Caring for Water Where Mining Leads to Wealth and Tragedies in Brazil

A mountainous landscape in the area of the headwaters of the Velhas River, where "barraginhas", the Portuguese name for holes dug like lunar craters in the hills and slopes, prevent erosion by swallowing a large amount of soil that sediments the upper reaches of the river, in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

A mountainous landscape in the area of the headwaters of the Velhas River, where “barraginhas”, the Portuguese name for holes dug like lunar craters in the hills and slopes, prevent erosion by swallowing a large amount of soil that sediments the upper reaches of the river, in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
BELO HORIZONTE/ITABIRITO, Brazil , May 19 2022 – The southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais owes its name to the main economic activity throughout its history: mining – of gold since the 17th century and later iron ore, which took on an industrial scale with massive exports in the 20th century.

The so-called Iron Quadrangle, a mountainous area of some 7,000 square kilometers in the center of the state, concentrates the state’s minerals and mining activity, long questioned by environmentalists, who have been impotent in the face of the industry’s economic clout.

But the threat of water shortages in Greater Belo Horizonte, population six million, along with two horrific mining accidents, reduced the disparity of forces between the two sides. Now environmentalists can refer to actual statistics and events, not just ecological arguments.

Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state, experienced an unprecedented water crisis in 2014 and 2015, during a drought that affected the entire southeast of Brazil.

“For the first time we experienced shortages here that only the semi-arid north of the state was familiar with,” said Marcelo da Fonseca, general director of the Mining Institute of Water Management (Igam).

On Jan. 25, 2019, a tailings dam broke in Brumadinho, 35 kilometers from Belo Horizonte as the crow flies. The tragedy killed 270 people and toxic sludge contaminated more than 300 kilometers of the Paraopeba River, which provided 15 percent of the water for the Greater Belo Horizonte region (known as RMBH), whose supply has not yet recovered.

On Nov. 5, 2015, a similar accident had claimed 19 lives in Mariana, 75 kilometers from Belo Horizonte, and silted up more than 600 kilometers of the Doce River on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. (The river, whose waters run eastward, do not supply the RMBH.)

Two years of drought, in 2014 and 2015, frightened the population of Greater Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. For the first time the threat of water shortages was felt, said the director general of the Minas Gerais Water Management Institute, Marcelo da Fonseca. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Two years of drought, in 2014 and 2015, frightened the population of Greater Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. For the first time the threat of water shortages was felt, said the director general of the Minas Gerais Water Management Institute, Marcelo da Fonseca. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Mining hazards

Minas Gerais has more than 700 mining tailings dams. The latest data from the State Environmental Foundation (Feam) show 33 in different degrees of emergency, four of which are at level three – high risk and mandatory evacuation of endangered residents – and nine at level 2 – recommended evacuation.

“We are hostages of the mining companies, they occupy the territory and make other economies unviable,” said Camila Alterthum, one of the founders and coordinators of the Cresce Institute and an activist with the Fechos, Eu Cuido movement, promoted by the Rio de las Velhas Watershed Committee.

Fechos is the name of an Ecological Station, a 603-hectare integral conservation area belonging to the municipality of Nova Lima, but bordering Belo Horizonte.

“There are mountains here that recharge the Cauê aquifer, which supplies more than 200,000 inhabitants of southern Belo Horizonte and a neighborhood in Nova Lima,” an adjoining municipality, said Alterthum, who lives in Vale do Sol, a neighborhood adjacent to Fechos.

Activist Camila Alterthum is opposed to mining, which she says is a permanent threat to the destruction of nature and water sources. She is fighting to expand the Fechos Ecological Station, whose forests contribute to the water supply for more than 200,000 inhabitants of Belo Horizonte, in southeastern Brazil. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Activist Camila Alterthum is opposed to mining, which she says is a permanent threat to the destruction of nature and water sources. She is fighting to expand the Fechos Ecological Station, whose forests contribute to the water supply for more than 200,000 inhabitants of Belo Horizonte, in southeastern Brazil. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Her movement presented to the Minas Gerais state legislature a bill to expand Fechos by 222 hectares, to provide more water and preserve local biodiversity.

But Vale, Brazil’s largest mining company, aims to expand its two local mines in that area.

In order to acquire the land, it is offering double the number of hectares for conservation, a counterproposal rejected by the movement because it would not meet the environmental objectives and most of it is an area that the company must preserve by law anyway.

A fiercer battle was unleashed by the decision of the Minas Gerais government’s State Environmental Policy Council, which has a majority of business and government representatives, to approve on Apr. 30 a project by the Taquaril company to extract iron ore from the Curral mountain range.

Forestry engineer Julio Carvalho, of the Itabirito municipal government, stands next to a "barraginha" on a private rural property, whose owners joined the municipal effort to contain soil loss and river sedimentation in this area of southeastern Brazil. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Forestry engineer Julio Carvalho, of the Itabirito municipal government, stands next to a “barraginha” on a private rural property, whose owners joined the municipal effort to contain soil loss and river sedimentation in this area of southeastern Brazil. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

This mountain range is the most prominent landscape feature of Belo Horizonte, in addition to being important in terms of water and environmental aspects for the capital, although it is located on its border, on the side of the municipality of Nova Lima. The mining threat triggered a huge outcry from environmentalists, artists and society in general.

