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For Brazil communities along a mining railway, impacts outweigh any benefits

  • In Brazil’s Maranhão the state, which has the lowest household income in Brazil, communities face the impacts of a railroad built and operated around the clock by mining company Vale.
  • The Carajás Railroad runs 892 kilometers (554 miles) from the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine to the port of Ponta da Madeira on Brazil’s Atlantic coast, contributing to Vale’s record $24 billion profit in 2021.
  • Residents living near the railroad report a long history of health problems, structural damage to their houses, people hit by trains, deaths, and lack of dialogue with the company.
  • With their grievances going ignored and their freedom of movement curtailed, these impoverished communities say they don’t see the benefits from the mining money.

“Many people have died on this railroad, killed by the trains,” says Deusimar de Oliveira Santos, a resident of the community of Auzilândia in Brazil’s Maranhão state, echoing a common refrain by locals here.

“I have a deep headache, almost every day. I’ve had this headache for over five years now. The train’s permanent noise is annoying. And when there’s one going up the railroad and another one coming down, the headache is strong, too strong. Sometimes I think I won’t be able to resist it,” Santos says about the daily traffic of the freight trains going to and from the iron ore mine run by Vale.

For the Brazilian mining giant, this uninterrupted noise signals big money.

Vale reported more than 121 billion reais ($24 billion) in net revenue last year — the biggest profit in the company’s history, and the highest figure ever for a publicly traded company in Brazil.

In fact, the company’s profit in 2021 far exceeded the 97 billion reais GDP for the entire state of Maranhão in 2019, the last year for which official data are available.

Much of the iron ore that accounts for this profit is extracted from the S11D mine in neighboring Pará state and transported on the Carajás Railroad. Vale touts the line as the “most efficient railroad” in Brazil.

Residents of the towns through which its double tracks cut, however, tell a very different story.

The communities’ main complaints include lack of viable ways to cross the tracks, such as overpasses and footbridges, leading to instances of people and animals being run over and seriously injured or even killed by the trains. They also point to structural damage to their homes, which are cracked by the constant train traffic, and the noise, water and air pollution. Another complaint is the persecution of community leaders and the lack of dialogue between Vale and the affected communities.

Deusimar de Oliveira Santos, a resident of the community of Auzilândia. Image by Ingrid Barros.

900 kilometers of socioenvironmental violations

The railroad opened in 1985 and today runs 892 kilometers (554 miles), connecting the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine, in Pará’s Carajás municipality, to the port of Ponta da Madeira in Maranhão’s São Luís municipality, on Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

It carries hundreds of millions of tons of cargo and 350,000 passengers a year. Around 35 convoys run simultaneously, including one of the largest freight trains operating regularly in the world: 30 wagons that, end to end, stretch 3.3 km (2 mi). From 2013 to 2017, a parallel track running 575 km (357 mi) was laid alongside the mainline in Pará and Maranhão, boosting the railroad’s capacity to 230 million tons of iron ore transported per year. In total, 10,756 wagons and 217 locomotives transport cargo on the Carajás Railroad.

Vale’s impressive numbers, however, haven’t translated into improved human development and social well-being. Maranhão has the second-lowest human development index of Brazil’s 27 states, with only Alagoas lower. The state’s monthly per capita household income is 635 reais ($126), the lowest in the country, according to the national statistics agency, IBGE, and about half the national minimum wage.

All this infrastructure, including the round-the-clock traffic, has ended up concentrating the impacts of the international commodity boom on Maranhão’s traditional communities.

At least 130 communities and villages lie in the path of the Carajás Railroad. The main municipalities on the route include Açailândia, Buriticupu, Alto Alegre do Pindaré, Itapecuru Mirim and, at the end of the line, the Maranhão state capital, São Luís.

Vale’s railway line running through Auzilândia. Image by Ingrid Barros.

Insufficient compensation

Mineral resources in Brazil belong by law to the federal government, and mining companies that extract them must pay the National Mining Agency (ANM) a tax known as a financial compensation for mineral exploration, or CFEM. The CFEM for iron ore is 3.5%. This revenue is then split between the federal, state and municipal governments of the jurisdictions where the mining takes place. The municipalities receive 60% of it.

