By Jane Mauro
Once upon a time there was Bento Rodrigues, a bucolic town in the State of Minas Gerais, southeast of Brazil. Life was calm and simple there. A group of women was recently planning to export little-beak pepper jam (in Portuguese), whose recipe the discreet cooks wouldn’t share.
In the afternoon of November 5, this dream and many others were buried with 62 million cubic meters of iron ore processing waste — amount that could fill 25 thousand Olympic pools. This environmental disaster has been considered the worst in the Brazilian history.
That waste came from the Fundao dam burst and the Santarem dam overflow. Both of them are owned by Samarco, a mining company created from a joint venture between two giants in this sector: the Brazilian Vale S.A. and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton.
Waste, mud and debris devastated Bento Rodrigues and its neighbourhood, and made them disappear from the map. Although the dams were surrounded by communities who could be affected by eventual accidents, there were no sirens to alert people of a disaster. Samarco had to advise local key people about the tragedy by phone.
At least 10 deaths were confirmed and about 20 people are missing, including Samarco workers. More than 600 people are homeless. They lost everything: their livelihood, their memories and their home.
Firefighters, non-profit organizations and volunteers were able to save 120 animals so far (dogs, cats, hens, horses and cattle) that were completely disoriented and stuck in the mud. In a backyard, a guinea pig was found inside a blender.
The environmental disaster didn’t involve only the dam neighbourhood. The mud, a mixture of iron oxide and silica (sand), flooded Rio Doce, a river that bathes the States of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo.
Rio Doce is about 850 kilometres long and its course is the most important watershed entirely located in the southeast of Brazil. With the disaster, the water supply was interrupted in several cities as the mud was moving towards the river.
Rio Doce ecosystem has already been impacted by the deforestation of riparian woodland, sewage input and pesticides. Now, the waste generated high turbidity (cloudiness due to the suspended solids usually invisible to the naked eye) and oxygen depletion.
Added to the material that was deposited on the riverbed, the waste caused death of fish and other organisms.
The consequences will affect the terrestrial organisms that depend on the river to survive. The Rio Doce State Park, located in the Atlantic Rainforest on the banks of Rio Doce, is home to several endangered species, including jaguar.
The banks of Rio Doce are also home to the Krenak indigenous communities, who believe the river had a life of its own. To them, the river is a means of livelihood and a matter of culture. It has always provided their subsistence and it’s considered sacred.
All the ecosystem services provided by the Rio Doce watershed — water and fish supplies, tourism, scenic landscapes, cultural values, and erosion and flood control due to its riparian woodland — were abruptly wiped out.
The waste has now reached the Atlantic Ocean, in the State of Espirito Santo, 600 kilometres downstream. So it’s also affecting the estuarine area (an estuary is an area where a freshwater river or stream meets the ocean).
In that area, there’s an important nesting site of the endangered leatherback sea turtle. Several nests with eggs of this turtle and other species have already been removed to safer areas.
Looking at this tragedy, there’s a feeling of perplexity and sadness. How long will it take for the affected areas to recover? How long will it take so that people regain their lives and heal their hearts? Will this tragedy serve as an example to prevent others? Will the responsible for the disaster be punished?
It’s urgent that we discuss the socio-environmental risks that come with the implementation and maintenance of mining companies. I’m not denying their economical relevance to Brazil. However, the impact that this sector causes to our society and biodiversity has to be minimized and properly offset. Similarly, the risks involved in this business must be well-assessed and reduced to acceptable levels.
The main question is “Why did it happen?” I’d say it was neglect, greed and lack of concern for our people and biodiversity values.
Photo credit: Antonio Cruz/Agencia Brasil via Flickr