On November 5, 2015, Brazil faced the worst environmental disaster in its history. Rushing water burst through a tailing dam near the city of Mariana used to collect mining waste. The torrent destroyed whole villages, swept people under powerful currents, and covered lush farmland in a thick toxic clay. The devastation spread some 300 miles, left over 600 people homeless, and contaminated the water supply used by over 250,000 people.
Yet some two years on, survivors of the disaster still haven’t received full restitution from Samarco, the dam’s owner. Last June, Brazilian federal police concluded the company knew the dam was at risk before it collapsed. Yet Samarco, a joint venture between mega mining corporations BHP Billiton and Vale, has paid less than one percent of its fines from the Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo state governments. In March, the company won a court judgement to suspend a federal lawsuit worth $49.7 billion.
This October, Solidarity Program Officer Lydia Simas traveled to the National Encounter for the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), a Grassroots International partner organization. MAB is a national movement that represents thousands of displaced families in Brazil who have self-organized in areas impacted by the construction of large hydroelectric dams. At the convergence, Lydia spoke to Maria do Carmo D’Angelo and Raiane Rosalia de Oliveira, two women from Mariana who survived the devastation. They work in MAB to continue their struggle for justice for their communities.
« There’s nothing there, everything was destroyed – houses, the health clinic, school, church, sports field, everything was covered by the mud. »
Maria do Carmo
My name is Maria do Carmo, I’m from Mariana. I used to live in Paracatu where Samarco’s crime happened. I’m a rural worker, a family farmer. My husband is a dairy farmer. We had a property where we had no connection to the company [Samarco]. We didn’t know about the dams that were above us, we didn’t know about the risks that we were running, that we were in an area at risk.
Where we lived there were many families that live on small pieces of land that together made up an agricultural production network. Each family produced food for themselves. No one there depended on mining.
When the rupture of the dam happened, everyone lost their homes, lost their lands – because the lands were destroyed. The community that lived in Paracatu lost their village. There’s nothing there, everything was destroyed – houses, the health clinic, school, church, sports field, everything was covered by the mud.
The company decided that the people in the rural areas weren’t part of the village center, so that made it so the community center was on its own and the people in rural areas were on their own. It was a division, because if everyone had stayed together from the beginning I think it would have been much easier to fight for our rights.
Now, two years later, no one has been resettled, no one has received compensation. Many people still haven’t received their subsistence card or emergency assistance. It’s already been two years and there are people who haven’t even received emergency assistance. But for us, we understand the community didn’t want this, we understand that the company found a way to divide us. Because united we are stronger. We’ve been through all of this and we are together.
I was able get my subsistence card six months after the mud buried my property. With the help of MAB I was able to be recognized as an affected person. The mud destroyed my parent’s home, which was in front of mine, and it reached the door of my house. Because it’s a rural area, I had a yard where I raised chickens, goats for milk, I had a vegetable garden and pigs. Everything got flooded by the mud. And I had to prove to the company that my livelihood was there on my land. My income was there. I had to prove with photos, with documents from the property (which was a gift from my parents). I had to provide electric bills and proof of address so that I could be recognized and receive the subsistence card and emergency assistance card. But it took six months.
« With the help of MAB [Movement of People Affected by Dams] I was able to be recognized as an affected person. »
Now I live in a rural area and the company pays the rent for the house, but I have to pay additional rent to the landlord to use the surrounding property to keep my animals. My daughter was already raising horses before, so besides having goats, pigs and chickens, my daughter also raised horses. I had to rent land. Today they are starting to understand that they will have to pay this rent for me. But for two years I have been paying. I want to be reimbursed for what I’ve paid, I don’t want to wait for reparations to come through.
Vale and BHP created a foundation called Renova. The big mining companies have exited the scene and put Renova in to interface with the people who were impacted. Renova contracted Synergia to develop this registration for those affected to fill out. This registration that Synergia presented to us is 558 pages long! You can only imagine how many questions there are on each page. I needed two whole days to fill out this registration.
I filled out the form and I presented it to the socio-environmental school of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and the students couldn’t understand it. Ultimately, we believe that the questions on the form were developed so that we would provide evidence against ourselves.
MAB entered the picture on the 6th of November . They were already in Mariana because there are other dams – Mariana is a city full of dams and Minas Gerais has many dams. So, MAB was already there doing work in Miguel Rodrigues, a town near Mariana. And they arrived right on the 6th. I got to know MAB in December of 2015. There I saw people’s cases that were being resolved through MAB, and I said to myself I’m going to jump on this boat, because if I miss it there won’t be any more. And then I came to learn about this process of organizing, this process of struggle.
