Three years after the collapse of a mining dam forced them from their homes in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, a small community of Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe Indigenous peoples face yet another disaster-driven displacement.
At the start of the year, their village of Naô Xohã, which means “warrior spirit” in their language, was destroyed when the Paraopeba River, swollen by intense rainfall, burst its banks.
“It’s a really sad moment for us,” Indigenous chief Arakuã Pataxó told Mongabay by phone. “We were forced to leave our territory again because of the contamination from the mines that is now inside our houses and on our land.”
In 2019, a tailings dam holding mining waste collapsed in the municipality of Brumadinho; the dam was operated by Brazilian mining giant Vale. The incident, dubbed one of the largest mining disasters in the world, dumped heavy metals and other mining waste into the river that the Naô Xohã villagers depend on for their livelihood, effectively rendering the village uninhabitable.
Located in the municipality of São Joaquim de Bicas, Naô Xohã village sits on the banks of the Paraopeba River and is home to about 20 families from the Pataxó and the Pataxó Hãhãhãe ethnicities. Since October last year, the state of Minas Gerais has been hit by heavy rainfall, which has intensified in the last two weeks, causing the river to burst its banks and flood the village.
“The water has destroyed everything,” Haroldo Heleno, a regional coordinator with the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, said in a phone interview. “The mud and water have swept away almost the entire lower part of the village. The conditions there are completely unsuitable for living.”
The Federal Public Ministry confirmed that the floods have affected the Indigenous community’s houses, health centers, and community bathrooms, leaving the area unfit for living due to the risk of contamination from the river’s waters. After being rescued in boats by the local fire department and the civil defense (a disaster response unit), the Indigenous families were lodged in municipal schools, where they currently remain supported by donations. They comprise 27 adults and 18 children, according to the Federal Public Ministry.
In a statement to Mongabay, the Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe peoples say their removal from their village has deprived them of their rights to their “social organization, customs, languages, beliefs, and traditions, as provided for in Article 231 of the Federal Constitution.”
Soon after the floods, the Federal Public Ministry and the Federal Public Defender’s Office published an official letter urging Vale to hold a meeting with the Indigenous community “to address the emergency measures to be adopted in [the Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe peoples’] favor, notably with regard to the relocation of families.” In the same statement, the federal authorities said, “the presence of heavy metals and other pollutants in the water that reached the Naô Xohã village makes it impossible for the Indigenous community to return to their homes.”
In a statement, Vale confirmed it received the letter but said that “it’s important to note that iron ore tailings are mostly made up of ferrous minerals and quartz, and are classified as non-hazardous and therefore non-toxic, according to the NBR 10,004 norm from the Brazilian Association of Technical Standards.”
The mining company said it’s currently evaluating the impact of the floods and giving support to communities living on the banks of the Paraopeba River, with whom they “maintain an open dialogue.” Vale added that any flood damage linked to the 2019 dam collapse “will be duly dealt with as necessary,” complying with an agreement signed with the Federal Public Ministry in 2019 that aims to protect Indigenous rights after the dam collapse.
According to Arakuã Pataxó, however, Vale has yet to provide a concrete resolution for the damages inflicted on the Indigenous community since negotiations began in 2019. Vale said that the evaluation is still ongoing and the reparation plan will be provided once the analysis is concluded.
The tailings dam collapse in Brumadinho in 2019 unleashed 12 million cubic meters (424 million cubic feet) of mining waste, causing a 10 meter (33 feet) high wave of mud that traveled 10 kilometers (6 miles) downhill to the Paraopeba River, killing a total of 270 people. Studies at the time indicated that the dam collapse contaminated the river with heavy metals — such as manganese, iron, lead, cobalt, and mercury — at levels far in excess of allowable limits. This forced most of the Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe to leave their homes next to the river and eventually settle in a new village, Katurãma, in the same municipality. However, not all left, and approximately 20 families have remained in Naô Xohã since 2019, according to Heleno, from CIMI.
