- Construction of the FIOL railway line linking a deep-water port in Bahia state to the BR-153 highway in Tocantins state is fully underway following a successful bid by the region’s largest iron ore miner.
- Besides transporting 18 million metric tons of ore per year, the railroad will have capacity to transport an additional 42 million tons of cargo, including grain grown in the Matopiba region, Brazil’s fastest-growing agricultural frontier in the Cerrado biome
- In the municipality of Caetité in Bahia, headquarters of the Pedra de Ferro mine and starting point of the stretch of railway to be operated by the mining company, people are reporting cases of property and environmental damage and broken agreements with the community.
- Residents say they fear that agribusiness will invade their still-untitled lands, and that a tailings dam proposed by the miner could collapse with deadly consequences.
It happened eight years ago: Elicarlos Ferreira da Silva and his family were returning home one afternoon from the town of Caetité in Brazil’s Bahia state when they were stopped by workers from the West-East Integration Railway (FIOL) project near their home village of Serragem. There was to be another detonation to blast rock, the workers said, and the family needed to wait until it was over.
Once they were allowed to continue to their home, they were shocked at what they found. “It was horrible when we got home. All of us burst into tears. We didn’t know what to do,” says Elicarlos, who was born in the village and has lived there his whole life. “This wall [of the house] was broken, the roof was also broken in, the house was full of rocks and we didn’t know what to do.”
Worst of all, in the middle of their living room they found a boulder that had been blown clean through the wall of their house, leaving a window-size hole in the brickwork. The rock still sits in the living room today, a reminder that the family has still not been compensated by the FIOL project developer, Valec Engenharia, Construções e Ferrovias S.A., a state-run company. “I filed a lawsuit against them seven years ago and it’s never been resolved,” Elicarlos says.
That wasn’t the family’s first such experience. Ten months prior, their roof had been damaged by another detonation. Elicarlos says the subcontractor company hired by Valec to do the blasting was supposed to repair the damage. “On the day of the [second] blast, they told us the company would indemnify the house and give us a new one. Eight days later, they said they would just repair it, but I didn’t agree to it,” he says. “They had told us that the structure of the house had been too badly damaged.”
Elicarlos’s case isn’t the only one of its kind linked to the FIOL project. Throughout southwestern Bahia, between the municipalities of Bom Jesus da Lapa and Caetité, there have been constant complaints about FIOL’s construction activities among people living in small farming villages and quilombos, traditional Afro-Brazilian communities established by former slaves. Construction of the railway line began in 2011 and has progressed slowly since then. The line will link the port of llhéus in Bahia to the BR-153 highway in the municipality of Figueirópolis, in neighboring Tocantins state, but along the way it has left a trail of grievances.
“FIOL has destroyed important areas of vegetation and water sources, destroying economically productive areas in the countryside,” says José Beniezio da Silva, a representative of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an agency of the Catholic Church that helps farmers in the region. “It causes trouble inside the communities because of blocked roads, displacement and other contradictions. There were no public consultations or debates to inform the population of the project’s many impacts and contradictions.”
He says that despite reports and proof of a number of violations, “the people continue to be unprotected by the state and have no perspective for being reimbursed for the innumerous crimes committed. Basically, the FIOL construction has created a path of injustice and inhumanity.”
Lucidalva Silveira Nascimento, who lives in the village of Fazenda Invernada, also in the Caetité region, sums up the complaints of many residents: “We aren’t against [the construction]. What we are against is what the company has done and continues to do: to neglect and disrespect the people who live here.”
She adds that when the company arrived in the area, “the people really suffered. There was a lot of noise, a lot of dust and a lot of ignorance on the part of the people who worked there.” In her case, the detonations hurled rocks that damaged the roof of her home; repairs were never made. “In the windy season, we’re afraid the house will fall in on us because the walls shake,” Silveira says. “When it rains, my whole house gets wet inside.”
60 million tons of iron ore and grain
A sense of unease has returned among residents in recent months. In April, the multinational mining company BAMIN won a federal bid to build the 537-kilometer (334-mile) stretch of the FIOL line between Caetité and Ilhéus by 2025. In Ilhéus, it will be integrated with Porto Sul, a port project between BAMIN and the Bahia state government for which construction began at the end of 2020.
The cost of the railway and port projects is estimated at 7.3 billion reais ($1.4 billion). According to BAMIN’s press office, the company is awaiting the signing of the railway concession contract before it announces how it will deal with the social and environmental liabilities left by Valec, which is responsible for the construction of the railway line. Valec did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment for this article.
