Cédric Gerbehaye’s work has been dealing with the extraction of raw materials for quite some time now. According to the photographer’s observations, extraction is both a mirror and a tool of leverage of the ongoing globalisation. In 2017 he travelled to Brazil and the Vale Grande Carajás mine, the largest iron ore mine in the world, which also produces gold, manganese, bauxite, copper and nickel. In our interview, he speaks about why the subject is important to him, and how he focusses on the ecological and social consequences of the operations, rather than the work in the mines themselves.
What is your biggest challenge when taking pictures?
Photography is a means of analysis and an instrument which, though perhaps demonstrating nothing, makes it possible to ask questions and to apply sensitivity at the point when they are asked. The quest is always to find the right distance. Physically and emotionally.
How do you find your narratives?
I document and do research through reading the press and books, listening to the radio, reading literary novels, as well as watching documentary films. I give a lot of importance to meeting people who know the issue or the field: researchers, scientists, historians, journalists, NGO staff … Questioning is very often at the origin.
Elton Di Suza, 24, and his son Arthur, 3, in the house they occupy with 6 other family members in the Alzira Mutran neighbourhood in Maraba in the state of Para. Given the duplication of the railway track they will soon be expelled as well as 116 other families. FR – Elton Di Suza, 24 ans et son fils Arthur, 3 ans dans la maison qu’ils occupent avec 6 autres membres de la famille dans le quartier Alzira Mutran à Maraba dans l’Etat du Para. Etant donné la duplication de la voie de chemin de fer ils seront bientôt expulsés comme 116 autres familles.
Children from the village of Piquiá de Baixo in the state of Maranhão, where the highest rate of “extreme poverty” is found, play in the pond above which the Vale ore train passes. The bridge is currently under construction to allow the duplication of the railway track in order to increase traffic following the increase in production after the opening of the new S11D iron mine in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. FR – Des enfants du village de Piquiá de Baixo dans l’État de Maranhão, où l’on trouve le taux le plus élevé de personnes en situation de “pauvreté extrême”, jouent dans l’étang au-dessus duquel passe le train de minerai de Vale. Le pont est actuellement en travaux pour permettre la duplication de la voie de chemin de fer afin d’augmenter le trafic suite à l’augmentation de la production après l’ouverture de la nouvelle mine de fer S11D au cœur de la forêt amazonienne.
Workers take charcoal out of kilns fuelled with illegally logged wood in the Amazon Forest. This coal is then sold to the iron and steel companies of the states of Para and Maranhão, which mix it with iron ore from Vale to produce Ferro Gusa or cast iron salmon, a constituent element of steel. Until recently, this work was considered one of the contemporary forms of slavery in the rural areas of Para and Maranhao, where workers perform arduous tasks in inhuman conditions, without receiving appropriate payment for their work and above all without being able to leave it freely. FR – Des travailleurs sortent le charbon de bois des fours alimentés avec du bois coupé illégalement dans la Forest amazonienne. Ce charbon est revendu aux entreprises sidérurgiques des Etats du Para et de Maranhão qui le mélangent au minerai de fer de Vale pour réaliser du Ferro Gusa ou saumon de fonte, un élément constitutif de l’acier. Jusqu’à une récente réglementation ce travail était considéré comme une des formes contemporaines de l’esclavage dans les régions rurales du Para et de Maranhao où les travailleurs exécutent des tâches pénibles dans des conditions inhumaines, sans recevoir un paiement approprié pour leur travail et surtout sans pouvoir le quitter librement.
The village of Piquiá de Baixo is located between the Vale railway track and the Gusa Nordeste steel plant. Communities are victims of pollution from the iron and steel industry and the coal industry. The Vale company, which extracts the ore from Carajas, transports it over hundreds of kilometers, sells it to the raw iron companies and then transports the processed materials to the Ponta Da Madeira port terminal. The inhabitants who could afford it, went to live elsewhere. The others are waiting to be relocated. FR – Le village de Piquiá de Baixo est situé entre la voie de chemin de fer de Vale et l’usine sidérurgique Gusa Nordeste. Les communautés sont victimes de la pollution occasionnée par les sidérurgies et l’industrie du charbon. L’entreprise Vale qui extrait le minerai à Carajas, l’achemine sur des centaines de kilomètres, en vend une partie aux entreprises de fonte brute puis transporte les matières transformées vers le terminal portuaire de Ponta Da Madeira. Les habitants qui ont pu se le permettre, sont partis vivre ailleurs. Les autres attendent d’être relogés.
You’ve truly mastered your black and white photography. Why did you choose to produce the series on Vale Grande Carajás in colour? What are the advantages of colour?
I still maintain a preference for black and white. The choice of colour is often made because of publishing in the press.
You were working on a project on silver mining in Potosí and you’ve documented lithium mining in Uyuni. Extractivism and mining seem to be primary issues in your work at the moment. Why is this and what takes you from one project to another?
