Photographer: Thomas Byczkowski
Title: The lost world – people in the aftermath of the biggest mining disaster ever
Location: Minas Gerais, Brazil
Period: 11/2019 - 07/2020
Category: Environment

The „Fukushima of Brazil“ it has been called, the mining disaster on the 5th of November 2015. 45 million cubic-meters of mining waste spilled into the Rio Doce, causing the worst environmental disasters in history, killing 19 people, poisoning the river along 650 kilometers, depriving thousands of drinkable water and of livelihoods. Little was done to help the victims or clean the river, but the mine is up and running again.

What are the consequences of this disaster? How do the victims cope today?

With my project „The Lost World“ I give a face to the human cost of mining in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil by portraying the victims of the Rio Doce dam disaster.

Delcina and the rain water

Tumiritinga - Dona Delcina an eighty-something year old woman who lives in the small town of Tumiritinga on the banks of the river Doce in Brazil is one of the thousands of victims of a mining dam break five years ago which left the river poisoned to this day Believing that the drinking water sold to the victims by the mining company is in fact poisoned water of the Rio Doce she turned to collecting rainwater which she stores it in plastic canisters as her own private reservoir

The cow in the ruins

Bento Rodrigues - A sign indicating an escape route in the event of a dam burst in front of what are the remains of a house in the center of Bento Rodrigues the first town hit by the mud tsunami in 2015 At the time of the actual break of the Fund o dam these signs did not exist adding to the confusion in the catastrophe the residents did never receive training and guidance in case of a dam break 19 people drowned in the mud and most of the town was destroyed Today five years after the disaster a good part of the mud and destruction is covered by greens that grow fast in the hot and humid climate

The fisherman without a river

Antonio was a professional fisherman in Governador Valadares before the dam break at Rio Doce For five years now his boat has seen no water because there is no fish left to catch The responsable mining company however refuses to compensate him or his family for the loss He tries to keep afloat with minor construction work in his area

The trains keep running

Maria Ortiz - Miles-long trains full of iron ore pass through the state of Minas Gerais sometimes in a rhythm of three per hour Each contains a value worth from a quarter to a million to a million US-Dollars say the residents The railway cuts through villages - like here in Maria Ortiz - the vibrations of the passing trains destroy houses and the powder of mineral is found everywhere

Living by the water - without water

Degredo - Maryane lives with her family in a quilombo in Degredo an ancient settlement of escaped slaves near the mouth of the river Doce She remembers playing in the small river in her backyard But no one is swimming anymore or catching fish there since the disaster five years ago Instead today the community has to rely on the provision of drinking water

With fisher nets against a mining giant

Maria Ortiz - defying the pandemic the inhabitants of Maria Ortiz almost live from fishing take to the rail road blocking the passage of the valuable iron ore trains with fishing nets to protest the cutting of financial help through the mining company None of them has been catching any fish since the disaster

And the future generations?

Tumiritinga - I don t know if I can take this life any longer says Pavuna 56 a farmer in Tumiritinga as he hugs his granddaughters Manuela and Antonela It hurts lowers your self-esteem Speaking of dreams you don t see where to go he says of the time since the mud arrived at his property which is located directly a the banks of the Rio Doce What is more One question was never answered he says Will the water go into the corn that we take from the river to irrigate the fields I gave the corn to the cow and I milk the cow Does it pass to me through the milk What proportion has passed to me How long does it take to cause me cancer No one ever answered that to me

The death beneath the surface

Risoleta Neves - the Rio Doce is cut by a couple of dams which block the passage of the poisonous mud that sedimented on the bottom of the river Each rainy season the operator - the mining company Vale SA - opens the dam to release the pressure of the rain water With it the mud is spilled through the river again flooding and poisoning the banks of the river anew

Still trying to get back into business - five years later

Paracatu - Diary farmer Marino and his son Artur lost what was their former life in the dam disaster at Rio Doce Today five years later as he tries to build up his business from scratch the family of four suffers from depression hypertension and diabetes as they still fight for compensation from the mining company Something must be wrong if we the victims have to negotiate our compensations ourselfs with the guilty party

Who wants to eat this poisonous catch

Galileia - No he would never eat the fish je just caught this young hobby fisherman from the town of Galilea says because he caught it in the Rio Doce Everyone knows that all fish in there is poisoned he adds One can see the mud that covers the fish s chest from digging in the toxic mud on the bottom of the river The fisherman does not want to be identified but he goes on he will give his catch to a neighbor who eats everything

Those were the days

Governador Valadares - Antonio Junior 53 shows a picture of better times with him and his brother out with the father fishing on Rio Doce They were looking forward to their school holidays he explains as they were leaving for trips on the river picking up tents bathing and having a good time But those times are over he explains The river is running through our veins he adds Now the river is dead

Looking for the deceased

Tumiritinga - Delcina visits the graveyard of Tumiritinga to look for her acquaintances who have died in the aftermath of the dam disaster at the Rio Doce No one speaks of the people who died from illness or depression which stem from the disaster she says