Crime in Mariana

Families struggle to rebuild communities 5 years after dam bursts

Five years later, people affected live and fall ill in temporary housing while waiting for collective resettlement

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Farmer Antônio Geraldo de Oliveira amid the ruins of the Paracatu de Baixo district school - Pedro Stropasolas

Five years after Samarco's crime in Mariana (MG), families in the districts of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira - the three communities most impacted by the mud released by the ruptured Fundão Dam - still do not have somewhere to call home.

“People have already died who will not see their homes rebuilt. And many will end up dying without ever seeing that”, laments farmer Antônio Geraldo de Oliveira, while walking among the buried chairs and children's books at the old school in Paracatu de Baixo, 35 km from the city center. He lives in one of the few houses left over after the mud destroyed the century-old village.

On November 5th, 2015, the Fundão Dam, owned by Samarco, a company controlled by Vale and BHP Billiton, broke and dumped about 50 million cubic meters of iron ore waste throughout the entire Rio Doce river basin, even reaching the Atlantic Ocean.

The toxic sludge that destroyed the centennial communities in Minas Gerais killed 19 people, contaminated 663km of the Rio Doce river and sentenced approximately 700,000 people from 43 municipalities to poverty, due to the effects on their ways of life.

In total, 342 family homes await construction through collective resettlement, under the responsibility of the Renova Foundation, which was created by the mining companies to manage the repair of areas destroyed by the mining waste. Meanwhile, they live in temporary housing rented by the Foundation in the Mariana urban area.

So far, none of those responsible have been punished in the case, which is being tried as a crime of “flooding”, and not as a homicide or manslaughter, which prevents the trial from going to a jury.

Brasil de Fato contacted the Renova Foundation to better understand the construction delays and problems with the precarious temporary housing, but did not get a response until the publishing of this report.

Families that remained on the land, like Antônio's, are exceptions. In general, they are the families of farmers who refute life in the city and prefer the countryside, even with the toxic dust, little access to electricity and frequent thefts.

"There was no violence here, nobody ever killed anyone, everyone was friends with each other. Now it’s too difficult", laments the victim.

Construction works of the new Paracatu de Baixo community are ongoing, but there is not a single house built, only cleared land, the access roads and the foundations of lots that will house 98 families.

The district, which sits on the banks of the Rio Gualaxo do Norte, lost its historic center, its streets, buildings, the Bar do Jairo pub, the football field, the Paracatu Church, and public facilities such as the health clinic and the school. All this debris was shown to Brasil de Fato by Antônio: "Man destroys everything".

Delays and precarious housing

The deadline for the delivery of the projects has already been postponed thrice. The Renova Foundation's first promised completion date was in March 2019. After successive failures to deliver, the 2nd District Court of Mariana determined August 27, 2020, as the final deadline for delivering the homes. If that is also not met, there will be a daily fine of R $ 1 million applied to the Foundation run by the mining companies. Today the deadline is February 27, 2021.

"It’s clear that none of the three settlements will be ready in February of 2021, seeing how they are today. Bento Rodrigues with very few homes built, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira without any houses ready", explains Letícia Oliveira, from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB ).

In addition to these three communities, there are also families from other areas that were devastated who are part the resettlement program. Altogether there are 512 family homes set to be built, 468 in Mariana, 43 in Barra Longa and one in Santa Cruz do Escalvado.

According to an analysis carried out by the Ramboll consultancy firm, at the request of the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), only nine families have been resettled by Renova so far.

As for the temporary housing rented by the Renova Foundation, the MPF found that 63% of them, in the municipality of Barra Longa (MG), have some type of inadequacy, because they are located in high risk areas or because they have other problems related to habitability. In Mariana, that figure is 48%.

"These three collective re-settlements are the three in which, after much struggle, those affected have been acknowledged, since these communities have been completely destroyed, so the pressure is greater", says the MAB activist.

"But, in fact, there are a large number, more than 500 houses in the entire rural area of Mariana and Barra Longa that should be either built or renovated," he adds.

A school destroyed in the Paracatu de Baixo district of Mariana. Five years after the crime, chairs, desks and school books remain in the rubble / Pedro Stropasolas

Bento resists

In Bento Rodrigues, 6 km from the Fundão Dam and the first district to be hit by the waste, construction of the new settlement is a little more advanced and will house 210 families. According to the Renova Foundation, infrastructure works and that of communal areas are in the final stages, things such as paving the access road, in addition to electricity, water and sewage grids, which are set to be concluded soon.

"They say that there is no time to build the housing projects, offer indemnity and return everything that was taken from us, but when Samarco arrived in the region, in two years, they quickly built the plant for the Germano complex, two villages, Vila Samarco and Vila de Ubu, a pipeline connecting the state of Minas Gerais to Espírito Santo, several roads and the Germano Dam ", says Mauro Marcos da Silva, whose house was destroyed in Bento Rodrigues, and together with eight other residents, is part of the Commission residents who oversee the construction projects.

In the judicial sphere, the resettlement of Paracatu and Bento Rodrigues is monitored by the State Prosecutor's Office, whose actions have been important in speeding up the construction of the projects. The first house was built on July 29th.