This story, which I produced over two three-week stays in 2017, represents a chapter in a broader body of work dealing with mineral extractivism in South America. Extractivism is like a treasure hunt, where the strongest do not shy away from violence to monopolize the natural resources of the planet. A few centuries ago, when there was only human strength to dig mine shafts, to dig for gold or grow cotton and sugar cane, ship-owners and settlers used slaves, subdued by the whip and the gun. Today the dispossession of the resources for the benefit of the most powerful has been amplified.
The Amazonian rain forest is being destroyed and exploited for many reasons. Apart from soybeans there are the mines. What was it that you wanted to show? Please explain your approach.
Mining and extractivism are both a mirror and leverage of the ongoing globalization. They raise problems in terms of management and control, but also, more fundamentally, in terms of equality, rights and ultimately of societal choices. The many resulting conflicts take various forms and gather together different social forces, the structures of which largely determine the fate of our planet. The negative effects of mining are not only substantial but also inevitable. They disrupt the environment (because they are highly polluting), as well as society, and are generators of human rights violations and conflict.
Grealdo Barbosa, 58, bottom right, talks with other villagers in Piquiá de Baixo, located between the Vale railway track and the Gusa Nordeste steel plant in Maranhão state. He and other members of his community are victims of the pollution caused by the iron and steel industry and the coal industry. The Vale company, which extracts the ore from Carajas, transports it over hundreds of kilometers, sells it to the raw iron companies and then transports the processed materials to the Ponta Da Madeira port terminal. The inhabitants who could afford it, went to live elsewhere. The others are waiting to be relocated. FR – Grealdo Barbosa, 58, bottom right, talks with other villagers in Piquiá de Baixo, located between the Vale railway track and the Gusa Nordeste steel plant in Maranhão state. He and other members of his community are victims of the pollution caused by the iron and steel industry and the coal industry. The Vale company, which extracts the ore from Carajas, transports it over hundreds of kilometers, sells it to the raw iron companies and then transports the processed materials to the Ponta Da Madeira port terminal. The inhabitants who could afford it, went to live elsewhere. The others are waiting to be relocated.
Maintenance personnel from a Vale contracting company work on the rails of an EP-Z machine that transports the ore from patio B, the storage location, to the conveyor belts for loading Valemax vessels in the Ponta port terminal Da Madeira on the Atlantic coast in the state of Maranhão. FR – Du personnel de maintenance d’une société contractante de Vale travail sur les rails d’une machine EP-Z qui transporte le minerai du patio B, lieu de stockage, vers les bandes transporteuses pour le chargement des navires Valemax dans le terminal portuaire de Ponta Da Madeira sur la côte atlantique dans l’Etat de Maranhão.
Monica and Juliana in front of their house blackened by iron ore pollution in the village of Piquiá de Baixo, located between the Vale railway track and the Gusa Nordeste ironworks. Communities are victims of pollution from the iron and steel industry and the coal industry. The Vale company, which extracts the ore from Carajas, transports it over for hundreds of kilometers, sells it to the raw iron companies and then transports the processed materials to the Ponta Da Madeira port terminal. The inhabitants who could afford it, went to live elsewhere. The others are waiting to be relocated. FR – Monica et Juliana devant leur maison noircie par la pollution de minerai de fer dans le village de Piquiá de Baixo situé entre la voie de chemin de fer de Vale et l’usine sidérurgique Gusa Nordeste. Les communautés sont victimes de la pollution occasionnée par les sidérurgies et l’industrie du charbon. L’entreprise Vale qui extrait le minerai à Carajas, l’achemine sur des centaines de kilomètres, en vend une partie aux entreprises de fonte brute puis transporte les matières transformées vers le terminal portuaire de Ponta Da Madeira. Les habitants qui ont pu se le permettre, sont partis vivre ailleurs. Les autres attendent d’être relogés.
We see people going about their everyday lives, inside and outside their homes. What was your impression of the people? How do they manage?
The mining company and its subcontractors attract workers from across the region, hoping for a better life. Some live in homes belonging to the “Minha casa, minha vida” (My house, my life) program – Brazil’s largest housing construction program in the last thirty years; or, for the less privileged, in one of the palafitas, dwellings illegally built on stilts above marshes. Parauapebas is a city of 300,000 inhabitants that didn’t exist thirty years ago. The disappointed ones, who don’t find jobs in this Eldorado, remain there nonetheless, most frequently turning to agriculture. Para is the state with the most “assatamentos”, plots granted to landless peasants by the government.
There is a big railway line linking the mines to the coast. What meaning does it have for the people?
Vale operates the 890 km-long railway that links the mines in the Carajás region of the Brazilian state of Para, to the maritime terminal of Ponta da Madeira, Sao Luis, in the Brazilian state of Maranhaõ. The longest train (3.5km) in Latin America operates along that line. It is made up of 330 wagons, and its main cargo is iron ore, but there is also a private passenger train. The fleet is composed of 220 locomotives and 20 000 wagons. 15 ore trains pass through 27 villages every day. Some of them are the victims of pollution caused by the iron and steel industries, as well as the coal industry necessary to transform the iron into cast iron, which is also transported to the coast.
