Brazil city’s nightmare: Earth crumbles beneath them

Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post

In the northeastern Brazilian city of Buriticupu, Deusimar Batista and her neighbours are living in constant fear due to a rare phenomenon: enormous sinkholes that have swallowed streets, and houses and even led to fatalities. This terrifying event is attributed to deforestation and improper urban planning, affecting the inhabitants of the impoverished city of 70,000, located in Maranhao state.

Buriticupu expanded rapidly in the 1970s with the initiation of housing programmes for rural workers. Deforestation caused by logging has drastically reduced the region’s trees and subsequently hindered the soil’s capacity to absorb rainwater. Alongside inadequate drainage systems, this combination has led to severe erosion.

Locals have named these giant craters “vocorocas,” which translates to “torn earth” in the Indigenous Tupi-Guarani language. While originating as small surface cracks, they expand due to heavy rainfall, ultimately forming into enormous craters. The mayor’s office stated that, in the last 20 years, seven individuals have lost their lives after falling into the vocorocas. Approximately 50 houses have been collapsed, and more than 300 others are currently at risk.

The city declared a state of emergency last month, requesting funding from the state and federal governments to invest in infrastructure projects to battle the worsening erosion. There are 26 craters within the city, with the deepest reaching 70 metres, according to authorities. The situation is so dire that Batista, 54, dreads rainy nights: “I can’t sleep when it rains. I stay awake all night,” she said. “I’m afraid of going to sleep and dying if there’s a collapse.”

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Augusto Carvalho Campos, a geographer at Maranhao Federal University, stated that the erosion problem is “much bigger” in Buriticupu. The issue results from “rapid urban growth without the necessary planning, a lack of sanitation and drainage infrastructure, and deforestation.” Deforestation has caused significant damage to the soil over the past several decades, largely due to the logging industry.

Furthermore, many vocorocas function as informal drainage or sewage channels, exacerbating the erosion issue. Carvalho Campos recommends substantial engineering projects to curb the erosion process, reforestation at the edges of the vocorocas, and the relocation of families living close to the craters.

Mayor Joao Carlos Teixeira has promised extensive drainage and soil treatment initiatives: “The federal government has made it clear it is committed to making this area safe,” he said. However, Isaias Neres, president of a local residents’ association, remains sceptical due to previous inaction of the authorities.

Maria dos Santos, 45, trembles at the thought of being inside her own home. Her residence, along with many more, is at risk of falling into the chasms. “We’re afraid of dying here… When the collapses happen, it sounds just like thunder,” she said. “We’re in God’s hands.”

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With a Bachelor's Degree in English, Jenn has plenty of experience writing and editing on different topics. After spending many years teaching English in Thailand, Jenn has come to love writing about Thai culture and the experience of being an ex-pat in Thailand. During long holidays, she travels to North of Thailand just to have Khao Soi!

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