In the negotiations over the construction of the collective settlements, one of Renova's requirements was to own the buried properties in exchange for the construction. The residents of Bento Rodrigues were against it, organized protests and remain owners of their material assets, even if in ruins.

Today, Mauro and others affected still honor the history of the location. They created the Loucos por Bento group and usually visit the ruins on weekends for religious celebrations, and to aid in the reconstruction of houses.

"I usually say that my belly button is buried in Bento. So my relationship with Bento will never fade. Today with what happened in Brumadinho, I see that if everyone had died in Bento it would be more comfortable for Samarco. Because the paying of reparations for lives is easier than building communities”, points out the trader, who works in a mechanic’s shop in downtown Mariana and awaits the construction of Novo Bento.

Until the crime occurred, mining was responsible for guaranteeing employment and income for the village population, which also did not prevent cultivation, and subsistence of family farmers on the fertile lands along the banks of the North Gualaxo River - with emphasis on the women's cooperative that produced the piquinho pepper jelly, iconic of the region.

"These are years that are being stolen, every day, every hour, every minute, every second, it’s precious time that is being stolen from the lives of each one of us. The crime didn’t happen only on November 5th, 2015, it’s a crime that continues till this day", laments Mauro.

Gesteira's struggle

In Gesteira, a district of Barra Longa, the delay has caused much suffering to families. This is because the collective resettlement project, which began after a long struggle on the part of those affected, today is at risk of not ever getting off the pages.

Vera Lúcia Silva, who is part of the Residents’ oversight commission, belongs to the 20 families that left Gesteira. "The community is losing faith, it’s forgetting what it is like to be united", reports the victim, who on the day of the dam rupture managed to run up the hill with her husband, from where she saw everything she built over 43 years be washed away in 20 minutes by an avalanche of mud.

In the community, she had a beauty salon at home, was a civil servant, made cookies to sell and with eight other women organized religious ceremonies and a cooperative of sweets manufacturers in the old Community Hall.

Today, she says that even before the pandemic, she and her husband hardly ever left the house rented by Renova in the Cabanas neighborhood, on the outskirts of Mariana. According to Vera, they would make a few sporadic trips to the market and to the Social Assistance Reference Center (CRAS). Today, the two are only able to sleep with the help of medication.

"I had my income, without depending on anyone, without depending on evidence. Because several times they [Renova] asked for proof in order to supply me with a minimum wage", says Vera, who used to go to Gesteira for meetings with Renova.

Renova and the judge

The purchase of the resettlement land in the Gesteira district was made in 2018. Initially, the area suggested by Renova to house 37 families - including those who owned farming land that was impacted - was seven hectares, the same size as the area affected by the waste.

But the Resident’s Commission contested that the area was not fertile for the cultivation of crops, and would prevent families from returning to work the fields. To counter the proposal of the mining companies, the Popular Project for the Resettlement of Gesteira was created, which expanded the land to about 40 hectares.

In May 2020, the conceptual project suggested by those affected, with the assistance of the Technical Advisory and Social Environmental Studies and Research Group (GEPSA), was finally concluded and filed for approval at the 12th Federal Court of Minas Gerais, something that has not yet happened so far.

Although hailed as a top priority by the 12th Court judge presiding over the Rio Doce case, the proposal "sleeps in a splendid cradle", according to Federal Public Ministry (MPF) prosecutor, Helder Magno da Silva.

Today, Renova says that it awaits a decision from judge Mário de Paula Franco Júnior, in order to carry on with the construction. Meanwhile, according to the MPF, the Foundation acts to dismantle the project, seeking to negotiate with the 37 families under the Mediated Indemnity program, which are individual agreements, in general, dealt with more quickly by the judiciary.

Last week, the judge ratified eight of these agreements, which were signed without the MPF's subpoena.

"People are being led to buy houses outside the areas in which they lived. It is not simply the house they will live in, it’s if they will live together, if they will have spaces for leisure, the soccer field, the church. Everything that represents community life. The companies and the Renova Foundation have acted to destroy these ties, to create divisions ", explains the MPF prosecutor, in a press conference held on October 29 by the federal agency.

In the Barra Longa district, the toxic mud destroyed the homes of 20 families, as well as the São Bento chapel, built in 1718 / Pedro Stropasolas


In the district, it was precisely the collective spaces that were destroyed. In addition to eleven lots, there was the community hall, the São Bento Church (built in 1718), the school, the market, the soccer field, among other residences.

"I had my vegetable garden, and all of this for me was work, fun. I miss it a lot. Because the house here doesn't even have a yard. Here I don't have a foot of land for me to step on. Since I came from the land, I grew up from the land, the land does me good ", reveals Vera.

The Renova Foundation was created in March 2016, through a Transaction and Conduct Adjustment Term (TTAC) signed between the mining companies, the federal government and the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo.

Among its responsibilities, most of which have not been fulfilled, was the execution of 42 socioeconomic and environmental repair programs, and the reconstruction of communities destroyed by the mud.

"The delays on the part of the Renova Foundation are wiping out people and decimating everyone’s health. We lie in bed and do not sleep. To this day, I am a resident of Mariana, but the memory Gesteira does not leave me”, vents Vera.

Edited by: Marina Duarte de Souza