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Mariana mining disaster: one year on

Nadia Pontes ibr
November 5, 2016

One year ago, the greatest environmental disaster in Brazil's history destroyed landscapes and lifestyles, and separated families in Mariana. Has the tragedy been overcome? DW finds out.

Bento Rodrigues
Image: DW/N. Pontes

Among the few homes left - almost all without doors and windows - a bush is trying to grow on on of the mountains of debris left throughout the village of Bento Rodrigues.

The former rural district of Mariana, in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, is still tinted by the brownish tone of mud that destroyed it on November 5, 2015, when the Fundão dam - under operation under the Samarco mining company - collapsed and killed 19 people.

Over the past weeks, the movement of workers and heavy machinery at the site has became more intense. Construction work on a new dam, called S4, are in a race against time.

The structure, intended to prevent scattered waste from reaching the Doce River basin, should be completed by January 2017 - the height of the rainy season.

Eduardo Moreira
Moreira manages work on the new dam for SamarcoImage: DW/N. Pontes

Part of the valley were Bento Rodrigues was located will be flooded due to the new dam. "The lake will be created in the area already impacted," said Eduardo Moreira, manager of the Samarco works.

"From a technical point of view, it is an important alternative within the waste containment system," he said in reference to other measures.

The ruins of a chapel, built in 1718, will be saved - but will keep a mark from the tragedy. 70-year-old José do Nascimento de Jesus, a Bento Rodrigues community leader, said he will not go back there to give his service.

"We go there and see only mud," he said.

"Where we used to live, everything will be flooded," said Irene de Jesus - the wife of Zezinho, as the leader is known. "Now people are hoping, expecting to move soon to the new Bento, to have our home. And, who knows, to be happy as before."

Since they lost their home and business, the couple lives now in an apartment rented by Samarco, along with 334 other families that were affected. The location of the new Bento Rodrigues has already been set, but the delivery of homes will not take place before March 2019.

Bento Rodrigues citizens
"Zezinho" and his wife Irene Jesus are waiting for the new Bento RodriguesImage: DW/N. Pontes

From mining to damage control

An organized row of trucks drive the long distances between the construction spots for the dike. Since the dam collapsed, Samarco has not been able to carry out mining. Here, it seems more a civil construction firm than a mining company.

Around 3,000 laborers work in shifts around the clock, rebuilding infrastructure and the barriers between the poisonous debris and the Gualaxo River, which flows into the Doce.

Regardless, the Brazilian environmental institute Ibama in its last assessment evaluated the works as insufficient to contain harm from Brazil's largest environmental disaster.

When questioned, the company said that it had restored vegetation per its agreement with the authorities. But Ibama has sent the company back to work, so it can finish hopefully soon - before the rains begin.

Brasilien Ein Jahr nach der Mariana-Tragödie  Minas Gerais
Samarco is working around the clock on "New Santarem," a reinforcement of the tailings damImage: DW/N. Pontes

Until now, Samarco has let go more than a thousand mine workers. The company has sought a new permit from the state environmental agency to deposit toxic mining waste in a nearby iron mining shaft. This past June, the company produced a study on the potential environmental impacts of this.

"The shaft has no physical connection to the system of barriers for the dams," Samarco told DW.

José do Nascimento de Jesus isn't bothered by the company going back to business. "We want them to settle their accounts with us. If they come back to mining, it would be good for us. But everything has to be transparent and safe, so that such a tragedy does not happen again," he said.

On the streets in Mariana's downtown, merchants and taxi drivers complain about the lack of customers and complain about the difficult financial situation. The local government is struggling to balance its books since it stopped collecting taxes when the mining company stopped operating. It was among the main source of revenue for the city.

Lonely and deserted villages

In the district of Paracatu de Baixo, the scenario has not changed much since the DW last visited of Brazil, eight months after the disaster.

The community church of the is still fenced off, but the debris have been removed from inside, said Vinicius Castilho, an archaeologist who works with a team on the recovery of historical artefacts in the affected areas.

Paracatu de Baixo citizen
Since the tragedy, Divine Isaiah's family moved to Mariana and he now lives aloneImage: DW/N. Pontes

A year ago, 66-year-old Divine Isaiah had gone back home after a day in the field - but couldn't find anyone. "My family left Mariana," he said, leaning against the entrance of his small farmhouse. "I have my cattle, my chickens - I cannot give up. I was hoping the church would return, and I still hope so."

On the same street, Antonio Geraldo de Oliveira, 63, also decided to stay. "Everyone has left. We've lost contact with the people here, no one comes over to Mariana. It's a desert," he said.

Antônio Geraldo de Oliveira in front of his garden
Oliveira is able to cultivate vegetables on land that he himself cleared of tailings sludgeImage: DW/N. Pontes

To cultivate the garden in front of his house, Oliveira removed the mud himself. Lettuce, tomato, onion and other vegetables grow now in ground that was covered by mining waste. Oliveira's wife and children moved to the city after the tragedy - and he didn't seek them out.

A year after the Fundão disaster, Oliveira still gets worried when he hears noises at night. "For over 20 years, we had heard that the dam could break one day."

"But I believe we have learned from mistakes, and it should now work properly."