the visual story in Der Spiegel
this is a long term project i started in december 2015, about the worst echological disaster in southamerican history. In january 2017 i received a grant from the german organisation VG-Bild-Kunst to continue in my work.
In the language of Krenak indios Watu is the name of Rio Doce river, in Brazil.
I am documenting the transformation and adaptation of the environment and of the communities along the Rio Doce basin after the disaster occurred on 5th november 2015, when the collapse of the Fundao tailing dam at the Samarco iron ore mine (co-owned by australian BHP Billiton and brazilian Vale SA) released highly contaminated mud from mining into the river.
The slow death of the Rio Doce basin has been happening for at least a century, the result of the messy process of managing land in a country that allows large areas to be cleared for crops and urban development, even along rivers.
The consequences have been forest devastation and severe forest fires; intensive use of the soil, leading to its deterioration throughout the majority of the basin; irregular occupation of the river’s margins; excessive removal of water — either to quench human thirst or to use abusively with industrial agriculture in the last decades –– contributing to the urban disarray and the undeviating pollution of its watershed. At the end of an intense Anthropocene century, the river was basically already dead.
The mud contaminated the Doce River, burying springs and sterilizing the water. Environmental officials say that 11 species of fish native to the river may have gone extinct; fishing activities are now forbidden; also the sea coast around the delta, a protected area for repopulation for whales and turtles, has been heavily affected. Experts say it could take decades, maybe centuries for nature to recover if the mud is left untouched.
Some 19 people died in the disaster. Half a million people are waiting to be compensated for the disaster, in an area roughly the size of Portugal. Many towns like Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu de Baixo have been buried; some cities like Colatina can no longer supply themselves from the river; the Krenak tribe – one of the most affected communities along the river – has lost its sacred river Watu, source of life.
Calculations put the volume of mud travelling 700km of the Doce River from Bento to the sea at 62 billion liters, enough to fill 24,800 Olympic-size pools. It was later revealed that the engineer hired to build the dams had warned of cracks a year before.
A Federal court received in November 2016 an information filed by the Public Prosecution Service (MPF) against the 22 individuals involved in the burst of the dam. 21 of these people have been charged with causing flooding, landslide, bodily harm and homicide with assumption of risk. Eleven are members of the administration board of Samarco.
Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton were charged for 12 environmental crimes, including pollution, flooding, landslides, crimes against urban planning and cultural heritage. The punishments for the companies include fines, temporary interdictions, ban on contracts with the government, and community services, like funding programs of environmental agencies and entities, and carrying out works in degraded areas.
In march 2017 the case brought by prosecutors seeking 155 billion reais ($49.7 billion) in damages has been suspended.
In august 2017 the Brazilian justice suspends prosecution against Samarco.