Public calamity in Rio Grande do Sul

Flooded area in Rio Grande do Sul
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By BRUNO FABRICIO ALCEBINO DA SILVA*

Given the bleak scenario, there is an urgent need for a deep reflection on the role of the State in environmental protection and promoting sustainable development

Yes! Eduardo Leite is guilty. The State of Rio Grande do Sul, once a reference in progressive environmental policies, is currently facing a situation of public calamity exacerbated by decades of dismantling of state environmental protection structures. Against this grim backdrop, Governor Eduardo Leite emerges as a central figure of blame, having led legislative reforms that significantly weakened the state's environmental protections.

The approval of the new Environmental Code of Rio Grande do Sul in 2019 was a disastrous milestone in this trajectory. Under Leite's management, 480 points of environmental legislation were changed or eliminated, in a rushed and non-transparent process. This code, designed to “modernize” environmental laws, actually represented a setback of decades, favoring business interests to the detriment of environmental preservation.

The speed with which the project was approved in the Legislative Assembly, without adequate consultation with experts and without sufficient public debate, highlights a clear lack of responsibility and commitment to the well-being of the population and the environment. When thanking the votes in favor of reforming the code, Leite revealed his priority: promoting economic development at any cost, even if it means sacrificing environmental protection.

The consequences of this dismantling of environmental laws become painfully clear during the current natural disasters plaguing the state. Devastating floods and significant human and material losses are, in part, a direct result of government negligence and the prioritization of economic interests over environmental preservation.

“Passing the herd”: Eduardo Leite’s environmental policy

The environmental policy adopted by Eduardo Leite's government in Rio Grande do Sul is deeply harmful to the environment, following the neoliberal principles of a minimal State and relying excessively on the free market as a solution to all problems, this was also the landmark of the previous government by José Sartori (2015-2019). From this perspective, we see a series of actions that put natural resources and the well-being of local communities at risk.

One of the striking features of this policy is the privatization of common goods, such as water and energy, and the handover of important public assets, including the Companhia Riograndense de Saneamento (Corsan), the Companhia Estadual de Energia Elétrica (CEEE) and the Companhia de Gás of Rio Grande do Sul (Sulgás). This approach is complemented by the dismantling of public bodies, such as the State Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA), whose activities are relegated to a mere environmental licensing “counter”, with no effective monitoring and protection capacity.

The parallel between this policy and the measures adopted by former minister Ricardo Salles in Jair Bolsonaro's government is inevitable, as they let “the herd pass”. Both governments followed a line of systematic attacks on the environment, aiming to make environmental laws more flexible and deregulate in favor of unbridled economic development. This approach, however, comes at a huge cost to the environment and affected communities.

Eduardo Leite's speech about reconciling environmental preservation and economic development appears empty in the face of the reality of the facts. His management favored the interests of agribusiness to the detriment of environmental safety and the well-being of the population. By relaxing environmental laws in favor of large corporations, the governor put not only the environment at risk, but also people's lives and livelihoods.

It is urgent that measures be taken to reverse this bleak situation. Reconstruction of Rio Grande do Sul cannot be limited to just restoring damaged infrastructure, but must include restoring environmental balance and protecting vulnerable communities. This requires not only material resources, but also a radical change in governmental approach, prioritizing environmental preservation and the well-being of the population over corporate interests.

Eduardo Leite and other political leaders who prioritize profit over environmental protection must be held accountable for their actions. We cannot allow the environmental disaster in Rio Grande do Sul to be forgotten or ignored. It is time to demand accountability and take concrete measures to prevent tragedies like this from happening again in the future.

The importance of Guaíba

The increase in the level of Lake Guaíba is a phenomenon that can be traced back to a series of complex causes, many of which are intrinsically linked to the historical, economic and social development of the region over the centuries. This rise in water levels has profound implications not only for the metropolitan region of Porto Alegre, but also for the quality of life and environmental sustainability of the entire surrounding area.

Throughout history, Lake Guaíba has been a vital source of water for the local population, playing a crucial role in drinking water supply, navigation, fishing and leisure. However, rapid population growth, combined with a lack of urban planning and rampant industrial development, has resulted in the continued degradation of the lake's water quality. Negligence in sewage treatment and the indiscriminate dumping of polluting waste have significantly contributed to the pollution and contamination of water, thus compromising its ecological and economic usefulness.

