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.
“The impacts that people suffer here in our view are not compensated by the benefits of the development,” said Father Dário Bossi, from a network of community groups called Justice on the Tracks, which mapped 26 protests along the line between 2012 and 2014.
Brazil’s industrial revolution in this part of the Amazon began in the 1980s, but its social consequences were Victorian. Steel mills producing pig iron grew up alongside the train line, opened in 1985 by Vale to connect a mining complex in the rain forest to the port of Sao Luis, 554 miles away. The Carajás Railroad already carries 120 million tons of iron ore a year, and that will nearly double when the second track is built.
“When I came here, there was nothing,” said Joaquim de Souza, 67, who arrived with his family 50 years ago. They were homesteaders who hacked a home out of the jungle. For a decade, he and residents like him have fought to combat the pollution. They held demonstrations and blocked the gates of the nearest plant. William de Melo, 57, bought Vale shares so he could protest the issue at shareholders meetings in Rio de Janeiro.
“We believed in what we hoped for: our rights,” de Melo said.
A 2011 report by the International Federation of Human Rights found that 77 percent of households in the community experienced acute health issues such as asthma, skin problems and diarrhea.
In a deal brokered by prosecutors, the pig-iron companies agreed to spend $729,000 for land to resettle the community and build new housing. Construction could start this year. Vale and the government are also contributing. Vale, which said that it had no direct relationship to the pig-iron production and that companies had to comply with environmental legislation, called its contribution a “voluntary social investment.”
The Maranhão State Pig Iron Industries Union said it invests in techniques to reduce emissions and blamed local authorities for allowing people to build houses in an industrial district. One of its companies, Gusa Nordeste, may appeal damage claims won by 21 families in a suit that has been dragging through the courts since 2005.
Another freight train clattered over the viaduct — there are 12 a day, each one two miles long. Vale also runs a passenger train three times a week, each way.
On one recent rip, ore took priority. The train stopped in sidings to let freight trains thunder past. The 250-mile journey from Parauapebas to Açailandia took eight hours, two more than scheduled.
In the dirt-poor farming villages alongside the track, residents said they had seen no benefits after 30 years of freight trains: just noise, clouds of iron ore dust and a dangerous barrier for children and animals to cross. This would worsen with the second line, they said. Vale was good at making promises, they said, but rarely delivered on them. Consequently, some had learned the best way to force it into action: blockading the track.
At Vila Concordia, when contractors destroyed a path farmers had used to take cattle across the track to pasture on the other side, they blocked the line — first with fencing wire, then with railway ties.
In 2013, Vale built them a pedestrian bridge — a rare sight in these parts. “It was only when they started work that we believed it,” said cattle farmer José Carvalho, 37.
At 21 de Maio, 20 miles from the track, residents blocked an access road used by contractors working on the line expansion in a series of demonstrations.
“Not even a mosquito got past,” said protester Wanderson Freitas, 24.
First they demanded jobs. Nine people were employed. Then they demanded a well, which has been built. They threatened more protests.
“The priority is jobs,” said Silas Rocha, 24, still unemployed.
Vale said the line would have created 23,000 jobs from 2014 to 2018. Last year, electricity reached the tiny village of Sao Jose, where Francisco Conceção, 55, bought a television set and put it on his windowsill for the whole community to watch. Vale employees riding the train, like Dylea Pinto, 31, a machine operator taking her father Helio, 65, to see the sea for the first time, spoke highly of the pay and benefits.
At Santa Rosa dos Pretos, an agricultural community of slave descendants called a quilombo, Anacleta da Silva, 48, had a different view of the mine operator.
“It is our biggest enemy. It is a destroyer,” she said. “It invaded.”
More than 600 Afro-Brazilian families here trace their descent from slaves who worked a sugar mill. Under Brazilian law, quilombos such as this can gain title to their land, but it is a lengthy legal process. And when Vale objected to technical aspects of the community’s application, based on what it called a “cartographic mistake,” it threw the process into delay.
Residents blocked a highway. In a 2012 deal, Vale agreed to build bridges over the tracks and restore small rivers if the community would agree to construction of the new line. Three years later, the new track is done, but work on the bridges and rivers is yet to be finished and residents rely on riskier level crossings.
Last September, the residents blocked the line, built a palm-leaf house, roped themselves together like slaves, and danced and sang ritual, African-influenced percussive songs called tambor de crioula to protest delays in their final certification as a quilombo — with no results yet.
The end of the line is Sao Luis, where Vale is expanding its port as an endless file of ships, laden with ore, sail out into the Atlantic. A new passenger train arrives this year, but there are no plans to increase the number of journeys on one of Brazil’s only intercity lines. On the Carajás Railroad, iron ore comes before people.
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect amount that the pig-iron companies agreed to pay to resettle the community of Piquia de Baixo.