Mobilization against pollution and injustice. Years of struggle to obtain the multinationals’ commitment to transferring the entire district of Piquiá de Baixo to a safe area far from pollution. The Comboni missionaries have supported the struggle of this community.
A red powder coming from the smokestacks of the four steel companies – Gustavo Nordeste, Vale do Pindaré, Simasa, Viena – covers the green area of the Amazon trees, the roofs of the houses, the streets and even the skin of the inhabitants. It has been so since the end of the ‘eighties, when Brazil’s Grande Carajás regional development plan, transformed the region into the site of the world’s largest high-grade iron ore deposits.
The plan was realized by the Vale giant mining company, which was at that time a state-owned company and which was later privatized. “We are aware, by now, that the dust will continue to fall in the coming decades, until the exhaustion of the resources of the Serra dos Carajás field. We hope to be able to move far from the red cloud soon”, says Joselma Alves de Olivera, an authoritative inhabitant of Piquiá de Baixo, a district in the municipality of Açailândia, Maranhao State.
In 2015, slightly more than a thousand people, men and women, joined to challenge Vale, and the local and national government, by organizing demonstrations and sit-ins until they obtained the promise that the entire neighbourhood would be transferred to a safe area far from pollution.
These courageous people were supported by the Comboni missionaries of the Santa Luzia parish in the Açailândia municipality and by the human rights centre Carmen Bascarán. Finally, the inhabitants of Piquiá de Baixo obtained a 38 hectares area where new houses and infrastructures will be built.The construction will be two thirds financed by the national executive, while Vale is been asked to pay the remaining sum of money. “Building has not started yet, so people won’t be able to move to the new area before two years. Besides, we hope that the removal of former President Dilma Rousseff from the presidency, following an impeachment procedure, will not delay the transfer of these people to the new area. Former President Rousseff was the one that had signed the transfer act”, says Joselma. “Vice President Michel Temer, who in the meanwhile has shifted to the opposition, succeeded to the presidency. The first declarations on the environmental situation by the new administration were not encouraging, in fact they were in favour of landowners and powerful agribusiness executives”, continues Joselma. “We are afraid that the transfer will be delayed once again … and waiting is hard for those who live in the cloud of red dust”.
Father Dario Bossi, is a Combonian missionary who is in charge of the Iglesia y Minería group of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (Repam). The missionary has been supporting the battle for the justice and health of this community for over ten years now. “The inhabitants of Piquiá de Baixo are humble workers earning minimal wages or unemployed people that live less than fifty meters away from pig iron plants”, says Father Dario Bossi.
Though the municipality of Açailândia, thanks to the iron deposits, produces a third of the GDP of the Maranhão State, one in four of its inhabitants is poor.
Piquiá de Baixo, which is a working-class area, has been terribly affected by pollution. According to a recent study, 28 percent of the residents in the area have been shown to have lung function abnormalities. A rate up to six times higher than that which is observed in a similar population by age, sex, and nationality. The consequences of pulmonary function abnormalities are: cough, bronchial hypersecretion, bronchopulmonary respiratory infections and risk of tumor.
“The red dust is not the only problem that affects the 312 families of Piquiá de Baixo, the ‘iron snake’ is another big threat to their health”, adds Father Dario. The ‘iron snake’, that is how locals have renamed the train whose 330 wagons are loaded with the iron which is extracted from the Serra dos Carajás field and that crosses the area of this community 24 times a day to transport the mineral (about 100 million tons per year) to the port of São Luis from which it is exported all over the world. The iron train travels along a 900 kilometres railway line system, which has been constructed by VALE, and which crosses twenty-seven municipalities and a hundred communities scattered throughout the region, including Piquiá de Baixo.
“The impact is devastating. The passage of each train, which is 4 km long, lasts at least four minutes. This means, since iron trains cross the municipality 24 times a day, that for over an hour and a half, life in Piquiá de Baixo stops. The clanking noise of the trains is deafening, it is impossible to speak. The ground shakes, the walls of the houses crack”, says the missionary. “When the locomotive crosses the neighbourhood, residents have to wait to reach the other side of the area, some of them, especially the children, are impatient, and since there is no protection, they try to challenge the train and cross the railway line, this behaviour causes at least one victim every month and a half”.
Ore-train traffic is expected to increase, up to 36 trains per day. “We must leave the area before that day arrives”, says Josefa. “We will fight until the transfer will become reality”. The people of Piquiá de Baixo are determined. Because, as they like to repeat, “In the persistent struggle, in the tenacity of those who do not give up, there is already a fragment of victory”.