Bento Rodrigues, Brazil – Bricklayer Wallison Henrique de Souza, 28, always dreamed of owning his own home.
In three years, he spent about $10,000 to build a small one-storey house next to his mother in Bento Rodrigues, a village in the Mariana district of Brazil’s mineral-rich state Minas Gerais.
Mariana’s economy is based on mining. Samarco – a joint venture between Brazil’s Vale and Anglo-Australian BHP – is one of the region’s biggest employers, extracting iron ore and depositing waste in the nearby Fundao dam.
In early November, one of de Souza’s colleagues arrived at the house shouting that the dam had burst and the village needed to be evacuated.
“Everyone was panicking, we didn’t have any plan of where to go,” he said.
De Souza ran to a high rock for safety. Shortly after, millions of tonnes of mud engulfed Bento Rodrigues, wiping it off the map. De Souza and some 600 others lost their homes. Altogether, 17 people were killed with two still missing.
“We knew it was bad, but never imagined that it would be this awful,” he said.
The Mariana mining disaster is widely regarded as Brazil’s worst ever environmental disaster
From Bento Rodrigues, the mud travelled 600km across two Brazilian states leaving hundreds of people homeless before entering the region’s most important river, the Rio Doce, killing fish and polluting water supplies, then spilling into Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Espirito Santo state.
Experts, including members of the UN Human Rights Commission that visited Brazil after the disaster, have attributed the bursting of the dam to a severe failure in the preventive approach by the managing companies, as well as inadequate enforcement of regulation in Brazil’s mining sector.
Returning to Bento Rodrigues for the first time with Al Jazeera, sitting in front of the ruins of his mother’s house, De Souza – now living in one of Mariana’s hotels and receiving a minimum salary, paid for by Samarco – said he felt empty.
“My whole life, 28 years, is buried under this mud,” he said.
At the Paris climate change conference, Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, described the event as “the worst environmental disaster Brazil has ever seen” and blamed the “irresponsible action of the company”.
Samarco was fined $265m but the Brazilian government is now seeking compensation of more than $5bn. Holding companies Vale and BHP’s assets in Brazil have been frozen until the damages are paid.
The reason for the bursting of the dam is still unknown. Experts however, say there was a clear failure by the company to avert the disaster and to minimise subsequent damage.
On its website, Samarco says: “From the beginning, with the support of our shareholders, Vale and BHP Billiton, we mobilised all efforts to prioritise the care and integrity of the people who were at the scene or nearby.”
In Barra Longa, however, a small town 70km from the dam, residents affected by the disaster say Samarco and local government’s response was slow.
“The volunteers from churches across the nation came first to help us, then the Samarco workers a week later,” said Francisco Marcelino, a retired driver, speaking from his home, which was swamped by two metres of mud.
The full extent of the environmental damage is unknown. In the weeks following the disaster the mud was found to contain high levels of arsenic and other toxic materials. Experts estimate that the region could take anything from 10 to 50 years to recover, if it actually does. A full environmental assessment is yet to be made.
The short-term impact, however, is visibly catastrophic. The mud has polluted the 800km-long Rio Doce, killing millions of fish, destroying fauna and wildlife and polluting drinking water supplies. Thousands of fishermen dependent on the river for their livelihood, and several fishing unions, have launched law suits against Samarco.
“How can I feed this fish to my kids, or to someone else’s kids?” said fishermen Moises Gomes speaking from a fishing boat on the now orange Rio Doce in Periquito, around 300km from the main spill. He picked a floating dead fish out of the river, pulling it apart to show it was full of mud.
“The companies must create a mechanism for us to have the right to work and feed our families,” he said.
Murilo Ferreira, the chief executive of Vale, said that the company would create a “voluntary fund dedicated to restoring the river Rio Doce”.
In the past 20 years there have been at least four dam bursts in the Minas Gerais region, although none as serious the Bento Rodrigues disaster.
A report by the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was invited to Brazil by the federal government, said that there were about 753 dams in the Minas Gerais region, 40 of which were “at risk”.
Analysts say that Brazil – like most developing middle-income country, rich in natural resources – needs big projects to create investment, wealth and jobs and, as a result, regulations are often overlooked.
Mining accounts for around 4 percent of the country’s GDP and a quarter of exports.
“When it comes to development, the economic side usually prevails over the social and environmental,” said Dante Pesca, a member of the UN working group, adding that relatively low fines – most of which aren’t fully paid – create negative incentives for companies to take risks.
Pesca said that while Brazil had made positive steps recently – especially aligning state-owned companies with Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development guidelines two months ago – the political will to implement sufficient regulations was weak.
“The big point here is not the ‘official’ political commitments – otherwise we would not have been invited to Brazil,” he said. “But what we found on the ground is a real disconnect between the political statements and commitments and the operations.”
Back in Bento Rodrigues, residents search through the muddy remains of the town. A group of teenage boys play in a car stuck in the mud and let out a dry laugh when they discover the battery has already been taken.
Wallison Henrique de Souza finds a medal he won at sports day as a child and a fridge magnet bottle opener.
“I would come back here if I could, but unfortunately we can’t. It’s all over,” he said.