Under Law 13540 of 2017, municipalities impacted by railroads, ore pipelines, dams or other infrastructures associated with the mining industry in their jurisdictions are eligible for about 15% of the tax. Observatório da Mineração (Mining Observatory) visited several of these municipalities in Maranhão for this report.

The money paid by the companies to the municipalities they impact hasn’t always led to improvements in quality of life and human development. It often gets lost through bad management, embezzlement and corruption.

It has to get to that stage first, however, and a new study by Instituto Justiça Fiscal (Fiscal Justice Institute) shows that mining companies operating in Brazil are failing to pay $1.26 billion a year of their CFEM obligations, on average, due to possible tax evasion in the iron-ore export chain.

Treated without transparency and ignored by companies such as Vale and the authorities, residents are left only with the adverse impacts and no benefits.

A section of Vale’s railroad in the Francisco Romão community. Image by Ingrid Barros.

‘We don’t see the benefits’

“We don’t see Vale’s resources being applied as they should,” says Leandro Pereira, a resident of Auzilândia and city councilor for Alto Alegre do Pindaré, the municipality where the community is located. “We see people in need. The line cuts through the city from end to end, but we don’t see benefits provided by the company, we don’t have basic sanitation services, we don’t have security. They were supposed to create jobs, but most of these companies hire outside labor, when there are skilled people here to be employed.”

Vale pays the municipal government 1 million to 2 million reais ($198,000 to $396,000) a month. But the people see little of it. “What do we have in our town today? In Auzilândia? We don’t see things happening,” Pereira says. “What I miss the most is security. We expect nothing from life, because of the company that crosses our town. They are rich, but we don’t see any benefits.”

In 2020, Alto Alegre do Pindaré elected as mayor a relatively well-known politician on the national scene. Francisco Dantas Ribeiro Filho, known as Fufuca, is the father of André Fufuca, a federal legislator who in 2017 served as deputy speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower house of Congress.

The elder Fufuca is a cattle rancher with a long history in Maranhão politics, including two previous terms as mayor of Alto Alegre do Pindaré, state deputy, and state secretary of mines and energy from 2009 to 2010. He’s also the current chairman of the Multimodal Intermunicipal Consortium (CIM) — an association of municipalities in Maranhão and Pará that promotes development along the path of the Carajás Railroad.

Many villages lack footbridges over the railroad. Those that exist are the result of struggles to get Vale to build pedestrian structures, and they’re still not enough. “I have seen many children and adults pass under the train,” Pereira says. “There have been several deaths in Auzilândia and other communities. I don’t think this kind of thing was supposed to happen to a company like Vale.”

Footbridge over Vale’s railroad in Alto Alegre do Pindaré. Image by Ingrid Barros.

Jerônimo Alves, another resident of Alto Alegre do Pindaré, said Vale should meet with each community to understand their needs, since they’re not all the same, and then respond to their requests.

“Lack of lighting on footbridges results in accidents and theft, since people take advantage of dark places to rob. There is no access to some communities. The problems include mud, dust, or when an ambulance needs to enter a community and it can’t, so they are isolated,” Alves says.

He says the municipal governments do whatever they want with the funds received, rather than what the population needs. Communities along the railroad have been divided, and the problems caused by the trains prevent residents from accessing their livestock, working on their subsistence crops, or shipping their products in a timely manner. Some trains cut their access for days. Traditional activities such as fishing are also affected.

“We used to fish in the streams, but many streams were filled with earth when the [parallel line was built], so we can’t fish anymore; it’s over,” Alves says. For him, what the communities need is quality infrastructure, health units and sports facilities, places for young people to have fun.

Jerônimo Alves, a resident of Alto Alegre do Pindaré. Image by Ingrid Barros.

The same problems crop up in the neighboring municipality of Buriticupu, home to 71,000 inhabitants and ranked 145th in the human development index among Maranhão’s 217 municipalities.

José Orlando has lived in Vila União, a district of Buriticupu, since 1991. He and his family have always worked as farmers and fishers. He says the laying of the parallel track caused even more problems, with several people being killed trying to cross it, and the river being filled in as a direct result of Vale’s construction work.

