Mariana, Brazil: Eliene Geralda dos Santos’ words are punctuated by pauses, as if to stem her tears.
“The feeling I had was that we were going to die.”
It was a Thursday three years ago at around 4.10pm when her pupils — about 60 teenagers — were in class for the afternoon shift at Bento Rodrigues’ middle school.
Principal Eliene, as she is known, was in the front office with the school secretary talking archiving, of all things, when her husband came rushing through the gates, screaming for everyone to get out.
A tsunami of iron ore waste was coming from the Samarco plant co-owned by Australian miner BHP and Brazilian giant Vale in the heart of Brazil’s mining country, and the school in the village of 600, just 1.5 kilometres downstream, was about to be decimated.
Now it has happened again. On January 25, another dam, this one solely owned by Vale, collapsed in the mining state.
It’s a little over three years since Eliene’s school was destroyed, but the brutal lessons from the first mudslide were clearly not heeded. The disaster this time has cost 150 lives, with some 182 still missing.
In both fatal mudslides there was no warning a dam was bursting. This prompts serious questions about the companies’ commitment to safety and care for the communities in which their mines dominate social and economic life.
‘You could feel the despair’
For Eliene, her experiences are as vivid today as they were that frightening afternoon. “My husband ran in to tell us to leave. The mud was already arriving in the district. He said the dam had burst and we had to run,” she says in her office in temporary school accommodation in nearby Mariana.
Along with teachers and staff, the pair shocked the kids into action and got everyone to safety up the hill. But on their way they saw houses being crushed, animals and cars being washed away. In just 12 minutes, everything was gone.
“It was hard. You could feel the despair,” she says.
For some time, Eliene did not know the fate of her own son. Such was the shock her husband Wisley was in, he could not tell her that the toddler was at home higher on the hill and likely — hopefully — safe.
In this first mudslide, in Samarco, the residents of Bento, like the residents of the nearby Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira settlements, had only their instincts to guide them.
Contingency plans and community escape drills had been recommended two years earlier, as part of the mine’s operating licence renewal, but still none were in place at the time the tailings dam wall turned to liquid and collapsed.
Rather than the sound of a district-wide siren to warn people of an oncoming avalanche, they heard the sound of more than 40 million cubic metres of mud and tailings eating their way towards their homes. They also heard the screams of people they loved, and the warnings of people they did not know, like Samarco contractor Paula Geralda Alves, who jumped on her motorbike and drove towards the danger, honking her horn.
Nineteen people died that day: 16 were Samarco workers or third-party contractors, two were children, and one an elderly lady from a nearby village, on holiday, and fishing. If it had not been for Paula and for Eliene’s husband’s efforts, more would have perished.
One of Eliene’s students, a young mother on a catch-up class, lost her five-year-old daughter Emanuelle, known as Emanuely. She was doing what children do after school, playing and mucking around with her brother, her father nearby.
“I saw when they pulled him out,” Eliene says of Emanuely’s dad, whose clothes were ripped off by the force of the mud.
“He was unrecognisable, nude, holding on to his younger son, also nude. He kept screaming Emanuely’s name. He wasn’t able to hold her.”
The little girl’s body was later found.
‘It was going to be a fantastic week’
After the Fundao dam burst in Mariana in 2015, a siren was installed for the first time along the river and in the now deserted village of Bento Rodrigues. Escape routes were worked out and signs erected ready for a request to resume operations at the mine. Even so, the only residents now are wild horses.
Three years later, when Vale’s tailings dam burst in Brumadinho, near Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, on January 25, once again, no warning sirens sounded.
Australian-based architect Luiz Taliberti was there that day, having travelled from Sydney to Brumadinho with his five-month pregnant fiancee Fernanda Damian to visit family, reveal the sex of their baby and set the date for the wedding. The couple had planned to visit the nearby world-renowned outdoor art museum, Inthotim, and were staying at a B&B downstream from the mine.
«It was going to be a fantastic week,» his father Valter Diniz told Associated Press. But Taliberti died, as did his sister Camila. His wife-to-be and two other relatives are still missing.
Diniz said there was no warning of the dam breach or the mud rushing down the valley.
«Vale killed my son,» he says.
After the disaster, Vale chief executive Fabio Schvartsman said a siren did exist but was engulfed by the mud before it could ring.
«Something unusual happened: the dam ruptured very quickly,» he told journalists.
Local residents, however, have told media outlets that, since its installation, the siren had never sounded. A recent evacuation drill had been carried out with car horns.
Mining in their veins
To understand the magnitude of the twin dam tragedies in this region of Brazil, one must understand how ingrained mining and Vale itself are in the people who live here.
Minerals and riches run in veins through this countryside, and also through its economy and culture. They are present in the name of the state — Minas Gerais, Portuguese for «General Mines», and in the name used for the people born here — mineiros, literally «miners».
The economic engine of Brazil from the first discovery of gold in 1698 until the Industrial Revolution, Minas still produces copper, silver, diamonds, bauxite, silica, titanium, graphite, quartz and precious stones in addition to iron ore.