Katurãma, located in the so-called Mata do Japonês (Japanese Woods), in an area donated to the Indigenous people by the Minas Gerais Association of Japanese-Brazilian Culture (AMCNB), was also affected by the recent rains. Antonio Hoyama, the AMCNB administrative director, told Mongabay in a phone message that although Katurãma sits at a higher elevation and is thus not at risk of being flooded by the river, “the problem they do have though is that their houses are made of plastic canvas, which couldn’t cope with the heavy rains and wind, and so were ripped or blown away.” He added they have received support from the Federal Public Ministry and have been provided new plastic sheets to rebuild their homes there.
Naô Xohã remains the worst affected of the two Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe villages, said Heleno from CIMI. He said his organization is now requesting the Federal Public Ministry and Vale to relocate the community to new land, given that they can’t live in Naô Xohã anymore due to the river’s contamination. They had previously built wells there after the 2019 disaster to obtain fresh water, but now “everything, including the wells, was contaminated by the recent floods,” Heleno said.
“They are looking for a new area where they can produce food and survive,” he added. “It’s not just land that they need. These families also need the resources to rebuild their houses and gardens, which provide them with food.”
Two studies from 2020 and 2021 cited in the Federal Public Ministry’s recent letter to Vale indicate the level of heavy metals are still higher than allowed under Brazilian regulations. The 2021 study, published by the Minas Gerais Institute for Water Management (IGAM), recommended against using the river’s water at all.
Elias Teramoto, a geologist at São Paulo State University, said one of the biggest concerns is the risk of community members consuming metals found in the river — not from drinking the water itself, but from eating contaminated fish. “The transfer of metal from contaminated mud to the water happens in small quantities,” he said in a phone interview. However, “aquatic organisms ingest the fine metal particles. When people consume contaminated fish — and the fish from the Paraopeba River are eaten a lot by the local population — there is a risk of the metal accumulating in the body and people becoming contaminated themselves.”
The consumption of contaminated fish has been a problem in the Paraopeba River for several years. A study in 2016, for example, found levels of heavy metals above those recommended for human consumption in fish living in the river’s waters.
Concentrations of heavy metals in the Paraopeba vary with the seasons and are especially affected during heavy rains. “In the dry season, there is a lower concentration of metals in the water; it grows during the rainy season,” Teramoto said. “As the flow of the river increases, it carries more sediments and more particles. When the water increases, the concentration of metals increases too.”
Since the Brumadinho disaster, Vale has come under pressure from local and federal authorities, organizations advocating for Indigenous rights, and the Indigenous communities themselves to provide a new home for the Pataxó and Pataxó Hãhãhãe peoples. However, talks with Vale have been slow. “It’s a lot of talk, but little action,” Heleno said.
In their statement, the Indigenous community said they’ve been negotiating with Vale for three years now without a resolution. “The entire negotiation process, which aims to repair the damage that the Indigenous community suffered, has been extremely painful and tiring for our people,” they said.
For now, they have to remain sheltered in the local schools until Vale concludes the reparation process and the community gets new land on which to rebuild their village. “We’re waiting for decisions from the courts and from Vale,” said Arakuã Pataxó, the community chief. “We don’t know what else to do.”
Banner image: Last year, two residents of the Naô Xohã Indigenous village – first and third from the left – met with Joenia Wapichana, the first Idigenous woman elected as federal deputy. They met in Brazilian capital Brasília during the Free Land Encampment, when Indigenous leaders met for a week to discuss and campaign for constitutional rights, demarcation, and the future for their communities. Image courtesy of the Naô Xohã community.
Vergilio, C. D., Lacerda, D., Oliveira, B. C., Sartori, E., Campos, G. M., Pereira, A. L., … Rezende, C. E. (2020). Metal concentrations and biological effects from one of the largest mining disasters in the world (Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil). Scientific Reports10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-62700-w
Savassi, L. A., Arantes, F. P., Gomes, M. V. T., & Bazzoli, N. (2016). Heavy metals and histopathological alterations in Salminus franciscanus (Lima & Britski, 2007) (Pisces: Characiformes) in the Paraopeba River, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 96(4),478-83. doi:10.1007/s00128-016-1732-8
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