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The Doce and the Xingu: a requiem for Brazil's rivers

Two rivers in Brazil have recently suffered a sort of death. They are not small rivers, by any standards: the Doce, which now lies buried under sixty-two million tonnes of ferruginous, toxic silt, is longer than Baudelaire's "Seine or the Green Loire," mightier than the Rhine, the, Colorado or the Dniepr, while the Xingu, almost thrice as long and ten times wider, flows into the Amazon with more water than the Ganges or the Yellow River. But their size is not the be-all and end-all of their importance to Brazil. In a sense, they can be said to have defined, in their aquatic persons and in their names, the country's twentieth century. In that sense, it is perhaps fitting that the 21st has seen their deaths.

Mud from Samarco's dam reaches a hydro station in the lower Doce

The Doce, or "Sweet" river's death has been catastrophic and surprising, or at least surprising to outsiders - environmental activists in the state of Minas Gerais might be horrified, but they are hardly surprised. An industrial accident:  a tailings dam at the São Germano mine burst, releasing its contents onto a tributary of the Doce, the Piracicaba river (a similarly-named river further south runs through the eponymous town, a haven for confederate refugees from the American Civil War). Besides the river, the village of Bento Rodrigues (pop. 600), and an unknown number of its residents, were buried under the mineral waste. It is, perhaps, hard to understand such a number - when one goes much beyond the dozens and scores of our direct experience, numbers acquire a phantasmagorical existence, and the average postindustrial citizen of the world has little experience with the massive scale of such things as open-cast mines and power stations.

The press - when it pays attention, for mining companies' pockets are deep - tries to make sense of it, as is its wont, with trucks, and cartloads. But there is a closer analogy: that with the discharge of great rivers themselves. The Amazon, the largest river in the world, flows through the Óbidos straits with 200.000m3 of water every second. Thus, the muddy mass that bore down on the villagers of Bento Rodrigues had, for those brief moments, the weight of several Amazons. Spread out over the Doce's valley, it still amounted to something closer to the river's full flood, at 2000m3 per second, than the 126m3 per second the drought-stricken Doce had in it at the time - a mass of water which certainly accounts, when it churned the riverbed, for the presence in downriver cities' drinking water of compounds which aren't present in the tailings of an iron mine, such as arsenic and quicksilver.

Yes, for the Doce was by no means pristine before this month's disaster, It runs through a landscape that has been amongst the world's most intensely mined since the XVIII century - indeed, through mines which gave the state of Minas Gerais its name, the "General Mines," The results of such mining have been paired with the result of extensive deforestation (and soil-handling practices developed in heavy European soils, for faint European sunlight, ill-suited to the light red soil and harsh sunlight of the tropics), of intensive urbanization without adequate sewerage, and of industrialization, to mean the Doce, like its neighbour the São Francisco, was already a sick river. A few days before the accident at the Germano mine, Governador Valadares, the largest city in the river, was already in a state of near-emergency thanks to the drought and the concentration of pollutants in riverwater.

Governments are no more immune to the power of mining money than the press, and there is reason to suspect foul play involved in the accident,which was, at first, talked about as if it were a natural disaster. For Brazilians, used to landslides and floods (most of the country's population dwells on hilly country that receives torrential tropical storms in summer), this was easy to understand; many still think rain and flooding are what happened. The Germano mine, of which only the smaller backup dams burst, is not generally talked about, only the dam itself. There is evidence of several warnings about all three dams' structural integrity, ignored by the state government when it authorized not only the mine's continual operation but for the dams to be piled higher and deeper with industrial tailings than they were built to contain. Samarco failed, as well, to implement a safety plan together with the village downstream. There were no alarms when the dam burst), only the sound of the rushing waters themselves. And even now, information about the main dam's chances of bursting, releasing almost ten times as much mud as has already been released, are few and far between, leaked rather than announced as they should be.

One of the construction sites of the Belo Monte dam
The Xingu's life and death both contrast greatly with the Doce's. Longer, coursing through a gentler, wider valley, the Xingu sits at the border between the mixed forest (which separates the Brazilian highlands' savannah from the Amazon forest) and the Amazon forest proper. The largest town on its banks could hardly be called a metropolis: it is Altamira, 140 thousand souls strong - 100.000 a scarce five years ago, before the Belo Monte dam's construction entered into its peak phase. The river, despite the impacts of deforestation and cattle raising, mining and agribusiness, remains wide enough to absorb all those. The land is still wild enough (though "progress" advances rapidly), its waters torrential enough. Here, on a river whose water can still be drunk without treatment, whose transitional nature means one of the highest fish biodiversities in the world, death comes slowly and announced, even celebrated by the authorities, rather than hidden. This death, too, has a date: December the 27th, 2012, when the Xingu was first torn away from its Volta Grande, or Big Bend, a scenario of rapids and remanses which served as a nursery for much of the Amazon's aquatic animals. into the dam's side channel.

Belo Monte from space. In black, to the right, the area which will become dry land.

