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Rebuilding lives after Brazil's 'worst mining accident'

The district of Bento Rodrigues Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The aftermath of the mudslide in Bento Rodrigues

Unemployed construction worker Renato Martins was playing cards with his friends in the middle of the afternoon of 5 November in Bento Rodrigues, a small rural district of Minas Gerais state in south-west Brazil.

They heard a loud bang coming from the north, but paid little attention to it. Minutes later his neighbours started shouting that one of the dams in a nearby mine had burst.

Everyone was overcome with panic. Renato went to the house where his wife and baby were and took them to higher ground. There he managed to scramble them into a truck that drove away to the centre of the town of Mariana.

Renato stayed behind to find his mother. As he grabbed her and brought her safely to higher ground, the rest of Bento Rodrigues was wiped out by a violent mudslide.

Image caption Renato Martins is now living in a hotel

Isolated by a sea of mud, they stayed there overnight and lit a campfire with a few other stranded locals. The following morning, they made their way back on foot through the forest, until they were eventually saved by rescue teams.

'We didn't do anything'

When I meet Renato, he is living with his wife in a hotel paid for by the mining company that operated the two dams that burst and wiped out districts where more than 600 people lived.

I ask him to show me a picture of his former home, but he says he has nothing left, because he never had time to go back for his cell phone.

He lost all records of his former home and the birth of his son. Everything he now possesses - including the clothes he is wearing - was donated by the townspeople. He had to go to the police to make new documents.

Image caption Jairo Cota: "This was not caused by God, this was caused by humans"

Later I meet Jairo Cota, who agrees to take me to his former house and bar in the district of Paracatu Baixo. We drive for almost two hours in back roads that run through private farms - the public highway to the district is no longer safe.

Jairo had been building his bar for his whole life. It was completely wiped out within minutes, along with everything else in Paracatu Baixo.

Both Renato and Jairo say they have no idea how they will rebuild their lives after having lost all possessions and livelihood in the disaster.

All they know is that they cannot do it without some sort of compensation from the mining company Samarco and its owners - Brazil's Vale and Australia's BHP Billiton - who operated the dams.

"This was not caused by God, this was caused by humans", says Jairo.

"I hope to get some sort of compensation, it will be on their conscience if this mining company doesn't pay back. We didn't do anything wrong."

Worst in history

The head of Brazil's environmental agency Ibama said the bursting of the two dams was the worst mining accident in the country's history.

Eleven people died and 12 are still missing - with hopes of finding anyone alive all but gone.

The causes of the accident are still under investigation.

The companies have already been fined $66.3m (250m reais) by Brazil's environmental agency and have agreed to pay $261m for social and environmental damages.

A column of mud full of chemical components used in the mining process is making its way down the river Doce. Towns along the way are having to find alternative water supplies; some fish have died of asphyxiation.

Despite the trauma suffered by hundreds of families in Mariana, many in the town do not want mining to stop.

From gold to iron

Mining has been the heart of Mariana since colonial times in Brazil, when the town was the main source of gold for the Portuguese Empire.

Since the 1970s, when Samarco built its dams and dug its mines here, iron ore has taken over as the main source of income.

"The mining sector and us politicians, we are all responsible for our complete dependence on mining, because we never diversified our economy. More than 80% of our town's revenues come from it", Duarte Junior, Mariana's mayor tells me.

"Samarco alone is responsible for 1,800 direct jobs and another 2,000 indirect. I know that if they stop operating here, our problems will be far greater. We can't look at this crisis and not understand that soon life will have to go on."

Broken trust

But a fundamental trust has been broken between Mariana and the mining companies after this incident.

Image caption "We need to take a new path", says Ronilton Condessa of the miners' union

"We understand that mining cannot stop, but we need to take a new path, with less greed and respecting the environment", says Ronilton Condessa, from the miners' union.

He says the global commodities boom drove everyone in Mariana to become obsessed about increasing production. In 2011, iron ore was sold above $180 per tonne.

When the supercycle ended and prices fell to around $50, everyone felt under pressure to compensate by working harder.

"This year, we were beating production records every day - one right after the other. The firms are under pressure to deliver profits. But we don't care just about profits. We want security, quality of life, health and good wages."

Mining suspended

The mines in Mariana are the sole reason for Samarco's existence - it was why Vale and BHP Billiton went into a joint venture.

The company made a net profit of 2.8bn reais in 2014 by extracting iron ore from Mariana and producing pellets in a plant in the neighbouring state of Espirito Santo.

All mining operations have been suspended until 3 January and workers have been placed on paid leave. No one knows what will happen after that.

There are still many questions hanging over the incident: what caused it? What was Vale, BHP Billiton and Samarco's role in it? Was there any negligence involved? Were the two dams that burst operating under all required conditions?

We tried to raise these questions with Samarco, but the company says it does not comment on ongoing investigations into the causes.

For now, its spokesperson only gives interviews about the relief efforts. The company paid accommodation costs for 185 families and is now in the process of moving them from hotels to temporary homes, until a final solution is reached.

Three hundred houses that fit minimum conditions have already been found.

Answers

As the town of Mariana slowly tries to move on from this tragedy, some are still agonizing in search for crucial answers.

Image caption Aline Ferreira Ribeiro's husband Samuel is still missing

Aline Ferreira Ribeiro has been spending her days going to press conferences and official events in Mariana.

She asks journalists and local authorities for updates on the search efforts.

Her husband, 34 year-old Samuel Vieira Albino, worked for a company hired by Samarco to survey grounds. He was working in one of the dams in the day they burst. She has heard nothing since.

"We want answers and it is taking too long for us to get them", she says.

When I met her, Aline hadn't yet told the couple's four children that their father is missing.

"I didn't speak to them yet because I don't have any answers. Without answers, we can't have that conversation yet."

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