Piquiá de Baixo is a small village with a population of no more than 300 families. It is located in the rural district of Açailândia in the southwest of the state of Maranhão.
Piquiá is dying. Its residents breathe iron dust expelled by five pig iron factories that process ore mined in Carajás, the world’s largest open pit mine, located in the state of Pará. Many people are getting ill and are forced to leave the small town due to health complications.
Few reporters visit this village but Brazilian reporter Fabiola Ortiz, spent some time there, seeing the houses with their roofs covered with black iron dust, walking along the unpaved streets and becoming irritated, just as the local inhabitants are, by the trains that run constantly 24-hours a day, sounding their horns, and by the noisy trucks that pass through the main street day and night. Above all, she was able to listen to the people and understand the harsh reality of their everyday life. Her series of reports (in Portuguese), published on the Brazilian website O Eco, a member of The Guardian Environmental Network, can be accessed through the link below.
The land of açaí
Açailândia is 564 km away from São Luís, the capital of Maranhão. Its name comes from açaí a small purple native tropical fruit, which is widely consumed in the region. In the 1960s and 1970s the local economy was dominated by logging. That is one reason why there are few trees left in the landscape. Today the economy of the town of 107,790 people is heavily dependent on the pig iron industry and the few remaining stretches of rainforest are covered by a thin powder of iron dust.
All over Piquiá de Baixo people have powerful human stories to tell. Joselma Alves de Oliveira, a 37-year-old teacher, born and bred in Piquiá de Baixo, says she has given up hope of breathing fresh air. Even though her parents are still living in a spacious house, she dreams that her family may one day move to another place.
“A huge railway track runs in front of our houses. In one direction there are pig iron plants and in the other is a warehouse for ore built by the mining company Vale. It’s sad to live in a place where practically the whole population is likely to get health problems and lung diseases”, said Oliveira, who has six brothers and sisters.
Piquiá is a centre of the national pig iron industry sector, one of the most profitable activities in the country. All ore mined from Carajás passes through Açailândia, which is on the railway line taking the ore to the port of Itaqui in São Luís. Every train makes a pit stop in Piquiá, and every 20 minutes, day and night, a train loaded with ore crosses the small village. It is non-stop.
Out of the total ore mined in Carajás, 7% goes to the pig iron plants, some of which are situated in the backyards of houses in Piquiá.
Sunset in Piquiá de Baixo. The beauty masks the fact that this is an open-air deposit for chemicals.
All photos: Fabiola Ortíz, O Eco
Interested? Check the first report on the series of stories about Piquiá here.