The imposition of the extraordinary

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Author: Gabriela de Paula Marcurio, Master’s student in the Department of Social Anthropology at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil.[1]

Fieldsite: Brazil

“Our world is over”, it was “destroyed overnight”. We live in “a time that has no end”. The children used to be “free” and “run around on the loose”, now they are “stuck at home”, “with nothing to do”. Either “there’s no time for anything”, or “time doesn’t pass”. These accounts are not related to the Covid-19 pandemic, although they come close to what we have expressed and heard in recent months. These are statements of those affected by the greatest socio-environmental disaster in Brazil, considered the greatest disaster in the world involving a mineral tailings dam, the rupture of the Fundão Dam, located in the municipality of Mariana, state of Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil.

I propose a reflection about worlds and “ends” based on my research amongst those affected by this disaster. I attempt to consider the toxic mud and the viral pandemic together by highlighting the abrupt experiences that rupture everyday life and relating them to the imposition of the extraordinary. This exercise requires care, in view of the great differences between the events, their extensions and scales. Thus, I begin this essay[2] by presenting aspects of my ethnography with the affected community of Paracatu de Baixo, to then delineate the relations and possible connections with the effects of the model of production and extraction that threaten life in its various manifestations.

The community of Paracatu de Baixo has about three hundred inhabitants and is situated in the district of Monsenhor Horta, in Mariana. Residents were forcibly displaced from rural to urban areas due to the destruction caused by the iron ore tailings of Samarco S.A., owned by two of the largest mining companies in the world, Vale S.A. and BHP Billiton Ltda. When the dam failed, on November 5, 2015, the residents were sheltered at the Municipal Convention Center and at the Municipal Stadium, then sent to hotels and, finally, to houses scattered throughout different neighborhoods of the city, where they live today. The residences were rented by the Renova Foundation, an organization founded by the mining companies to “repair” the disaster. The project is to be completed with the resettlement of the community in a rural area, whose current deadline (established before the pandemic) is February 2021.

The toxic mud devastated the land, fields, and gardens; it dragged houses, cars, lives and ways of living. The residents of this community managed to escape the tsunami released by the dam with a capacity of 60 million cubic meters of tailings, but nineteen people drowned in the mud: fourteen employees of a third-party company hired by Samarco and five residents of the community of Bento Rodrigues, the closest community to the dam. “Everything has changed”, community residents explained to me repeatedly, especially women, who are my main interlocutors. In the city, the affected do not have yards or gardens nor the same relationships with their friends and neighbors, considering the distances between the houses rented by Renova. On the other hand, relationships with technicians, specialists and researchers have emerged in meetings, assemblies, and hearings.

I use two figures of speech to describe what I observed, especially in January and February 2019. The oxymoron “extraordinary routine” indicates what the days in the city were like, driven by uncertainty, insecurity, and suffering. The pleonasm “ordinary everyday life” refers to life in the community before the disaster, above all to work in the fields, constantly indicated by residents to be a fundamental activity that, in addition to Catholic rituals and festivals, defined the days and periods of the year. Everyday life appeared in the ways of life interrupted by the rupture of the dam while routine has been imprecise and temporary in these five incomplete years of the disaster.

I was able to observe two methodologies established by residents to deal with the extraordinary. The first is the comparison between before and after the disaster. Residents narrate the past and its everyday ways of life by comparing it to the present, as well as analyzing current conditions in reference to the past. This comparative method is fundamental to the struggle of the affected because it mobilizes community deliberations and demands, as I noticed in meetings with residents and Renova technicians. In this way, the residents do not intend to reproduce the past as it was “before”. On the contrary, they signal the impossibility of doing so by pointing to the community’s ways of life as the basis for new possibilities of life in the city and in the resettlement.

The second method is also evident in the meetings of the affected with technicians, which the residents call “ir aos poucos”, something like “going little by little”. This is an attempt to control time, since “time is in favor” of the mining companies, as they say in reference to the control that companies have over legal processes, the stages of the “repair” and the construction of the resettlement projects, indemnity agreements and meetings. I turned my attention to this methodology when a resident advised me to “go little by little”, and I realized that they follow this same advice when demanding more debates before the deliberations. Discussion is a way for the community to decide: the residents need to converse despite the deadlines stipulated by the mining companies. “Going little by little” is how problems are identified and alternatives are built.

The mud and the virus

One year later, the arguments elaborated from my field research appear in a new perspective. I am not among the residents of Paracatu de Baixo, despite accompanying them from afar. The news I get is sparse in relation to the protocols during the pandemic. My interlocutors, especially women from the community, sent messages in April 2020 saying that “everything has stopped”. At the end of June 2020, they told me that the meetings with the technicians are taking place remotely. Therefore, I cannot say how these methods that I mentioned above are being used currently, but I have tried to think about them from what was indicated to me previously and update them in the form of analogies.