“We suffer from poor living conditions and lack of basic sanitation, garbage collection, improved streets, quality schools,” Orlando says. “But if you look at it, some houses are cracked because the train makes them shake; some families are in need because they live very close to the railroad and can’t [grow] anything.”

The community has no ambulance or hospital, and the roads are bad. That’s another maintenance commitment that Vale apparently abandoned over time, Orlando says. People are often hit by the trains that pass all the time and prevent community members from moving about freely.

“When we started to demand safe passage, Vale’s strategy was to send two inspectors on Saturday and Sunday to see how many people crossed over the tracks. But people work in the countryside all week long, and Saturday and Sunday are their days off. So this was a strategy to say that there was no need to build a footbridge because few people crossed the tracks, so we’d have no right to a footbridge here in the community,” Orlando says.

The Carajás Railroad is also a symbol of the ties between the mining and agribusiness industries. In addition to iron ore, the trains carry large volumes of agricultural freight, both solid (soy and other grains) and liquid (fuels and fertilizers, among others).

Carajás is also connected to two other railroads: the Northeast Railroad Company (Companhia Ferroviária do Nordeste, CFN) and the North-South Railroad (Ferrovia Norte-Sul). The former crosses seven states in Brazil’s northeastern region and the latter cuts through the states of Goiás, Tocantins and Maranhão, bringing grain produced in northern Tocantins to the port of Ponta da Madeira.

The village of Vila União in the municipality of Buriticupu. Image by Ingrid Barros.

Corruption and embezzlement charges

In municipalities crossed by Vale’s railroad in Maranhão, mining money has ensnared several politicians and businesspeople in criminal schemes.

In 2019, the state’s public prosecution service (MP-MA) filed six charges against individuals involved in procurement fraud in 2013-2016 in the municipality of Itapecuru Mirim, 108 km (67 mi) from São Luís. According to prosecutors, the conspiracy was led by former mayor Magno Amorim, who allegedly embezzled 27 million reais in public funds, or about $6.9 million at the exchange rate at the time. The accused range from politicians to bureaucrats to lawyers and businesspeople.

A dossier from the Maranhão Court of Accounts released in 2021 includes evidence of the involvement of Karla Batista, former mayor of Vila Nova dos Martírios, with the Multimodal Intermunicipal Consortium (CIM). The court suggested the consortium may be the source of corruption in procurement projects in the municipalities along the Carajás Railroad.

In February 2021, the court ordered preliminary relief measures suspending the consortium’s procurement processes after auditors found multiple irregularities in online bidding procedures.

This included in tenders for the provision of school lunches, office supplies, cleaning supplies, outsourced services, street lighting maintenance, printing services and others.

Based on the findings, the Court of Accounts suspended the procedures as they stood and, in the case of contracts already signed, payments as well. It also prohibited any administrative measures resulting from those procurement procedures until a new decision is made.

The consortium’s chairman, Fufuca Senior, said in response to Observatório da Mineração’s questions that the current board will provide everything demanded by the investigation. It has accepted the court’s decision and established new internal procedures for more transparency, and hired an external audit firm that found irregularities which are now being solved, he said. The CIM’s full response is included at the end of this article.

A viaduct on the Carajás Railroad in Piquiá de Baixo. Image by Ingrid Barros.

Ongoing struggle for improvements

Alzeneide “Gabi” Moraes lives in the Francisco Romão settlement, in rural Açailândia. The community’s residents resorted to blocking the railroad so that the company would listen to them and meet their demands. Even so, the viaduct it built through their community has caused accidents.

“Instead of providing us with relief, it caused major concerns. The viaduct lacks things such as railings, lighting, among other details,” Gabi says. “And residents who have to use it at night are concerned. There has even been a serious accident leading to the death of a young man. The other one was in a wheelchair.”

Alzeneide “Gabi” Moraes, a resident of the Francisco Romão settlement. Image by Ingrid Barros.

Francisco Romão is a community of 102 farming families. It has a primary and secondary school, but with limited shifts and places. The secondary school classes take place in the same building as the primary school, but only on the night shift. As the only secondary school in the Novo Oriente area, it also serves students from other communities.

