“Life isn’t easy. You have to go to the market for everything. We can see it in people’s eyes, in our youth’s eyes. Many seem to have lost the will to live. Many have given up, not even wanting to return to the new community, because five years have gone by, none of the houses are ready, the Renova Foundation lies a lot.” The complaint comes from farmer Maria Geralda Oliveira, who used to live in Paracatu de Baixo, located in the town of Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais, until her home was destroyed on November 5th, 2015.
On this day, the Fundão dam, owned by the Samarco company – which is controlled by the Vale and BHP Billiton corporations – burst, releasing 50 million cubic meters of iron mining waste throughout the entire Rio Doce Basin.
Five years later, 334 families in the Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira districts of Mariana – all of which were totally devastated – have yet to be resettled. This is the case for Maria Geralda, who is currently living with five of her six children in the town.
According to information from the Renova Foundation, construction of the new Paracatu de Baixo community is underway, with things such as clearing land for new lots, drainage, sewage and water supply works taking place. However, Maria Geralda, who is a member of an oversight group comprised of those affected by the catastrophe, warns that not a single home has been built.
“What we have are six foundations, built by hand in May, that are still in the exact same state. Till today we’ve had no answer as to what the water situation will be like. We are afraid of having a home, but not having water,” said Maria.
Bento Rodrigues, the first district to be hit by the spewing mud, is further along the construction process. The Renova Foundation says that infrastructure and communal space works are in their final phase, with the access road being paved, as well the electric, water and sewage grids almost concluded. The delivery date for these projects has already thrice been delayed, the latest, from March 2019 to February 2021.
The new Gesteira community hasn’t even broke ground for its reconstruction, with the conceptual project awaiting approval from the Justice system.
“With the way things are going, we know the Renova Foundation will never be able to stick to the deadline, even if there was no pandemic. We don’t know their intentions and they keep delaying, and making simple engineering mistakes. Everything leads us to believe that these errors are intentional, with the aim of delaying the even more the delivery date, and consequently giving extra funds to the Foundation and its employees,” criticizes Mauro Marcos da Silva, a businessman whose Bento Rodrigues home was destroyed.
Today, he also lives in Mariana with his family waiting for the construction of New Bento.
Communities subservient to corporations
For Letícia Faria, from the Movement of Those Affected by Dams (MAB), the delay in completion of the project, is related to the Renova Foundation’s reparations model, which “protects the company at fault’s image, creates positive advertising of what is being done, as well as a precedent that allows for all future accidents resulting from a dam bursting or its construction, to be handled by a private foundation. It’s a strategy to increase the hold these companies have in the areas they operate. We can see that there are enough funds available to complete all repairs in an adequate and just manner, however, there is no political will to do it. The constructions are never finalized because the objective is to keep these communities subservient to these companies”, she adds.
Beyond the delays and the fear of not receiving just reparations, those affected by Samarco/Vale/BHP’s crime still suffer from the loss of life they experienced. The toxic mud left 19 people dead, washed away belongings, documents, killed livestock, destroyed plantations and these communities’ way of life.
“We will never live the same way, it won’t be the same in a new place. We were like a family. Everything is different today, the Foundation itself is pitting us against each other,” commented Maria Geralda.
With similar sentiments, Mauro da Silva believes that it will be easier for young people to adapt in the new settlements, which will be hard for the adults. Bento Rodrigues, where he used to live, “used to be a quiet place, we would sit curbside, share the little with had with our neighbors…and I fear this will be lost in the new settlement. This is because over the past 5 years, people have grown accustomed to living in the city. Rekindling that sense of belonging will be hard,” he points out.
House of solidarity
To shed light on the negligence involved and slow pace of construction of the new communities, those affected organized through MAB, and began constructing a home through collective labor and solidarity in November of last year. Yolanda Gouveia, her husband Douglas Basílio and their three children were selected to reside in the new house, which will be completed on October 30th.
Till this day, Yolanda’s family has not been officially recognized as one of the victims of the crime committed by Samarco/Vale/BHP. The house they lived in was affected by the movement of heavy machinery used by the mining company during repairs to the Barra Longa dam. The walls are cracked and are a risk to people.
The solidarity home project was done by the Social and Environmental Study Group at the Federal University of Ouro Preto, in partnership with the Resettlement Observatory: an action and support group for those harmed in the Mariana and Barra Longa municipalities.