Our team of reporters visited Mariana on the days that followed the Samarco disaster and traveled along the River Doce to hear the people affected and to discover that thirst for money and negligence by the company and the government are behind Brazil’s worst environmental disaster in history

By Caetano Manenti, from JornalistasLivres, for Greenpeace

photos: ©Leonardo Sá

Horror was preceded by noise. 

The people of Bento Rodrigues were the first to hear the torrent of mud, rocks, heavy machinery and all sorts of debris. “When I heard it, I thought it was the end of the world”, tells us a woman, after crying inconsolably while trying to figure out what was left of her hometown one day after the tragedy. 

It was almost 3.30 PM on November 5 – a warm day, like most days in the valley, like 2015 in the center south of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. From that moment on, nothing was the same. The tailings dam of Fundão, with about 55 billion liters of a thick, red mud, burst over the 7 billion liters of waste water of the Santarém dam. The combination of water and mud swamped the area. The world is not over like that woman thought. However, part of it is now dead. 

“That noise made me think the world was coming to an end”   
Photo: Bruno Bou

In a sad resemblance to the golden past of the Minas Gerais state, the wealth of Brazilian resources is not kept by the country.  In this case, train tracks have cut through the forest in order to send commodities abroad through the harbors in the neighboring state of Espírito Santo 
Photo: Gustavo Ferreira

The mud has covered the 800 kilometers between the dam and the Atlantic Ocean,leaving a trail of death, tragedy and an endless list of local problems: mining activity itself, occupational safety, absence of contingency planning, difficulties in the access to drinkable water, lack of respect (and love) for nature, and the longstanding disregard for the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Jornalistas Livres (Free Journalists)and Greenpeace teams traveled along this path of destruction and now answer why this interstate disaster (the Doce River crosses two Brazilian states) may be the end of the line for a country which has been harnessing its wealth over the last five centuries with no respect for anything or anyone: animals, plants, rivers, oceans, the poor, the indigenous peoples. 

They knew about it 

The State Public Prosecutor’s Office had already expressed their concern about the Dam of Fundão 

The first clues to understand what happened with the dams operated by Samarco – a joint venture between the Brazilian firm Vale and the Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton – date back to October 24, 2013. On that Thursday, the tragedy was foreseen through an official document of the Minas Gerais’s Public Prosecutor's Office. 

Prosecutor Carlos Eduardo Pinto forwarded a technical opinion to the Environmental Policies Council of Minas Gerais, a state institution, about the risks of renewing the operation license for the Dam of Fundão, expired inSeptember 2013. Based on an analysis by the Prístino Institute, the prosecutor gave a stark warning about the danger in the contact between the tailings in the Dam of Fundão and the sterile piles of Fábrica Nova, a mine in Mariana explored by Vale.  

An explanation: “tailings” are the materials discarded after the ore is processed,and they are kept in dams. “Sterile” is the material that involves the ore and is rejected or removed in the first steps of the process in the mine. This material can be piled at the mine or used in earthwork activities. 

The study says, “this situation [of contact between the dam and the sterile piles] is inadequate for both structures, as it may destabilize the pile and intensify erosion. (…) The contact between them is not recommended because of their own physical nature. The sterile pile requires low humidity and efficient draining, whereas the tailings dam is a water reservoir with intrinsic moist.” The contact between both materials would affect the draining of the dam.

Other alarming extracts have shown to be prophetic and take that technical opinion one step further. The document set out three conditions for the license renewal: 

  • a) Regular geotechnical and structural monitoring for dikes and dams, with maximum interval of one year between samples.

    b) Contingency planning for risks or accidents, especially for the community of Bento Rodrigues, district of the municipality of Mariana, Minas Gerais.

    c) Dam break analysis to be presented to the Environmental Regularization Regional Office.  

The three paragraphs that could have changed everything  
Photo: Gustavo Ferreira

After the burst, it was discovered that the Minas Gerais’s Environmental Policies Council never replied to that opinion. The local Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development justified that the operations at the Dam of Fundão were legal, once the Council rules state that “processes that demand presentation of a renewal requirement within the validity period of the license will have that period automatically extended, until decision of the Council’s Regional Unit”. 

Therefore, Fundão was operating under an automatically renewed license, despite the adverse report on the security hazards for the dam and, more specifically, for the people of Bento Rodrigues. The possibility of a burst was a frequent topic of conversation in the rural village, according to residents who spoke to us during our stay in Mariana and region.

