Since the disaster, there has been a spike in unemployment in the region and some people are waiting impatiently for the mines to start back up again, according to a report published in French newspaper Le Monde earlier this year.
So far, the results of the investigation into the causes of the accident tend to support the idea that the company was negligent. Currently, Samarco as well as its shareholders, BHP Billiton and Vale, are being sued on charges of environmental crimes and homicide.
According to the Brazilian news agency Agencia Brasil, the Renova foundation offered 53 million reais to 39 towns in Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo to drop the charges against Samarco and its shareholders. In a press statement, the Renova Foundation claimed that it had already paid back 90% of what the state and federal government spent in relation to the disaster.