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Sweet River, Sour Valley

By Ana Wainer and Gian Spina

On Nov. 5, 2015, Brazil suffered a catastrophic environmental disaster when a dam holding waste from iron production collapsed, creating a deadly mudslide that killed 17 people, annihilated entire sub-districts of Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais, poisoned the entirety of a 500 mile river and part of the ocean on the coast of Espírito Santo, and continues to devastate ecosystems and livelihoods of those inhabiting its margins. The company responsible for the dam bursting is Samarco, owned by a joint venture between BHP Billings and Vale do Rio Doce.

Fifteen days after the disaster, we went to ground zero of the mudslide to volunteer to help save the animals that were still caught in the mud and were permanently dislodged from their land. We documented the immediate effects on the community and the scars it would inevitably leave behind.

A Week in Mariana

Since the collapse of a dam that used to hold waste from iron production in Mariana, we’ve been thinking a lot about Minas Gerais, its images, its folklore, and the rich literature that came from it. The road that was once used in colonial times as a pathway between gold mines, the Royal Road, which we drove through every day, at times more than once, passing by the city of the great poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The curves of the road, the landscape painted red by mining and the oxidized iron, the precarious roadside shops selling cachaça and cheese, the up and down of the hills of the Royal Road—images so engraved in our cultural collective conscience. It often came back to me, the Gerais of Guimarães Rosa. We crossed the river Gualaxo do Norte—barefoot—to arrive at the other side of Paracatu de Baixo, one of the areas destroyed by the mudslide. The sea of mud is all we could see when overlooking Bento Rodrigues, a village completely annihilated from the map, from atop the mountain. We were reminded of Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands: “so much of everything I carried with me weighed—I resent the belting of the halter.” We too felt the weight of everything. It was devastating.

We arrived in Mariana after an entire day of driving in the rain, expecting to find a city immobilized by the environmental catastrophe that had happened 15 days earlier. That, however, wasn’t the case. We could’ve been anywhere else. It was hard to see life carrying on—women getting manicures in beauty salons, the toy store decorated for Christmas, and people strolling through the late Baroque streets of downtown Mariana—as if no river had been overtaken by toxic waste water nearby. We didn’t know where to go, and it took a while before we found some direction.

Slowly, our eyes became accustomed to our surroundings. Through a mixture of volunteering, documentation, and conversations with locals, we managed to learn more about what was happening in the region. We saw with our own eyes the endless silence of the mud. The silence and the stillness of time were visible throughout the affected surrounding sub-districts. There was the silence of destroyed homes, villages, and abandoned lives; the silence of the local authorities and the state; the silence of the abandoned animals wandering around; and the silence of the “stable” mud with its sour smell and its buried bodies and lives. The most troubling silence here is that of the responsible Samarco company that, with exception of a single road sign pointing to its headquarters and a half-dozen half-mast flags, is invisible in the efforts to save lives, rebuild homes, and reverse the environmental damage the collapse of its dam caused.

On our first night in Mariana, in the middle of what was still complete madness and chaos, we witnessed new life. In the midst of the whirlwind of frustration and desperation of an entire population left to its own devices, we witnessed the plumping up of a dog that hadn’t eaten in weeks; we witnessed the comforting of another dog that would incessantly howl as it yearned for its owner; and we witnessed the innocent and simple frolicking of orphan puppies. We experienced the birth of a baby horse whose mother had been rescued just a few days before. Most importantly, we witnessed the generosity of people from all over Brazil who came together to be part of a task force created to provide support to areas affected by this devastating mining accident. This task force was propelled forward by an almost foolish faith that tomorrow will be better than today.

And yet, despite the heartening events we witnessed, the feeling of helplessness one experiences when facing a disaster of these proportions is almost too much to bear. With time, the human task force grows increasingly weary with the lack of appropriate cars and equipment, veterinarians, rescue crews, and firefighters. The entire group is working day in and day out for free. Amid all the helplessness, seeing people drunk with sadness is perhaps the most challenging: the man who couldn’t speak because all his 64 chickens had died; the old man who kept his savings under his mattress, both of which are now buried under red mud; the lady who sees night falling upon the beige wasteland and her horse stuck in the distance, but doesn’t do anything because there’s nothing that she can do; and the two boys who strolled alongside the dam every day prior to the mudslide, and, after seeing the cracks in the wall, had been ignored when they alerted employees of Samarco.

The media has paid all its attention to the environmental aspects of this disaster, and in doing so has forgotten the human lives that have been affected. It’s almost as if the people and animals of that region don’t deserve attention simply because they are not exports to be capitalized on, because their lives will not become the bodywork of Anglo-Australian cars.

In the news cycle, as soon as a juicier story arises, the old one is forgotten. Right after the mudslide, Brazilian media turned its attention toward an illegal attempt at impeaching the president, leaving aside the actual suffering of the people affected directly and indirectly by this disaster. The press could apply pressure to ensure the accountability of Samarco, which to this day has not paid the fines applied by the Brazilian government. The company’s response to the mudslide demonstrates what actions they may take to ensure the safety of the other dams under their care. Samarco has taken minimal efforts to actually help the population, and aside from temporary housing it has presented no plan to restore their lives and livelihood, nor a plan to restore the environmental damage it caused. Its owners do not seem to want to take any part in the responsibility for what happened. Although no criminal charges have been made yet, the federal police intend to indict at least seven of the company’s executives after finalizing their investigation, predicted to be in April 2016. It is quite clear Samarco was cutting corners to maximize its profits—and it was pretty profitable—and to minimize its costs. The company knew of the risks of the dam bursting, and it had no contingency plan in action.

Although the company has stated in various press releases that the remaining dams are stable, just last week a minor erosion happened again, releasing over 1 million liters (300,000 gallons) of waste into the environment.  

While there are parts of the government applying some pressure, such as judges freezing assets of Samarco’s holding companies (Vale and BHP Billiton) and a federal police investigation, on the policy level there is a petition by a special commission at the deputy chamber to lighten the burden of environmental reports and safeguards for mining companies. Samarco has been allowed to continue operations after only a small period of suspension, and it continues to evade deadlines for paying damages for the disaster. All this goes on while the media lies complacent instead of investigating, and pointing fingers, and applying pressure.

And the mud—the silent implications of the mud and its effect on everyone around it—persist in all of the Gerais.

“How many tons of iron we exported?
How many tears without screech distorted?”

-Carlos Drummond de Andrade, “Lira Itabirana”

*****

*****

Ana Wainer is a stylist and writer. She is also the creator and editor of the MAIS55MAG.

Gian Spina is an artist and a professor at the Escola da Cidade in São Paulo.

[Photos courtesy of Helena Wolfenson and Aline Lata]

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