The transformations that could occur in the southwest of Bahia due to increased mining activity in Caetité and faster-paced construction of the railroad are apparent from the numbers. According to BAMIN, the FIOL railway will facilitate the shipping of 60 million metric tons of cargo every year, of which 18 million metric tons will be iron ore from BAMIN’s Pedra de Ferro mine in Caetité. Operations at the mine began in January this year and exports began in July.
The rest of the railway’s freight capacity, 42 million tons, will likely be dedicated to transporting grains from the fast-growing agribusiness region known as Matopiba, on the border region between the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. It could also be used to ship iron ore from other mines in the region.
The production that BAMIN envisions will transform the state of Bahia into a major source of Brazil’s iron ore exports. According to the state mineral research agency, known as CBPM, in the first half of 2021, Bahia had the third-biggest mining output, after Minas Gerais and Pará. Even though the FIOL has not yet been completed, the Caetité mine is on track to produce nearly 1 million metric tons annually, according to company data.
BAMIN is a subsidiary of the Eurasian Resources Group (ERG), headquartered in Luxembourg, and which has been developing the Pedra de Ferro mine in Caetité since 2007. That was the period when the Brazilian government under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva launched the PAC Growth Acceleration Program, which included projects like FIOL.
Located halfway between the deposits of the Chapada Diamantina landscape in Bahia and the mining heartland of Minas Gerais — both of which have been mined for centuries — the Caetité region was originally inhabited by diverse Indigenous groups and then by cattle-ranching colonialists. The area has been renowned for its mineral riches since the 19th century, when the precious gems found in the district now known as the Swamp of Amethysts (Brejinho das Ametistas) were coveted by European royalty for their extreme beauty, according to historians.
In 1999, Brazil’s state-run nuclear company, INB, began mining uranium in Caetité, making Brazil one of only four nations at the time with uranium deposits and the technology to enrich it — alongside China, the U.S. and Russia. According to the INB, the Caetité uranium mine is the only one currently operating in all of Latin America.
Fears of a sea of mud
Residents’ concerns over the Pedra de Ferro mine stem not only from the impacts of the railway, but also from the tailings dam that will be built to hold back the slurry of mining waste.
BAMIN’s environmental impact report says the dam will hold 128 million cubic meters (33.8 billion gallons) of sludge. That’s more than double the capacity of the Fundão tailings dam in Mariana municipality, Minas Gerais, that collapsed in 2015; and 10 times that of the Córrego do Feijão dam, where a similar disaster played out in 2019. Nearly 300 people died in those accidents and hundreds of families were left homeless.
If the proposed dam at Pedra de Ferro were to collapse, it would especially affect the municipality of Guanambi, population 85,000. The city lies downstream from the site, which means a dam failure would flood it with mud within just a few hours. Because of the fear of accidents like those that happened in Minas Gerais, a local movement against construction of the Pedra de Ferro dam has emerged in recent years.
Evilásio Pereira Bonfim is a dentist in Guanambi and one of the people who rallied in protests behind the slogan “Life yes, dam no.” “This project is completely contrary to what is going on in the rest of the world in terms of protecting life and the environment in mining. What’s going on here is total disrespect for our community,” he says. “Tailings dams aren’t allowed to be built in the vicinity of any sort of residential areas in civilized nations the world over. If there are any people living below the dam, it has to be moved.”
BAMIN recently announced on its website that it will soon issue a new design for the dam using water filtration technology that transforms tailings sludge into a dry stack. It didn’t say whether the move was prompted by the protests. According to BAMIN, up to 90% of the water that would have accumulated behind the dam will be filtered and reused, preventing the accumulation of mud.
The dam’s planned location is also under question: since 2017 the Bahia State Prosecutor’s Office (MP-BA) has recommended that it be relocated to preserve protected environmental areas in the water supply system. Aside from environmental implications, the MP-BA also warned that the dam could damage traditional communal pastureland, common in Bahia.
Luciana Khoury, a prosecutor with the MP-BA, says there have been reports from local communities that tailings are already being deposited on the site from prospecting activity, and that the environment is already being damaged. “It needs to be understood that the dam cannot be built in this location,” she says. “No matter how many safeguards are taken, all the problems have shown that there is no such thing as zero risk.”
BAMIN’s press office told Mongabay that “the finished basic engineering” of the new projects will be presented “in the coming months” to the appropriate agencies for technical analysis. These agencies are the Bahia state water and environmental board, known as INEMA, and the National Mining Agency (ANM).
