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Indigenous villagers still lack safe land, water & food after 2019 dam burst

  • In January 2019, a burst tailings dam in Brumadinho Valley, Minas Gerais, Brazil, devastated the territory surrounding the Paraopeba River, including the land inhabited by the Pataxó and Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe Indigenous groups.
  • Part of the community remained in the original village of Naõ Xohã, where today the river remains unfishable and the soil is contaminated by heavy metals. Changes in eating habits have led to an epidemic of diabetes, intoxication and allergies in the community.
  • As Vale did not fund a relocation program, other Indigenous families moved to slums on the outskirts of the city of Belo Horizonte, where they lived in precarious structures and underwent racial discrimination by people in the city.
  • In 2021, a local Japanese-Brazilian association donated land to build a new village called Katurãma, where the Indigenous people in Belo Horizonte were able to move; still, they have dealt with lacking resources and threats from land-grabbers and wildcat miners.

Anyone living near the Paraopeba River, which runs through the state of Minas Gerais, remembers what happened to its waters. Along its 510-kilometer (317-mile) stretch, the river still passes through 35 cities in the state, but it is no longer the river it once was. Its “dead” state is visible at a glance now — once a clean water source, it has been substituted by the devastating reality of a river basin contaminated by 13 million cubic meters (459 million cubic feet) of mining waste.

The rupture of the Córrego do Feijão tailings dam owned by Vale S.A. on Jan. 25, 2019, in Brumadinho (MG), resulted in the deaths of 272 people — one of the most expressive and visible consequences of predatory mining practices that have, for decades, masqueraded as one of Minas Gerais’ main economic activities.

Today, the railway cutting across the state carries trains loaded with tons of iron ore blowing their whistles day and night — reminders of the fact that little has changed since one of the worst environmental crimes in Brazil’s history was committed.

Analyses carried out by the cities of Brumadinho, Mário Campos, São Joaquim de Bicas and Juatuba found the waters of the Paraopeba River unsuitable for use and not recommended for any purpose, from fishing to personal use. The 26 municipalities in the Paraopeba River Basin are home to some 200,000 people.

Four years after the event, Vale and TÜV Süd — the German company that certified the dam’s safety before it burst — still have not offered a legal response to the environmental crimes and homicides caused by the dam’s failure. The people who were affected, living throughout the entire extension of the Paraopeba’s territory, are awaiting compensation.

A river of mud runs through it

The Pataxó and Pataxó Hã-hã-hãe are among the Indigenous groups affected by the disaster, who, since 2019, have been trying to gain recognition and compensation for the violations. In the meantime, they are finding it impossible to continue their traditional ways of living.

In 2017, some 25 families of Indigenous people from the villages of Coroa Vermelha, Barra Velha, Pau Brasil, Monte Pascoal, Pedra Branca and Mata Medonha, all in southern Bahia State, migrated to Minas Gerais. They aimed to secure territory where they could build and sustain a better way of life, able to live according to traditions and far from increasing urban violence, which had become more common in their original territories. They established the village of Naô Xohã in the rural zone of São Joaquim de Bicas, less than 20 km (12 mi) from the Córrego do Feijão dam.

The space they occupied along the Paraopeba River, far from urban centers and near the Atlantic Rainforest, was seen by the Indigenous families as a chance to live close to nature according to their ancestral knowledge. They sought to sustain themselves with farming, hunting, ethno-tourism and by selling their handicrafts. In addition, the proximity to the rainforest offered a connection to the Earth, the animals and, especially, the sacred txopai — the river.

The Paraopeba River in the municipality of São Joaquim de Bicas (MG). Image by Isis Medeiros.

There, less than 100 meters (328 feet) from their village, the Naô Xohã drank water, fished for their sustenance and held rituals at the Paraopeba River. But not 24 hours after the Córrego do Feijão dam burst, iron ore rejects washed into the place where the community lies. “The mud arrived here at our community the next day. It was really loud, and when I looked, I saw a river of mud,” recalls Célia Angohó, who lived in Naô Xohã at the time and today is chief of Katurãma village.

The disaster rendered all water in the river’s basin unusable. At the time, the Minas Gerais state government advised the population to “not use raw water from the Paraopeba River for anything until the situation is normalized.” This advisory has still not been repealed, and the community’s routine has never been the same. Children and adults are no longer able to use the river as they were accustomed to and the changes to their daily lives went far beyond water issues alone.

The dead river and dead animals composed scenes that are hard to forget, even today. “We would see homes and pieces of animals floating by. The fish were jumping out of the river,” recalls Angohó. Even though the village was evacuated a day after the dam burst, the people of Naô Xohã decided to stay on the land where their homes were.

Pieces of iron ore found in the spring on the private conservation area where Katurãma village is being built. Image by Isis Medeiros.

Resistance through permanence

Chief Sucupira, the current leader at Naô Xohã, claims that Vale’s relocation proposal did not consider the prior consultation protocols with the community and would have placed its people in an area much smaller than the territory they occupied. “We are used to living in a reserve, in the forest. They put part of our people in an area with no forest, no spring — a very tiny area. And I, as vice chief at the time, didn’t accept it,” he says.

Staying at Naô Xohã was an important act of resistance for the group. Even given the uncertain scenario regarding contamination and other consequences of continued exposure to heavy metals found in the mining rejects, part of the community opted to remain on their land. Today they depend on governmental assistance programs and the sale of handicrafts to survive.

“As leader of the people who stayed at Naô Xohã, I have hope that we will rebuild. We have our ancestors, the gods and the spirits who tell us how to rebuild. Things will never be like they were before the dam burst, but we will get used to it,” says Sucupira.