Droughts and erosion

There are other threats to the RMBH’s water supply. “We are very close to the springs, so we depend on the rains that fall here,” Fonseca told IPS at Igam headquarters in Belo Horizonte.

Two consecutive years of drought have seriously jeopardized the water supply.

Two basins supply the six million inhabitants of the 34 municipalities making up Greater Belo Horizonte.

The Velhas River accounts for 49 percent of the water supply and the Paraopeba River for 51 percent, according to Sergio Neves, superintendent of the Metropolitan Business Unit of the Minas Gerais Sanitation Company (Copasa), which serves most of the state.

The Paraopeba River stopped supplying water after the 2019 accident, but its basin has two important reservoirs in the tributaries. The one on the Manso River, for example, supplies 34 percent of the RMBH.

The phenomenon of "voçorocas" (gullies) is repeated in several parts of Itabirito and Ouro Preto, the municipalities where the Velhas river basin originates, in southeastern Brazil. The soil is vulnerable to erosion and measures to mitigate the damage are finally beginning to proliferate in a region dominated by iron ore mining. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

The phenomenon of “voçorocas” (gullies) is repeated in several parts of Itabirito and Ouro Preto, the municipalities where the Velhas river basin originates, in southeastern Brazil. The soil is vulnerable to erosion and measures to mitigate the damage are finally beginning to proliferate in a region dominated by iron ore mining. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

The Velhas River only has a small hydroelectric power plant reservoir, with a capacity of 9.28 megawatts, but it is generating only four megawatts. It is run-of-river, that is, it does not store enough water to regulate the flow or compensate for low water levels.

In addition, sedimentation has greatly reduced its storage capacity since it began to operate in 1907. The soil upstream is vulnerable to erosion and has been affected by urban and agricultural expansion, local roads and various types of mining, not only of iron ore, which aggravate the sedimentation of the rivers, said Fonseca.

Decentralized solutions

The municipal government of Itabirito, which shares the headwaters of the Velhas basin with Ouro Preto, the gold capital in the 18th century, is promoting several actions mentioned by Fonseca to mitigate erosion and feed the aquifers that sustain the flow of the rivers.

Businessman and environmentalist Ronaldo Guerra stands on his farm where he promotes ecotourism and exhibits his proposal for a succession of small dams as a mechanism for storing water on the surface and in the water table, strengthening the forests and the hydrographic basin in a mining region of southeastern Brazil where there is growing concern about the water supply. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Businessman and environmentalist Ronaldo Guerra stands on his farm where he promotes ecotourism and exhibits his proposal for a succession of small dams as a mechanism for storing water on the surface and in the water table, strengthening the forests and the hydrographic basin in a mining region of southeastern Brazil where there is growing concern about the water supply. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

It is intriguing to see craters in some rural properties in Itabirito, especially on hills or gently sloping land.

They are “barraginhas”, explained Julio Carvalho, a forestry engineer and employee of the Municipal Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development. They are micro-dams, holes dug to slow down the runoff of rainwater that causes erosion.

This system prevents a large part of the sediment from flowing into the rivers, as well as the phenomenon of “voçorocas” (gullies, in Portuguese), products of intense erosion that abound in several parts of Itabirito and Ouro Preto, municipalities where the first tributaries of the Velhas are born.

As these are generally private lands, the municipal government obtains financing to evaluate the properties, design the interventions and put them out to bid, in agreement with the committees that oversee the watersheds, Carvalho told IPS.

The municipality of Itabirito is the "water tank" of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil. The municipal government is promoting programs aimed at revitalizing the watershed that supplies nearly half of the six million inhabitants of Greater Belo Horizonte, explains Frederico Leite, environmental secretary of the municipality, which depends on mining activity. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

The municipality of Itabirito is the “water tank” of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil. The municipal government is promoting programs aimed at revitalizing the watershed that supplies nearly half of the six million inhabitants of Greater Belo Horizonte, explains Frederico Leite, environmental secretary of the municipality, which depends on mining activity. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

For country roads, which generate a great deal of erosion in the undulating topography, “dry boxes” are used, as well as small holes in the banks to retain the torrents or at least curb their speed, he said.

Other “mechanical land use and conservation practices” include recovering water sources through reforestation and fencing to prevent animals from invading water sources and trampling the surrounding areas.

Itabirito is also seeking to dredge the river of the same name, which crosses the city, to reduce sedimentation, which was aggravated by flooding in January, when the water level in the river rose unusually high.

Environmental education, a program of payments for environmental services and the expansion of conservation areas, in the city as well, are the plans implemented by Felipe Leite, secretary of environment and sustainable development of Itabirito since 2019.

“We want to create a culture of environmental preservation,” partly because “Itabirito is the water tank of Belo Horizonte,” he told IPS.