The history of pollution in Lake Guaíba dates back to the first years of colonization of the region. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the local population directly consumed water from the lake, often without any treatment, resulting in a series of public health problems. The dumping of human waste directly into the lake, washing clothes on the banks and the absence of health regulations contributed to the deterioration of water quality. Even with the beginning of the construction of sewage networks at the beginning of the 20th century, the indiscriminate dumping of waste into the lake persisted, essentially making it the final destination for urban sewage.

In addition to the pollution originating directly in Porto Alegre, the tributaries of Lake Guaíba also contribute significantly to the degradation of its waters. Rio dos Sinos, in particular, has been affected by pollution resulting from rampant industrial development in the region. Unplanned urban growth and the installation of leather-footwear factories along the river led to a rapid deterioration in water quality, affecting not only the river itself, but also Lake Guaíba, for which the Rio dos Sinos is a source. important tributary (see map 1)

Map 1 – Guaíba hydrographic region represented in green

Source: Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainable Development of RS (SEMA).

Furthermore, the urban transformations that occurred in Porto Alegre throughout the 19th and 20th centuries had a significant impact on the lake's ecosystem. Urban expansion and landfills carried out on the banks of the lake for the construction of new residential and commercial areas have drastically altered the geography and hydrology of the region, affecting water circulation and contributing to the occurrence of floods.

Historic floods, such as the one that occurred in 1941, are indicative of the challenges faced by the region due to water level fluctuations. Climate change and seasonal variations in rainfall can further increase the risk of floods and floods, putting communities living along the lakeshore at risk.

The pollution and degradation of Lake Guaíba are not only environmental issues, but also economic and social ones. The lake plays a fundamental role in the local economy, providing water supply, supporting commercial, recreational and tourist activities. Degradation of the lake's ecosystem threatens these economic activities, as well as posing a threat to the health and well-being of the communities that depend on it.

The dismantling of the State

In contemporary times, the erosion of state structures has been a worrying reality, directly impacting environmental management and, therefore, generating harmful consequences, such as the current environmental tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul. To understand this complex phenomenon, we resort to the theoretical lenses of renowned geographer Milton Santos, who offers us profound ideas about the socio-spatial dynamics and transformations of the State.

According to Milton Santos (2002), the State plays a fundamental role in regulating and protecting the environment, ensuring a balance between economic development and preservation of natural resources. However, in recent decades, we have witnessed a process of dismantling of state structures, marked by neoliberal policies that weaken the State's regulatory and supervisory capacity in favor of immediate economic interests.

This trend is glaringly evident in the Brazilian context, especially during the government of Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration has been marked by systematic attacks on environmental and territorial protection policies. The expression “pass the herd”, coined by the Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, clearly illustrates this strategy of environmental dismantling, in which flexibility and deregulation measures are implemented in a surreptitious way, taking advantage of moments of distraction from public opinion.

Rio Grande do Sul, known for its environmental wealth and economic importance, became the scene of one of the greatest environmental tragedies in recent history. The disaster that is plaguing the state, with the rising level of Lake Guaíba and its devastating consequences, cannot be dissociated from the irresponsible policies adopted by the state government. Eduardo Leite, current governor, has connived at practices that exacerbate environmental degradation, such as the relaxation of protection laws and the unrestrained granting of environmental licenses for dubious projects.

This political collusion and negligence have worsened the situation in Rio Grande do Sul, exacerbating the impacts of the floods and putting not only the environment at risk, but also the lives and well-being of local communities. The dismantling of the State, combined with the omission and complicity of political figures, such as Eduardo Leite, amplifies the effects of environmental crises, transforming them into true humanitarian tragedies. As economist Maria da Conceição Tavares highlights, financial greed results in: deepening competitiveness, the production of new totalitarianisms, the confusion of minds and the growing impoverishment of the masses, while States become incapable of regulating collective life. It is an unsustainable situation (TAVARES apud SANTOS, 2002, p. 2).

Faced with this bleak scenario, there is an urgent need for a deep reflection on the role of the State in environmental protection and the promotion of sustainable development. It is necessary to resist neoliberal attacks that aim to weaken public institutions and strengthen private interests to the detriment of the common good. Only through collective engagement and social mobilization can we reverse the destructive course that threatens not only Rio Grande do Sul, but our entire country and the planet as a whole.

*Bruno Fabricio Alcebino da Silva He is majoring in International Relations and Economic Sciences at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC).

Reference


SANTOS, Milton. For another globalization: from single thought to universal consciousness. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2002. [https://amzn.to/4abnr0o]


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