Bento Rodrigues / DPA
The earth is a reddish colour, practically orange, and on deserted streets the soil, a kind of dry clay, is turning into a very fine dust.
“The scene of the crime” – these are the words used by a former resident of Bento Rodrigues to describe the tiny community in south-eastern Brazil, which is now a ghost town.
Over 600 inhabitants abandoned Bento Rodrigues, located in Minas Gerais state, after tragedy struck in November 2015.
The town near the Doce River (Sweet River) was hit by a toxic tide when a containment wall at a dam in the Samarco company iron ore mine collapsed, causing 35 million litres of clay to spill into the municipality of Mariana, completely destroying several villages.
Photographs show the devastation of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira by a mass of orange-coloured sludge. The incident is considered by many to be the worst environmental disaster in the history of Brazil.
The mudslide also contaminated the Doce River along a 650-kilometre stretch as it flows into the Atlantic, stripping thousands of farmers, fishermen and residents along the banks of a livelihood.
More than a year later, the ruins of Bento Rodrigues display the magnitude of the tragedy – a car still covered in mud, destroyed television sets and sandals lying tossed on reddish streets.
“My house no longer exists,” says Marianauba dos Santos, 44. She shows what remains of her home: a chunk of wall with white tiling. Several relatives lived nearby and their homes were also destroyed, she explains.
“There was a football field here,” dos Santos says pointing to a muddy, barren piece of land.
Farmer Welidas Montero remembers the precise moment when the noxious slew struck Bento Rodrigues.
“I had come back from Mariana in the afternoon and I saw the street was empty,” he recalls. Then he saw his neighbours frantically grabbing their things so they could get away from the village.
“Don’t you know what happened?” a woman screamed at him, urging him to leave.
A few minutes later Montero, 32, saw waves of sludge moving towards the village. “I started to run,” he said.
Nearly all his relatives – his infirm mother, a pregnant sister-in-law and several small nieces and nephews – were able to make it to safety, many evacuated in buses and helicopters.
But one of Montero’s nieces, Emanuelly Vitoria, who was 5 years old, was killed.
“They killed her,” he says bitterly.
Like many of the other victims, Montero receives a monthly reparations payment from Samarco, which is jointly owned by British-Australian BHP Billiton and Brazilian firm Vale. But he is not satisfied and craves justice. A total of 19 people were killed in the toxic spill.
“I await justice,” Montero says. “That they give us our homes back.”
Like most of the former Bento Rodrigues residents, Montero lives in temporary housing in Mariana, with new homes for the displaced under construction. Samarco has pledged to rebuild the villages that were wiped out. The new Bento Rodrigues will lie about nine kilometres from the original site, at a spot chosen by the affected families, according to the company.
“They want to erase the memory (of our town),” charges Manoel Marcos Munize. The 53-year-old pensioner also lost his home on the day of the tragedy.
“I spent nearly my entire life here. Our ties were to Bento Rodrigues,” he says. “It was a dream to live here.”
Despite Samarco’s measures, UN experts have described the efforts to palliate damage caused by the toxic spill as “insufficient.”
Brazilian courts found 21 Samarco executives responsible for the disaster and they could face long prison terms. The Brazilian government is also analyzing ways to oversee mining operations with more diligence. Mines have many operations in Minas Gerais, a state next to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Some are calling for Samarco to return to Mariana, since it was a major employer in the area. But Samarco has been banned from operating in devastated areas.
“The city of Mariana, shopowners and businessmen in Mariana are suffering,” says Geraldo Goncalves, head of the Mariana Trade, Industry and Farming and Livestock Association. “Over 80 per cent of our economy depends on mining,” he explains.
“When a mine like Samarco stops working, it creates a huge economic problem for us,” says Goncalves. With some 60,000 residents Mariana is located about 35 kilometres from Bento Rodrigues.
But Goncalves insists that his association, composed of about 300 businessmen and traders, is not going against the victims.
“We are not protecting the mine,” he says. “The mine must take responsibility for what occurred.”