Still, not too long ago Samarco won an award for its efficiency on the face of a global economic crisis. Only four months before the accident, the company was awarded for the third time as“Best Company of the Year” in the mining segment in a prize offered by Brazilian magazine “Exame” in their “Best and Biggest” annual ranking. 

The award is based on the compilation and analysis of data by the Institute for Accounting, Actuarial and Financial Research Foundation (Fipecafi), from the University of São Paulo. The choice of Samarco was justified with the following words: “They managed to grow amid an economic downturn and a season of low iron ore prices. The company deliveredthe best value for money in its segment and stood out for the third time, with turnoverof US$ 2.6 billion and earnings by US$ 1 billion. According to the company, the secret lies in planning, cost control and customer loyalty programs”. 

It was an excellent performance in such adverse conditions. According to “TheSteel Index” reports, the iron ore market is experiencing a critical moment. The immediate delivery of the commodity in the Chinese port of Tianjin was quoted at US$44.20 on November 24. It was its lowest price since the beginning of July, when the raw material for steel plunged to a record of US$ 44.10, its worst value since 2008. As a reference, in February 2011, the ton was sold at US$ 187.10. In four years, prices plummeted by 76 per cent. Specialists in the sector who declined to speak on the record said it is perfectly conceivable that Samarco mines were operating close to or at full capacity levels to cover the losses from the sharp drop in ore prices. 

“In 2014, the iron ore selling price fell 47 per cent compared to the previous year. The rise in global offer associated to a slowdown in strategic consuming markets points to a long-term scenario; the mining industry now faces a different business environment, a new chapter in the history of mining.” 

The extract is part of the Samarco’s “Annual Sustainability Report 2014”. The solution? Higher productivity and cost control. The latter can be easily exemplified. Even though they argue to follow a strict Emergency Action Plan for dams and to have spent 1,356 hours in training employees directly or indirectly involved with activities, in practice, the company did not even had sound alarms for emergencies such as a dam burst. Sirens were installed two days after the tragedy “in case of a new collapse”, says engineer and project manager Germano Silva Lopes. Samarco’s motto is “development with engagement.” 

As for productivity, the company numbers speak for themselves. In 2009, Samarco produced 16 million tons of iron pellets, but they reached 25 million tons in 2014. This is a 56 per cent growth in only five years, 19 per cent between 2013 and 2014. The increase in production certainly led to a greater amount of waste. 

Beads used in ore pelletizing process were also charged to Bento.
Photo Rafael Lage

By 2009, the waste production had reached 13.7 million tons. In 2014, there was a record production of 21.9 million tons of waste (a 60 percent increase, from which 33 per cent occurred between 2013 and 2014). Where was the excessive waste kept? Samarco answers the question in its “Annual Sustainability Report 2014”: 

“At Samarco, all the waste (sandy material and mud) generated in the processing of iron ore is kept in a system formed by the Germano and Fundão dams and the Cava do Germano sterile waste pile, at Samarco’s unit in Germano (MG).

If the Public Prosecutor’s Office warned about the risk of “destabilization” of the dam in 2013, that risk was increased by the addition of millions of tons of waste to it.

Worker sat the dam confirmed that the company was working to increase the capacity of the Germano and Fundão dams. The Dam of Fundão was expected to be elevated to 940 meters (above sea level) by 2022. Back in 2013, when the Public Prosecutor requested the technical opinion, the dam had 920 meters. By then, there was a proposal to elevate it to 930 meters, which was condemned by the opinion because of the risk of collapse. 

Mining Dams: there are more than 700 only in Minas Gerais state
Photo: Bruno Bou

After incidents in two other dams, public authorities and Samarco admitted the possibility of a collapse at the Germano dam 
Photo: Gustavo Ferreira


Aerial images of Bento Rodrigues expose what might be the Brazil’s worst environmental disaster ever. A nightmare, the end of times. Instead of a meteoror a storm, it came as mud, officially referred to as tailings. “Dams are the only non-profitable aspect of the mining industry”, says an engineer specialized in the area, during an interview at a laboratory of the Federal University of Ouro Preto (17 km from Mariana), a week after the disaster. 

Differently from the recommendation by the Public Prosecutor, Samarco did not have a contingency plan for the Bento Rodrigues rural community. All we were told wasthat they made a few phone calls for residents. As the roaring wave of destruction approached, people ran for theirlives. The elderly weretaken by car. The youngest ran to the village’s upper areas. 

