Double Exposure

For centuries, the Quilombola people, descendants of escaped African slaves, have survived against insurmountable odds in the Amazon rainforest. Now industrial pollution and a pandemic are threatening their existence.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

NAVIGATING THE ENORMOUS RIVERS that run through Brazil’s Pará state does not offer the idyllic Amazon rainforest experience one might expect. The idea of untouched nature hasn’t applied here for years. As we make our way upriver aboard a ferry boat, we passs endless stands of açaí palms, kapok trees, and stilt houses before reaching Barcarena, an industrial city replete with chimneys belching smoke day and night, and giant pools filled with toxic mud — the result of bauxite processing.

After an hour-long trip across the Bay of Guajará, we drive to one of Barcarena’s five quilombos — settlements originally founded by escaped African slaves — where we are greeted by Mário Santos, one of the principal leaders of the community.

Seated at the doorstep of his home, Santos tells us about how, before the arrival of the aluminum industry some 30 years ago, his family lived off what the land and the river provided, especially fish found in the coursing waters. That’s no longer possible because local water bodies are contaminated with metal processing effluents.

In fact, decades of living in this industry’s shadow have taken a steep toll on the Quilombolas (as the residents of quilombos are called), many of whom suffer from respiratory illnesses and ailments associated with heavy metal exposure. Now, as one of the worst health crises in modern history threatens his community — across Brazil, Covid-19 has been killing one Quilombola a day, according to data collected by civil society groups — Santos says he feels like he’s stuck in a concentration camp.

“We are [already] sick here. Seems like the virus came right now to annihilate us once and for all,” he says.

His sentiments are echoed by Dona Maria do Socorro, a Quilombola leader from the neighboring São Sebastião do Burajuba community that has a high number of suspected Covid-19 infections but where very few people have actually been tested.

“No one can plant, no one can harvest, no one can sell [their goods], no one can eat, because everything is contaminated because of the constant environmental crimes committed here by the industries,” she says. “Now here comes this virus ... What is going to happen to us?”

IN THE BRAZILIAN AMAZON, Quilombolas, like Indigenous people, are considered guardians of the forest. Direct heirs to the Black resistance found in many parts of the Americas, they are the descendants of African slaves brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonists between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries who escaped into the wilds beyond the plantations, towns, and cities, and established quilombos, in various parts of the country, including the Amazon region. (By the time slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, an estimated 4 million men and women had been brought into the country from the African continent.)

Though now officially recognized as a socio-ethnic group, Quilombolas are still subject to structural racism.

Currently about 3,000 Quilombola communities in Brazil are officially recognized by the Palmares Foundation, a federal body responsible for the preservation of the rights of Quilombola people — 1,831 are in the Amazon, and 528 of those are in the state of Pará. However, Brazil’s census estimates 5,972 quilombos, which the Brazilian civil society group CONAQ contends comprises some 16 million individuals.

Though they are now officially recognized as a socio-ethnic group, Quilombolas are still subject to structural racism and are among the most vulnerable communities in the country. Unfortunately, their relative invisibility has led them to be, until recently, overlooked even by groups working for Indigenous and marginalized people’s rights.

An estimated 45.8 percent of Quilombolas live in extreme poverty and many lack access to healthcare, sanitation, and food security. They also face serious obstacles to recognition of their land rights. Only 250 quilombos (just 4.18 percent of all possible communities) have received inalienable and indivisible communal tenure. The uncertainty over land rights has made communities like Santos’s, located on or near mineral-rich or agriculturally viable land, open to exploitation.

Mário Santos, a Quilombo leader from the Gibrié de São Lourenço community, recalls growing up amidst rivers and fruit-bearing trees. These days, he says, it is no longer safe to bathe in the river.

Quilombo leaders like Dona Maria do Socorro worry the twin impacts of heavy metal exposure and Covid-19 could wipe out their community, especially their elders who are repositories of their traditional knowledge and history.

Quilombolas’ relationship with their local environment is influenced by their ancestral African cultures and, in some cases, Indigenous peoples’ worldviews: Most Quilombolas today are Afro-Brazilian, though some might have Indigenous heritage as well. The community’s belief system inspires respect for nature, and for this reason they are accustomed to utilizing just enough resources for their subsistence. Water, soil, and other inanimate natural objects are treated as living and, therefore, worthy of reverence.

Santos, who’s 45, recalls growing up amidst rivers and fruit-bearing trees, playing games with his cousins and uncles. “My memories are of living freely!” he says. “We would go down to the igarapé (a stream split off from the main river’s course) for a swim from where the tides come in up to where they stop, you know?” he tells us. “The elderly wouldn’t let us pee in the river. Because, otherwise, the candiru (a tiny local fish in the Amazon that can enter the male urethra) would catch us; the Mother-Water would punish us. We also avoided walking in the forest at certain times because those were sacred places. Today I realize that all these things were ways of defending nature.”

