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Urban mining transforms Brazil neighborhoods into ghost town

Urban mining transforms Brazil neighborhoods into ghost town
This part of Maceio, the capital of Brazil’s northeastern Alagoas state, used to buzz with the sounds of cars, commerce and children playing. It went silent as residents evacuated en masse, eager to escape the looming destruction of their homes, which were cracking and crumbling.

This part of Maceio, the capital of Brazil’s northeastern Alagoas state, used to buzz with the sounds of cars, commerce and children playing. It went silent as residents evacuated en masse, eager to escape the looming destruction of their homes, which were cracking and crumbling.

Beneath their floors, the subsurface was riddled with dozens of cavities: the legacy of four decades of rock salt mining in five urban neighborhoods. That caused the soil above to settle and structures atop it to start coming apart. Since 2020, the communities have hollowed out as tens of thousands of residents accepted payouts from petrochemical company Braskem to relocate.

Few holdouts remain, several of whom told The Associated Press they imagine the ground under their feet resembling Swiss cheese. Still, Paulo Sergio Doe, 51, said he will never leave his home in the Pinheiro neighborhood where he grew up.

“The company can’t impose what it wants overnight to do away with the lives and histories of so many families,” he said in an interview outside his home.

Braskem is one of the biggest petrochemical companies in the Americas, owned primarily by Brazilian state-run oil company Petrobras and construction giant Novonor, formerly known as Odebrecht.

The company isn’t forcibly evicting anyone, though those still here said it feels that way. It reached an agreement with prosecutors and public defenders to compensate families so they could uproot and start over elsewhere. By Braskem’s count, 97.4% of affected homes — more than 14,000 — are now vacant, the company said in its 2021 earnings call on Thursday.

The 55,000 evacuees left behind not just neighbors and friends, but also jobs; 4,500 mostly small- and medium-sized businesses that sustained 30,000 people were shuttered, according to a study The Federal University of Alagoas published last year. Among those businesses were local supermarkets and a ballet school that operated for 38 years, according to Adriana Capretz, part of the university’s work group to monitor the neighborhoods.

The exodus is evident from above; departing residents salvaged everything they could sell for extra cash, including their roof tiles. Their removal allows unimpeded views inside the once-occupied spaces.

The amount Braskem offered wasn’t enough for Natalícia Gonçalves. The retired teacher, 77, also said she felt too old to start fresh. So she watched as everyone in Pinheiro left her. Now she lives inside a makeshift fortress behind boards and plants aimed at deterring would-be burglars. Braskem security guards do rounds on motorcycles, briefly interrupting the evenings’ eerie silence.

“They’ve already done everything to force me to go, but I have my rights,” she said from behind her home’s fortified exterior. “I’m afraid, especially at night when no one is around. The light is dim, there’s hardly any. I protect myself with my plants, but I’m alone, with God.”

Braskem has so far disbursed about 40% of the more than 5 billion reais (about $1 billion) it has set aside for relocation, compensation of individuals including residents and local employees and the transfer of facilities like schools and hospitals, the company said in its earnings call. It is directing 6 billion reais more for closing and monitoring the salt mines, as well as social, environmental and urbanistic measures.

Wrapping up the call, Braskem’s CEO Roberto Lopes Pontes Simões highlighted the company’s year, including “all the advance we had in Maceio” in having relocated nearly everyone from the neighborhoods.

No house has been swallowed by the earth, nor was any person killed. Capretz, a professor in the university’s architecture and urbanism school, said that doesn’t mean heartache was avoided.

“The tragedy is happening, not just regarding the geological phenomena but, primarily, because there are cases of people who committed suicide, many who became sick with depression, lost their social lives, family ties, friends and neighbors,” Capretz said as she walked through the Bebedouro neighborhood. “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 residents participating in the compensation and relocation program. It said the program was created based on law and legal rulings in similar cases and said compensation offers are always presented to individuals alongside their lawyer or a public defender.

But negotiations can be clouded by sentiment; the price of a house isn’t the same as the value of a home.

Quitéria Maria da Silva, 64, and her grandson were waiting for the rest of their family to come play dominos on a table they set up beneath the only lamppost on their street that’s still functional. Even as da Silva said she would move were Braskem to pay her requested amount, she expressed ambivalence:

“I always lived in my house and now, if I have to leave here, where will I go?” ___ AP reporter David Biller contributed from Rio de Janeiro