Residents were relieved that the burst happened at daylight, as many more people would have died if it had occurred at night. Nineteen people died and six went missing. It is known that five people could not leave the village in time: three elderly persons and two children. One of them was Emanuelly Vitória, 5, who got lost from Wesley Isabel, her father, and was carried by the mudflow. Thiago Damasceno, 7, was in his grandmother’s bedroom. Maria Elisa Lucas, 60, was visiting the district to fish at the time of the incident. Maria das Graças Celestino, 65, went back home for her belongings and was not seen again. Antônio Prisco de Souza, known as Totó, 65, could not escape, as well as numerous animals – cats, dogs, bulls, horses and caged birds died instantaneously or agonized in the mud. 

Many of those who escaped to the hills could not leave the place immediately after the tragedy. Rescue teams did not arrive until the evening and many people suffered amid the chaos of that night. At least there were people like Danilo Caetano, the hero of the day. His name was heard everywhere on the day after the tragedy. Now living in the neighboring Santa Rita Durão, the 39-year-old man used his knowledge acquired over the years spent in the community and created alternative ways for dozens of people to leave the area. An employee at the City Health Department – who did not wish to identify herself, but also spent the night saving people – told us that Danilo climbed trees to save five people. “He went up and down the hill with water and food for the people he couldnot rescue.” Exhausted in the morning, Danilo left the town. Instead of thepleasant bar under mango trees, mud. Instead of the soccer field, the church and his school, mud. 

The tailings “devastated the town”, in the words of residents who barely believed their eyes and climbed the neighboring hill to watch the scene. Bento Rodrigues was a sub-district with the district of Santa Rita Durão, in the northwest of Mariana, near the cities of Catas Altas and Ouro Preto, at the feet of the Caraça Range. Both date back to the 18th century, when mining activities began in the state of Minas Gerais. However, the region could not be described as quiet, as explosions in the surrounding mines repeatedly shook the town – especially at lunch time. 

Leaders of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) and the Movement of People Affected by Mining (MAM) criticize the support provided by Samarco to the victims, especially in Bento Rodrigues. State coordinator for MAB Pablo Dias says that “Samarco took actions to set families apart. They tried to push individual negotiations, with no regard for people’s emotional state. We have pressed public authorities and Samarco for them to let people calm down and decide what they want for their lives. On the first week, residents were asked to fill out a questionnaire informing their lost possessions. They were also asked about their preference between relocation or indemnification, which suggests both things would not be possible.” 


After sweeping Bento Rodrigues, the mud followed its way toward the southeast. It crossed the border of Mariana, destroyed the Gualaxo do Norte River and reached the towns of Paracatu de Baixo and Barra Longa in the early morning of November 6. Citizens had been buzzing about the mud since the afternoon, which saved lives but did not prevent panic and havoc in small businesses and homes in the lower portion of the town. 

Losses were worse in areas such as the district of Gesteira. The newest portion of the village, in an elevated area, was isolated. Gesteira Velha, the old town, was at river level and was covered by the mud. Fifteen families lost their homes, their small school and a soccer field. As a token of resistance, their old church still stood, with five meters of its walls in mud.  

“Thank God you brought water”, said Ni PintoBento, 73, thankful for the Red Cross activities. She explained that she was very thirsty, after all, the dry season is still lingering and her well was flooded by the mud. 

— “It seemed it was coming to an end…”
— “What was coming to an end, miss Ni?”
—  “The world!”

The Gualaxo do Norte River carried the mud to the Carmo River, flowing towards the city of Santa Cruz do Escalvado, where we witnessed one of the most shocking scenes in our trip. In this town, the Carmo and Piranga Rivers meet, resulting in the Doce River. Owned by Vale, the Risoleta Neves hydroelectric power plant was built in this first portion of the River Doce. In 2004, the village of São Sebastião do Soberbo was flooded for the construction of the plant dam, the Candonga Lake. The mud arrived on Friday morning and wrecked the lake, turning it into a vast natural cemetery, where dead trees, human beings, fish and other animals lay. The smell of death was almost too strong to bear, and the scenes were too hard to believe. 

Form bridges and ravines, we could see a few firefighters and Samarco employees working in some kind of rescue aftermath. We found a Civil Defense team in one of the few local restaurants. Their leader refused to speak for the record, but another agent admitted, with a rather depressed look:  “yesterday, I found a dead body. Later, I found an arm.”  

The mud came hard in the small towns of Paracatu de Baixo and Barra Longa, covering streets, raiding homes and businesses
Photo: Bruno Bou


When the mud reached the River Doce, it began a torturing journey for the northeast, heading for the cities of Ipatinga and Governador Valadares

The River Doce  runs towards Brazil’s Steel Valley and crosses the River Doce State Park, one of the last safeguards of the Atlantic Rainforest in an area where the word “forest” became a synonym for eucalyptus plantations. European naturalists studied the protection area in the 19th century, taking part in expeditions organized by Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II. The mud makes its way through the park and away from sight, because the river flows in an area of difficult access. The direction of the conservation unit expressed their concern about losses in aquatic vegetation, a biodiversity that may require centuries to be fully recovered.

