The disaster you could see from space: how a podcast went inside an eco catastrophe

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I listen to Dead River while running home from a quick dip, surrounded by fag butts and Lucozade bottles, in the brown stretch of what Thames Water describes as “our most important water source”. But as I listen to the descriptions of 43.7mn cubic metres of toxic, brown mud – the “tailings” of just one Brazilian iron ore mine near Mariana – filling more than 645km (400 miles) of watercourses, from the collapsed Fundão dam all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, I realise that, really, I know nothing about dead rivers.

While it is billed as a true crime podcast, Dead River encompasses everything from environmental destruction to colonial history, family tragedy to perilous chase scenes, indigenous anthropology to the sheer brutal fact of what a river carpeted with a million dead fish looks like. It tells the story of Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. According to this podcast, the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam in 2015, which stored the toxic byproducts of iron ore mining, created more immediate devastation even than the continuous felling of the Amazonian rainforest for cattle ranching. It also killed 19 people, made hundreds homeless, and was so vast that it could be seen from space. More than eight years later, those responsible have still not been fully held to account. This has led to the largest class-action lawsuit ever held in the UK, with more than 700,000 plaintiffs seeking justice from Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP through the English and Welsh courts. The company denies the claims against it.

“This is one of the most multilayered, complex, fascinating stories I’ve ever been part of,” says biologist Liz Bonnin. She presents the podcast, and is perhaps best known for her appearances on wildlife television series such as Our Changing Planet and Blue Planet Live.

“When the producer Pulama Kaufman approached me, they were very quick to say they wanted to tell the story of the systemic failures of the mining companies, but also the Indigenous people, their culture and how it has affected them. I was immediately on board.”

In the podcast, there are interviews with residents of nearby village Bento Rodrigues, which was destroyed by the deluge of poisonous sludge that ran, unstoppably, from the broken dam; there are accounts by Cristina Serra, whose book Tragédia em Mariana ultimately led to much of the investigation covered in the podcast; there are lyrical descriptions by local fishermen about what their connection to the land has meant over generations; and a look at how a team of lawyers, including the Welsh maverick Tom Goodhead, have taken on a legal battle against the owners of the dam: BHP and the Brazilian company Vale. Was Liz, I wondered, ever worried about how to present a story like this, without provoking the sort of ecological despair that can make even the most well-meaning listener turn away?

Liz Bonnin.
‘We can all be part of the change’ … Liz Bonnin. Photograph: Pip/PR

“The conclusion I’ve come to, after years of being immersed in these subjects in ways that have caused me quite a lot of distress is that we need to look at the root cause of those feelings of being overwhelmed,” Bonnin says over Zoom.

“We are constantly whacked across the head with news headlines that are filled with rape, murder, violence, war, despair. They’re so overwhelmingly depressing and harrowing that I think it plays a role in keeping people’s bandwidth small, so that they don’t have the capacity to take in a story like this.” Bonnin has her hand to her chest as she speaks. “But we have to lean into the discomfort, and understand the reality of what we’ve created as a global society, so we can all be part of the change.”

The podcast, Bonnin is keen to point out, also tells beautiful, emotive stories of the people on the ground and their connection to nature. It introduces us to a range of people she calls heroes, who are fighting for what is just and fair and right – environmental law organisations like the Good Law Project, Friends of the Earth and Pogust Goodhead, that are winning cases, taking businesses to court, and holding governments to account. There are also people in this story who act more like action movie heroes; people such as Paula Geralda Alvez who, immediately on hearing that the dam had broken, leapt on to her motorbike and sped through the forest, pursued by a wave of toxic brown filth, to warn local villagers and residents.

“Paula was so connected to community that her first thought was to save it; at the risk to her own life,” says Bonnin. “Then there are the indigenous people we mention in the podcast, from the Krenak to the Tupiniquim; their homes have been destroyed, their livelihoods, but also with the loss of their river they have lost their sense of identity, and their spirituality. I know it will spark feelings in people just to hear how they speak about their land.”

For me, one of the most evocative images summoned by the podcast comes in the third episode, with acres and acres of stinking mud, full of ripped-up vegetation and dead animals, being transported to poorer neighbourhoods and dumped, creating a further cloud of toxic dust. It says so much about the role money always plays in who bears the brunt of environmental damage.

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“There were two moments when I had to stop,” says Bonnin. “One was reading out the names and ages of the people who died. The second was when I had to describe what happened to Pamela’s daughter.” Pamela Isabel’s daughter was one of the 19 people who died when the dam collapsed. “Pamela’s father told her that she did not need to see her daughter because she was unrecognisable.” The chemicals in the water and mud had started to rot the child’s body from the inside. “She was found entangled in the branches and for me that was symbolic of both the ferociousness of the accident but also the disregard for precious human life,” says Bonnin.

As I ran home from my own stretch of river, the smell of soil and slight whiff of TCP on my skin, I listened to a biologist on the podcast describe the aftereffects of the spill by saying: “It looks as if they threw the entire periodic table into the river.” So, I wonder, what can we, in Britain, with our poorly functioning, privatised water companies and environmentally reckless government, learn from this incident?

“As a biologist and a conservationist who has learned over the years how deeply interconnected and interdependent all life on Earth is, I do wonder how we can be so nationalistic about it,” says Bonnin. “To me, it’s so obvious that this matters to us. The natural world isn’t ours to exploit; it’s ours to protect so we can bloody well survive. For that reason alone we have a responsibility to understand and care about the damage we’re all causing as part of a system created by colonialism and capitalism. This isn’t a story about Brazil – it’s a story about all of us.”

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