This nature-centric cosmovision was, of course, at odds with the interests of large-scale industrial and agricultural corporations that began arriving in localities like Barcarena in the second half of the twentieth century.

THE ALUMINUM INDUSTRY was the first to take root in Barcarena in the 1980s and ’90s, disrupting the lives of many locals. Above all, it impacted the Quilombola who were living on the land where the Brazilian government wanted to build an industrial complex that would include a bauxite refinery where alumina, the materia prima of aluminum, is processed from its ore, and a facility where alumina is transformed into primary aluminum. This gargantuan project also included a cargo port for mineral commodities. At present, the port is an important conduit for soy and cattle exports as well.

Santos was still a boy in the ’80s when the Brazilian dictatorship of the time decided to break ground in his very backyard. The area would soon come to represent one of the largest value chains of aluminum in the world. In 2010, both facilities were bought by Norwegian conglomerate Norsk Hydro whose largest shareholder is the Norwegian government.

A large part of the aluminum produced in Barcarena’s refinery and sold to international markets has seals of quality and environmental responsibility, including, ironically, certifications from the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative. In 2018, the refinery exported close to 2.6 million tons of calcined alumina, worth some $845 million dollars. Little of this largesse makes its way to local residents, many of whom live right next to the industrial complex and its associated enormous tailings dams.

Tailings dams are typically massive embankment dams used to store byproducts of mining operations, called “tailings,” which can be in liquid, solid, or slurry form, and are usually highly toxic. Tailings from aluminum processing contain lead, cadmium, aluminum, manganese, chromium, and even radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium. The entire composition, however, colloquially goes by the benign name of the ochre soils common in the tropics: red mud.

A contaminated lake adjacent to the Hydro Norsk operation in Barcarena. A recent investigation identified multiple cases of unauthorized waste being emitted from the company’s aluminum processing facilities.

In the dry season, the residue in these dams dries out and blows into the air and local water bodies. Some of this red dust is visible in the tree canopy near the industrial complex. “This dry material mixes with caustic soda,” says Dr. Simone Pereira, a professor of analytic and environmental chemistry at the Federal University of Pará. (Caustic soda is used to process bauxite.) “You inhale that and it mixes in with your body’s fluids, activating caustic soda’s corrosive potential,” she adds.

Individuals who live near Norsk Hydro facilities accumulate heavy metals, such as lead, chrome, nickel, aluminum, and manganese, in their blood at levels many times higher than recommended by the World Health Organization.

Studies from hair samples collected by Pereira show that individuals who live near Norsk Hydro facilities accumulate heavy metals, such as lead, chrome, nickel, aluminum, and manganese, in their blood at levels many times higher than recommended by the World Health Organization. Aluminum was found present at levels 27 times higher than what is accepted as safe for the human body. All of these metals can be carcinogenic, Pereira says.

Additionally, the aluminum industry uses fossil fuels for its boilers, which emits further air pollutants. It was quite common in our interviews to hear Quilombolas complaining about respiratory problems. If that weren’t enough, those living close to the tailings dam have to deal with the constant anxiety of a possible leak or massive rupture: A recent Reuters investigation revealed that more than a third of the world’s tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble.

In February 2018, a leak in the dam as a result of heavy rains turned local igarapés blood-red and engulfed nearby communities in a flash flood that contaminated the Murucupí River.

“Nowadays we cannot bathe in the Murucupí River,” complains Santos. “If I bathe in it, I have to have both enough courage and money to buy medicine to apply on my skin when I come back.”

The Brazilian government initiated an investigation into the leak and subsequently identified seven more cases of unauthorized waste being emitted from the processing facilities, including a secret duct that channeled tailings directly into surrounding rivers.

A report by the Brazilian health ministry’s Evandro Chagas Institute concluded that the Murucupí’s waters were so contaminated by the industry’s effluents that it “cannot be used for recreation, fishing, or human consumption.” Meanwhile, IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, fined the company $4 million and placed an embargo on another one of its tailings dam for functioning without a proper environmental license.

After initially denying that it was responsible for the disaster, Norsk Hydro settled the case with the State of Pará and the federal government. As part of the settlement it promised to construct a permanent potable-water supply line for the population affected by the leak. But the Quilombolas of Barcarena say that they were not adequately informed about the terms of the agreement and, almost two years later, the majority of their population doesn’t have access to treated water.

Norsk Hydro’s senior communications official Halvor Molland admits that the company has a “lot of work to do” building ties with local community members. Yet, the company defeated a suit by a Quilombola group that requested it pay for the health exams of 367 Quilombolas potentially exposed to toxic chemicals by the disaster.

Ismael Moraes, the lawyer representing a local association of Indigenous and African-Brazilian communities (Associação de Caboclos, Indígenas e Quilombolas da Amazônia – CAINQUIAMA), who filed the suit says: “I believe that Barcarena is a big time bomb, and in a few years we will see an enormous quantity of terrible effects on public health given the data with which we are already familiar. It is a threatening future.”

