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Day 45: Ouro Preto

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At the Vale mine. Rather disconcertingly, our tour of the vast iron ore mine begins at a beautifully preserved period farmhouse.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe gold miners had to crawl under the mountain to dig out the precious dust. The iron ore producers of today simply take the mountains apart. As I saw from the air as I first flew into Belo Horizonte, there is no discreet way to extract iron ore. The mines stand out from the lush mountain landscape as a series of gaping wounds.

On the ground, however, they're easy to miss. An hour's drive east of Ouro Preto is a complex of huge open-cast mines operated by Vale, the world's second-largest iron ore producer. In 1942, in the same mood of nationalistic optimism that enshrined Tiradentes in his Pantheon, a publicly owned company was set up to exploit the reserves of what became known as Minas's Iron Quadrangle. The company, rather endearingly christened Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (the Sweetwater River Company), now produces fifteen percent of the world's total production. A quarter of a million tonnes of iron ore and pellets a year. Despite strong opposition the company was sold off to the private sector in 1997 and renamed simply Vale.

As the road passes through a series of small towns there's little evidence of the scale of Vale's work, except in the scattered favelas, the shanty town settlements created by the demand for work at the mines. Otherwise everything is normal. Huge billboards by the roadside depict thick, creamy chocolate cakes and dripping gateaux with a carefree relish that you just don't see back home any more. Cows munch contentedly in sun-dappled meadows, and jacaranda blossom colours thickly wooded slopes. Not until a conveyor belt curves out of the woods and over the road do we have any inkling that there is anything but natural beauty all around us. Then we glimpse a lake through the trees. But there's something not quite right. The water lacks any movement or sparkle. It lies there, thick, viscous and inert. Islands of brown sludge break its torpid surface. Then the trees close around it and as we're swept along wide, well-kept roads to the gates of Vale's Mina Alegria complex, you begin to wonder if you really did see what you thought you saw. Apart from the ubiquitous presence of red dust there still isn't much at the mine entrance to suggest heavy operations, and this unreality continues as we find ourselves being led across the site to an immaculately restored stone and timber period farmhouse with a neat garden and a big reception room with coffee, juice and pastries laid out beside comfortable chairs. A full-size snooker table stands in the background.

We're shown around the house, which is almost two hundred years old and was built, as our sweet guide Fabiana tells us, by a Captain Manuel. 'He was a miner, he was a farmer and he was a slave businessman.'

It's quite beautifully preserved with well-polished timber floors, elegant dining rooms and very tall, arched pale blue doors, which Fabiana tells us were an indication of social status. 'The taller the door, the more power you had.'

After refreshment we're given a briefing about the mine and particularly Vale's interest and enthusiasm in minimizing the environmental impact of their work. Then we're helmeted, jacketed and, preceded by a Vale escort vehicle with a flag flying to make sure it's visible at all times, we leave this delightful fazenda for the real world of mining. Ten million tonnes of ore were produced here last year. This means digging out roughly twenty million tonnes of rock and earth, which is then crushed, processed and shipped by rail to the new deepwater port at Vitória. Bulk carriers then shift twenty-five percent of this production halfway round the world, to China. Such is the world demand that operations here go on twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. I ask one of our escorts if they stop for Christmas.

'Only if something is wrong,' he assures me.

We're shown one of the trains leaving for Vitória on what they call the Estrada de Ferro, the Iron Road. An enormous diesel engine, in freshly painted company livery of turquoise and yellow, pulls eighty-four trucks, each one filled to the brim and beyond. This train alone is carrying around 6,500 tonnes of ore. As it leaves, every wagonload is sprayed with a mixture of polymer and water. What used to happen was that during the 154-kilometre (96-mile) journey to Vitória, a lot of the black dust would blow off the truck and into people's houses. This spray treatment is shown as evidence of the new caring face of the company, which we see again as we're taken to the canteen for lunch. Everyone, from top management to the lowliest sweeper, has the same food under the same roof as everyone else. As there are 1,100 people working at Alegria at any one time, this means a very big floor and a very big roof. The workforce is dressed identically in green shirts and black trousers, and outside as we eat there is a band playing to a small crowd as part of Safety Week. Throughout the day and night a fleet of buses shuttles shift-workers between their homes and the plant. The sheer numbers involved make one realize just how vital the company is to the local economy.
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At the Vale mine. A silicon-based spray keeps the ore from blowing off the train on its 154-kilometre (96-mile) journey.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 45: Ouro Preto
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Ouro Preto
  • Book page no: 187

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