What’s really threatened by the mining dam break in Brazil?

O rompimento da barragem de rejeitos da mineradora Samarco, cujos donos são a Vale a anglo-australiana BHP, causou uma enxurrada de lama que inundou várias casas no distrito de Bento Rodrigues, em Mariana, na Região Central de Minas Gerais. Inicialmente, a mineradora havia afirmado que duas barragens haviam se rompido, de Fundão e Santarém. No dia 16 de novembro, a Samarco confirmou que apenas a barragem de Fundão se rompeu. Local: Distrito de Bento Rodrigues, Município de Mariana, Minas Gerais. Foto: Rogério Alves/TV Senado
Damage following the dam break in Bento Rodrigues, Mariana, Minas Gerais. Photo: Rogério Alves/TV Senado.

by  Lise Sedrez, Robert Emmett, Stephanie Hood and Claire Lagier

The mine tailing dam break in Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 5 November 2015 has been described by the Brazilian government as the country’s worst environmental catastrophe. It killed at least 17 people and released a wave of toxic plume which devastated the Rio Doce river basin. The dam rupture, which happened directly after the 13th November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, was only superficially covered in mainstream international news outlets, and has mostly disappeared from media newsfeeds, although its far-reaching ecological and political consequences will be felt for decades. Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier sat down with Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich on 19 November and recorded the following conversation, which was originally published as a series of three posts on Seeing the Woods. On 2 March 2016 the Brazilian federal government and the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo reached a deal with Samarco Mineração (the joint venture between Vale S.A and BHP Billiton which owns the dam) and the latter agreed to pay 4.4 billion reais – 1.5 billion US$ – towards a 20 billion US$ fund which will be administered by a company-managed private foundation with the official aim of restoring the Rio Doce ecosystem and supporting survivors and the local economy. While Samarco, whose activities had been suspended, is already planning its business comeback, Brazilian social movements and the Federal Public Ministry alike are denouncing an agreement that is seen as prioritizing private interests. This interview gives some important insights on the agreement, which is being finalized more than three months after the deadly catastrophe, and long after the toxic mud wave reached the Atlantic ocean.

Robert Emmett: Those of us who don’t read Portuguese have to rely on what the media in English is saying. I’m curious about the language used to describe the event. I like to think “Let’s start with the facts,” but of course that’s exactly what is up to debate. I read that some seismic activity was recorded?

Lise Sedrez: I just don’t buy that one. If we go for the facts, let’s say that Brazil is on a very old tectonic platform. We used to say “There [are] no natural disasters in Brazil,” which of course is not true. There have been very few cyclones. We had one in Santa Catarina [in 2004] and it was like “Oh my God, that never happens.” The last time something like this happened was about 170 to 200 years earlier. But there are no earthquakes. What they registered was seismic activity between 1 and 2 on the Richter scale. We had larger seismic activity in Minas Gerais in the past, with no effects whatsoever. And there is a strong possibility that this recorded seismic activity happened as a result of the breaking of the dam.

RE: So what happened?

LS: Actually, we don’t know what exactly happened to provoke the dam breaking; this is still under investigation, and that has to do with the political context. This company, Samarco, is a subsidiary of Vale do Rio Doce, or Vale for short, and the Australian mining company BHP Billiton. Vale has a particular story that makes things so complicated. It was a state-owned company until the late 1990s, and it had several monopolies guaranteed for mining—Carajas, everything in the Amazon that you can think about, was a monopoly of Vale do Rio Doce. Other companies, especially during the military period, had to negotiate mining rights with Vale. With the consensus of Washinghton and the neoliberal project carried out by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the late 1990s, Vale was privatized. There are still many questions about that process of privatization. Basically, it was sold for a fraction of its value. And that has also been part of the debate. If it was a public company, would that have happened? Would it be an appropriate penalization to nationalize the company again? There are people talking about that. On top of that, as a private company, Vale is a major employer in the region, so everybody is very concerned about the interruption of its activities because that means leaving everybody, and I mean everybody, without a job, since all the other activities in the region, like fishing, have been affected by the spill. And Vale has contributed to the political campaigns of every single politician in Minas Gerais. And both of the big parties—PSDB, which is a center-right party, and PT, which I would say is a center-left party—both parties received large amounts. So the entire debate of how we call this particular event is also tainted by this, in small symbolic things but also in more dramatic moments. For instance, the announcement of the disaster made by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais was made from the headquarters of the Samarco company. And he’s a PT governor, a center-left politician. The previous governor, who was governor for eight years, and therefore responsible for the fiscalization (the fining process) and maintenance, Aecio Neves, is also the former Brazilian presidential candidate of the opposition, the center-right. He was also one of the first ones to say [after the dam break] “this is not a time to try to place blame,” because it’s not very convenient for him. So everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.

Everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.

RE: How are nonprofits responding?

LS: For instance, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has work in that area with the recovery of the degraded springs, water springs, which was funded by the Vale do Rio Doce, the company. So on the one hand he’s saying “look, the company has to make good to this work, and take responsibility,” on the other hand he says “well I know they are going to do that because they are a good, responsible company.” The president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has just issued a decree allowing workers to use their mandatory retirement savings, which normally you can only take when you’re actually retired or in very special circumstances, such as natural disasters. Now there is a special decree that allows you to take that money if you were a victim of a natural disaster. She amended the decree to include, for the purpose of taking away their money, breaking of dams as a natural disaster.

RE: The decree allows employees to take their retirement savings early?

LS: Yes. So the responsibility to deal with the immediate costs [of lost income] is put on the backs of the workers. It’s even more complicated than that. Legislation for environmental damage is about 15 years old in terms of setting penalties and fines. Samarco received several fines, each of them the maximum, but the total is still really low, because each of the fines has a legal ceiling. Overall, only in the state of Minas Gerais, there are over 200 unpaid environmental fines because companies appeal once, twice, and again, and another, and another, and can go on for ten or 15 years without paying.

RE: What would a meaningful fine be for a large transnational mining venture, in proportion to their daily profits?

LS: In this case the total fine that was given Samarco I’ve read is something around seven percent of its net profit. But I would be careful about that estimate for several reasons. First, the spill paralyzes all work in the area, which means a loss of profit for the company, which is large. Second, the fine does not exempt the company from cleaning up, so the fine comes on top of the entire cost of recovery for the area. However, this is also complicated because the public ministry has just signed an agreement for one billion reais for the clean-up. That may still be below what we need, and may be putting a ceiling on the liability of the company.

Satellite images of Bento Rodrigues before and after the disaster. Source: NASA.

CL: And there are heavy metals in the floodwater, so there are potentially much longer-lasting costs.

LS: Well, this is also a bit complicated. It’s not clear as there are several small cities affected, and one large one, Governador Valadares, in the way of the river. Some of the mayors made their own water testing. One of the cities found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.” However, the mayor of Governador Valadares showed a number of tests saying there [are] no heavy metals. Everybody is protesting that they don’t trust this kind of test. I’ve joined a group of over 2,000 volunteers including 700 scientists who are proposing to do an independent analysis of the environmental and social impact. It’s the first time that anything like this has happened in Brazil—not only the disaster but this kind of volunteer organization. The group has over 2,000 people right now, everybody from undergrad students to PhDs, and everybody wants to help, but it’s going to need lots of organization.

One of the cities [affected by the dam break] found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.”

CL: Are they organizing with the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) in Brazil, which is gaining momentum?

LS: Yes, they are organizing with that, they are making connections, although the experience of the MAB is mostly with water dams (not mining dams) and people who are being . . .

CL: . . . displaced.

LS: Yes. We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows. We are talking about a mud that is full of iron and probably arsenic and silica, and some aluminum. It’s heavy and it’s impermeable, so it passes through the river, creating a layer at the bottom where nothing can grow. On top of that all the fish are dying, since they have no oxygen. And all the animals—dogs, cattle caught by the water—are dying and decomposing. So it alters the water even if you have dilution from the river tributaries, for instance. Some cities are trying to capture the water from the tributaries, hoping to bypass the river and find a new source of drinking water. We’re talking about a city like Governador Valadares, with close to 300,000 people. Drawing from tributaries upstream means less water diluting the river. Even before the disaster the springs were compromised. If there are heavy metals in the heavy layers at the bottom, people are talking about the possibility of some of these metals getting to the phreatic water sheet. So as you see it’s a disaster of incredible magnitude, not only in terms of what happens to the ecosystem, but also in terms of political, economic, and social impacts—it goes in all directions. And it is a big question mark. We have no experience with that. And the fact that it happened just before the Paris attacks made it disappear from the public eye.

