Volunteering after the Bento Rodrigues dam disaster

Belo Horizonte is the capital of Brazil’s Minas Gerais (‘General Mines’) state, where the Bento Rodrigues dam disaster occured. On the fifth of November the wall of an iron ore mine tailings dam operated by Samarco (a Vale/BHP Billiton joint venture) collapsed, flooding towns, killing several people and causing an ongoing environmental and ecological catastrophe. The poisonous dam water is still flowing downstream and yesterday a friend said it had almost reached the sea.

The disaster region’s administrative centre, the town of Mariana, is only 20km from Bento Rodrigues. The flood victims were moved to Mariana and the disaster relief is coordinated from here. Patricia’s nieces Isabela and Bruna and their friends Bruna and Maria Clara went to volunteer in Mariana yesterday and I was lucky enough to join them. I could have explored the nearby world heritage listed historic town of Ouro Preto but chose the more meaningful option.

The entire 120km drive from Belo Horizonte to Mariana was hilly. I’m amazed at how hilly the region is. The relief centre is a large warehouse fronted by a smaller shop front where disaster survivors receive aid.

The mountain of toilet paper

The toilet paper mountain, Mariana, Minas Gerais

The warehouse contained masses of of donated supplies: non-perishable food, toilet paper, bottled water, cleaning products, linen and shoes.

Piles of shoes in the foreground and bags of unsorted shoes in the right background

Piles of sorted shoes in the foreground and bags of unsorted shoes in the right background, Mariana, Minas Gerais

There were many bags and piles of second hand shoes of all types from thongs to high heels and slippers to sneakers.

One of the final hat sightings

One of the final sightings of my Barmah hat, Mariana, Minas Gerais

Following registration, our job was to sort the shoes, ensure the pairs were together and place them on the appropriate pile: male, female, girl, boy, single and worn out shoes. Shopping trolleys of shoes were then taken as required around to the shop front to be selected. Shoe shorting wasn’t well coordinated and could have been streamlined with a better process, clearer labelling and crates to place shoes in.

The shoe sorting team

The shoe-sorting volunteer team, Mariana, Minas Gerais

In our final few hours we separated the single okay shoes from the damaged and worn-out shoes, looking for pairs and shifting more than 30 garbage bags of poorly shoes to the loading dock for disposal.

My volunteer nametag

My volunteer name tag, Mariana, Minas Gerais

Different media visited throughout the day and Globo, Brazil’s largest television company recorded me sorting shoes. I could be on Brazilian TV! If you watch Globo and see a person wearing a Barmah hat sorting shoes, that’s me! Unfortunately, that will be the final footage of my hat as it later disappeared off a seat a few metres from where we were sorting shoes.

No, this is not the replacement hat

No, this hat is not a satisfactory placement

The warehouse shopfront where survivors receive their supplies and choose their shoes

The relief centre store front where survivors receive supplies and choose, shoes, Mariana, Minas Gerais

Storm clouds threatening

Ominous storm clouds, Mariana, Minas Gerais

Rain came several times during the day and as we left the relief centre storms threatened. Due to hail on the route back we postponed our return journey and stayed for a coffee at Isabella’s boyfriend’s aunt’s nearby boutique hotel located next to a stream on a (surprise, surprise) steep street. As soon as the aunt heard I was Australian she went on a tirade (in Portuguese) about BHP Billiton.

The stream below the boutique hotel

The stream below the boutique hotel, Mariana, Minas Gerais

Chicken parmigana at the restaurant

At Sinha Olimpia Restaurant, Mariana, Minas Gerais

Chicken Parmigana, Sinha Olimpia Restaurant, Mariana, MInas Gerais

Mashed potato, potato chips, rice and tomato sauce accompanied the chicken parmigana

The storm was still impacting the road back to Belo Horizonte so we had dinner at Sinha Olimpia Restaurant a few buildings down the street. A large, delicious share plate of chicken parmigana and (for me) a caipirinha later, we drove home.