As architects and urban designers, we often rely on digital libraries of materials while doing collages and renders. But where do these materials we choose come from? And how does the process of extraction and production of these materials reflect in our cities? I believe that both professions are not restricted to the construction of new buildings and urban fabrics, but also require a study of the whole process and the resources involved in construction, as well as their impacts. With this in mind, I conducted an investigation about landscapes associated with iron mining in Brazil, and how their connection with global logistics not only impacts, but leads to responses to be learned from local agents.
Folder with different iron textures used for architectural models.
The first story I want to share begins in 1910, in Stockholm. During an international congress, Brazilian researchers presented a map accounting for 10 billion tons of iron ore deposits in Minas Gerais. One year later, the announcement triggered a race by foreign companies to set up operations in the region's so-called Iron Quadrangle. In 1942, the activity intensified in Itabira and, in the context of the Second World War, the city was incorporated as part of the Washington Agreement with the goal of supplying iron to the war industry. While the North American government created infrastructures, it was up to the mountain of Itabira to deliver 1.5 million tons of iron per year at low prices until the end of the war. This moment marked the birth of Vale, a major Brazilian iron ore company, and the consolidation of the country's first iron ore mining complex. In a few years, the mountain, so symbolic to the poet Carlos Drummond, was pulverized until it reached a condition of inversion.
The 1980s witnessed a confluence of factors at the national and global level, driven by Chinese economic reforms, demands for new infrastructures, and the subsequent commodities boom. These phenomena precipitated the premature expansion of small Brazilian cities. As a consequence, the accelerated pace of what was understood as progress, dictated by global capital, mobilised resources but failed to translate its benefits into improvements in the lives of local actors. Instead, it obscured the unique rhythms of these communities, rendering them invisible within the whirlwind of development.
As Vale expanded, its shares became some of the most traded on the New York Stock Exchange in 2007, and it received substantial national funding of approximately $1.3 billion, based on current exchange rates. One year later, Vale was responsible for Brazil's biggest environmental crime. The city of Mariana, located close to Itabira, suffered extensive damage due to the use of a risky method for the construction of a dam, which was also more economical. Besides several deaths and injured people, the resulting mud traveled 680 km until it reached the ocean. Bento Rodrigues, a subdistrict of Mariana, had 80% of its buildings destroyed. With the purpose of preventing further destruction, Mariana was quickly listed as a heritage landscape. The fast pace of the act, however, resulted in the lack of a precise definition of the object of preservation and its guidelines. As a consequence, the government gathered efforts with ICOMOS and regional universities, and promoted meetings with the community.
In the aftermath of the event, the affected agents found the strength to mobilize resources and promote alternatives to value their ways of life and memories, reinforcing support networks. Among these flourishing narratives, the proposal of a Museu Território (Territory Museum) aimed at acknowledging the plural collective memories that inhabited the city, especially by fostering a dialogue about the community's difficult memory, and raising awareness at a national level about the event whose significance transcended the city limits. Its final goal was to become an instrument for building local capacity, development and, ultimately, resilience. It was envisioned as a living organism, constantly evolving and not dependent on a fixed building — as traditional museums. Through focus groups, the residents expressed their desire that the memory of the destruction remains alive through the preservation of ruins, the creation of marks to indicate the level the mud reached in buildings, the name of the former inhabitants, the replanting of typical trees from their childhood, and also the construction of a memorial. In this case, the reconstruction of the site would mean the erasure of their memory.
When referring to memorials, places or objects that contribute to preserving and disseminating a memory, the German language makes a distinction between the words Denkmal and Mahnmal. While the former is related to the etymology of "monument" and comes from the Latin verb monere or "to remember" the latter expresses the urge to actively recall a difficult memory that should not be repeated. For instance, in Berlin, Mahnmal is used as the title for the Holocaust Memorial. In Brazil, the creation of a memorial site for the difficult memory of the Mariana disaster would help contest the erasure caused by the mud and engage in a dialogue against further disasters. The repetition of a similar event only four years later in the city of Brumadinho reflects the need for more dialogue. Despite manifestations, such as a march in the opposite direction of the mud carried by 300 people one year after the Mariana disaster, the absence of articles about the events in the main newspapers reinforces the need for such pedagogical spaces.
Headlines from the main Brazilian newspapers (Estadão, O Globo, and Folha de São Paulo) with excerpts from the texts that mention the Brumadinho disaster on the day after the event and in the following years.
The dialogue was extended by the affected people, who felt the need to shift from being interviewed to being the protagonists of their narratives. Thus, through self-organisation and funding from donations, they founded their own vehicle for denouncing their realities and building a collective memory: a newspaper named A Sirene. They took the role of researchers, photographers, and narrators of their own stories, identifying issues and proposing solutions. As a result, a public archive was created, which resonates not only within their community but also with numerous others residing in proximity to mining sites, contributing to enhancing a shared identity and fostering an ongoing dialogue. Beyond its local impact, the newspaper serves as a resounding voice for these diversely affected communities, amplifying their voices on a broader scale. In conclusion, both the newspaper and the museum are a method to be learned by other vulnerable communities to bridge the gap between the lack of spaces to share their voices — either in hegemonic institutions or established forms of research — and the urge to address the conflicts that arise from their proximity to the mining sites.