ONTO THIS BACKDROP ADVANCES SARS-CoV-2. As the pandemic plays out across the globe, it is becoming clear that its worst impacts, similar to those of environmental pollution and climate change, are borne disproportionately by the economically depressed and culturally marginalized.

For the Quilombolas, who mostly live in rural communities that don’t have access to reliable medical care, the outcome has been grim. The Brazilian government has not set up a system to register the Covid-related deaths of Quilombolas, so CONAQ is tallying victims. As of mid-August, when this issue went to print, it had recorded 152 deaths and more than 4,102 confirmed cases in quilombos across the country, but feared the numbers could be much higher.

In Pará state, data compiled by the Coordination of Associations of Remnant Quilombo Communities in Pará (MALUNGU) and a local university showed that as of August 14, there had been 1,779 confirmed cases, 43 mortalities, and close to 1,170 additional suspected cases among Quilombola communities in the region.

Most Quilombola households in Barcarena don’t have access to potable water, which has implications for both health and hygiene, to say little of the diseases that community members say are associated with mineral processing activities performed just a few yards from their homes.

Barcarena had recorded 3,596 cases and 105 deaths at the time, but these numbers didn’t include people in the quilombos. The local government has neither tested Quilombolas, nor sufficiently taken into consideration the specifics of the locale, including cultural and underlying health factors, that might particularly affect them during this emergency, says Raimundo Magno, one of the MALUNGU leaders. Culturally, for instance, Quilombolo life is very community oriented, which makes social distancing guidelines particularly hard to follow.

“We conducted a survey here in our quilombo and only three people had done the test for Covid-19,” says Santos of Gibrié de São Lourenço. “We’re made up of 315 families and more than half of them felt they had symptoms caused by the virus. There are neither doctors nor health clinics inside any quilombo in Barcarena to attend to these people.”

Arivaldo Moraes, a leader of the São Sebastião do Burajuba quilombo, which is also located about a mile from the Norsk Hydro installations, filed a suit in a federal court in May demanding Covid-19 tests be made available for Quilombolas in Barcarena. He cited their special vulnerability to the virus: Most households don’t even have access to potable water, which has implications for both health and hygiene, to say little of the historic diseases that community members say are associated with mineral processing activities performed just a few yards from their homes.

And a growing body of scientific literature has begun to find associations between industrial and agricultural chemicals, air pollution, and higher Covid-19 infection rates around the world.

It is not possible to categorically affirm in the short term whether bodies exposed to heavy metals are more vulnerable to Covid-19. But research shows that exposure to them causes health problems related to immunosuppression, which means that the body possesses fewer defenses to act in extreme situations. And a growing body of scientific literature — still very much in its early days — has begun to find associations between industrial and agricultural chemicals, air pollution, and higher Covid-19 infection rates around the world. Researchers are also finding links between pollutant exposure and worse Covid-19 outcomes.

A recent article in Food and Chemical Toxicology speculates that “long-term exposure to mixtures of anthropogenic pollutants such as ... heavy metals, particulate matter, PAH, and toxins during critical development periods could potentially impact the immune system and increase viral infectivity, morbidity, and mortality in children and adults.”

“When you speak of cross-exposure, with contaminants and another form of exposure in the form of the pandemic, which is from a type of virus that few know how your immune system will react to, then we can really think about the full weight of risks, which may greatly increase the vulnerability of [the Quilombola] population,” says Dr. Marcelo Lima, a researcher from the Evandro Chagas Institute and specialist in environmental and public health in Belém, Pará. He highlights the importance of a more in-depth study of this subject, taking into account synergisms between “chemical and biological” exposures.

But for the Quilombolas of Barcarena — who have lived for years with rivers turned red from toxins and mineral residue in their backyards, and are now faced with a virus that’s taking away their leaders and loved ones — talk of more research offers little comfort. For now, they are drawing on their rich history of Black resistance against insurmountable odds to prepare for the battles ahead.

One of those battles surrounds the provision of federal aid during the pandemic. In July, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro vetoed sections of an emergency bill that would have provided water, food, hygiene products, disinfectants, and healthcare funds to vulnerable communities, including Indigenous populations and Quilombolas. The bill would have also required that the government establish a system to record Covid-related deaths in these communities. Then, in early August, the Brazilian Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision regarding the legislation, requiring the government to enact measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus among vulnerable populations, including traditional peoples like the Quilombola.

While the ruling was a victory for Quilombolas and Indigenous groups, it is yet to be seen what level of support some of Brazil’s most marginalized communities will receive from an administration that has shown little regard for their interests or rights.

“The Quilombolas were already suffering well before the coronavirus, and now we have yet another element profoundly affecting the communities,” Magno says. “What we are witnessing now is a manifestation of historic invisibility of the Black population in Brazil.”

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund.

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