There is a concentration of steel manufacturers in the surroundings of the Doce River, such as ArcelorMittal Inox Brasil, in the municipality of Timóteo, or Usiminas,in Ipatinga, a city with a population of 255,000. Less than a kilometer away from the Doce river bed, Usiminas belches black smoke in the atmosphere. Pollutionhas been killing the river for a long time. Since the 1980s, the River Doce has been considered unsuitable for bathing in Governador Valadares, our next stop. 

An urban center with 275,000 people, Governador Valadares is the most populated city in our muddy pathway. Residents of the neighborhoods that border the River Doce were surprised by the amount of floating dead fish – they were believed to no longer exist in the area because of pollution.  

However, water supply is their main concern. The river was so filthy that the local water service sanitation provider interrupted water intake from the city’s only source as soon as the mud arrived, five days after the disaster. 

At the home of a numerous family, we met Maria Eunice, 52, and her husband Enildo de Jesus Santos, 55. They stocked water in buckets and bowls, for washing clothes and bathing. However, Maria faced an even bigger problem at work – she is a cleaner. She was dismissed from four out ofthe five homes she cleans, which cut her earnings by 80 per cent that week.

“The city mayor [Elisa Costa, from Laborers Party] favors people in the water distribution. It is only for hospitals. What about the rest of the population? My work depends on water! I am a cleaner! I need water to work”, says Eunice, distressed by the situation.  

Fish farmer Esdras Rulon, 32, tries to hold his tears as he fills his water reservoir with a donation from a neighbor’s well: “Samarco was very irresponsible. People will not think of anything but profit and more profit. They forget everything else. This is beyond repair! There’s no way! It is such a great loss. I have almost 400,000 fish in my fish farm. I cannot sleep at night because of my fear of the mud. Today is Saturday and I should be relaxing in my bed, but I’m looking for water. For God’s sake, help me.”

The battle for water is easy for those who have money. During our stay, pick-up trucks carrying full water tanks were a common scene. Water tank trucks supplied hotels and expensive buildings. For R$ 50, one could fill an 800-liter water tank.  

The length of the lines for the mineral water bottles provided by Samarco and distributed by an army-related institution revealed that not so many could afford it. On Sunday morning, after five days without water supply, 3,000 people stood in ten lines over the city. Each person could take a maximum of six 1.5 l bottles each. Some women cried over their lack of strength for carrying their own salvation.

Watu is dead 

In the city of Resplendor, losses of the Krenak indigenous people cannot be described in their words 

No other experience was as poignant as visiting the Krenak people village in the municipality of Resplendor, near the border between the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. On our way, we crossed bridges that reflected the greatness of the river, which can be 500 meters wide. The dirt road flanks the Vitória-Minas Railway, another sad character in our story – it used to transport the ore from Minas Gerais to the harbors in Espírito Santo. We reached the village only two days after the mud killed “Watu”, as they call the river. They were mourning it. Batik Krenak welcomed us. His skin was painted black between his stomach and lower lips. 

“In the life of the Krenak, everything comes from Watu.  Bathing, hunting, fishing and especially, religious worship. We have a strong relation with the river; we consider it as our mother. After this incident, the Krenak made a decision [to sit down on Vale’s railroad tracks].  We cannot be in this situation. Those responsible for this have to come here and talk to us, to know how we are going to live from now on. We are mourning the river, because it is dead. They think they only killed the river, but they also killed us.”

Djanira Krenak, the tribe’s matriarch, welcomed us with herbs in her hands and a faraway look in her eyes. She is the community’s moral and religious leader – for instance, she baptizes all children born in the village.

“It’s just like killing people. It’sthe same thing. They killed the river, the fish, the water snake – the sucuri. The river means everything to us. It's sacred, it’spart of a whole, our religion, it’s where we used to teach our children to swim. Our dead relatives were part of the river too. They killed our people.”  

We followed the arrival of the mud to the city of Aimorés, in the border of the state of Espírito Santo. After killing in so many ways, the mud was about to kill the cattle with thirst and the snakes with despair. The dry vegetation, the dead river and the suffering along the journey seemed endless. On our way, we heard a new, apocalyptic-like story. We were warned about sucuri (giant snakes) attacks. The mud had caused a lack of oxygen in the dam, so the snakes were trying to escape from it, going uphill and fighting for survival.

