Urban mining transforms Brazil neighborhood into ghost town

This part of Maceio, the capital of the state of Alagoas, in northeastern Brazil, used to vibrate with the sounds of cars, commerce and children playing.

It fell silent as residents evacuated en masse, eager to escape the impending destruction of their homes, which were cracking and crumbling.

the remains of a pink walled house with the roof missing, bricks are broken on the ground.  Power lines and houses seen in the background
The Bebedouro neighborhood was abandoned due to the subsidence of the ground caused by the Braskem mine.(AP: Eraldo Perez)

Beneath its floors, the subsoil was riddled with dozens of cavities: the legacy of four decades of rock salt mining in five urban neighborhoods.

That caused the ground above to settle and the structures above it to begin to crumble.

Since 2020, communities have emptied as tens of thousands of residents accepted payments from the petrochemical company Braskem to relocate.

Graffiti scrawled on the wall of an abandoned house says in Portuguese;
A graffiti scrawled on the wall of an abandoned house reads in Portuguese: “Leave me alone Braskem”, in the Farol neighborhood of Maceió.(AP: Eraldo Perez)

Few holdouts remain, several of whom told The Associated Press they imagine the ground beneath their feet looks like Swiss cheese.

Still, Paulo Sergio Doe, 51, said he would never leave his home in the Pinheiro neighborhood where he grew up.

Braskem is one of the largest petrochemical companies in the Americas, owned mainly by Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras and construction giant Novonor, formerly known as Odebrecht.

a man sits on his bed inside his damaged house, cracks are visible on the walls and floor and checks his phone
More than 55,000 people have been forced from their homes in Maceio, but some residents remain.(AP: Eraldo Perez)

The company is not forcibly evicting anyone, though those still here said it feels that way.

He struck a deal with prosecutors and public defenders to compensate the families so they could uproot themselves and start anew elsewhere.

By Braskem’s tally, 97.4 percent of affected homes — more than 14,000 — are now vacant, the company said in its 2021 earnings call Thursday.

The 55,000 evacuees left behind not only neighbors and friends, but also jobs; 4,500 businesses, mostly small and medium, supporting 30,000 people, were closed, according to a study by the Federal University of Alagoas published last year.

an aerial view of many houses in Maceio, Brazil, all of which have their roofs ripped off and look dilapidated
Residents salvaged whatever they could to sell for extra money, including roof tiles.(AP: Eraldo Perez)

Among those businesses were local supermarkets and a ballet school that had operated for 38 years, according to Adriana Capretz, part of the university’s task force to monitor neighborhoods.

The exodus is evident from above; departing residents salvaged whatever they could sell for extra money, including roof tiles. Its removal allows for unobstructed views into spaces that were once occupied.

The amount offered by Braskem was not enough for Natalícia Gonçalves.

at night, a woman wearing a mask stands behind a barricade installed outside her house to protect her from thieves
Natalícia Gonçalves has installed a barricade outside her house to protect herself from potential thieves. (AP: Eraldo Perez)

The retired teacher, 77, also said she felt too old to start over. She then saw how everyone in Pinheiro left her.

Now he lives inside a makeshift fortress behind boards and plants meant to deter would-be thieves.

Braskem security guards make the rounds on motorcycles, briefly interrupting the eerie silence of the night.

“They have already done everything to force me to go, but I have my rights,” he said from behind the fortified exterior of his home.

the ruins of a roofless school can be seen from the outside, peppa pig paintings on the wall
The ruins of an abandoned school stand in the Pinheiro neighborhood of Maceio.(AP: Eraldo Perez)

Braskem has so far disbursed about 40 percent of the more than 5 billion reais ($1.4 billion) it has set aside for relocation, compensation of people including local residents and employees, and the transfer of facilities such as schools and hospitals. the company said in its statement. earnings call

It is allocating 6 billion reais more for the closure and monitoring of the salt flats, in addition to social, environmental and urban measures.

Closing the call, the CEO of Braskem, Roberto Lopes Pontes Simões, highlighted the company’s year, including “all the progress we had in Maceio” by having relocated almost everyone from the neighborhoods.

a couple stands behind a pile of wood topped with a wooden cross outside their home while their children stand outside their garage
Paulo Sergio Doe and his wife are behind a wooden cross that says “Assassin of Braskem. We are Resistance.”(AP: Eraldo Perez)

No house has been swallowed by the earth, nor has any person died.

Ms. Capretz, a professor at the university’s school of architecture and urban planning, said that doesn’t mean the heartbreak was averted.

“The tragedy is happening, not only because of geological phenomena, but mainly because there are cases of people who committed suicide, many who fell ill with depression, lost their social life, family ties, friends and neighbors,” said Ms. Capretz how he walked through the neighborhood of Bebedouro.

“None of that is being considered by Braskem.”

The company’s press office said in a lengthy response to AP questions that it provides free psychological consultations to any resident who participates in the compensation and relocation program.

He said the program was created based on the law and court rulings in similar cases and said offers of compensation are always presented to people along with their attorney or a public defender.

a woman stands with her arms raised while her son sits at a black table playing dominoes on the street at night
Quitéria Maria da Silva (right) is the last resident on her street and refuses to leave her home.(AP: Eraldo Perez)

But negotiations can be clouded by sentiment; the price of a house is not the same as the value of a house.

Quitéria Maria da Silva, 64, and her grandson were waiting for the rest of their family to come play dominoes at a table they set up under the only utility pole on their street that still works.

Even when da Silva said he would move if Braskem paid the requested amount, he expressed ambivalence:


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