“The Rio Doce, once a symbol of life, has been contaminated, leaving a trail of destruction and lasting impacts”

The river that was sweet now tastes heavy metals from mining, which continue to contaminate its waters, its tributaries and the sea. A bitterness that destroys the environment, human lives and animals.

According to the Geological Survey of Brazil, the tailings from the collapse of the Fundão dam in Mariana, Minas Gerais, arrived in Baixo Guandu, a municipality in the state of Espírito Santo, late in the afternoon, around 5 p.m. on November 16, 2015. By the 18th, the thick mud had taken over and fish could be seen floating on the surface of the Rio Doce. The first town in Espírito Santo to be hit by the mud received the tailings eleven days after the dam burst on November 5th. On that day, the water supply for the population stopped, as did the lives of many people who depended on the river. The mud followed the flow of the river and flowed into the sea of Espírito Santo on November 22, 2015.

On this date, we remember that Brazil’s biggest socio-technological disaster caused and continues to cause countless damages, especially to the environment and to the health of the people affected, and a trail of permanent destruction in several municipalities and territories that depended on the Rio Doce to survive, to live.

Fair reparation is a right. “From the river to the sea: repair, now”!

The sad memory and the hope for fair reparations and for the Rio Doce to be alive again

Regiane Soares, a black woman, activist in the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) and resident of Baixo Guandu, recalled that on the day the mud arrived, everything was unknown. “We didn’t even know that there was this risk of contamination and death of the Rio Doce because of the tailings from this mud […], but the worst pain at that moment was when we saw the fish jumping out of the water, dying without being able to live in what was supposed to be their natural habitat. At that moment, we began to understand, the truth seemed to sink in: how were we going to live off the river if it was dead?”. She also commented on how this has affected the lives of so many people. Witnessing the Rio Doce embittering itself over the years gives rise to a feeling of great sadness. “It’s very sad to remember, our lives have totally changed, the place where we have always made our living is now making us sick, our health has been affected. It’s very sad! It’s been eight years and so little has been done for our people and our sweet river. And among the many reasons why we are fighting is the hope of fair reparation.” He said through tears that he could no longer hold back.

As Regiane said, when the mud arrived, people’s lives and nature itself changed. It’s been eight years and the water is still unfit for use by the population and for the natural environment itself.

For Raquel Lopes Rosa, an affected fisherwoman from Mascarenhas, even with all the suffering, leaving her home is not an option. The hope in the struggle and the dream of reparations is what keeps her going. “It’s very difficult today, but I’m 42 years old, I was born and raised on the river, my whole family are fishermen. What keeps us going is the hope of a fair reparation and the dream of the Rio Doce being alive and having fish again.” She concluded.

The collapse of the Fundão dam dumped approximately 40 million cubic meters of mining waste into the Rio Doce. In order to analyze the impacts on the population’s health, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the hiring of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), which then carried out epidemiological studies from 2012 to 2019 on the changes in water quality and their impacts on the health of the affected population.

This study made a survey based on the following databases:

  • Outpatient Information System (SIA)

  • Hospital Information System (SIH)

  • Mortality Information System (SIM)

  • Compulsory Notification System (SINAN).

The population’s health has worsened since the dam burst. There was a significant increase in the total number of outpatient visits in the affected municipalities.

It is important to note that the aforementioned study indicates that the aforementioned pathologies can worsen even after almost eight years, because in the case of heavy metals that are not assimilated by the body, the material accumulates in the body, leading to chronic intoxication. This leads us to realize that the impacts related to contact with heavy metals are not only short-term. In other words, as the body accumulates this material, there are diseases that will only manifest themselves after a long time.

Although there is evidence of sedimentation and the accumulation of mud at the bottom of rivers and on the shores of the sea all along the coast of Espírito Santo, these materials can return to the surface, as happens during periods of rain, producing water with high turbidity, associated with metallic contaminants that can persist for long periods of time.

The Struggle, the Dream, the People and the Hope of a Just Reparation

In the face of all the sadness and destruction, the organized struggle and hope for fair reparations keeps the affected people firm.

An example of this is the mobilization organized by the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), for the approval of the National Policy on the Rights of People Affected by Dams (PNAB), in Bill PL 2788/2019, approved by the Federal Senate on November 14 and sent for sanction by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has pledged to do so with the urgency that the agenda requires.

The PNAB is a great victory in the struggle of those affected all over Brazil, a struggle that seems to be driving and encouraging the people even more after years of resistance, who are inspired by the certainty of better days.

The Journey of Struggles, organized by the MAB, included a schedule of action with actions held in September and October between Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo and had as its apex the participation of the people in Brasilia, between November 4 and 7, with the participation of around 2,600 affected people from all over the country. Regarding the first positive steps in the favorable opinions of the PNAB during the day, Robson Formiga said: “This is a very important, historic achievement in the struggle of those affected.” Robson is part of MAB’s national coordination.

May dreams be shared and strengthen the struggle, and may the rights of those affected be realized. As Adai’s Technical Advisory Body for the Affected, we reaffirm: For the people, no rights less!

Text and art: ATI Communication Team – Adai in ES