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Agrotoxic
                  flood

Dam burst on Rio Pardo 

poisons millions

Charlotte Eichhorn,  

February 2022 from the

In December 2021, after days of heavy rain, a dam broke on a tributary of the Rio Pardo in the Brazilian state of Bahia. The town of Itambé, 300 km downstream of the breach, was submerged in mud and water. The water level rose by four meters, and the drinking water supply became polluted. Rural roads sank under water, and even the most remote farms of smallholder farmers were flooded and cut off from the outside world. About one million people were affected, losing their belongings,

their livelihood, and thus their income.

If agro toxic substances seep uncontrolled into the soil, they can poison soil and groundwater for thousands of years, according to studies.

In December 2021, after days of heavy rain, a dam broke on a tributary of the Rio Pardo in the Brazilian state of Bahia. The town of Itambé, 300 km downstream of the breach, was submerged in mud and water. The water level rose by four meters, and the drinking water supply became polluted. Rural roads sank under water, and even the most remote farms of smallholder farmers were flooded and cut off from the outside world. About one million people were affected, losing their belongings, their livelihood, and thus their income.

The collapse was triggered by tropical storms that generated extremely heavy rainfall. It is a weather phenomenon that has recently become increasingly common in Brazil. But not only were the floods a disaster - the river waters became contaminated with agro toxic poisons.

 

However, only after 100 million dead fish were reported in the watershed, did the Ministry of Environment test water samples, classify them as toxic, and ban fishing on the entire river.

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Deforestation has been going on for decades for the numerous monocultures along the Rio Pardo. Irrigation canals are created, which become polluted with pesticides from the monocultures and antibiotics from the cattle plantations. When tropical storms suddenly arise, the masses of water can no longer soak into the heavily eroded, rock-hard soils. The flood of water with all its pollutants seeks the shortest path toward the sea.

On the coast, the Rio Pardo flows through the city of Canavieiras and the so-called RESEX -a land and sea reserve- into the sea. The only long-distance road there was quickly drawn into the conflict as the main bridge gave way, isolating the city and the RESEX until mid-January 22.

No help came from the Bahia state government, which only warned residents via social media. Neighbours desperately tried to rescue those trapped and supplied them with drinking water and basic foodstuffs. There was never any talk of financial reconstruction aid or compensation from the polluters of the toxic slurry.

Not a word about financial reconstruction aid or compensation

 from the polluters of the toxic slurry.

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João (Barba) Soares

Fisherman,

model and soul of his quilombo (descendants of African slaves) community "Campinhos" in the "RESEX Canavieiras"- the land and sea reserve. President of the umbrella organization of the fishing community AMEX, trade unionists, environmentalists, activist.

 

He was present at the filming of the documentary (DOC) "Saving the Rio Pardo" in 2020.

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Uli Ide

Agronomist,

retired, lives in Canavieiras, has worked for decades in South America with a focus on Brazil for international NGOs. As early as 2008, he warned about the damage monocultures will cause in the Cerrado basin, one of Brazil's most important ecosystems.

He was present at the filming of the documentary (DOC) "Saving the Rio Pardo" in 2020.

Uli Ide repeated his warning about the consequences of monocultures and cattle breeding in the DOK "Rescue Rio Pardo" 2020: But he also knows that a ban has no chance of success, since agro export is an important source of income for Brazil. Therefore, he pleads for better management of the agribusinesses and demands a say for the residents of the Rio Pardo. He is currently helping to strengthen residents' associations along the lines of the AMEX fishing association in Canavieiras, whose president is fisherman João Barba. AMEX was in charge of the rescue and supply operations during the flood.

João Barba is 63 years old and was horrified by the number of dead fish after the toxic tide. "I have never seen anything like this before," he said. He is also angry at the big landowners, companies, investors, politicians and that they deny the water was poisoned. He worries that the mangrove hatchery cycle may be interrupted for years as millions of reproductive fish and crustaceans perished. And he is angry that no one offered compensation to those affected, and no one responsible stepped down. He fears the survival of the families in the RESEX who feed on fish and crustaceans and sell them in the markets of the surrounding towns.

Scientifically proven warnings about the lack of water management on the Rio Pardo already existed in the mid-2020s: Uli Ide was involved in a project now considered a model worldwide: the creation of a so-called water flow diagram. It illustrates the different zones of the city's river, their water flows, and the players. It is thus the basis for political decision-makers to design a stringent water management program. The Swiss Research Institute for Water "EAWAG" manages the project and is supported by the Swiss "SDC" (Development Aid and Cooperation) and various NGOs.

The project uncovered some bad news for the 30,000 residents: Only 37% of the wastewater passes through a treatment plant or septic tank. The rest flows untreated into the river.

The Rio Pardo is polluted at the height of Minas with pesticides from eucalyptus plantations. They also extract a lot of water from it. Most of the eucalyptus trees are processed into charcoal to fuel Brazilian steel mills. However, the water there is less polluted than further downstream where huge coffee and fruit plantations and cattle pastures were established.

Danger from mining retention basins

On the upper course of the river are also mines financed by China that extract and export ore. The toxic sludge produced is stored in retention basins. So far, they have held up. But it is unclear how resilient they are and whether they can withstand the heavy rainfall phenomena in times of climate change. Corresponding technical tests are unreliable and prone to corruption as, for example, the investigation into the dam burst in Brumadinho in 2019 brought to light.

In 2020, local human rights representative Marilene Alves de Souza also criticized the large consumption of water by such mines as can be seen from the planning of a canal to transport the mined iron ore through the mountains to the nearest port

The air pollution released during ore mining, the poisoning of groundwater by pollutants and heavy metals, as well as the sludge stored in highly toxic tailings ponds and heaps, are also a hazard.

According to studies, if these substances seep uncontrolled into the earth, they can poison soil and groundwater for thousands of years. That is why such retention basins are banned in many countries.

Leakages of such substances already happened in 2019 when a dam containing toxic mud burst in the municipality of Brunmadinho in the state of Minas Gerais. A twelve-million-cubic-meter toxic mudslide buried entire villages, poisoned fields, and claimed the lives of approximately 250 people. A new study of the area, conducted in 2022, proves that metal concentrations in the body are above the permissible level, especially in children. The number of respiratory and mental illnesses has also increased in adults.

The Brazilian mining multinational VALE (based in Switzerland), and the German TÜV Süd, which tested and approved the dam, have been sued. Not all those affected by Brumadinho have yet been compensated, and the promised new settlements have not been completed. The mills of justice grind slowly: The compensation for the mining accident in nearby "Mariana" three years earlier is only now being heard in an English court because the English-Australian mining company BHP that caused it was based in England at the time. The plaintiffs are affected indigenous "Krenak" communities, for whom the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais had only just set up a new drinking water supply after the disaster.

The catastrophe at the beginning of 2022 was a wake-up call for the people living along the Rio Pardo. Many, like fisherman João Barba, wonder how much longer this can continue in times of global warming. They insist on a dialog between residents and agribusinesses and demand a balance between environmental protection and economic interests.

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