Waters of the Paraopeba River have metal level 21 times higher than the considered acceptable one

Day 22th of March is renowned around the 5 continents as the World Water Day. Created in 1992 by the United Nations Organization (UNO), the date is an international community effort to bring to debate essential questions about the water resources.

Water is a human right, but the access to drinkable water and basic sanitation is far from being a reality for more than half of world population. Launched this Tuesday (19/03), the 2019 UNO World Report on Water Resources Development reveals that there is a lack of clean and safe water for 2,1 billions people, while 4,5 billions are lacking basic sanitation. “The poor and the marginalized populations will be affected disproportionately, exacerbating even more the already growing inequalities”, evaluated in press communication, Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of Water UNO and of Agricultural development international Fund (FIDA).

Today 100 millions Brazilians have no access to sewage collection and 35 millions are not supplied with drinkable water. Together with these figures, we must sum the situation of the population, traditional communities and native indigenous from Brumadinho (Minas Gerais) – region where happened, in 25 of January, a Vale tailings dam’s breaking. The crime-tragedy killed until present moment 210 people and contaminated the waters of Paraopeba River, responsible for local water supply and for way of life keeping and livelihoods of local traditional people.

“Water and energy are not merchandises”: with the Attained by Dams Movement (MAB) slogan permeating all our chat, the MAB executive coordinator, Andreia Neiva, conceded an interview to CESE, telling us how the Paraopeba River waters’ contamination due to Vale dam breaking, has brought diseases to local population and impossibility of people livelihood, as for riverside and fishing communities.

The support of organizations as ACT Brazil Ecumenical Forum, in which CESE is participating, contributed to strengthen the region popular groups in the struggle for their rights, pointed out the member of MAB executive coordination. “Water must be understood as a common good, but to the contrary of what is being preached in discourses and rhetoric, what have been implanted are structural changes/laws to favour and accelerate the water mercantilization process by means of concessions and privatizations. […] What’s happening really, is that the right to water use is transformed into a right to water property”, says Andreia Neiva, putting us on the spot.


CESE – With the Brumadinho dam breaking, Minas Gerais Government decreed Paraopeba River water prohibited for use. The measure was adopted after detecting metals presence above the environmental legislation allowed levels and evaluation from Minas Gerais Health Ministry, based on sanitary vigilance requisites. Which are the prejudices caused by Paraopeba River waters? And what are the revitalization perspectives? Is there still a possibility of the tailings to attain São Francisco River?


ANDREIA NEIVA – As it has been said, Minas Gerais Government determined that the Paraopeba River Waters cannot be used for any purpose, would it be domestic or production activities, since the metals levels founded are 21 times higher than the acceptable limit. Heavy metals as nickel, lead, mercury, cadmium and zinc founded in the samples can cause serious harm to population health, besides from, obviously, soil, animals and groundwater contamination.

As it happened in the region of Mariana, also attained by a tailings dam breaking in 2015, the concrete prejudices of contamination aren’t yet completely determined. But, three years after the contamination of whole Doce River basin, we can affirm that water contamination impacts in a great manner on health of populations who depend of contaminated rivers. Health problems like allergies, breathing problems (by soil contamination turning to dust) and gastrointestinal problems are concrete – besides from long term effects which we still cannot identify. MAB launched in February a documentary about the effect of Fundão dam breaking on attained population health.

As the total prejudice in all Paraopeba River basin wasn’t yet measured (as for the Doce River basin which, even after three years, we don’t know the reaching of harm caused by tailings mud), it’s impossible to determine exactly what are the perspective of revitalization. What can be affirmed, together with what environmental researchers and governmental agencies already affirmed, is that it should take at least 15 years. We, from MAB, we believe that this time period will be longer, since we will need time also to determine the harm caused and its long term effects. For this to happen, it is necessary that the technical assessments claimed by the attained, which are already partly ongoing in Doce River basin, turn concrete and that attained local populations take part to the whole process, making sure that the impacts diagnosis covers all aspects of their lives and of the river. But what we can affirm for sure is that Paraopeba River, as also Doce River, won’t ever be the same again.

There are still doubts about if the tailings will reach São Francisco River, since the toxic mud is dense and meets two dams on the way, from the Retiro Baixo and Três Marias UHE (hydroelectric plants), still in Minas Gerais. The contention measures taken by both hydroelectrics can interfere in tailings reaching São Francisco River. However, we can affirm that independently from tailings reaching Old Chico, its waters will anyway be contaminated. Paraopeba River is one of the main São Francisco’s affluent. Therefore the waters contamination will reach the areas “nourished” by the São Francisco. This represents a huge preoccupation, since thousands of families depend exclusively from Old Chico’s waters for their subsistence and incomes.


CESE – Since MAB visits to Brumadinho, how is your perception of the impact of Brumadinho dam breaking into traditional and indigenous communities way of life, especifically speaking about access to water and to basic sanitation?

ANDREIA NEIVA – During our monitoring of the attained communities, families told us first of all about their difficulty with the absence of their food production, which helped in their subsistence and income, the access to fishes and the necessity to use mineral water from donations for everything. In the case of traditional and indigenous communities, the water contamination interferes even more in their culture and history. They are riverside populations, more distant from the local of the dam breaking, and only recently they succeeded to be considered as attained, by the fact that they live on the riverbank.