Belo Monte's history has its roots in the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 with an iron fist, all the harsher when it closed around indigenous peoples and poor peasants. The dictatorship was obssessed with huge construction sites, whether those were useful (such as Itaipu, the dam in the south of the country which even today provides over 15% of its electricity) or not so much (such as the Rio-Niterói bridge, linking Rio with its eastern suburbs). Belo Monte's original plans, indeed, were of a far larger dam and even larger reservoir than the ones eventually implemented; the current dam is a "run of the river" dam, one which does not accumulate large quantities of water, with a reservoir just large enough to ensure an even flow. In a sense, the Xingu's problem is the opposite of the Doce's: thanks to the dam, silt will no longer flow from its upper reaches, nor will fish be able to migrate. It is a river cut in half. Almost as importantly, those 40.000 extra people, and the ones who will follow them, will intensify the proccesses by which the river's valley will become "developed." And development means wastes, chemical and human, means deforestation, means the ethnocide of traditional populations. Means death.

Thus, the deaths. But what is curious about those not quite simultaneous deaths is, as I mentioned at the beginnning of this post, that the two rivers could be said, in their names, to stand for two different conceptions of Brazil. First, the Doce: its name used to be in the full name of the corporation which killed it, Vale. Or, as it used to be called before privatisation, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, the Company Of the Doce River Valley. First conceived by the American mogul Percival Faquhar, the company represented a dream of development - heavy, industrial development. Where there's muck there's gold, ran the old British adage. As recently as the early 90s, institutional propaganda for Vale still beamed about the "savage" indians whom it had to deal with before laying the tracks of the dedicated railway running from mines to port. Yes, for despite the building of some steelworks, and the name of the area along the river being "Metropolitan Area of the Steel Valley" (and not the Doce Valley), most of that iron was sent overseas. Development, wildly successful (Vale is the world's largest iron miner, and second largest mining company overall), remained focused on the, some would say predatory, exploitation of natural wealth, with minimal proccessing. And it remained being run from far away. Vale's offices are in Rio de Janeiro, the former national capital, not close to the mines and railways.

Here, too, the Xingu stands almost the opposite of the Doce. Because what the name brings to the mind is, rather, the work of the Villas Bôas brothers, explorers who told the wider world about the peoples who lived in the middle course of the Xingu (hundreds of miles upstream from Altamira and the Belo Monte dam). There, in 1961, a national indigenous park was created, 27.000km2, home to fourteen different ethnicities. Both the expedition and the park represented a sea change in the relationship between the Brazilian state and the land and its peoples, replacing predation with respect. A vision for the future which included pristine rivers instead of tailings dams.  It never became fully realised; today the Xingu park is an island in a sea of pastures full of cattle and soybeans planted by automated combines; during the dictatorship, not only were those incentivated by the central government, but even wilder visions of destruction were entertained. At one point, the Hudson Institute, a conservative American think tank, even proposed, and was taken up seriously, damming the Amazon itself - engineering on a truly titanic scale, which would create a sea larger than the Caspian in the middle of the South American continent. But the vision never went away either; Brazil's network of nature preserves and indigenous areas, to which were added in this century the areas occupied by maroon communities of ex-slaves, occupies a far larger proportion of the country's land than in any other large country.

The death-dirge of the two rivers, however, is a warning sign that Percival Faquhar's song is winning over the Villas Boas brothers'. Even now, there are several bills proposed at the national congress which aim to make it easier to mine despite the rights of traditional peoples and with less care for the environment; to limit the creation of new indigenous areas; to limit the creation of new nature preserves; to permit mining and other high-impact activities within preservations; to cut away swathes of preservations so new dams can be built in pristine areas of the Amazon. Those bills have the full or partial support of almost all relevant parties (there are 28 parties in Brazil's Congress, of which some ten have actual weight), including, for some of them, the centre-left Workers' Party, currently heading a tenuous government coalition - but if the government can broadly be said to be antienvironmental, the opposition is much worse.  The new, more corporation-friendly mining code, in particular, has been defended by both the Speaker of the House and the defeated presidential candidate from the rightwing PSDB using the Doce river disaster as a reason for its approval. That's not a typo.

It is hard not to see the death of those two rivers as a prefiguration of a more general massacre of all other rivers, from the sea-like Amazon to the smallest stream. But where there's life, there's hope: despite the best efforts of the organized press to make it a minor issue, public pressure has already resulted in Samarco being hit with the largest environmental fine ever, the largest preliminary bail ever, and quite likely paying for the entirety of the largest clean-up effort in the history of the country. If Brazil's rivers are to survive this century, we'll need that pressure. We'll need more Xingu parks. And, perhaps, we'll need less Vales, or, at least, less predatory ones. And for that, there's hope in the atomized, sometimes chaotic, even hysterical (there are people even now believing that a presidential decree freeing up social security monies for the disaster-struck somehow clears Samarco of any guilt) action of people on online social networks.

It's a sliver of hope. But it's hope.

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