Neglect and disrespect for communities
While BAMIN has not yet given details about its new dam project or its action plan for construction of the Caetité-Ilheus railway, communities already affected by Valec’s construction of the FIOL railway line have gone to court demanding compliance with the commitments that were made as conditions for carrying out the work.
In the traditional village of Araçá Volta, in Bom Jesus da Lapa muniipality, railway construction has come to a standstill following an injunction in 2019 from IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency. “This construction project is an example of governmental neglect and disrespect on the part of monitoring agencies,” says Lucas Marcolino, coordinator of the local community organization Associação Quilombola Agropastoril Cultural de Araçá Volta. The village sits on the very spot where the railway line crosses the São Francisco River.
Construction of the bridge is nearly finished. “They have finished the bridge but have never consulted with the people who live here. Unfortunately, what they did was judicialize the process, and now they prefer to go to court rather than talk with the communities. This railway has been pushed through for years, since 2009,” Marcolino says.
Pressure from community groups led to the developers having to carry out an additional assessment, known as the Complementary Studies on Quilombola Populations. During this process, the community had the opportunity to propose alternatives to address the impacts caused by the railway. Their main request, which has received no effective response over the last 10 years, is that land titles be granted for the land inside the traditional communities in the region.
“Soon, as infrastructure is established in the region, the land here will be taken over by farms and agribusiness. So we need to have titles to our land in order to have any sort of security,” Marcolino says. “We’re not here to fight so-called development, but one thing is clear: the local communities must be treated with respect. They must be heard. Here, no one is heard, things are just pushed through any way possible. Things are done by force, ‘bellied through’ as we say around here. That’s how they run their construction. It’s even embarrassing to talk about.”
The Federal Prosecutor’s Office, which is responsible for defending the rights of traditional communities, has been following the dispute between Valec and the quilombo communities in the region. “My evaluation as to the result of [Valec’s] posture is that it has not been positive, resulting in distrust and a disagreeable posture on the part of the communities regarding construction of the railway,” says Robert Rigobert Lucht from the prosecutor’s office in Bom Jesus da Lapa. “There is a pressing need for the company to reestablish dialogue and enquiries with the communities it is affecting.”
“In terms of the environment, Valec is expected to meet all the environmental conditions listed by IBAMA so it can reconcile the necessary economic development with maintaining the required preservation and reduction of damage to the environment,” Lucht adds.
Over the years, the quilombos in Araçá Volta have also filed numerous complaints about environmental violations during construction, such as the filling in of two branches of the São Francisco River with dirt in 2016. Similar incidents have happened in other locations, like in Curral Velho, which lies in rural Caetité, but where the construction work has not been interrupted.
Adailson Meira dos Santos, a farmer in the region, sent Mongabay a video he had taken next to a construction site on the banks of one of the creeks near his community. It shows the riparian forest along a creek that flows into the Ceraíma reservoir, the water source for the entire region, peppered with human feces and used toilet paper. “They don’t bother to bring in a toilet for these poor men — fathers of families — for these workers,” Santos says in the video. “And it makes you ask yourself: who is monitoring this situation? Where is the Public Prosecutor’s Office? The environmental protection agency? Where?”
Santos’s attitude to the problems wrought by the projects here is common among many residents interviewed for this article: he doesn’t see himself as being against FIOL and BAMIN’s projects. “I want them to do the work, because I know the railroad is something that will benefit the world, but they also have to recognize the local communities which were once happy places. They’re taking away the happiness from our community,” he says.
He recalls how, before the FIOL construction started, he lived comfortably because his community and others in the region benefited from investments made to help family farming throughout the last 20 years. These included small dams and support for cooperatives. Santos tells of the variety of crops that were grown in Curral Velho, including tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, beans, yucca, carrots and beets. He says the farms have now been damaged because of the intense amount of dust generated by the construction work.
The standard argument that progress will bring new jobs doesn’t make much sense to people like him, Santos says. “I’m not really interested,” he says. “Today I know, thanks be to God, how to produce more than one [minimum] salary wage for each of my four children. For me, earning just one minimum wage [paid by a company] isn’t worth it.”
Marcolino, from the Araçá Volta community, agrees: “Oftentimes, society only looks at development — but who is the development really for? That’s the truth. It’s society’s responsibility to take care of the environment so that future generations have at least that. But unfortunately, that’s not what’s been happening.”
Banner image of construction of an elevated section of the FIOL railway line. Image by Rafael Martins.