We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows.

RE: This relative lack of exposure to the dam break is definitely something I hope we can talk about. It seems like there are several durations involved and also questions of how the media has covered or not covered the spill. Some of the coverage has focused on the company and the economic impact of closing down operations and has pointed out that the price for iron has been relatively low in the last ten years, because of the decreased demand for export. There has been a shift in the conversation from describing the event in concrete, biological terms to an abstract conversation about the commodity exports, iron pellets as raw material for industrialization. There is the time frame of the cost of the good that was extracted, and there is the other time frame, which is the life cycle of aquatic life [that] has been impacted for a generation, particularly larger forms of aquatic life, like fish, which won’t recover for a full lifetime.

LS: Some species that were endemic to the area are lost, gone forever.

RE: There is a sense that there is a longer emergency of climate change and then these punctuating events, sometimes described in the sense of industrial operations. When dams or pipelines fail, the consequences are so out of proportion, in the sense that we think a dam may last another five or ten years and then the life of a stream is wiped out suddenly and permanently, with species gone. Where does this incongruity show up in media?

LS: It also is true that it showed how we have changed the way we read. I mean, ninja media and the alternative media have been very important in the process because the big newspapers are putting t the disaster on the second or third page. They found out that they can’t ignore it completely because alternative media, and Facebook and ninja are keeping it alive.

CL: I also felt this very strongly. On my Facebook feed for example, Brasil de Fato, which is a main Socialist newspaper in Brazil, and Nova Democracia, which is another alternative newspaper, are covering this a lot, posting pictures and also getting people to tell their stories on social media. People are interacting with each other outside the mainstream media, taking things into their own hands.

LS: It is also true that environmental issues had become in recent years a theme for the left. However, this disaster, in the way that Vale ed may be connected to the current administration or of PT, brought it back as an issue for the right as well. I’ve heard about the disaster from Mariana from my friends on the left as well as my friends on the right. It’s one unifying point of protest. How they are going to read the disaster is very different, but it’s there, and it’s very strong. I found it interesting because the newspapers did try to kind of [suggest that] Paris is more important and this alternative media kept [the disaster] alive. I would like to go back, however, to the point about extension. One thing that was very interesting is to see some of the disciplinary boundaries and the different views of the disaster by scientists. Thus  you have engineers and geographers who are just saying “okay, calm down, the river is coming back,” while biologists and ecologists are in panic.

RE: I’ve heard that in Appalachia, where different scientists have totally different discourses around streams and tailing ponds in post-mining landscapes. I’m curious to hear how disciplinary differences in perception are working out in this case?

Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on.

LS: I find that fascinating as well. We all joined this group of 2,000 volunteers, probably 400 or 500 PhDs from all areas of Brazilian academia, who all want to help and we all want the company to pay. The geologists and geographers are going to have this idea that the river is coming back. Biologists are furious: it’s over, it’s dead. Among all this mess, I’ve read about this very beautiful initiative by the fishermen, the Noah’s Arc. It was gorgeous but absolutely useless.

RE: Taking the fish from the spill area and transporting them to small aquariums?

LS: And to lakes, which have their own ecosystems and work at the optimal level of biomass. If you’re bringing an endemic species, although you can save some genetic material, the impact is mostly negative. What was important was for the communities of fishermen to feel they were doing something. It was much more a political, social activity. What we should be looking at is a new river, probably in the next 30 years. Water is going to find other areas to go. Even for geologists, even if you don’t consider the life of the river, we are talking about a game changer. Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on. The Doce was the river through which so much of this material would pass. It was also the area where traditional populations from the colonial times would negotiate the space and dispute with the settlers. Right now you still have some of the communities like Krenak that depend on the river, and they are desperate. It’s a river that is really, really important for the communities. A famous biologist, Andre Ruschi, has a famous preservation area of  Colibri in the Atlantic Forest right by the margins of the Rio Doce. We are all expecting the mud to pass through and destroy it. Once arriving to the sea it’s not going to disperse easily so the marine reservation, the Parque Nacional dos Abrolhos, could also reach this platform. This particular disaster is going to pass through the heart of some of the remains of the Atlantic Forest. What are we going to do?

