Brazil: where the toxic river feeds communities

On November 5, the Rio Doce, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, suffered the country’s worst environmental disaster, after the collapse of two tailings dams at a Brazilian iron ore mine owned by Samarco, a Brazilian company founded in 1977 and based in Belo Horizonte.

The world heard about the disaster, but its causes and consequences are still unclear, and will likely remain so for a long time. Firstly because information is being manipulated and the resulting news coming out about the disaster is contradictory and disputable. It was an accident. It wasn’t an accident, it was an environmental crime. Samarco says the residue is not toxic. Lead has been found in samples of mud from the Rio Doce. The Rio Doce will be back to normal in five months. The Rio Doce is dead. Clearly, some of these statements must be false. Try uprooting a tree in your garden and see if an equally leafy one has grown back in its place in five months. Secondly, because studies and investigations must be carried out in order to identify the precise causes and full consequences.

In any case, whether it was an accident or not, the fact is that all too often in Brazil private companies adopt negligent or irresponsible strategies when it comes to the social and environmental systems where they work, from the requests for mining concessions, often granted due to political and economic interests (let’s remember that the mining companies are often among the biggest funders of electoral campaigns) to the operations themselves.

Now that we have established room for doubt, here are a few reflections: In regards to the tons of mud that have poured into the Rio Doce, it is a known fact that mining waste tends to be highly toxic. Is that not exactly why tailings dams are built in the first place? If there were no polluting substances, these dams would not be necessary. And even if the mud was not toxic, it would still alter the entire food chain of the Rio Doce, and therefore the whole ecosystem, by changing how light enters water, the water’s oxygen levels, primary productivity and hence the rest of the chain.

The repercussions will continue for years, but in fact Samarco has been having an impact on the environment of the Rio Doce for many years already. All the big “development” projects, like mining activities, power plant construction, transcontinental pipelines, the establishment of ports and so on, generate an impact on the socio-ecological system in which they are located, from the very moment they begin to be planned. An “accident” like the dam collapse in Mariana, close to Belo Horizonte, is perhaps only the point of no return.

There are constants in these activities, which repeat themselves. To describe it in a very schematic way: A big company arrives in a region rich in natural resources, generally inhabited by rural communities, with their traditional cultures and unique system of knowledge and traditions, who live off these resources. Little by little these communities are pushed out of their environment, using hidden or not-so-hidden means. Either they are forced to sell their land for ridiculously low prices, or to abandon it after receiving threats, or their land is expropriated. On we go, and the company announces that it will bring “development” to the region, creating many jobs. It organizes public meetings, convincing some and leaving others perplexed. The years pass, the concession is granted and the works begin. But along with the works come the workers, mostly men, from other regions, exponentially increasing the number of men in the local area. No jobs go to the locals. The construction comes to an end and the villages are left with a legacy of social problems: marginalization, prostitution, a greater circulation of alcohol and drugs, an army of pregnant teenagers and fatherless children. The plant becomes operational (following a new concession) and because everything is state-of-the-art, only a few specialized workers are required. Now the local communities begin to feel the consequences and they realize that the coveted progress (desenvolvimento, in Portuguese) is nothing more than a regress (des-envolvimento), a distancing of the communities from the land, from its management and from the natural resources.

This is not just the story of Samarco on the Rio Doce. It is the story of the many companies that promise progress. I’ve already heard it across Brazil, from the Northeast to the Southeast, and also elsewhere in South America.

So will the Rio Doce recover? In well-preserved environments, the socio-ecological system gradually absorbs changes, adapting to the new situation, maintaining its structure and function, and managing to return to its original state after a certain period of time. It is what we call resilience, and it was already happening despite the influence of the mining activity. Among the typical consequences of this type of activity are deforestation, destruction of the soil, water and soil pollution, the deviation of waterways, the drying up of groundwater and the risk of accidents. But the collapse of a tailings dam of this magnitude could represent the point of no return in the system’s maintenance.

They say that the river was destroyed by mud. If it was “just” a river, it would already be too much, but instead what has been destroyed is a whole system that had grown up around the river, a system of influxes and outflows, with lives, stories, species, people, crops, cultures, legends, rituals. Different communities of farmers, indigenous people, quilombolas and fishers who are not just part of this system but depend on it for their material and cultural survival. For many communities the river is an environment that unites a symbolic and ritual universe. And the river also depends on these communities to return to life. For sure, today’s adults will never again see the river as it was. And yet the communities must start their lives again, they must plant elsewhere, fish in another river. Or abandon once and for all their traditional activities. And the knowledge and the traditional culture of the Rio Doce will not be passed on to future generations. A river without people, people without a river.

Slow Food, along with other organizations, movements, companies and governments, has an important role to play in this scenario. It must fight for the rehabilitation of the river and an increase in the system’s resilience. It must find ways to encourage the affected communities to maintain their ways of life, even if elsewhere. Additionally, to avoid similar situations being repeated in other places, it is fundamental to support the social movements that defend those who were threatened or affected by the collapse of the dams and demand greater transparency in the issuing of concessions for big plants. Without serious studies of environmental impact, “incidents” like the one in Mariana will continue to occur in these communities, in Brazil, in the rest of Latin America, in Africa.

And if you were still looking for a way to grasp the dimensions of the disaster, here are some figures:

“50 million cubic meters of iron-ore processing waste have poured into the Rio Doce”

“District of Bento Rodrigues (MG) destroyed by a wave of mud”

“Thousands of people without water. Rio Doce water cannot be used”

“11 dead identified, many more still missing”

“Over 600 people homeless”

“35 municipalities affected so far”

“Rio Doce home to around 10 endemic species”

“Mining waste spread along 826 kilometers of the river” (to date)

“…they destroyed two villages and killed a number of people and several tons of fish along the 853 kilometers of the Rio Doce”

“1,000 hectares of permanently protected land along the riverbanks affected”

“At least 1,249 fishermen affected, plus more than 40 towns in the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo”

“Among the species at risk, surubim, lambari, andirá, Rio Doce curimbá, acará topete and piaba vermelha fish as well as amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The list also includes marine species.”

“The mud is spreading towards the marine areas, threatening the sealife of Espírito Santo and Bahia states”

If you are interested in following how events unfold and reading some reliable evaluations, I recommend the site of the independent environmental impact evaluation group of University of São Paulo researchers:  

Marina Vianna Ferreira, PhD in Ecology and Natural Resources, São Carlos Federal University


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