Noah's Ark

Our journey follows the mud alongside Doce River in the state of Espírito Santo and testify an endemic species rescue operation

By Egle Bartoli, from Jornalistas Livres, for Greenpeace 

Photo Bruno Bou

With a sweet look in his eyes, the boy said goodbye to the River Doce,which awaited the red mud that darkened its waters and sentenced it to death. Just like Lucas, who touched the water with his hands and feet – maybe for the last time – the population of the city of Linhares, Espírito Santo, mourned and said farewell to the River Doce on November 18, one day before the toxic mud from Samarco hit the area.

On that same day, in the Linhares dock, an old sign seemed to foresee the tragedy: “I am life, I create life. Let me live.” Signed: The River Doce. Around the sign, a crowd of curious people, fishermen, journalists, biologists, women, children. All of them stared at the small fishing boats that came back with typical local fish, such as sardines, moray eels and freshwater shrimp.

In the so-called “Noah’s Ark” operation, the Federal and State Public Prosecutor’s Offices sealed a partnership with fishermen associations and environmental organizations, expressing their affection for the river that crosses the town and belongs its history. As in the Bible, the operation tried to save native species from adeluge (this time, a muddy one), so that they can restock the river when themoment comes. The idea is to avoid the possible extinction of the many endemic species of the river.

After the collection in the River Doce, samples were taken by representatives of the Federal Institute of Espírito Santo, who brought the necessary equipment and a water tank prepared to receive the animals. The creatures were poured into the tank while a crowd surrounded the car to watch the procedure.  

The samples were then taken to the institution headquarters, where they were classified and organized. The hope is that the River Doce will come back to life and the fish will be able to go home. The entire region adopted the same measure. 

Now, the muddy water move towards the sea, and an amazing silence takes over the cities. This tragedy may have begun with a thunderous burst, but now there is an oppressive quietness in the air. In the municipality of Linhares, where the River Doce meets the ocean, the village of Regência grieves in silence. Every corner of this idyllic township mourns the river. 

Their economy is based on fishing and tourism. Helpless, they waited for the mud.  Wesley do Nascimento, a local fisherman, described his feelings: “It feels as if we are in ICU, wait for death to come.”  

Fishermenfelt dismayed and despaired. They had no support from any authority to develop a survival plan, and fishing had been prohibited since November 9, at the risk of imprisonment. “Idon’t know if I’ll live long enough to fish here again one day”, says Wesley. The situation forced many of them to work temporarily for their tormentors, as they were hired by Samarco to install protective barriers along the riverbank. According to the mining company, that would contain the mud.  

Despite their disbelief, the fishermen accepted the offer for survival reasons, and took part in that last attempt to mitigate the environmental impact on the village. One of them was outspoken about his lack of confidence: “These buoys are meant to contain oil spills – of course they won’t solve anything. We are fishermen and Samarco thinks we are ignorant, but they are wrong. This measure is nonsense. If this was designed to contain oil – which floats above the water, on the surface – it will be useless against the mud that is dissolved in the water.”

He was right.

Fishing as a hobby and an economic activity is now threatened. Nobody knows when it will be possible to fish or eat anything from the waters of the River Doce or the contaminated sea.  

His colleague makes an appeal to authorities: “Do something, come here and take a look at our situation. They make millions while we are prejudiced, the weak side – fishermen, riverside people. Fishing is not our only source of income; other people live off the river indifferent ways. They have to do something, how are we going to survive? What about our children?” 

The mud reached Linhares on that same day. It was early afternoon on November 19. On the bridge, we could see the river and its intense shades of brown. 

At the pier, people gathered to see the tragedy approaching. The boats were empty, nobody was saving fish. However, one woman kept on washing clothes in the dirty waters, as if she refused to accept that things would not be the same from now on.

What can they expect? Dead fish, contaminated waters and vegetation, migration of animals that fed on the river? The sky was crossed by seagulls that flew above our heads, unaware that there will be no tomorrow.

On Sunday, November 22, the River Doce, red with iron and mud, dumped that waste on the ocean, more than 700 km away from the original incident. The different densities and temperatures kept both fluids apart for a while. Then, a terrifying picture took shape, something that resembled the logo of Vale, BHP Billiton’s partner in Brazil’s worst environmental accident in history.

The verses of João Cabral de Mello Neto in “The Death and Life of a Severino”. 

“– Was it a natural death,

my soul brother,

Was it a natural death

or was it murder?

– It was not natural,

my soul brother,

this was murder,

in an ambush.”