Contaminated Rio Doce water flowing into the Atlantic. Source: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

RE: Well, one thing you’re doing is going back to Brazil to work with SOLCHA, Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental, and I imagine this is going to be front and center for environmental historians in Latin America. Are there plans to have the 2,000 volunteers involved in citizen science, collecting data?

LS: Right. What I’m planning to do is to get volunteers from my University and organize a history of the area and of the river, and find out more about other examples of similar disasters. What we can offer to this group is the historical perspective.

RE: In May 2016 there is an event planned with Wisconsin’s Center for Culture, History and Environment focusing on the Mississippi River and the following year on the Danube. It’s a transatlantic environmental history workshop, histories of continents and nations through rivers. It’s similar to the project that you are describing and I think of these things as networked together. And the connections that scholars make who are looking at rivers and in the way you tell stories through the trajectory of a river.

[With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics.

LS: I think you are totally right. [With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics. Any step is very sensitive. Mining in the area may have slowed down, but this is an ongoing disaster. There are three dams in that particular mining area. The others are both below [safety] levels but if these two break, especially the largest one one . . . what we are seeing right now will look like a pre-disaster. They are going to have to consider the possibility of the breaking of these two other dams against the profit that they can make with a low price product. As for now, Samarco is placing itself a victim of the disaster.

CL: Mainstream media in Brazil is very much backing that image.

LS: Yes. I mean, this entire thing about a small seismic event being considered responsible for breaking the dam . . .

RE: The Brazilian media is coming to the company’s defense? Is that because the company has an economic monopoly?

LS: I think you are right in a sense, because of the power of the company in this area. I think it’s also because our media is [politically] right of center and the Vale until now was hailed as the big success of privatization. They would love to see this (privatization) happening to Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. But to see Vale lose value and be challenged as a company, as this model company, would also jeopardize the entire idea that private ownership is better than public ownership.

RE: In other words, you’re saying there is a deep public interest perceived in this single privatized mining company . . .

LS: Oh yeah.

RE: It’s hard for people to articulate the difference between what the interests of that company and the interests of the region. You see this in Appalachia for a long time, where coal companies would say “what is good for coal is good for Appalachia.” And it became difficult for anyone to actually have any space in which to critique that because to critique means you’re potentially also taking a job from neighbors or your relatives.

LS: Just yesterday there was a rally of the residents of Mariana, with the worker unions asking for the company to remain in Mariana. They had t-shirts written with slogans that said “Yes; No to Unemployment.”

RE: This is the miner’s union?

LS: Yes. But you have to understand that it’s not only the miners, it’s not only the direct workers, but everything in the region that is connected to the Vale Company. It’s like FIAT for Turin: I mean if you don’t work for FIAT, you work for the company that sells FIAT cars, or you work for the company that sells tires for FIAT cars. And I repeat: even environmental organizations. We don’t have the tradition like in the United States and in Europe of nonprofits supported only by the membership fees. I know very few nonprofits in Brazil that don’t depend on private company or government funding. Most cities like Mariana or the nearby cities can pay their employees just because of the fees and taxes paid by Vale. If Vale were to disappear from Mariana that would mean a loss of municipal taxes that would make it impossible to pay the public employees.

RE: Is Vale perceived as a company that takes risks or as a company that doesn’t value worker’s safety?

LS: I couldn’t say . . . no more or less than any other company in Brazil. People cut corners in Brazil. What is concerning, however, is that the mining code of Brazil is very strict. It’s just not enforced. Now there is discussion of a new mining code, and some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly.

RE: So the disaster is an excuse for pushing through the process?