In December 2016, Vale inaugurated the new S11D mine, which meant that a second railway line had to be laid down, causing the eviction of many families from their homes, to allow for the increase in rail traffic following the increase in iron ore production, destined for the Asian market – mainly China.
This and your earlier mines series have definite political undertones. In what way do you see this as part of your job as a photographer? How important is it to you to get across the message concerning the side effects of globalization?
I consider that the practice of documentary photography is an act of commitment; of being engaged. Take a stand and try to grasp the implications and overlaps of any given situation. Decide on a course and remain a discreet and humble observer.
‘Palafitas’, houses on stilts, of the Cidade Nova district in Parauapebas. Initially a village, Parauapebas, located next to the entrance to the Grand Carajas mining complex, is today a city of 300,000 inhabitants and continues to attract migrants from the states of Para and Maranhão in the hope of finding a job at Vale or with a contracting company. FR – Palafitas, maisons sur pilotis, du quartier Cidade Nova à Parauapebas. Au départ un village, Parauapebas, située à côté de l’entrée du complexe minier Grand Carajas, est aujourd’hui une ville de 300 000 habitants qui continue d’attirer les migrants venant des Etats de Para et Maranhão dans l’espoir de trouver un job chez Vale ou pour une société contractante.
The ore train of the Vale company, consisting of 330 wagons and a 3,5 km long, crosses Vila Ildemar, a remote area of Aiçalândia. This train crosses 27 villages in the states of Para and Maranhão over a distance of 890 km to connect the Grand Carajas mining complex, the largest iron mine in the world, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, and the port terminal of Ponta Da Madeira on the Atlantic coast in the state of Maranhão. 12 to 15 trains run every day on this railway track. FR – Le train de minerai de fer de l’entreprise Vale composé de 330 wagons et long de 3,5 km traverse Vila Ildemar un quartier éloigné d’Aiçalândia. Ce train traverse 27 villages dans les Etats de Para et Maranhão sur une distance de 890km pour relier le complexe minier Grand Carajas, la plus grande mine de fer au monde, au cœur de la forêt amazonienne, et le terminal portuaire de Ponta Da Madeira sur la côte atlantique dans l’Etat de Maranhão. 12 à 15 trains circulent tous les jours sur cette voie de chemin de fer.
One of the five open pit mines of the Grand Carajas mining complex in the heart of the Amazon rainforest in the State of Para. It is the largest iron mine in the world, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 180 million tons are extracted and exported each year, mainly to China. FR – Une des cinq mines à ciel ouvert du complexe minier Grand Carajas au cœur de la forêt amazonienne dans l’Etat du Para. Il s’agit de la plus grande mine de fer au monde qui fonctionne 24h/24h et 7 jours par semaine.180 millions de tonnes sont extraites et exportées chaque année, principalement vers la Chine.
Three-year-old Arthur watches a Vale iron ore train pass in front of his home in the Alzira Mutran district of Maraba, State of Para. Given the duplication of the railroad to increase traffic following the increase in production after the opening of the new S11D iron mine, Arthur and his family will be evicted from their homes. FR – Arthur, 3 ans, regarde passer un train de minerai de fer de Vale devant chez lui dans le quartier de Alzira Mutran à Maraba, Etat du Para. Etant donnée la duplication de la voie de chemin de fer afin d’augmenter le trafic suite à la hausse de la production après l’ouverture de la nouvelle mine de fer S11D, Arthur et sa famille seront expulsés de leur maison.
Your pictures are produced by the moment, your eye and your camera. How important is post-production to you?
It’s part of the work that makes up the narration.
What camera did you use for this story and what did you like about it?
I was using a Leica Q2. This camera is the ideal tool for those wanting discretion, rigour and quality.
What current or future projects are you involved in?
During this time of Covid-19, I’m in Belgium finishing off work for the National Geographic magazine. After that, I’ll be focussing on my feature documentary film, about a prison in Brussels.
Cédric Gerbehaye was born in Brussels in 1977 and focuses on conflicts with a global impact. He is a founding member of the MAPS Agency. He is the author of the books Congo in Limbo (2010), Land of Cush (2013) Sète#13 (2013) and D’entre eux (2015). His work has received several international recognitions (the Olivier Rebbot Award from the Overseas Press Club of America, the World Press Photo, the Amnesty International Media Award, among others). His images can be found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi, Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and the FotoMuseum in Antwerp. Currently, he is investigating the extraction of natural resources in South America, and working on his first documentary, feature film inside a prison in Brussels. Gerbehaye is a National Geographic magazine contributor. Find out more on the website of MAPS and his Instagram channel.
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