The local economy is based on subsistence agriculture. Some families supplement their income with money from the federal government’s Bolsa Família welfare program. There’s no basic sanitation, and one of the two artesian wells, which is 3 km (nearly 2 mi) away from the community, supplies the water that’s distributed for consumption without treatment.

There’s no health service to speak of. There’s a single health post in the Planalto I settlement, built in 2017, but it can’t fully accommodate the needs of the communities in the Novo Oriente area, since it has no regular service. Medicines and equipment are scarce, and it’s far from other communities.

“We got an ambulance after we campaigned for it, but it’s not equipped. We are asking the authorities to equip the ambulance, because it’s actually just a car,” Gabi says. The community has to fight for the services it needs, and then fight for them to be fully provided.

Lindalva Souza became an assistant nurse after graduating from social work. She says she’s part of the mobile team that covers the areas of Planalto I, Novo Oriente, Francisco Romão, Agroplanalto — a settlement that’s in the process of incorporation — and João do Vale.

The team works three times a week, each time in a different settlement, and twice a month in each of them. It comprises three assistant nurses, a nurse, a doctor and a driver. They provide basic health services such as prenatal care, doctor’s visits, tests and wound dressings.

Lindalva Souza, an assistant nurse at the Planalto I health post. Image by Ingrid Barros.

“That ambulance can transport people, but it can’t save them,” Souza says. “Because we know that if someone is feeling sick, lacking oxygen or something else, we can’t save their lives in a car with just a stretcher to lie on.”

She says the health post should be located in Francisco Romão, which is central to the five settlements. Vale has its own ambulances, fully equipped — a far cry from the one offered to the communities.

The health post at Planalto I, far from Souza’s home, is just as bare-bones. “Our unit is not equipped. On opening day they provided everything that was needed there. When it was over, they took it all back. Our unit only has one room with two beds and a chair to sit on. In the doctor’s office, there is a closet and a chair, and nothing else. And there are scales, but there isn’t even a table for screening and measuring blood pressure. It would be good if Vale equipped our health unit with a table and a chair; that would be good. But the company said that a health unit is not their responsibility; it’s up to the municipality,” Souza says.

While others deflect responsibility for providing these essential services, the people of the communities suffer. The trains can be heard every day, without fail. “What bothers me the most here is this noise from the train, because I have a health problem — labyrinthitis — it’s like there’s something shaking in my head,” Souza says. “Noise pollution does a lot of harm.”

Piquiá de Baixo: A history of abandonment

The case of the community of Piquiá de Baixo is symbolic of how the mining and steel industries treat the communities impacted by their projects. This is a view echoed by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A U.N. delegation visited communities affected by mining in Maranhão in December 2019. According to the rapporteurs, “[t]he struggle of over 300 families in Piquiá de Baixo is emblematic.” The visit resulted in a report in which the U.N. called for mitigating measures.

“In the 1970s, a steel industry invaded a peaceful community without their consent, a glaring example of industry operating for decades without adequate regard for human rights, and limited State intervention,” the report said.

“Vale supplies iron ore and takes processed products to ports to be exported, amid the expansion of the mine-railroad-port transportation system along the Carajás export corridor. Alarmingly, the steel factories in Açailândia have been operating without licenses for at least eight years, as they failed to meet environmental requirements,” it added.

Although Vale doesn’t own the steel companies, the iron they forge comes from its mines. That taints the entire supply chain with human rights violations, according to reports and field investigations.

Viaduct used by Vale’s trains in Piquiá de Baixo. Image by Ingrid Barros.

Studies have shown widespread health problems, according to the U.N. report, including coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing, and headaches. It says 65% of community members reported respiratory problems, with others suffering from eye diseases and various skin conditions, aggravated by the pollution.

“Community members have been burnt from the slag and residues from pig iron, where the waste area was not properly fenced off, and no proper signalling of danger and the risks associated with contact with the pig iron,” the report said. “Despite unmistakably hazardous pollution, data provided to the Government by the companies does not suggest that it is above levels of concern. The Government has not investigated or sanctioned the companies,” the UN demands.

According to U.N. rapporteur Baskut Tuncak, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances, “Vale has a responsibility to remedy the harms inflicted on the community although it does not own the steel production facilities … The situation of the communities in Piquiá de Baixo is a clear violation of rights to life, health, information.”