The pandemic spread through Brazil in mid-March 2020. I was in Mariana in the first week of that month when there were reports of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the state capitals, distant from provincial towns. Four months later, I learned of alarming news regarding the situation in Mariana, significantly aggravated by mining, considered an “essential activity”. In addition to the work at the mining complex, the companies contracted by the Renova Foundation continued construction on the resettlement projects. After one complaint, on June 4, 2020, it was confirmed that 185 workers from the mining companies, the Renova Foundation and third-party companies had been infected with Covid-19, that is to say almost half of the municipality’s cases, totalling 328.

This level of contamination is high compared to the place where I have been in quarantine: Mariana has approximately 60 thousand inhabitants and, on July 9, 2020, had 715 confirmed Covid-19 cases; the city of São Carlos, where I live, with a population four times more numerous, registered 751 total cases on the same day. Regional differences must be taken into account in the comparison, one of which being the different municipal and state policies developed by the respective government officials. Nevertheless, the sanitary measures implemented by the federal government have been recognized worldwide for their flaws. Cases are underreported and there is no mass testing, while the executive branch strives to obliterate data and information about the pandemic.

The virus arrives without warning. As I saw and, mainly, heard from the residents of Paracatu de Baixo, the extraordinary arrives without giving any signs; it acts as a magnetic force that attracts everything to itself. The lives of those affected are attracted by the disaster and its endless unfolding. Technical language, meetings and legal processes have become a central part of life for residents after the dam failure. This new constitution of routine is established by centrifugal forces that scatter relatives, neighbors and friends, the distance the land and its people, disperse the community, and reduce the lives of its residents to public fragments in newspapers, scientific research and documentaries.

The virus is similar, but it follows exponential progressions, without dams to stop it. The virus spreads with a power that is simultaneously magnetic and centrifugal: it invades through eyes, ears, noses, and mouths; it distances and disconnects people as much as possible until everyone stays at home. And when the house is not your own? The affected mention that the houses are not theirs, they are the houses rented by Renova. They are small spaces, without a yard, without a garden and without animals; they are spaces that remind of the homes that have been lost and of the criminal mining companies on which everyone has become dependent. They are isolated in these spaces where they do not recognize each other, where they see other streets and other neighbors, without pigs and chickens in the yard. They can’t go home because of the mud. They can’t leave the house because of the virus.

The mud and the virus resemble one another in their uncertainty and the responses they elicit. The composition and the effects of toxic mud are little known, as are those of Sars-CoV-2. The efforts of Brazilian businesses and the government share the same approach. The studies funded by the mining companies say the sludge is not toxic. The affected fight for authorities to acknowledge the contamination in the rivers, which kills the fish; on the land, where vegetables and fruits no longer resemble those harvested by farmers; and in the dust of the air, which causes cough and allergy. The companies have also failed to determine the causality of respiratory, stomach and dermatological diseases that have developed in those affected by the mine tailings. Similarly, municipal, state, and federal governments describe the increase in cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome without associating it with the Covid-19 pandemic.

These comparisons are not meant to highlight the misfortunes, disasters or even “the end of the world”. Far from it, as I did not witness “the end” when I was with the residents of Paracatu de Baixo. I also have no intention of extolling the resistance and the exemplary model of the struggle of the affected. I turn to the community to think about methods. Following the affected showed the possibility of creating methodologies in the extraordinary. In the specific cases I mentioned above, the comparative method shows the pandemic to be a marker in time. The next movement is not a “return to normal”, for there is no land nor time as there was previously. There are no resources, goods or beings that can be manipulated, extracted, displaced, or removed without any consequences or constraints. No single resolution puts an end to the problems, but some may allow for possibilities that do not reproduce the previous destruction. “Going little by little” has become essential.

The last point that I would like to make refers to the notion of “the affected”. The concept claimed by the residents of Paracatu de Baixo names a condition within a historical and political process of social struggle. They claim that they are “affected every day” since the effects of the disaster are not restricted to the destruction and displacement of 2015. How does the pandemic fit into the extraordinary that afflicts them? Would it be yet another element of “being affected”, added to the disaster, to the forced displacement, to the imposition of practices and knowledges, to the restriction and the impediment of their ways of life, to the threat of new dam failures? Ethnography continues “little by little”.

The extraordinary is there and here. It has always been in the routine of displaced, criminalized, marginalized people. The new issues concern its inevitable advance, impossible to hide in the global peripheries. The extraordinary ravages and destroys unevenly. What the affected have taught me is that there is no afterwards, no returning back to “normal”; there is, however, a turning toward those next door, in order to build community, home and life.

[1] Master’s student in the Department of Social Anthropology at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil. Grant 2019/27182-8, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

[2] This essay was first published on the blog Confinaria, organized by CRIA – Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia, available at: I thank Jorge Villela, Sara Munhoz and Paula Araujo for their comments that helped in the writing of the text.