Affected people suffer from neglect in the health area due to the contamination of mining tailings in the Rio Doce

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.  In the Brazilian context, the Constitution considers health to be a right of all and a duty of the state. To guarantee this right, it created the Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde – SUS), which is based on three pillars: universality, equal access and comprehensive care. But for the people affected by the dam in Espírito Santo, there is still a long way to go before their health is respected by the authorities responsible for the contamination of the Rio Doce Basin. 


For Alessandra Silva Gobbi, a resident of Colatina, information is lacking. “When we go to the health centers, the doctor gives the diagnosis and I always ask if the disease is related to the water we use in the city, but no doctor talks about the water. We have no way of knowing whether the health problems that recur after the rupture  are consequences of the water coming from the Rio Doce. There is no health monitoring, we don’t have specific tests, the doctors here don’t ask for tests to find out what the levels of mercury and other metals in our blood are,” he said. 

The release of large quantities of toxic waste and pollutants from the collapse of the Fundão dam in Mariana has contaminated the water, soil and air, causing damage to the health of the population and local ecosystems. Considering the accounts of people who had a direct and indirect relationship with the Rio Doce, like Alexandra, it is clear that laws and guidelines from competent bodies are being broken. 


It is important to emphasize that talking about full reparation also means talking about the right to health of those affected. On April 7, World Health Day, seven years after the dam collapse, we need to make the voices of those affected echo, voices that have been silenced in the reparations process over the years. The reports  by those affected show a lack of attention to the different aspects of the health of the affected populations. Fabrício Fiorot, a surfer and resident of Regencia, describes how contaminated water affects his health. “It’s impossible to have contact with seawater here in the village. When we go to the sea for a day or two, we then have to deal with sore ears and throats, hives and any minor injury to the body is aggravated by going into the muddy orange sea.” 


The waste released by the dams contains heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and aluminum, as well as toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. This is shown by the report drawn up for the case before the 12th Federal Civil and Agrarian Court of the Judicial Section of Minas Gerais, which deals with reparation and compensation for the damage caused by the collapse of the Fundão dam, which also points out that the animals are contaminated with heavy metals and that it is unsafe to consume fish from both the river and the sea in the affected regions. In total, 42 affected municipalities were part of the survey. In Espírito Santo, data and samples from the municipalities of Aracruz, Baixo Guandu, Colatina, Linhares, Marilândia and São Mateus were analyzed. 


Creuza Campelo, a resident of São Mateus, denounces the neglect of the situation. “The mud destroyed our dignity, leisure, access to water and brought disease to the community. No more sururu, fish and crabs. To this day, seven years after the collapse, we haven’t had adequate reparations. We don’t have access to health care, the only thing we had was  access to a report, which showed that we have high levels of arsenic in our blood, and this is altering our health, which is becoming more precarious every day.” 


Victory for those affected by dams


  On April 1st, at the inter-regional conference of the Paraopeba Basin, held in Betim, Minas Gerais, , proposals for public policies for those affected were debated and established. These include full SUS primary care coverage and training for health professionals dealing with the damage caused by the disaster. It is well known that the issue of the health of the affected population is always in the spotlight at . The complaints are the same in all  territories: people are mentally and physically ill.   There is a consensus that it is impossible to think of  comprehensive reparation without addressing the health issue. 

Another central point for the affected people interviewed is the denunciation of the overload that  the health units of the Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde – SUS) experienced after the collapse of the Fundão dam. This overcrowding of the system ends up making care for those affected more precarious due to the lack of correlation between the diseases  and the contamination of the tailings. It is necessary to create a means of strengthening the SUS and guaranteeing dignified access to the most diverse types of health care.  the companies responsible for the damage can also be held accountable for a fair reparation, which involves strengthening the Health System, which is Public, Universal, Free and of Quality.


It should also be noted that it is through the organization of the affected people that rights have been achieved, such as the right to this Technical Advisory of the Affected People (Assessoria Técnica dos Atingidos e Atingidas – ATI) of Adai, which has been participating in spaces built by the affected populations together with public bodies, such as  this was the case with the health conference  in Linhares, on March 23rd, and in Baixo Guandu, on March 24th. Spaces like this strengthen our work for and with the people affected in the territories. 


“Leisure and sport on the river or the sea: it’s healthy and it’s a right. Freely expressing our cultural expressions on the river and at sea: it’s health and it’s a right. On this World Health Day, no right less! For full reparations for the health of affected peoples!” This is what Juliana Carneiro, a technical advisor in Adai’s Health and Socio-Assistance area, says.  reparation measures underway and that may be proposed, giving priority to building collective solutions to the damage to health.


The sets of actions to be  carried out by the consultancy are in an effort to understand the damage to physical and mental health  of the affected community, considering the demands of the families, especially with regard to  care policies and other specific actions to build  proposals and long-term solutions at various levels from the community’s point of view  and on the basis of technical subsidies, and thus build solutions together with those affected that  contribute to the promotion of comprehensive health for those affected by reparations. 


Guaranteeing the rights of people affected by dams is the duty of the companies responsible and the governance fronts. It is  to strengthen the SUS, to defend life in order to build a fair, comprehensive and democratic process, a process that can only be achieved by listening to the demands of the people.


Production: Communication Collective, ATI of Adai in Espírito Santo
Collaboration: Thematic area of Health, ATI of Adai in Espírito Santo