How a Mining Disaster Devastated an Indigenous Group in Brazil

The toxic spill that contaminated the Rio Doce river continues to affect the Krenak people.

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Mar 3 2017, 5:29pm

In 2015, Brazil experienced the worst environmental disaster in its history when a dam holding mining industry waste burst and sent a toxic mudslide along the Rio Doce.

The Doce river runs 852 kilometers in length through two districts in the state of Minas Gerais, and was the provider of life to many, including the Krenak people, who live in small, community settlements along the water. When the dam broke on November 5 of that year, a torrent of mud and toxic minerals killed 17 people, decimating the nearby city of Bento Rodrigues, and devouring the Doce river, eventually spilling into the Atlantic Ocean.

This calamity, and how it has affected the struggling Indigenous Krenak, is the topic of this week's episode of RISE , VICELAND's series covering Indigenous life in the Americas.

In total, 60 million cubic metres of waste, created by the iron ore mines of Samarco, a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, bled through the Doce river, effectively killing everything in it. BHP, the world's leading mining company, is paying $1.3 billion to reverse the damage. BHP's venture project Samarco, set up in 1977 and hosted in Minas Gerais, has since responded with a report entitled Update of Actions: One Year After the Dam Break in 2016 . According to this document, approximately 71,000 water analysis reports have been issued and the results state that the water quality, at "several points" of the Rio Doce, has returned to its historical average. For the Krenak, these words are empty. Health experts have detected arsenic, zinc, copper, mercury and antimony. They have said these toxins may stay in the Rio Doce for the next 100 years.

VICE spoke to Guilherme Camponês, an organizer for MAB, the Movement of People Affected by Dams, who was critical of the mining companies response to the disaster.

"The rupture of the dam happened because profit was put in front of life. Until now, Samarco has only made emergencies. People who lost their homes were not resettled. The riverine people continue without conditions to fish or plant. The company created a structure, called Renova, to perform repairs on the basin without the participation of the affected population. They control the foundation and decide who is affected. It is absurd because the criminal is telling who the victim is, and how they much they should receive."

Camponês was clear that MAB's work to empower people affected by corporate actions, includes the Krenak.

"They are allies, and we continue to struggle together for the rights and expansion of the Indigenous territory as compensation for the immaterial loss of the river, which will never be the same," he said.

As a spiritual parent to the Indigenous people, the Rio Doce is known to the Krenak as "Watu", which means "sacred river", sometimes referred to as "sweet river." It was there that children would go through rites of passage, and as adults would catch fish to sell and eat. It was there the elders would give teachings, sharing wisdom with the younger generations. Not anymore. The river has been poisoned. The Krenak already struggle to hold onto their culture, and losing the Rio Doce is a near-devastating blow.

Part of their struggle is simply being heard. In the past, Krenak protesters have built blockades all along the Vale do Rio Doce railroad line, which runs near their village, in attempts to stop future iron ore shipments. They've undertaken these actions despite the fact that the number of environmental activists murdered globally is on the rise. In 2015, that number was 185, and 40 percent of these deaths were from Indigenous populations. In Brazil, 50 environmental activists were killed in 2015, the highest for any nation that year. There is considerable risk when speaking out but it's one the Krenak are willing to take.   

Photo via RISE.

VICE spoke to Ana Rapha Nunes, a professor of text production at the FAE University Center in Brazil, who recently published Mariana , a children's book about a young girl who experiences the tragic mudslide. We asked her if the Krenak protests are being heard.

"We know little of the Krenak Indians. The media does not divulge almost anything. Many people are unaware of their existence. In my research, I saw that they were also hit by the disaster. In fact, they had been hit since the military dictatorship. An absurdity!"

Nunes is referring to the period between 1964-1985, when Brazil was under militaristic, authoritarian rule. Still, the plight of the Krenak goes as far back as the early 19th century, when the Portuguese colonial influence declared a "fair war" on the Indigenous peoples who were "preventing" society from progressing. At every opportunity, the Krenak were demonized as lazy and at any sign of agency or objection, they were deemed provocative and violent. Losing the Rio Doce is another episode in a long history of land encroachment and extortion against the Krenak people.

"The good thing was to see some solidarity of the people. Many left their cities to go to the city of Mariana to help. But the nightmare, for many, is not over yet. People know, but there are many who have forgotten. I often talk about the tragedy and some people are unaware of those who lost relatives and friends."

Many people were affected by this disaster, and the Krenak people, who sit on the edges of society, arguably feel the effects of colonial industry the worst. For them, the fight to restore cultural agency is more important than ever, and with allies like Nunes and Camponês at their side, they continue to keep their culture alive.

RISE airs Fridays at 9 PM on VICELAND.

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