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Displaced by a mining disaster in Brazil still await reconstruction

Ⓒ AFP – Douglas Magno – | The remains of a house in Bento Rodrigues, a town in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, affected by the Samarco mining disaster, photographed on October 23, 2017

Two years after the biggest environmental accident in the history of Brazil, not even one brick has been placed on the lands planned for the reconstruction of the villages devastated by the mud of mining waste.

From Bento Rodrigues, the first town reached by the torrent, “only the longing remained,” summarizes Antonio Quintao, who owned two houses that were razed.

The disaster originated when it ceded, 5 kilometers away, the dike that contained almost 40 million cubic meters of mining waste from the Samarco company, owned by Brazil’s Vale and the Anglo-Australian BHP-Billiton.

A tsunami of mud killed 19 people, devastated several localities in the state of Minas Gerais (southeast) and traveled more than 600 kilometers along the Rio Doce to the Atlantic Ocean, devastating wildlife and vegetation in its path, said the Brazilian Institute of the Environment (Ibama).

Today, Antonio continues to work as a machine operator for Vale and lives with his family in a small town near the historic city of Mariana, with a rent and the monthly equivalent of a minimum wage ($ 283 at current exchange rate), paid by Samarco .

While waiting for the reconstruction of Bento Rodrigues, who has not yet left the role, resigned.

“We had our little houses, they could be simple, but they were ours, now we are living on the company’s alms, in a house that is not ours,” the 49-year-old told AFP.

– Ghost town –

On the day of the tragedy, Antonio went from the henhouse to the living room when he heard a deafening buzz.

“Is that plane going to land on this street?” He joked first with his wife. But immediately he knew that it was something worse: a large brown torrent running down the slope, due to a break in the dam.

Without thinking, he took the 3,000 reales that he had in the cloakroom and left quickly in his pick-up truck to try to get as many neighbors out of his houses as possible before the avalanche.

Ⓒ AFP – Douglas Magno – | The remains of a house in Bento Rodrigues, a town in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, affected by the Samarco mining disaster, photographed on October 23, 2017

Despite the trauma, he is able to tell the following minutes with great detail, until the first fire helicopter appeared with which they were able to find the first survivors in the mud. And also to the first victims.

Two years later, the brownish ruins of the houses remain intact, uninhabitable. Bento Rodrigues looks like a ghost town. Only the passage of time is perceived by the vines and shrubs that have begun to engulf the pieces of walls that remained standing.

– “Very participatory” process –

Following the incident, Samarco faces several lawsuits, including a murder trial against 22 people, including senior executives of the company.

There were still no convictions and the process has been suspended since August, to investigate allegations by the company that there were illegalities in the collection of evidence.

Meanwhile, the company performs tasks of compensation and reparation of damages through the Renova Foundation, an entity created after an agreement between Samarco, Vale and BHP with the federal government and Minas Gerais.

The reconstruction of the villages Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira is one of the plans of the foundation.

The urban project aims to recreate the original distribution of the houses, schools and churches of each locality, in an attempt to restore not only the material structures, but also the community ties between the neighbors.

Although the Bento Rodrigues project – which had 600 inhabitants – is the most advanced, it is still in the process of obtaining environmental licenses, approval by the community of the final prototypes of the houses and hiring of the companies to start the works.

“The process is very participatory,” Marcus Vinicius Ferreira, spokesperson for the Renova Foundation, told AFP, questioned about the delay.

Ferreira says that “everything is on the schedule” and that the inhabitants will be able to settle in the three locations in the first half of 2019.

Ⓒ AFP – Douglas Magno – | An expert from the Technical Reserve of the Renova Foundation shows a figure of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that belonged to the church of Our Lady of the Conception of Gesteira, in Minas Gerais (Brazil), on October 24, 2017

Renova says he has allocated 2,500 million reals (about 760 million dollars) for the repair of damages, of a total of 11,100 million expected until 2030.

Although he has the roof and the food insured, Antonio does not keep high hopes in relation to the new Bento Rodrigues.

For him, the most difficult thing of the day to day is still dealing with his own conscience. “I work for a company that destroyed everything I had, but what else can I do,” he says. “We raise our heads and continue our lives,” he says.

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