Earnings for a few, losses for everybody

by Caetano Manenti, from Jornalistas Livres, for Greenpeace

Water level marks at the walls of Gesteira Church, in Barra Longa
Photo: Caio Santos

Samarco has had an intense relation with populations of the center-east of Minas Gerais since its arrival, in the end of the 1970s.
We met a resident of Bento Rodrigues who worked in the construction of the dams. José das Graças Caetano, 62, drove tractors that brought down an eucalyptus forest to make space for the Fundão Dam. “The tragedy took almost everything I had: my home, documents, photos. All that was left were the clothes I’m wearing and my car.” The car actually saved his family, as they rushed uphill at the moment of the burst.

Santarém, a more “liquid” dam, worked as a reservoir for the water used in mining activities and is less than two kilometers away from Bento Rodrigues. The hypothesis of a gross location error in the dam construction gained strength on the day after the tragedy. Geologists from the Brazilian Geologists’ Institute refused to speak for the record, but they confirmed that three dams could not have been placed above the home to almost 600 people.

Samarco had a commercial interest in Bento Rodrigues. Locals affirm that the company was aware of the risks posed by the dams and intended to build a fourth dam there – or an escape area in case of an accident. Once again, Samarco registered those families in extensive reports. After the tragedy, one of these people told us: “Samarco knows more about us than ourselves.”

Tatiana Gomes Ferreira defended her master thesis in Environmental Engineering at the Federal University of Ouro Preto, in 2011. The abstract of her work is emphatic: “The population of Santa Rita sees mining as a negative activity, due to the deforestation and the building degradation. Those who consider it positive only take the job creation aspect into account. The worst impact of mining (after the increase in activities of the Alegria Mine, in the area) was a greater degradation of buildings, due to the high traffic of heavy-duty vehicles. Natural waters and the water supply in the district had their quality altered, mostly because of bacterial contamination and sulfur levels above the legal limit.” Father Geraldo Barbosa, a priest at the archdiocese of Mariana, joins the chorus against mining companies. Few people control the mines, while the population has to deal with the pain and the exclusion.”

The paths across Mariana and Ouro Preto have an unusual, strong dusty smell. The pavement is reddish because of the ore that falls off the trucks. Mountains have been sliced, in a typical landscape for mining areas. There are 24 registered dams within the municipality of Mariana. In different degrees, all of them have instilled fear in the population over decades and now more than ever.

Mining is part of Minas Gerais’ cultural, economic and historic heritage. The quest for gold mines brought the first bandeirantes (country explorers) to the region in the 1690s. A lot of wealth was harnessed from those lands, transported by some thousands slaves back in the gold boom. Mining has such a prominent role in our history that even the growth of the city of Rio de Janeiro in the 18th century is associated to the demand for slaves in the mines.

“Confronting the mining industry is not a solution, because it is big and involves many economic interests, and many families depend on them to survive. Moreover, everybody wants a refrigerator, a cell phone, a car...”, says Ricardo André Peixoto, civil engineer, specialized in waste management and member of a Group of Studies on Waste at the Federal University of Ouro Preto. For ten years, he has been working to transform tailings into raw materials for civil construction. “It would be unrealistic to say that the dam will disappear. However, you can make them smaller, with less contaminants. Less mud and more water. It is time to rethink our mining procedures. Risk management cannot be valued. I can value a collapsed dam. I know how much it costs to build one. Now, how much is a life worth? It invaluable.”