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Year Of Mud, The Heavy Toll Of Brazil’s Worst Ever Ecological Disaster

Lives destroyed, entire towns damaged, widespread health problems. There is no end in sight to the toll on a region in Brazil decimated by a toxic dam break last November.

Cleaning up toxic mud in Mariana one year ago
Cleaning up toxic mud in Mariana one year ago
José Marques and Avener Prado

BARRA LONGA â€" The rupture of a mining dam in Mariana on Nov. 5, 2015, was only the starting point of the worst ecological disaster in the history of Brazil. And one year after 40 billion liters of toxic mud killed 19 people and spread out across 650 kilometers of territory, the mining waste that has yet to be removed by the operator Samarco could still make the situation even worse.

With the start of the raining season (which will last until March) comes the risk that the mud will again pollute the rivers, kill fish and marine fauna, provoke drinking water shortages and affect the local population, from Mariana in the state of the Minas Gerais, all the way downstream to the coast of the Espirito Santo state.

In Bento Rodrigues, a Mariana suburb that was mostly destroyed by the mudslide, the mining company, co-owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, decided to build a new dam that will flood part of the land. Samarco says that removing the mud would take too much time and would require difficult engineering.

The Brazilian Public Prosecutor's Office opposes the works, and the company's decision has angered the former inhabitants, whose homes were destroyed in the mudslide. They demand their memories be respected.

After inspecting the affected areas last month, the Brazilian government’s environment agency Ibama assessed that it "could not identify any place where the waste was removed." Worse, it said that in some cases the waste had been "incorporated" into the natural soil. In these areas, according to Ibama, Samarco didn't even consider the possibility of removing the waste. The company replied that it was planning to remove one billion liters of mud from the Bento Rodrigues region, and that similar operations along the affected riverbanks were "on the agenda" for upcoming committee reunions.

Across the affected regions, mudslide victims recounted to Folha de S. Paulo how one year later, they still haven't been able to resume their normal lives. Municipal administrations, meanwhile, have seen their finances decimated by the dam rupture.

Health matters

East of Bento Rodrigues stands the small city of Barra Longa, where roads and homes were devastated as the mud flooded the town. Barra Longa is considered as the "model" for reconstruction. Samarco reused ore here to make paver blocks that are being used to rebuild the sidewalk along the Carmo river that was destroyed in the disaster. The company has also had to rebuild the roads that were destroyed by the subsequent truck traffic.

But the dust and residue left first by the mud and later by all this reconstruction activity has been causing increasing health problems, with people complaining of respiratory and skin problems. Samarco monitors the air quality and insists that everything is within the national norms. Evangelina Vormittag, a pathology doctor from the University of São Paulo studying the impact in the region, estimates that current levels are above the limits set by the World Health Organization.

"Barra Longa seems to be the city with the biggest impact on health because inhabitants were exposed to the mud much longer, and breathed the dust it created â€" and have been doing so for a year," Vormittag says.

In the days that followed the floods, 14-year-old Bruno Henrique Faustino helped clean the toxic mud off the streets. A few weeks later, dark stains started to appear on his skin. Still in Barra Longa, Simone Silva's eight-month-old baby Sofya started having respiratory problems, something a medical report found to be connected to the inhalation of dust from the toxic waste.

Both families claim they asked Samarco for help, to no avail. "I went to Samarco several times and they kept telling us: "If you have a medical report that proves that she's sick, we'll help you." So I took the report with me, and their response was: "No, you should go to the health services,"" Simone says.

The local health authorities confirm that skin and respiratory problems have increased after the disaster, with cases of dengue fever reported as well.

Evangelina Vormittag says that neither Samarco nor the authorities have solid data on the impact the mudslide has had on people's health. Her own study, financed by Greenpeace in the region and due to conclude in January, does however show already how bodies have absorbed the dust through the skin and breathing.

Lawsuit boom

Among the tens of thousands of lawsuits filed against Samarco, the case of Ana Carolina Almeida is particularly disturbing. When the torrent of mud reached her town of Governador Valadares, three days after the dam rupture, and cut off the city's water supply, the 28-year-old hairdresser had to wait in line for hours to obtain water. Pregnant at the time, she carried gallons and gallons for her family and her salon. She eventually had a miscarriage.

Months later, she filed a lawsuit against Samarco, asking 35,000 reais ($10,000) for emotional damages. More than 35,000 inhabitants of Governador Valadares did the same. In Colatina, a city in the state of Espirito Santo where water supply was also interrupted, another 17,500 people are suing the company.

Some of the region's lawyers have become "experts' in that field. Carla Vilas Boas, 42, who represents Ana Carolina and 200 other people is also a plaintiff in this case. "I remember one day in particular, when I had to work at the office until 8 p.m.," she says. "I then went to where they were distributing water, and I waited until 10 p.m., but there was no water anymore."

With 280,000 inhabitants, Governador Valadares was the biggest town affected by the torrent of mud. And one year later, most people still avoid using treated water. An analysis carried out in July showed that levels of aluminum were higher than legal limits

Fisherman tales

Along the Doce river, 3,500 fishermen also filed a class-action lawsuit against Samarco. They allege that the mining company and Renova, a foundation created by Samarco and its parent companies Vale and BHP Billiton, have been avoiding the issue of paying damages and instead are only talking about making up for their losses.

"In the meetings we've had with them, they say that they'll pay for the material that was damaged in the disaster," says 44-year-old Cláudio Márcio Alvarenga, president of a fisherman association in Baixo Guandu. "That's fine. But what about the rest? And what about the money I won't be able to make in the future?"

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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