Maria José da Silva has lived in Piquiá de Baixo for almost 50 years. She says the water used to be good and clean, and the community didn’t face the risks it had to face after the industrial plants arrived. The black dust that invades their houses and the munha — the incandescent residue of hazardous material — has become part of their routine, she says.

“People would come and there were many accidents, some people were burned, others died. Because of that thing, that red dust on the floor. You can’t tell it’s fire, and if you step on it, you’re done: it’ll cover your feet and you’ll fall in there,” da Silva says.

Many residents tired of the kind of “development” brought by the companies — imminent death, respiratory disease, risk of accident at any moment, dust around the clock — and ended up leaving Piquiá de Baixo.

Da Silva’s three children live outside Maranhão. She relies on the money they send her to survive. Her hope is that the houses for a new neighborhood will be eventually built, but the construction work has been delayed for years.

“It would be good if Vale could help with those houses, finish the construction so we could move in. It’s everybody’s dream here. My shack here didn’t fall down only because I bought some bricks and made this wall,” she says.

Maria José da Silva, a resident of Piquiá de Baixo. Image by Ingrid Barros.

Marilene Martins, another resident of Piquiá de Baixo, confirms the discomfort, pollution and abandonment that the residents experience. “Since the trains pass nearby, the community should be taken care of, especially with that wonderful river there. But everything is abandoned here; we’ve been forsaken,” she says.

Antonia Alves, another resident, says the river is polluted, and the children are constantly at risk of allergic reactions and disease. Her little daughter, she says, always gets sores on her skin when she comes back from the river. The water is only good for washing dishes.

If Vale really helped, she says, life in the community would be totally different. “This is a place where they make lots of money, but it’s also a very forsaken place. They don’t do any good here. This house where I live has cracked walls, I guess it’s because of the train; I can hear it from my house,” she says.

In 2021, the NGO Justiça Nos Trilhos (Justice on the Rails) surveyed the health conditions of 21 women living in Piquiá de Baixo and other neighborhoods and communities, including Francisco Romão. They confirmed that the impacts of pollution generated by the companies in the area are significant.

The main symptoms reported are headaches, allergy (itching), fever, tiredness, stomachache and cramps. In total, 22 symptoms were detected. This strengthens suspicions that the headaches, allergy/itching, tiredness and stomachaches are linked to factors specific to that region, where levels of pollutants are higher.

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Vale’s response

In response to Observatório da Mineração’s questions, Vale sent a statement about its actions on each of the points raised and the local residents’ reports.

“With regard to the safety of community residents that cross the railroad, Vale informs that it constantly invests in technology and actions to reinforce safe coexistence with its railroads. In recent years, significant investments have been made in mobility along the entire Carajás Railroad, totaling 48 new viaducts, 80 level crossings, 15 footbridges, 44 automatic gates, among other protective measures, such as protection walls to prevent pedestrians from unsafely crossing the tracks at the wrong points. In addition, it has staff focused on community relations, dedicated to awareness-raising actions and campaigns,” it said.

Regarding what Vale calls “alleged environmental impacts associated with the Carajás Railroad operation,” such as cracks in houses and pollution, the company said it “strictly complies with environmental legislation and reiterates that it systematically assesses the environmental variables associated with its operations, keeping specific programs validated by regulatory environmental agencies.”

In the coming years, the company added, “new mobility works are also planned, such as viaducts, road accesses to the railroad, new sections of protection barriers, more footbridges, and automated level crossings.”

On dialogue, or the lack thereof, with local communities, Vale said it maintains relationship channels available to the community via website and telephone, and that “it also has dedicated community relations teams that often visit neighboring communities, exercising active listening as well as open and transparent dialogue about demands related to the company’s operation. All demands received are properly registered and answered to the communities within an average period that is historically shorter than 10 days.”

As for its oversight and monitoring of investments in partnership with the Multimodal Intermunicipal Consortium (CIM), the company said that “all projects are signed directly with the governments of the municipalities in our area of operation rather than with the CIM, which acts as an intermediary.”