LS: Measures that would never be accepted in normal times. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today. The government is the problem in this narrative. Environmental regulations are the problem. There are other issues like for instance there are hundreds of unpaid fines in the environmental agency in Minas Gerais, still to be processed, and there’s no way the state government can process all of them. So they’re going now to give a huge amnesty to the companies, hoping to clear up the bureaucratic mess.

Some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today.

RE: Is this because the agency is understaffed or underfunded?

LS: They are understaffed, underfunded and in my opinion it’s a tactic from the companies to let the number of fines accumulate and then see what happens. Many of these fines are going to be amnestied because they are very close to the statute of limitation. This entire thing is a perfect storm. It shows us not only the connections between city and the countryside, but [also] the connections between environmental protection, ecosystems, and policies, national and local, the dispute between right and left in Brazil, the bureaucratic nightmare in terms of legislation and the huge lobbies for the relaxing of environmental laws. At the same time, everybody is an environmentalist in Brazil, everybody loves nature, or so they say. And these big lobby groups argue that the best way to help nature is by taking away environmental regulations. If you talk to each and every one of these guys arguing about the mining code, they’re going to say, “No, we are going to save nature.” Besides, we must remember that the lobby against environmental regulations is one of the strongest in Brazil because it’s so connected to ownership of land, and land disputes are the most common causes for which people are killed in the countryside of Brazil. Many environmentalists were killed because they were challenging the use of land. An event like this raises all these questions about media and politics without even having to go for to conspiracy theories. Why do you need conspiracy theories when reality is so much more!

RE: You described this river as at the heart of a certain national imaginary. Is it fair to say that what people have in mind when they’re saying “nature” has to do with a sense that Brazil has a particular natural heritage, biodiversity? So what you would be saving if you’re saving nature is something that’s only here, only in Brazil?

LS: It’s more complicated, as we are talking about a 800-kilometer river where there is everything from a city the size of Governador Valadares to groups of indigenous populations to areas that are natural reserves, and therefore, no large human population. It’s also one of the regions to have witnessed anthropogenic action for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’re not talking about a pristine area. Some of the images that have more impact in the media are people, fire-fighters for instance, saving a dog or a cow. It is a region where people and nonhumans have interacted in many ways for so long that is part of the identity. And that’s what I found so interesting about the fishermen trying to save the fish. They do see this connection. They are not saving the fish because they want the fish to live forever in the aquarium, but because it’s their livelihood. And I think the Krenak had it really well. They don’t differentiate so much between the river, the land, the fish. If the river is dead, we’re all dead. I know it sounds like some fake Chief Seattle story, but that’s what we are saying right now. It’s less one pristine area untouched for whatever species, it’s more this long built-up predatory relationship, if you want, but also a transformative relationship between nature and society that was going on along this river. And now it’s really threatened.

Credit for article’s featured image: Waldemir Barreto/Agência Senado.

Special thanks to Livia Jacobina for her transcription work.

Lise Sedrez is an environmental historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and is currently completing a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Robert Emmett is a cultural studies and ecocriticism scholar and coordinator of academic programs at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Stephanie Hood is an editor at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.

Claire Lagier is a PhD candidate at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich and an editor at Uneven Earth.

“Where you least expect it”

Photo by Alexander Panez
Photo by Alexander Panez

by Diana Aguiar, Alessandra Cardoso, and Marcela Vecchione


In the airport of Belém in the Amazonian state of Pará, Brazil, an advertisement of the French company Imerys states, “Where you least expect it. Kaolin is a mineral that is part of your day.” The ad tries to tell the story of the positive widespread presence of the mineral in our daily lives. Kaolin is a mineral used in the production of paper, toothpaste, cosmetics and other daily use products.

The sad irony is what the ad hides: how little the communities surrounded by kaolin’s presence in their rivers and soil feel positive about it.

Barcarena is a city close to Belém and is home to the biggest aluminum-industrial center in Latin America. The first industry established in the area was Albras-Alunorte (at the time a project of Japanese capital and of state-owned, now Brazilian-headquartered private corporation Vale) in 1984. The project was part of the global process of relocating polluting and energy-intensive industries to the South. More specifically, it was part of Japan’s decision–in the context of the 1970s oil crisis–to outsource the production of aluminum needed to feed its post-War industrial boom.