There in Mariana the city created a commission to represent the people who were impacted. Six months into the process I started to understand that the members of this commission were very involved the local politics; they weren’t really defending the rights of the people. So I created a petition in my community asking that I be the representative for Upper Paracatu. Since I’m now part of the commission of affected people, I’m participating in the process of redeveloping the registration. With help from the public prosecutor Dr. Guilherme we won the right to redevelop the registration. We wanted to start from scratch because it didn’t provide any information to help those affected. We are battling for this redevelopment. Today my husband is there in Mariana. He will participate in a hearing tomorrow and will speak about this registration. Because with us being involved in the redevelopment, there are questions that the company doesn’t want included in the registration, and the affected people know that these questions must be included in the registration. We agree with the company on some of the questions, but there are many questions that we don’t agree on, and the judge scheduled the hearing tomorrow to talk about this.
My name is Raiane and I’m from Lower Paracatu. Paracatu was a really good community, everyone was united. We used to have community parties, celebrations for the saints days, it was really good. But on the day the dam broke, everyone lost their home. My and my mom’s house was destroyed. She uses an oxygen tank (she has lung problems). Nowadays things are really difficult.
Before we had our house, now we go to sleep every night thinking, “You think tomorrow we will have our land, our home?” It’s really difficult. Before my mom only needed a little medicine, now her medicine costs 200 reals. When the dam burst it disturbed many people in Paracatu. Two people from Paracatu already died after it happened, they became sick. Each person is in a different place now, people aren’t together anymore, not united. There will be a meeting but only a few people come. Before everyone in Paracatu was united, today not so much. When the dam burst everyone went their own way, it ended everyone’s unity.
« Samarco has done nothing for us… We had a good life there. It was simple, but it was ours. »
Samarco has done nothing for us, for me they’ve done nothing. We had a good life there. It was simple, but it was ours. Today it’s different. Today with the money they give us they think we should be more than satisfied, but my mom, like many people, is not satisfied because we’re not in our own home. We can’t break a window because the house isn’t ours, it belongs to others. We can’t say that it’s ours. It’s really bad.
We just keep waiting, hoping that one day Samarco will provide for the people affected. It’s already been two years and to this day we’ve gotten nothing. We keep fighting.
Maria told me to come [to the National Encounter], to help and provide some support. She and I are the only two people here from Paracatu. I think this event is really good. I’m listening to a lot of people. Before, I only knew of two dams that had broken. Here we are getting to know many people from many different towns that are in similar situations. We discover that it’s not just us; this didn’t just happen to us. There are people who are worse off than us. We ask each other questions, talk with each other. For me is the first [meeting of MAB], and I think it’s really cool. We see many people from many countries who came here for our encounter, wanting to know each of our stories.
After the rupture of the dam, as Raiane said, there were many cases of psychological illnesses – physical illnesses as well, but many psychological ones. For me to be here today, for example, I’m having to take two anti-depressants. My husband also takes anti-depressants. He never took them before. The dam killed 19 people, killed our river, killed our environment, devastated our forests and it continues to kill.
« The dam killed 19 people, killed our river, killed our environment… and it continues to kill. »
Take this older woman from the neighboring town of Campinas, after seeing the garden where she raised chickens destroyed, with everything totally buried under the mud… Every time someone from the company would come by she would ask them if they had gone to fix up her garden. They wouldn’t give her a straight answer. They weren’t going to fix up her garden. On December 19th she had a stroke, on the 27th she had two more. Today she has to use diapers, she is in a wheelchair or in bed, she can’t walk anymore, she can’t feed herself. She’s 64 years old. She used to plant, harvest firewood to cook, she cooked, she milked her cows, she planted in her garden – she planted beans, corn. She had an active life on her land. I believe that she suffered the strokes as a result of seeing everything in her life that she ever had, things that she struggled for her whole life, everything buried by the mud. I’m sure of this. There are many other cases – really a lot – cases of people who are sick, people who aren’t aware yet that they’re sick, but we know that they are. People who crying all the time, people who don’t want to leave their rooms, who don’t want to go out. There is a man from Paracatu who never used to take medications, now he’s on black stripe which is an incredibly strong medication for depression. If he doesn’t take it he can’t sleep.
What happened wounded our pride. We’ve sweated and battled to have what we have, and today for a person to sleep in a bed that’s not hers, to live in a house that’s not hers… In the rural district everyone has their own little house. As simple as it might be, everyone has their own little place. For a person to live in a space that isn’t his is humiliating.
Because Mariana is a mining town, the mining industry controls the community. People think that if the company doesn’t survive they will die. If someone gets their subsistence card and goes to buy groceries she gets bullied, she faces prejudice for using the card. So people prefer to go grocery shopping when it’s quiet and there’s no one in the store. Children in the schools have had rocks thrown at them. This happened to children from Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu. Other kids call them Mud Foot. And the children have serious problems because of this. We need to look at mental health now, because when children are dealing with depression it’s very difficult for it to be controlled later.
We want people from other countries to be in solidarity with us to confront the company. They are really big companies – BHP Billiton and Vale are really powerful. But if we are united here in our own country, with the solidarity from other countries to fight for our rights, I think we can be more powerful than them.
If we don’t fight we’ll never win. Many countries are with us, the more people the better. This is strength and struggle.