Paracatu de Baixo resettlement in Brazil. October 2020.

An update on key programs from the Renova Foundation

Headshot of Andre de Freitas
Andre de Freitas

CEO, Renova Foundation

The work of the Renova Foundation to remediate and compensate for the damages caused by the failure of Samarco’s Fundão dam in November 2015, is complex and meticulous, integrating affected people and a broad range of stakeholders. The Foundation was formed through an agreement between BHP, Vale, Samarco and the Brazilian authorities in 2016. It is accountable for 42 socio-economic and environmental programs to ensure the full and fair remediation and reparation to people and the environment. Renova had spent approximately BRL10 billion (~US$1.8 billion) on reparation and compensation programs by the end of August 2020.

André de Freitas has been the CEO of Renova since December 2019 and has brought his strong focus on socioeconomic and environmental project management to the Foundation. Here he discusses a few key programs and some of the complexities the Renova Foundation faces.

To reflect upon the resettlement program for the families of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira is to contemplate very deeply the lives, livelihoods and lifestyles that the townspeople enjoyed before 5 November 2015. The Renova Foundation is building entire new towns that are designed to link the past with the future. It is a very complex, participatory process, whereby the affected people tell architects their stories and give detailed descriptions of their homes and towns, then collaborate on the design and choose the materials they would like for their new homes.

The townspeople agree on the layout of the new towns, as close as possible to what they had before, but taking into account the new landscape - now there are hills and valleys to consider, and different contours to work within.

The resettlement program has taken a long time, but it is a multi-stage process involving different stakeholders such as the affected communities, public prosecutors, and environmental agencies. For Bento Rodrigues, it took over a year to purchase the new land; in Gesteira we are still discussing the resettlement plan with the community. Our goal is to build strong and healthy communities. We are working with the impacted people and their representatives to piece together the social fabric that has been torn, and this is a meticulous process. COVID-19 has also had a significant impact on our work, resulting in far fewer people on site, mainly due to the distancing measures in place.

Houses and public buildings continue to be built, and in Bento Rodrigues we have five homes completed and another 35 under construction. Roads are paved and civil works are almost complete. In January 2020 we anticipated having 85 percent of the Bento Rodrigues project completed by December this year. But due to COVID-19, we have shifted focus on to infrastructure, which is almost complete, and we anticipate being able to progress much faster on the remaining houses and public buildings in 2021.

Resettlement continues at Bento Rodrigues

Image: resettlement construction continues at Bento Rodrigues.

While resettlement is the most visible of the Foundation’s 42 programs, another critical socio-economic program is compensation (referred to in Brazil as “indemnification”) for people who suffered damages as a result of the dam failure. Again, this is incredibly complex, partly because Brazilian law requires that indemnification can only be paid with proof of damages. By August 2020, we had paid about BRL2.6 billion (US$473 million) in indemnifications and financial aid to more than 320,000 people who were able to show that they suffered losses. But the Rio Doce basin is characterized by a high degree of informality in its economy so many people have been unable to prove their damages. In August, a decision of the 12th Federal Court in Belo Horizonte established a new flexible system for the first two communities – Naque in Minas Gerais and Baixo Guandu in Espírito Santo – that enables us to compensate the impacted people from the most informal sectors. In the span of a few weeks we were able to put the new system online and we have now paid close to BRL50 million (US$9 million) to more than 500 people, with the cases of another 6,000 people in assessment. It is a very positive step to be able to implement a court-designated system which takes care of vulnerable people with the most fragile claims, such as informal fisherfolk, laundry people and rural artisans, and we hope this system can be replicated in other communities.

Infographic showing resettlement progress by the Renova Foundation

The efforts on resettlement and compensation are underpinned by a range of other programs which aim to restore the formal and informal local economies of the region. Renova and its contractors focus on hiring locally; we have worked extensively to provide economic support to local businesses and even to restore skills that had receded before the dam failure.

Taking care of the people who lost their family members, their homes and livelihoods is at the heart of what we do. But to re-establish the region’s economic and social functioning as a whole, we must take care of the river system itself.

Data from 92 collection points in the Rio Doce system compared with data from the Water Institute of Minas Gerais collected in the years before the dam failure show that the water is of the same quality as it was before. The environment is recovering as a result of deliberate work, combined with natural processes, and the Rio Doce is indeed alive. Brazil’s national health surveillance agency, Anvisa, has declared the fish along the coast of Espírito Santo safe for human consumption. And we are working hard to ensure that the restoration of natural habitats of indigenous fish in the upper reaches of the river will encourage fish stocks to flourish there. However, this is an inhabited and industrial river system, and it continues to suffer from the historic issue of sewage, among other sources of pollution. Every year, about 140 million cubic meters of untreated sewage is discharged into the Rio Doce – approximately three times the volume of tailings that left Fundão. As part of Renova’s compensatory fund – over and above the remediation and reparation of the impacts of the dam failure - we are investing BRL600 million (US$109 million) in sanitation in the municipalities affected by the dam failure. We believe this will provide the region a framework to help solve historic challenges.

In spite of a very complex operating environment, the Renova Foundation is progressing in its mission to carry out the remediation and reparation of the impacts of the Fundão dam failure. The environment is recovering well and we are progressing well in our efforts to restore the lives and livelihoods of the affected people. But we realise we still have much work to do and will not rest until it is done.

*1 US$ = 5.5 Brazilian Real