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Marino D’Ângelo Júnior regularly takes antidepressants and medication to help him sleep. A former resident of Paracatu de Baixo, a district of the city of Mariana in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the 54-year-old says he has lost his sense of self since 60m cubic metres of mining waste flattened his town, forcing him to live in a rented property near the centre of an environmental disaster that shocked the world eight years ago.
D’Ângelo is one of the survivors of the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam near Mariana. Almost a decade on, the people affected by Brazil’s worst environmental tragedy still await justice as they live under the shadow of the toxic mud that swept away life as they knew it.
“The collapse of a dam isn’t what you see on TV – the river of mud destroying things,” says D’Ângelo. “A dam failure entails an infinity of invisible ruptures. The rupture of connections, family links, communities, histories, dreams.”
D’Ângelo used to own a herd of 60 dairy cows before the incident but he began to sell them off as he found himself unable to work properly, which led to him being “forced into poverty”. A member of the Commission for People Affected by the Fundão Dam, D’Ângelo holds the mining companies responsible for the disaster and the subsequent neglect of the affected populations who still struggle with losing their livelihoods and way of life.
The dam – which was managed by Samarco, a joint venture between the Brazilian mining company Vale and the Anglo-Australian company BHP – collapsed on 5 November 2015, and caused mining waste to flow nearly 700km (430 miles) down the Rio Doce into the Atlantic Ocean, devastating everything in its path.
The torrent of toxic sludge buried villages, killed 19 people and left thousands more homeless. Nearly a decade later, hundreds of thousands of people continue to suffer the effects daily, in the contaminated soil unfit for agriculture, the diseased fish they catch in the polluted river, and the breakdown of their communities and cultural traditions.
No one has yet been held accountable for the socio-environmental disaster. BHP, Vale, Samarco and eight other defendants stand accused of environmental crimes in a Brazilian court case that has been dragging on for seven years. They are due to face a judge for questioning this month.
Separately, about 700,000 people are suing BHP in a UK court, seeking £36bn in reparations in English legal history’s most significant group claim. BHP denies liability.
Tom Goodhead of Pogust Goodhead, the London-based international law firm representing the group, says he is “optimistic that BHP will do the right thing and seek to resolve the case to avoid the need for a trial”, which is now set for October 2024.
In 2016, BHP, Vale and Samarco set up the Renova Foundation to compensate for loss and damages. BHP said in a statement that Renova has spent more than 28.1bn reais (£4.6bn) on remediation processes and that more than 400,000 people have received payments.
However, Brazilian prosecutors said earlier this year that the money supposedly spent by the foundation is not properly accounted for. Many people say they have received nothing and are still fighting for recognition and compensation.
This is the case of Thatiele Monic Estevão, who travelled halfway around the world last week to address the board of BHP during the company’s AGM in Adelaide. “You are killing us,” she said, accusing the mining company of environmental racism. BHP strongly rejects the accusations.
Estevão, 31, is the leader of the Vila Santa Efigênia quilombola association, representing four quilombola communities – rural settlements of descendants of enslaved Africans – located near offshoots of the Rio Doce. “Although mud did not pass over our territories, we live with the impacts of the mud, what we call invisible mud,” she says, explaining how her communities can no longer rely on small-scale agriculture, fishing and artisanal gold panning to make a living. Unemployment and poor mental health are widespread, and they are losing traditional practices.
Farther downstream, Indigenous peoples for whom the river was sacred have suffered a profound spiritual loss.
“There is no way of measuring how much we lost and how much we continue losing to this day. It’s irreparable,” says Anderson Krenak, 39, a leader of the Krenak Indigenous people.
“My people feel isolated and abandoned,” says Wakrewa Krenak, 32, a female leader from the same community. “We believed that Watu [the Rio Doce] was a father and a mother for our people. He would give us food and medicinal plants. Everything was the river. After 2015, a part of our history died because we can no longer practise our culture.”
Her two younger children, aged two and six, will never experience the connection with Watu that was an integral part of Krenak culture.
But in the face of hardship, “the story of the Krenak people has also become one of resilience”, she adds.
Resilience is also on display in Bento Rodrigues, the first village to be buried under the toxic sludge eight years ago. Displaced residents have started moving into “New Bento”, a modern settlement being built by Renova seven miles away. Yet they regularly return to the abandoned village to hold cultural and religious celebrations amid the petrified ruins.
“People are trying to keep the traditions swept away by the mud alive,” says D’Ângelo.
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