The Brazilian military regime embraced the opportunity to host aluminum processing in the Amazon, signing up to huge debts denominated in Japanese yen. It then took on the task of building the energy infrastructure needed for the industry to flourish. The Tucuruí megadam, built in the late 1970s in the Tocantins River, was inaugurated in 1984 and resulted in social and environmental disasters of great proportions. Since then, Tucuruí megadam has been providing energy to the aluminum industry at subsidized rates, below production costs.

Currently, the refinery Alunorte (Alumina do Norte S.A.) transforms a mineral abundant in the Amazon, bauxite, into alumina. The refinery’s owners are Norsk Hydro, whose main shareholders are the Norwegian state (34,3%), the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (6,81%), and several transnational financial corporations. The factory Albras (Alumínio Brasileiro S.A.) transforms Alunorte’s alumina into aluminum and is owned by Norsk Hydro (51%) and the Japanese consortium NAAC (Nippon Amazon Aluminum Co. Ltd) (49%). Industries in the region also include, amongst others, steel plant Usipar and kaolin processing Imerys Rio Capim Caulim S.A. and PPSA (Pará Pigmentos S.A.).

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations. As is widely known, the whole process of producing aluminum is water-and energy-intensive and is highly air-polluting. While the aluminum makes its way through global value chains, the devastation of the environment—which is the basis of the lives of the surrounding poor communities—remains. Three decades with the industrial center in Barcarena has meant a rampant population surge in the city due to labour-seeking migration and intense dislocation of traditional peoples and rural populations toward poor slum-like urban areas.

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations

The process of turning Barcarena into an industrial center started during the time of the military dictatorship but continued unabated in the era of post-democratization government planning. It turned the area into an important vector of several trade corridors (Trombetas-Baixo Amazonas, Carajás-Tocantins, Capim river valey, etc. with hydroways and pipelines transporting kaolin and bauxite). In recent years, continued industrialization has become part of the economic policy of ensuring continuous trade surplus through the exportation of commodities.

Social movements have continuously criticized the financial imperatives justifying this “development” model, its environmental devastation, and the role it plays in the increasing dispossession of communities. It was exactly this interconnection between the financialization of the global economy, the “development” policies it entails and its consequent territorial impacts that the Latin American “Financialization of Nature” workshop debated from 26 to 27 August 2015 in Belém do Pará, Brazil.

As part of the workshop process, two days before the meeting, groups of social activists, researchers and popular educators took part in caravans that visited communities in the region of Northeast Pará. The caravan we took part in was confronted with a reality of devastation and despair. We visited communities Acuí, Curuperé and Dom Manuel, all of which are facing disintegration of social ties and the never-ending expectation of compensation that could allow them to relocate to a healthy place.

The Acui community, living in a permanent transitory state.  Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The Acuí community saw its population decrease from 160 to 70 families due to the hardship of living on their land. During our visit, they claimed to be expecting a solution to their situation for the past 12 years, living in a permanent transitory state, including not seeing reasons to make efforts to improve their houses or vegetable gardens due to constant promises that relocation is soon to come. According to them, their soil and bodies are contaminated with heavy metals and their health is jeopardized. They cannot drink water from streams or wells and are dependent on the delivery of water by trucks. Disbelief in any promise and feeling of abandonment by the state were common. We left the community with a deep sense of impotence, hoping to at least express our solidarity to their struggle.

The Curuperé community. the living expression of living with kaolin, “where you least expect it.” Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The second visited community, Curuperé, was the living expression of the tragedy of having kaolin as part of your day “where you least expect it”. The stream that served the community was constantly contaminated by infiltrations of kaolin – and heavy metals associated with its industrial processing – from Imerys tailings dams for the past ten years. Where 60 families lived, only 3 remain, now dependent on trucks to deliver water and facing corporate allegations that the land belongs to the corporation. As stories of dispossession usually go, those people saw their territories invaded by the industrial dump of a production process that has nothing to do with their needs and ways of living.

Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town. Photos by Cíntia Barenho


The situation is similar in Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town that saw its population decrease from 164 to 8 families. The families that left before compensation did so due to the impossibility of living in such an environment. The ones that stayed say they have nowhere to go while they await compensation. Imerys claims it has bought the land where these people have been living for decades—taking advantage of the irregularity of land access and ownership—and hence refuses to pay compensation. The community is landlocked by industrial plants in one side and an Imerys tailings dam on the other. Piles of coke used in aluminum processing could be seen meters away from the houses. Even during our short stay, breathing the air caused discomfort.

The three communities, along with several others in the region, have been facing the huge impacts of mineral processing industries with little support from the state. The first serious kaolin leak happened in June 2007. 200,000 m2 of white material discolored 19 km of the river, compromising its use and affecting the water wells. At the time, the factory was fined with 2,6 million Brazilian reals and shut down for a month. According to studies made of the soil, the leaked material had high concentration of iron, aluminum, zinc and cadmium—these accumulate in the body and may cause degenerative diseases, hepatic dysfunctions, immunological deficiencies, and dementia.

Later that year the Prosecutors Office of the state of Pará and Imerys signed an extrajudicial memorandum of understanding. The TAC (Termo de Ajustamento de Conduta) included commitments to not throw any more toxic substance in the environment, to build up a plan for reparation of the area (including repopulation of native fauna) and restructuring the tailings dams. The financial compensation included 463,000 Brazilian reals in collective moral damage to be given to local associations and 4 million for the state as compensation for environmental damages and to finance projects to improve peoples lives. However, since then, leaks have continued to happen and communities claim that no reparation of their situation or the environment has occurred.

Photo by Cíntia Barenho

Meanwhile, just outside of the Imerys factory, a big sign affirms proudly that the “company benefited from tax incentives to production” by the Superitendência para o Desenvolvimento da Amazônia (SUDAM) linked to the National Integration Ministry. Tax incentives in the Amazon, especially in its Eastern portion, have, for a long time, been a factor of social and territorial disruption. In the state of Pará, incentives at times included 100% tax exemption on the circulation of goods and services that are part of the value chain, such as electricity and fuel.

This has happened in conjunction with an increase of state debt at the provincial level, deepening of ecological debt (disproportionately concentrated upon affected communities), and inadequate distribution of wealth in the affected municipalities.

The Federal government helps to aggravate the problem by stimulating the so-called “tax war” among states that want to attract companies to their territories allegedly to create jobs and improve their revenue. In this way, it is not just a problem of development pushed by the capital, but also a matter of the way the contested regional and sustainable development model is being driven by sub-national units over and against community development. In Barcarena, for example, the provincial government has played a central role in promoting and reproducing a “development” model that jeopardizes the lives and cultures of local communities.

Shortly after the caravan left Pará, Norsk Hydro announced it is bringing Norwegian pop band A-ha to play in Barcarena. This type of propaganda, as much as the Imerys advertisement is part of a set of corporate tactics designed to build a narrative that disguises the crude reality lived by the communities we visited.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment. Many of them asked for our help to disseminate the struggles they are going through and the systematic impunity these corporations enjoy. This article is our modest attempt to do so.

Diana Aguiar is part of the National Advisory Group of Brazilian social organization FASE. She has a M.A. in International Relations from PUC-Rio and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree at the IPPUR/UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). Her research is on the role of transnational capital and the state in accumulation by dispossession processes related to megadams projects in the Amazon basin. 

Marcela Vecchione is Adjunct Professor at the High Level Amazonian Studies Center at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. She holds a PhD in Political Science/International Relations from McMaster University where she completed her studies on Indigenous Peoples political and historical articulations across borders within the Pan-Amazon region. Marcela`s current research focuses on land use and changes in land use in the Amazon basin and how this affects life projects by shaping resistance within and beyond the rain forest.

Alessandra Cardoso is Policy Advisor at INESC. She holds a Masters Degree in Economic Development from the Federal University of Uberlandia, and is pursuing her PhD in Applied Economics – Development and Environment, at Unicamp. Alessandra is responsible for developing the “Investments and rights in the Amazon” initiative.