PIQUIA DE BAIXO, AÇAILANDIA, Brazil — In the foreground, lilies on the placid river formed a bucolic Amazon scene. Then a freight train rattled over the towering viaduct above, the pig-iron plants breathed smoke above the trees and the acrid bite of polluted air bit the back of the throat.
“Everyone here has lung problems because of the pollution,” said Maria Oliveira, 48, one of 1,100 residents of Piquia de Baixo, a community of clay-brick and wooden houses beside the five pig-iron plants. She held up the palms of her hands to show the reddish-brown dust they collected every time she wiped a surface. “Everyone has a cold,” she said.
At dark it got worse. Flames above the plants raged orange. Outside, children played as a cloud of foul-smelling smoke descended to thicken the air.
Now Vale, the Brazilian minerals giant that supplies the plants — owned by separate companies — and runs the train, is building a parallel track to handle even more iron ore.
The project has provoked protests, blockades and court actions involving low-income communities along the route. It has acted as a lightning rod for the wider grievances of poorer Brazilians and sparked a new rural radicalism that employs direct action, creativity and the law to take on one of Brazil’s biggest companies.