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Urban Mining Empties a ’Hood

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    Homes stand abandoned in Maceio, Brazil. The homes have been abandoned because of the threat caused by the Braskem mine. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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    Natalícia Gonçalves, a retired teacher, stands in front of her home in Maceio on March 8, 2022. Gonçalves is the last remaining resident on her street. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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    With her grandson Luri Andriel da Silva sitting nearby, Quiteria Maria da Silva calls to her husband and daughter to come play dominoes outside their home in Maceio on March 6, 2022. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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    Braskem is one of the biggest petrochemical companies in the Americas. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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    Children play during an activity day organized by a Baptist church in Maceio on March 6, 2022. The church has declined to close its doors even though its building is threatened by the mine. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
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Parts of Maceio, the capital of Brazil’s Alagoas state, once buzzed with sounds of cars, commerce, and children playing. Today, it’s mostly silent. Mining in the city has left buildings unsafe—yet some residents refuse to move.

Dozens of cavities beneath homes and businesses are the legacy of four decades of rock salt mining. Digging caused the soil to settle and the structures above to crumble. Since 2020, communities have collapsed too, as tens of thousands of residents accepted payments to relocate.

Braskem is one of the largest petrochemical companies in the Americas. Braskem offers to pay families to uproot and start over elsewhere. The company isn’t outright evicting anyone. But those hanging on in Maceio say it feels that way. By Braskem’s count, more than 14,000 homes stand vacant.

A few holdouts remain. Several say they imagine the ground under their feet looks like Swiss cheese.

The payment from Braskem wasn’t enough for Natalícia Gonçalves, and she felt too old to start fresh. But her neighbors all took the money and left. Now she lives inside a makeshift fortress behind boards and plants aimed at deterring would-be burglars.

“They’ve already done everything to force me to go, but I have my rights,” she says. “I’m afraid, especially at night. . . . I protect myself with my plants, but I’m alone, with God.”

God often uses problems to reveal truth. Brokenness and decay—even when the result of human mistakes—can remind Christians that He is always near. (Hebrews 13:5)

Braskem set aside about $1 billion for relocation, compensation of residents and local employees, and facilities like schools and hospitals. It will spend more for closing and monitoring the salt mines and other city planning measures.

Braskem CEO Roberto Lopes Pontes Simões seems happy to have relocated nearly everyone from the affected neighborhoods. After all, no house has been swallowed by sinkholes, nor any person killed.

That doesn’t mean there’s no heartache, says Adriana Capretz. She’s part of a group monitoring area neighborhoods. She sees the tragedy as more than the physical disaster. She considers also the loss of community and believes “none of that is being considered by Braskem.”

Quitéria Maria da Silva and her grandson play dominos beneath the only working lamppost on their street. Da Silva says she’ll leave for a certain amount. But then asks, “If I have to leave here, where will I go?”

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. — Psalm 56:3

Why? God is always near. You can trust Him to keep His promise never to abandon His own.