The municipal government chose to cooperate with the mining industry, especially with the Ferro Puro company, which decided to pave a road and reforest it with flowers as part of a tourism project.

In São Bartolomeu, a town in the municipality of Ouro Preto, Ronald Guerra, an ecotourism entrepreneur, proposes a succession of small dams and reservoirs as a way of retaining water, feeding the water table and preventing erosion.

On his 120-hectare farm, half of which is recognized as a Private Natural Heritage Reserve –a private initiative conservation effort – he has 13 small dams and raises fish for his restaurant and sport fishing.

The son of a doctor from Belo Horizonte, he opted for rural life and agroecology from a young age. He was secretary of environment of Ouro Preto and today he is an activist in several watershed committees, non-governmental organizations and efforts for the promotion of local culture.

Former Child Labourer, now Lawyer, Passes Light of Freedom to Others

Amar Lai, a former child labourer, is now a human rights lawyer and a trustee of the 100 Million Campaign. He was saved from child labour by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi who identified him while running an education campaign in the area where he worked alongside his parents in a quarry. Credit: Lucky Agbovar/IPS

Amar Lai, a former child labourer, is now a human rights lawyer and a trustee of the 100 Million Campaign. He was saved from child labour by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi who identified him while running an education campaign in the area where he worked alongside his parents in a quarry. Credit: Lucky Agbovar/IPS

By Fawzia Moodley
Durban, May 19 2022 – Amar Lai’s first memories are working alongside his parents and siblings in a quarry, breaking rocks. He was aged four.

Now chatting to Lai, a confident 25-year-old human rights lawyer, it is hard to believe he was once a child labourer.

But when you hear his story, it is easy to understand why this man saved by the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, which rescues bonded children, has dedicated his life to the same cause.

Lai was interviewed on the sidelines of the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour in Durban until May 20, 2022. The conference has seen five days of intense discussion on how to end child labour, including exposés of hazardous working conditions the children find themselves in.

At the tender age of four, Lai was forced to work in a quarry in Rajasthan, India.  His family were destitute, so they had to work for a pittance to put food on the table. They lived in a hut.

“We used to work from morning to night, and sometimes the whole night. My family was not allowed to miss a single day of work because it meant they would not be paid, which meant no lunch or dinner.

His father, Lai recalls, was paid a “small amount of money, and that’s how we survived”.

It was back-breaking work, especially for the little ones – and dangerous.

“You had to hold a machine to break the mine, and sometimes the stones would fall down. My brother and sister were often injured because when breaking the stone, you needed to use your hands, you got cut, anything could happen.”

Going to the doctor was out of the question, so they had to make do with home remedies.

Lai said they lived very far from the city, and they knew nothing about schools nor life beyond their little isolated world.

Then something happened that changed Lai’s life: “In 2001, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi was running an education march, and moving through (the area) where we were, and they identified that my family and I were working there.”

Satyarthi convinced Lai’s parents that their children shouldn’t be working but in school – and although this was greeted initially with scepticism, he and two of his brothers eventually moved to Satyarthi’s rehabilitation centre for children rescued from child labour. The centre provides education and technical skills to the kids.

“I passed my senior high school, and then I started to think about what I should do in the future. I met many children there who were just like me or worse off. I realised that I was so lucky to get an opportunity to study, unlike millions of other child labourers.”

So, Lai decided to become a lawyer to help children like himself.

“I could fight for them in court, stand in the court to change the system, policies and regulations. I could challenge the government.”

In 2018 Lai got his law degree.

“Today, I am fighting for children who are sexually abused or are in child labour, trafficked and exploited. I am leading their cases every single day in court.”

He works for the Kailash Foundation, which provides free legal services to vulnerable children.

Lai is also a trustee of the 100 Million Campaign.

“This is a campaign started by Kailash. The idea is that we 100 million youth leaders who are educated, who understand and are privileged to have an education, need to stand up for those who are still in child labour and being exploited.”

On the foundation’s impact on his life, Lai says: “I cannot believe what the foundation did for me. I just picture myself in a house that was dark, and I couldn’t see anything and then in 2001, I came out of the house, and there were a lot of lights.

“And because of the lights, I can give some light to another child’s life. I feel I am the voice of those millions of children that are not at the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour.”

Lai says he lives by Satyarthi’s rule: “You don’t need to do a lot, just do your bit”.

“If every single person can do their bit, then one day there will be no child labour in the world, and every child will get an education.”

Lai, a delegate at the conference in Durban, South Africa, which is trying to find ways to reach the UN’s goal of ending child labour by 2025, believes it’s an important platform.

“It’s very necessary because the leaders, the decision-makers, sometimes forget, sometimes neglect what they promised. They need to be reminded. And also, because the conference has given voice to children’s voices.”

He is convinced that their plea will be heard.

“I think the voice, the power we have, what we have faced we can represent, and I believe that it will make an impact because what happened to us is happening to 164 million children around the world.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

This is one of a series of stories that IPS will publish during the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour in Durban, South Africa.


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