November 7, 2017 / 2:22 PM / a month ago

Victims of Brazil's biggest environmental disaster still fighting for compensation

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Farmer Marino D‘Ângelo Júnior resorted to anti-depressants after a flood of mud destroyed his village when a dam collapsed at Brazil’s Samarco iron ore mine two years ago, releasing millions of tonnes of thick reddish-brown sludge.

In total 19 people died after the dam - designed to hold back mine waste - burst two years ago this month, in Brazil’s worst environmental catastrophe, leaving a trail of destruction over more than 600 km (375 miles).

The house D’Ângelo Júnior called home for 22 years in a rural district of Mariana city, some 70 km from the scene of the disaster in Minas Gerais state, became unsafe because of the mud while his father-in-law’s property was destroyed.

“It was not only walls and bricks .. My wedding was celebrated there, as well as the baptism of my children,” D‘Ângelo Júnior, 48, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from his new home, about 6 km away.

“The distance from people, this sudden change in my life has brought me a lot of health problems. I take two anti-depressants a day.”

He was out of work for 30 days after the disaster and only received compensation after state prosecutors acted on his behalf.

Prosecutors and victims are concerned that two years after the disaster thousands of victims are still to get compensation although the dam’s owners say the process is on schedule.

After the dam gave way, the equivalent of 25,000 Olympic-sized pools of muddy mine waste flowed into the Rio Doce, one of Brazil’s main rivers, killing fish and fouling water supplies.

Brazilian prosecutors charged 21 people last year with qualified homicide for their roles in the collapse.

The Samarco mine’s joint owners, Brazil’s Vale SA and Australia’s BHP Billiton Ltd, and Brazilian engineering company VOGBR Recursos Hidricos e Geotecnica, which certified the dam’s safety, were charged with environmental crimes.

LONG WAIT

BHP, Vale and Samarco officials rejected the charges, while VOGBR declined to comment at the time they were brought.

Prosecutors subsequently served the partners in the Samarco mine with a 155 billion Brazilian real ($47 billion) claim for the social, environmental and economic costs of cleaning up the disaster with a mid-November deadline to settle.

Thousands of victims are still waiting for new houses or compensation, prosecutors say.

Prosecutors blame an agreement through which the government authorized the mining companies to transfer their environmental, material and compensation obligations to Fundação Renova, a third-party company created for this task.

Federal prosecutors last May filed a court case questioning the legality of the agreement and arguing the creation of Fundação Renova is illegal as current legislation states the polluter must be directly charged for environmental crimes.

The prosecutors criticized a lack of victims’ participation in Fundação Renova’s decision-making process as well as difficulties to sue in case obligations were not fulfilled.

“While signing this deal, the government gave absolute powers to companies to establish a foundation that does whatever it wants without any representative of the victims,” said Guilherme Meneghin, a state prosecutor.

All 350 families in Mariana affected by the disaster received initial compensation and are getting their rent paid, while many families are receiving a monthly cash transfer.

However, the prosecutor said many victims are yet to be registered to receive final compensation and the construction of new villages to relocate people has been delayed.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation contacted Samarco but was referred to Fundação Renova for comments.

MORE SAY FOR VICTIMS

Roberto Waak, the head of Fundação Renova, said the compensation plan was being implemented according to schedule.

“The original plan from the beginning was to deliver the new villages until the middle of 2019. This plan is maintained,” Waak told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

However, he said disaster victims should be given a more active role in decision-making, including a seat on the Fundação Renova’s board, which is expected to be announced soon.

According to Waak, although 8,000 families from outside Mariana are receiving a monthly cash transfer, 17,000 families have not received anything so far due to registration issues.

“Eighty percent of people weren’t able to prove what they had because most of their activities and land properties are informal,” he said, adding all these cases will be included in compensation claims.

Administrative sales assistant Janaína Cecilia das Flores Cardoso said she has been out of work for two years after the disaster forced her to move to another area.

“My life was destroyed. Not only mine, but all people’s life from Mariana,” Cardoso, 40, said by telephone.

The mayor of Mariana, Duarte Eustáquio Gonçalves Júnior, said the disaster harmed the entire city as most its income comes from mining activities.

There is no date yet for Samarco to resume its operations, which depends on the approval of environmental licenses, the company said in an Oct. 31 statement.

“We are in favor of the return of company’s operation but also that justice punishes those responsible,” said Gonçalves Junior.

(This version of the story corrects the spelling of the surname in paragraph 18)

Reporting by Karla Mendes, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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