Vale said that “all projects are previously evaluated, considering internal integrity/compliance criteria and their alignment with Vale’s social action lines. Once they are approved, partnerships are established through dedicated legal instruments with clauses that set each party’s responsibilities, including regular inspections carried out by Vale’s teams. Under the contract, the Municipalities first render accounts over each stage of the project for evaluation/approval by Vale, and only then the funds are transferred. The contracts also provide for the suspension of transfers in cases in which reports presented by municipal governments do not meet the requirements.”

On the mining tax, or financial compensation for the exploration of mineral resources (CFEM), the company said that “payments are made directly by Vale to the National Mining Agency (ANM), which is in charge of calculating and transferring the funds to the municipalities in the Carajás Railroad’s area of influence, as provided for in a federal executive order. It is also up to the ANM to set standards and oversee the collection and distribution of CFEM funds.”

Multimodal Intermunicipal Consortium’s (CIM) response

The consortium of municipalities refuted any allegations of corruption, detailing its relationship with Vale and describing the benefits it provides to communities in a statement to Observatório da Mineração.

In a statement, the CIM board said that, as soon as it took office in January 2021 under new chairman Francisco Dantas Ribeiro Filho, “it hired a specialized company to provide audit services on personnel expenses and consultancy services on situational diagnosis.”

The consortium said the audit “found irregularities as stated in its dedicated report, with regard to the Functional and Remuneration Structure of public servants, undue payment to Time of Service Fund (FGTS), and Debts to Social Security,” among others.

Aiming to preserve public assets and administrative morality, it said, the audit’s report was sent to regulatory agencies such as the Maranhão State Court of Accounts (TCE/MA) and the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Maranhão (PGJ/MA).

Regarding the State Court of Accounts, the consortium said, “CIM has not only joined all demands against former managers but has also been complying with all the decisions of the Court regarding the annulment and/or suspension of procedures considered irregular, like those mentioned in the article.”

Specifically regarding the 2021 audit report, focused on previous years (2016/2020), “we highlight its full approval by the Public Prosecution Service for Accounts of the State of Maranhão – MPC/MA, and the fact that the report resulted in charges filed,” the CIM said.

Therefore, it added, “considering the harmfulness of the acts perpetrated by former managers of the Multimodal Intermunicipal Consortium – CIM, during their respective terms, we have investigated and adopted all appropriate administrative and/or legal measures aimed at punishing those involved and compensating the treasury.”

On the financial compensation for mineral exploration (CFEM), the CIM said it “only supports the social and economic development of associated municipalities through advice on how to apply those funds, collect municipal taxes, socioeconomic and environmental compensations, partnerships, projects, agreements.”

The CIM “does not manage or allocate the funds received by its consortium members, such as CFEM, since those funds are transferred directly to each municipality,” it said.

The revenue of the CIM as an institution, it added, “comprises only financial transfers from member municipalities, resulting from a percentage rate applied to another source of municipal revenue (Fund of Participation of Municipalities – FPM). All procurement procedures, official publications, legislation, fiscal responsibility reports, contracts, rendering of accounts, accounting data and others” are available on its official website.

Regarding the relationship between the CIM, Vale and the Maranhão state government, the CIM said that “it has sought to advise on the use of funds in investments that reach the largest number of beneficiaries and help solve problems that are recurrent to most municipalities, such as basic sanitation issues.”

According to the consortium, “Vale maintains permanent dialogue with the CIM and has proved to be a strong partner in helping to fund several projects with the municipalities, which are carried out under the Company strict oversight, with the CIM actively helping municipalities to overcome all the bureaucratic requirements aimed at approving projects with Vale.”

As for the Maranhão state government, “it has been willing to help whenever it is called upon, even by providing training, which allows municipalities to better oversee and issue environmental licensing, a fact that is very relevant for CIM member municipalities, since they are affected by environmental impacts resulting from mineral exploration,” the CIM said.

No response from government institutions

The National Mining Agency (ANM), the Maranhão state government, the Public Prosecution Service and the Maranhão State Court of Accounts did not answer questions from Observatório da Mineração regarding the issues raised in this reporting.

The municipal governments of Açailândia, Alto Alegre do Pindaré, Buriticupu and Itapecuru-Mirim also did not respond to questions.

This story was reported by Observatório da Mineração (Mining Observatory) and first published here on June 2, 2022.

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