Fishing Communities and small farmers are deprived to work to their productions and are with difficulties to feed themselves without the fishes they were catching from the river. Some people manifested health problems after they ate the fishes. The presence of heavy metals and low oxygen level interfere directly into animals survival.


CESE – Andreia, could you tell us how is the support being given from ACT Brazil Ecumenical Forum  in Brumadinho region?

With the support that FEACT realized in the region, MAB together with partners (Koinonia, Christian  Aid, CESE, CONIC, among others), have succeeded in giving a psycho-social support to attained families in all the region since the Vale tailings dam breaking.

In the first moment, the support was given consoling and showing solidarity to the families, helping also to access secure and trustful information about disappeared family members and friends, as well as contamination risks and about the company’s actions regarding the victims. With the experience acquired in the Doce River basin region, where MAB acts for 3 years in the organization of the attained by the Fundão dam breaking belonging to Samarco (Vale and BHP Billiton), we obtained to assist the families to guarantee their right to information and direct participation into the negotiation processes and relation with the company.

The endorsement also turned possible the distribution of food and water for attained communities who are facing difficulties. Some communities didn’t receive donations from Vale nor other groups, because of them being more distant from the dam breaking epicentre. Others turned isolated by the roads blocking and there is also families who, after receiving the initial donations, are still not able to guarantee their food and drinkable water. The distributions are being made by the communities themselves, to guarantee, in this way, that the community (in a collective way), may decide which families are going to receive the food, together with reinforcing their communitarian ties.

The psycho-social support continues for the families who lost loved ones, as well as along with all the attained in search of the acknowledgement and assurance of their rights, also the liability of Vale for the crime committed. MAB has helped in the Attained Commission construction in the communities, which are spaces where everyone may participate and discuss their needs, demands and struggle ways. The initial organization of the attained, with MAB and Public Prosecutor’s help, already made a conquest, that was the Preliminary Term of Agreement (TAP) signed by Vale, which assure, among other things, the payment of one minimum wage per adult, half per adolescent and ¼ per child for the attained from Feijão Stream, Waterfall Park, Brumadinho urban centre and all who live until 1 km from Paraopeba Riverbed, from Brumadinho until city of Pompeo, at the Retiro Baixo dam.


CESE – Is there any other topic or position that MAB would like to add?

ANDREIA NEIVA – All the issue regarding water is the result of the actual production and social organization model. All the official documents/laws/recommendations point to the water debate from the economical bias, in other words, its mercantilization. This is very dangerous, since it tends to deepen the inequalities of access which are already considerable.

Water must be understood as a common good, but to the contrary of what is being preached in discourses and rhetoric, what has been implanted are structural changes/laws to favour and accelerate the water mercantilization process by means of concessions and privatizations. The historical experience shows us that this is not the way, because the companies don’t scope with the objectives of universalize access to drinkable water and basic sanitation, they give priority to profit, which is causing rise of inequalities and conflicts.

The situation is contradictory: on one hand there is the affirmation that water is a human right, on the other hand, all the ways are being organized so that the big companies and corporations can take possession of the water (both natural springs and supply or sanitation services), with the only objective of being profitable. Human Right is to be guaranteed, its not to sale or to buy!

What’s happening actually, is that the right of water use is transformed into the right to water property, with the springs overexploitation, often until their total depletion. This predatory habit is what is been causing the dead of natural water springs creating countless conflicts, inequalities and imbalances.

It doesn’t help, or very little will advance in the resolutions of problems of water and basic sanitation access if debates stay permanently superficial and if no serious, drastic actions are taken, to change the society organization and production model, because, in this society, what is happening is that it has been increasing the exploitation of the natural richness (above all in the development countries). A lot of profit is being created, the richness is being more concentrated and the poverty is growing. The calculation doesn’t match. How will the poor people pay for their access to water and sanitation in the mercantilist model? The future scenario, if the political and economical intentions towards water appropriation by the private sector come to real, is of more inequalities and conflicts.

And in this calculation, which already is unequal, we women are the most impaired, since by the patriarchal model in which we are inserted, the house and family care are relegated to us, and all these activities depend essentially of water access.

We need to discuss water in a holistic way, considering the natural springs, uses for irrigation, production, water supply and sanitation. To build the debate in a stratified manner is insufficient and reinforce the mercantilization measures of this good which should be common.

Specifically in the Brumadinho case, we from MAB have worked to denunciate the crime committed once again by Vale. We, attained by dams, are who suffer deeply the recurrent  rights violation, we also denunciate the destruction and appropriation of natural goods, the workers exploitation and the disrespect towards communities, from part of the large companies, to generate extraordinary profits.

The struggle to recognize the rights of attained by dams is historical. And in front of this situation and the rights setback scenario in the country, the crime that occurred with the tailings dam breaking in the Feijão Stream proves that this development model based on profit and private accumulation, doesn’t suit for the people.

All the strategy adopted by Vale is to ‘tranquillize” the market and the investors. As for the attained, Vale continues to violate rights, to deny the extension of the impact and of the harm caused, as well as it continues to deny our participation into the decision processes.

We demand that the attained in Brumadinho, the people who live in the surrounding and/or depend of Paraopeba river and also those who live close to the São Francisco River must have correct informations about the water contamination level, must be compensated for the prejudices suffered and must participate of the decision spaces about the future of their lives. This is the minimum that we hope and for this we will fight!

We alert that impunity and public institutions connivance is an authorization for new crimes to happen. In this way, we require justice and ask for support and solidarity of the whole Brazilian people.