Eight years after Samarco’s sea of mud swallowed the district of Bento Rodrigues, in Mariana (MG), part of Ouro Preto (MG) is emptied under warnings of a new mining dam collapse.
1h30 away, in the municipality of Barão de Cocais (MG), an 18th century church and all the houses in the community of Socorro make up the landscape of what is today a ghost town. Everyone moved after sirens sounded in 2019 and announced the risk of another tragedy.
While the families of Mariana are still fighting for fair compensation, the area occupied by mining advances across the state and continues to generate direct impacts on the population.
The expansion, corroborated by satellite images, is denounced by residents. “We lost the space where we were born and raised, our memory. Everything”, says retiree Marcos Muniz, 59, a former resident of Bento Rodrigues.
The site was the first to be hit, on November 5, 2015, by 40 million cubic meters of mining waste from Samarco — a company formed by a partnership between the giants Vale and BHP Billiton.
The Fundão dam broke. Nineteen people died, one of whom was pregnant. Waste in the form of mud traveled through the Doce River basin and reached the sea in Espírito Santo.
In Bento Rodrigues and neighboring Paracatu, for example, mud covered everything. Houses, animals, souvenirs and the historical ways of life of families.
Since then, the attempt to reverse this erasure has led to demands for full reparation. In addition to several actions in the Brazilian courts, a process is underway in England, BHP’s country of origin.
Symbol of one of the biggest environmental tragedies in the world, the rupture in Mariana was not the only example in the country. Another Vale dam, in Brumadinho (MG), burst in January 2019, killing 270 people, two of whom were pregnant.
There were no criminal penalties in any of the cases.
With the repetitions, mining companies were pressured for more security. Removals were accelerated around reservoirs.
In February 2019, the residents of Socorro woke up in the early hours of the morning to a siren. There was a risk of a landslide in the Sul Superior dam, also owned by Vale. About 400 people left in a hurry. And they couldn’t go back.
Former resident Élida Couto, 36, and other former neighbors guided the team from Sheet through the ghost town that became Socorro. The bush took over the buildings, and looters took much of what was left.
To this day, Élida pays the electricity bill for the empty house to maintain proof of ownership. She wants to go back. She often goes there to look after the Rococo-style Nossa Senhora Mãe Augusta do Socorro Church, listed as a heritage site in 2006.
Élida also showed off new mining operations nearby. Those affected denounce this advance, while the risk of landslides remains and returning to the village is prohibited.
“They always wanted to bring mining here,” he says. “They took advantage of the issue of Mariana and Brumadinho to remove us and have free access.”
In a statement, Vale states that the dam is in the process of being de-characterized, with completion scheduled for 2029. Only after that would families be able to return.
The company highlights that a judicial reparation agreement provides R$527 million for Barão de Cocais, in income transfer programs and strengthening public services. According to the company, R$90 million has already been paid.
Vale states that there was no expansion of the pits in operation in Barão de Cocais, Ouro Preto (where the district of Antônio Pereira is located, emptied due to the risk of a new rupture) and Mariana. The MapBiomas platform, which analyzes satellite images, indicates, in turn, an expansion of mining areas by 2022, the most recent data.
Organizations of those affected coined the term “dam terrorism” to cover the actions of the companies. The risk would be used as pressure for removals, facilitating mining actions. The region’s economic dependence on mining contributes.
It is the companies that classify the risks of dams, highlights environmentalist Ronald Guerra.
“It’s the company itself that reduces or increases the risk. A self-declaration from a company that we don’t trust is very fragile,” says he, one of the leaders of the Guaicuy Institute.
The city halls of Mariana, Ouro Preto and Barão de Cocais were contacted for the report, but did not respond until the publication of this text.
Companies carry out studies to trace flood spots in the event of a breach. Vale states that it uses “cutting-edge technology to carry out a careful assessment”.
Data released by the Repórter Brasil website shows that floodplains associated with dams at risk total 2,050 km² in 178 cities in the country. Most of it in Minas Gerais.
Ronald Guerra spoke to Sheet in front of the Doutor dam, another Vale structure, in Antônio Pereira. “The studies are somewhat mutant, they change according to the mining company’s interest. This spot has already had several designs.”
In 2020, Vale removed part of the families from Antônio Pereira and neighboring Vila Samarco based on these analyses. Guaicuy provides independent technical assistance to those affected by Pereira. This work is also carried out in Mariana by Cáritas.
“A little device measured it, on the corner of my wall and the neighbor’s, which was removed. The little device didn’t beep at my house and they said ‘the mud doesn’t come here'”, says Gislene Faria, 41, resident of Antônio Pereira. “What is this mud that has a life of its own? Take my neighbor from the back, to the left, to the front, and the mud doesn’t get to my house.”
Today, she, her son and her husband live in abandoned, roofless and vandalized houses. “I was abandoned on the street.”
There are also new occupations at the site for waste management, with the movement of trucks, causing damage to homes and access to waterfalls.
58 people affected by Bento Rodrigues died in these 8 years
The disappearance of entire communities, with no guarantee of rights being met, and the feeling of impotence are seen as a repetition of what happens to those affected by the Mariana tragedy. It has been eight years of a relationship of little transparency and indefinite deadlines, according to leaders.
At least 58 people from Bento Rodrigues alone died before seeing their new homes, according to reports from those affected.
“It’s as if we had frozen our lives in 2015”, says mechanic Mauro Marcos da Silva, 54. He says he would like to return to his hometown of Bento.
Unlike Mauro’s life, mining was not frozen. Samarco returned to operating in Mariana at the end of 2020, during the pandemic.
The company says it operates at 30% capacity and does not use dams. It is possible to see, from the old Bento, truck movements that did not appear before the tragedy.
According to the Renova Foundation, created to manage the reparation, R$32.7 billion was allocated to reparation and compensation actions, reaching 431.2 thousand people.
The new resettlements, in Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu, had their first houses delivered this year. Of the 341 properties planned in the two locations, 234 have completed construction. Some equipment, such as Bento’s school, already works.
Leaders in the clash with Renova did not have their houses started and are talking about retaliation. The foundation states that each work depends on legal procedures and the consent of the person affected.
The characteristics of these new conglomerates are difficult to compatibility with the idea of repairing ways of life, say those affected. Bento Rodrigues was rural, flat, with houses supplied with raw water and spaces for raising animals and crops.
The new Bento is in mountainous terrain. The scenario is that of an urban real estate development, with standardized architecture, similar to condominiums.
“They are carrying out a resettlement to show the world that they delivered better houses than we had”, says Monica dos Santos, 38, who was born and lived in Bento. “But pieces are always missing, they will always be missing.”
The foundation says it followed the wishes of former residents.
“The families chose. Some projects were made available, and they defined them”, says Marcio Pedroso, one of Renova’s managers. “Even different [do que era]families are taking ownership.”
Muniz, a former resident, doubts this appropriation. “Our bond, our history, is there,” she says. “When I die, I want to be buried in Bento Rodrigues.
The cemetery was not washed away by the mud, nor was the adjacent church. There is no definition of what will be done with the ruins of Bento, part of which is submerged in water due to a dike.
André Carvalho collaborated