Katurãma village community leaders Hayô and Angohó. Image by Isis Medeiros.

Aside from the burst dam, flooding caused by Paraopeba’s rising waters also affected Naô Xohã. Rainfall in January 2022 caused such intense flooding that the village had to be evacuated in order to keep people from being exposed to the high levels of heavy metals in the tailings-contaminated river: iron, manganese and aluminum.

Contamination of the water and the soil in the river’s path means that the soil in the village may also be contaminated because the flooding covered the crops the people had planted there. After that, farming was no longer an option for the community, and that led to health problems. Instead of eating what they plant and harvest, the people now eat ultra processed and industrialized foods, which had never been part of their diets, especially the children’s.

The result has been an epidemic of diabetes among most of the people in the community. “We didn’t have this before. Today, everyone’s got it; adults and children. We weren’t used to eating anything from packages, with pesticides. Our farm didn’t use any of that. Since the crime, we’ve had to buy our food at the supermarket — rice, beans, corn, yucca root. We have to spend our money on it,” says Chief Sucupira. Aside from diabetes, the village’s people have also suffered from intoxications, allergies, fevers and respiratory problems caused by the iron ore in the river.

The children of Naô Xohã keep their song and dance traditions alive during games like the auê. Image by Isis Medeiros.

In search of territory

Without an adequate alternative from mining giant Vale, some of the families from Naô Xohã who chose not to stay in the village ended up dispersing to the Belo Horizonte Metropolitan Area, where they lived under precarious conditions.

The situations were complicated — hotels, school gymnasiums and slum houses on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte — for many in the Pataxó and Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe community. Northeast of downtown, the slum called Jardim Vitória was one of the most complicated locations, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With little space and unfamiliar daily routines, the Indigenous people were subject to racial discrimination. “When we went to town, and also in Jardim Vitória, they would tell us, ‘This isn’t your place. Indians belong in the Amazon’ or ‘Indians belong in the forest,’” tells Chief Angohó, referring to the location where the new village of Katurãma is being built.

There were many stories of racial discrimination. All of those who stayed temporarily in Jardim Vitória were called “urban Indians” and their ethnic heritage was constantly under question. “They said racist things to us — that they had never seen Indians with light-colored eyes and dark skin. When we went to the supermarket, the security guards would follow us around the whole time.”

Tokerê, Aponãhy, Arnãxuá, Chawanuá, Nakwa and Nyohã Pataxó: one of the families who stayed in Naô Xohã. Image by Isis Medeiros.

The people from the Naô Xohã and Katurãma communities are looking for solutions and are managing to survive because of donations and humanitarian aid. These are necessary because not all the groups are included in Vale’s Preliminary Emergency Compensation Agreement.

The most help these people have received came neither from the government nor from the mining company: The Minas Gerais Nippo-Brazilian Cultural Association negotiated a Private Reserve of Natural Heritage in São Joaquim de Bicas with the community. Part of the land was donated and part was sold for part of the compensation agreement, which has still not become a reality.

Previously called the Japanese Forest, the 36-hectare (89-acre) piece of land on the outskirts of São Joaquim de Bicas and just a few kilometers from Naô Xohã, was chosen as the site for Katurãma village in 2021.

The Indigenous communities in São Joaquim de Bicas drink bottled water because they have no access to clean, chlorine-free drinking water. Image by Isis Medeiros.

Even though land is no longer an issue, the community continues to face a series of other problems. One is the constant presence of squatters and wildcat miners in the territory, a conflict that has been intensifying since the Pataxó moved there. Community leaders tell of episodes ranging from threatening anonymous phone calls to poisoning of dogs belonging to the people living in the village.

The people had expected to gain support and protection from agencies like the Federal Police and Funai (the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation). These have not become a reality because their land is private property and not a federally demarcated territory.

“If we speak our own language, live collectively, have a community, a village, a bilingual school, why do we have to have demarcated land to be considered Indigenous? Is our own demarcation not worth anything?” asks the chief of Katurãma, calling for recognition.

Nearly two years after moving to the Japanese Forest, the families still have not managed to build their homes due to the lack of resources and are still living in precarious structures, some even living under tarps. The community itself, together with volunteers from outside, built outhouses and three bathrooms for the 25 families living in Katurãma.

And as they are closer to the city than they were in Naô Xohã, verbal assault and racism have become a larger part of the community’s day-to-day reality. “We hear people say that this isn’t our place. Where is it then? That’s what I’d like to know. If we want to live in this forest inside the city, it doesn’t mean we aren’t Indigenous. We aren’t going to accept being told where we can live by other people,” affirms Angohó.

The Indigenous children in Katurãma receive a bilingual education. Image by Isis Medeiros.

“We just want to live where we were meant to live: in the forest, in our way, according to our culture, which is different. We want to eat fish baked in patioba leaves, drink water from a spring and plant corn on our own land. We just want to be free of sickness and of racism. We are Brazilian natives, children of this land and we just want to be respected so we can live.”

When questioned by Mongabay, Vale responded, “We signed a Preliminary Emergency Adjustment Agreement, in 2019, which allows for actions to evaluate and remediate the impacts caused to the community that lived near to the Paraopeba Basin and maintain a permanent dialogue with the impacted communities, always respecting their traditions and recognizing the autonomy and protagonism assured them by the Constitution.” The communities of Naô Xohã and Katurãma deny they are receiving the help they should from the company.

Banner image: Liviana, Weryanãn, Kayenãn and Weryanã Cruz, Pataxó people from the community of Katurãma. Image by Isis Medeiros.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on June 26, 2023.

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