SAO PAULO – The day of Nov. 5, 2015 changed forever the lives of the Krenak indigenous people living along the Doce River – the collapse of two dams built to contain mine tailings plunged them and thousands of other Brazilians into a state of depression that continues to this day.
Four years after the tragedy at the Samarco complex in Mariana, Minas Gerais state, most indemnities have not yet been paid and not one of the people responsible has been convicted of a crime.
The failure of the dams allowed a flood of mud and mine waste that wiped out seven hamlets and contaminated a 650-kilometer (405-mile) stretch of the Doce River. Nineteen people perished and nearly 400 families were left homeless.
Indigenous leader Ailton Krenak, 66, told EFE that from the window of his home he can still see remains of the toxic waste that came pouring out with the collapse of the Samarco dam, a 50-50 joint venture of Brazilian mining giant Vale and Anglo-Australian mining titan BHP Billiton.
“Those who didn’t die lost everything,” he says.
The entire economy that revolved around the Doce River, polluted all the way to its estuary on the Atlantic Ocean, is completely paralyzed, and the affected inhabitants of Minas Gerais and the neighboring state of Espirito Santo still suffer from the catastrophe every day.
They also continue waiting for justice to be done and are far from satisfied with the repairs started by the Renew Foundation, a private organization created to repair the damage done.
At the same time, the Environmental Policy Council of Minas Gerais authorized Samarco last month to resume its activities in Mariana.
The toxic flood from the broken dams swamped the Krenak hamlet, home to 136 indigenous families and located at some 400 km (250 mi) from the catastrophe’s epicenter.
Their lives revolve around the Doce River, which they call “grandpa.” They were accustomed to sing to it, perform rituals in its waters and generally live off of it.
“There was a terrible breakdown in our life, our daily life,” Ailton said.
“When one lives through the experience of being in front of that mudflow, it’s a huge trauma. I think that we, thousands of people in the Doce River basin, are still caught in the nightmare of that avalanche of mud,” he said.
He added that when it rains in the region, the residue left on the riverbanks returns to its course, renewing the drama once more.
The Brazilian Attorney General’s Office estimates the total number of people affected by the tragedy at around 700,000. The Renew Foundation told EFE that as of last August, some 320,000 people had received “indemnities and emergency financial aid” for a value of 1.84 billion reais ($460 million).
The foundation also said that 6.68 billion reais ($1.67 billion) have been set aside for environmental and economic recovery and compensation for the Doce River basin, and for looking after the indigenous population.
Nonetheless, a study released this year by the National Health Agency (Anvisa) proved the existence of mercury and lead in the river’s fish in an amount greater than they could tolerate.
At the same time, the reconstruction of towns wiped out is underway, though with same sort of delays as there is in seeing justice done.
There are no plans for a court trial. In 2016 a score of people were accused, but 13 of them were excluded from the process.
A court this year even dropped the charges of homicide and bodily injury from the case, so the accused will now only be charged with environmental crimes.
With the Mariana case still to be resolved, a similar tragedy, though much more deadly, occurred this year in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais.
On Jan. 25, another Vale mining dam broke down and another avalanche of mud, water and mineral waste destroyed everything in its path.
The partial toll, since the search still goes on, is 252 dead and 18 missing.
Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque said last May that “there is not one safe dam” in Brazil.