Most people here either work in a mine, have a relative who works in one, or live off mining in some other way, from small-scale gold panning in the rivers, to providing services to mining companies, or retail, government and infrastructure to the cities where precious commodities lie beneath the ground.
Even tourism here has its origins in the UNESCO-listed town of Ouro Preto («Black Gold»), born from the gold rush in 1711 and home to the country’s first independence movement, spurred by — what else — the high gold taxes charged by Portuguese colonisers.
Tourists marvel at the cobblestoned colonial charm of the state’s historical cities — Mariana, Tiradentes and Sao Joao del Rey, as well as Ouro Preto — and their churches. These are famously adorned by what was left of the riches dug up by slaves and early explorers. The rest was siphoned to the churches of Europe.
In the Mariana district alone — the municipal area that includes three devastated villages and their surrounds — Samarco, the BHP-Vale joint venture, accounted for 21 per cent of the city’s tax income annually until 2015. When its operations were halted, the council saw its revenue drop by 65 million reais ($24.7 million), according to local government secretary Edernon Marcos Pereira. (Two mining-related municipal taxes, aided heavily by Vale, account for 70 per cent of the city’s annual budget.)
Vale, once a government-owned corporation, was born here in Minas, in the Rio Doce Valley from which it takes its name. Its ubiquitous logo is associated with cultural, heritage and infrastructure improvements throughout the region. It is to the region what BHP is to Broken Hill and to Australia, only more revered — at least until now — as a generous matron to the populace and contributor to government coffers.
But now its name has been buried under more mud, along with dozens of its employees.
In the wake of the recent disaster, Vale has suspended activities in all mines which use upstream tailing dams of the type in place at Brumadinho and Mariana. The construction method is considered risky because it uses the mine’s waste materials themselves to build the dam wall. It requires constant monitoring and faultless drainage to ensure that the disposal of more wet tailings into the dam does not liquefy the wall.
The experience of Samarco gives some indication of what lies ahead.
Because it has been unable to resume operations since the Mariana disaster three years ago, the city has plunged into recession.
The council area used to have a lower-than-national-average unemployment rate of 4 or 5 per cent, but the mine closure’s domino effect now sees some 14,000 people, or 21 per cent of the population, out of work.
“The resulting unemployment is destabilising. When the mine was halted, it paralysed not only the direct employees but also the indirect, from supermarket and bakery workers to uniform makers,” Pereira says.
He said the Mariana council wanted the company to resume operations as soon as possible, but “those responsible for the accident must be punished”.
“The mining activity has to resume responsibly because it is important to the survival of this city,” he said late last year.
The new disaster, even though it is in another municipality, is likely to delay all licensing in the state. This week, regulators revoked operating licences for two other Vale mines, after halting production at nine plants.
What awaits the survivors
The 2015 disaster continues to weigh heavily on the minds and bodies of survivors and residents.
There has been an increase in anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses attributed to the loss of homes, income, and individual and collective rights. The process of assessing compensation recipients, then delivering it, has been drawn out, and some victims have experienced hostility from citizens keen to blame them for delaying the restart of the region’s economic engine.
The effects of the violence and the destruction caused by the mud are physical but also symbolic.
Caritas mental health report
A mental illness report prepared by the charity Caritas and a technical team working on behalf of victims in 2017 pointed to a loss of social cohesion.
“We understand that much more ruptured than just the dam. The effects of the violence and the destruction caused by the mud are physical but also symbolic, they reach different aspects of life. The reports of suffering, fear, anxiety and insecurity are ever more present in conversations with the impacted.
«[People] are reliving the tragedy every time the companies commit violations of [post-disaster] agreements, in the long and countless meetings, in the denial of rights, mediations and negotiations.”
Two years after the incident, the study uncovered heightened rates of depression (28.9 per cent, or five times higher than the World Health Organisation’s rate for Brazilian citizens), anxiety (32 per cent, three times the average), post-traumatic stress disorder (12 per cent compared with a Latin America rate of 0.5 to 1 per cent) and risk of suicide (16.4 per cent, compared with 7.4 per cent for the rest of the population).
Among women, the rates were roughly 10 per cent higher in all categories.
Marcela Santos, occupational therapist with the Mariana council’s mental health service, said this was due to changes in the social structure of some families.
While in the past some married women worked for themselves washing, ironing, gold panning or doing other jobs for cash, the post-disaster compensation regime granted by Renova, the foundation created to take care of compensation on behalf of Samarco, now sees the main breadwinner, usually the husband, control the entire family’s income. (The women have had trouble proving income to receive compensation.)
Once relatively independent financially, now they have to ask their husbands for their share.
“This has created some marital conflict, even some separations,” Santos says, adding that domestic violence cases have also risen, along with alcoholism.
For the victims of Vale’s latest dam collapse, the experience of their fellow survivors paints a bleak picture of the future.