Destruction of nature and real estate speculation

Image: flooding at a school in Eldorado do Sul/RS. Photo: Rafa Neddermeyer/ Agência Brasil
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By IGOR FELIPPE SANTOS*

Tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul: it is necessary to identify the causes and those responsible

The tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul with floods and flooding affected 2,3 million people. For every 10 people in Rio Grande do Sul, two suffer from the impact of rain. Thousands had their homes, furniture, appliances, books and memories destroyed. 163 people died and 88 are still missing. The affected cities reached 463 (93% of the total). Around 180 points are without electricity.

This is a photograph of the disaster experienced by the people of Rio Grande do Sul with the heavy rains, which were first recorded at the end of May, with warnings about the risks of the heat wave in the center of the country, which channeled humidity to the south. A tragedy of this magnitude is not just a natural accident, as some would have us believe, but a consequence of a model of economic development, the political-institutional process and the way in which natural resources are exploited. 

The structural reason is the neoliberal phase of the capitalist mode of production in the world and in Brazil, which intensifies climate change. The consequences of this system are the destruction of nature with the accelerated consumption of energy and the advancement of the agribusiness model, real estate speculation in large cities, the relaxation of urban and environmental legislation by governments and parliaments, in all spheres.

The central issue of the climate crisis is the logic of the expanded reproduction of capital, which needs to expand in an accelerated and continuous manner for the reproduction of the system, as has been pointed out by professor at the Department of History at Unicamp, Luiz Marques, author of the award-winning book Capitalism and environmental collapse.

The main reasons for climate change, the expansion of the burning of fossil fuels to sustain the energy matrix and deforestation to expand agricultural frontiers for the globalization of the food system, are part of this dynamic of capitalism.

Therefore, the capitalist mode of production is unable to place a limit on these activities to effectively restrict the accelerated exploitation of natural resources and the emission of a stratospheric volume of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which threaten the lives of humanity.

Destruction of nature

The numbers of agribusiness expansion in Rio Grande do Sul highlight the march of destruction that is underway. In less than 40 years, agriculture absorbed 12,41% of the state's territory for its activities, according to data from Mapbiomas.

The agribusiness area grew from 34,8% (1985) to almost half (47,22%) in 2022 in the state. An area of ​​35 thousand km², previously occupied by fields, wetlands and forests, was replaced by plantations and pastures. The area of ​​fields, wetlands and rocky areas alone lost 30% to, above all, pastures and soybean and corn monoculture.

Soy monoculture increased fivefold in the period, from 13,6 km² in 1985 to 63,5 km² in 2022, according to Mapbiomas, which considers the number to be underestimated. The government of Rio Grande do Sul, in turn, estimates that soybean planting in 2023 exceeded 84 thousand km².

Real estate speculation

The dynamics of capital in cities – with the expansion of construction companies, real estate companies, land speculators and investment funds, responsible for real estate speculation – is also at the root of the tragedy.

Metropolises like Porto Alegre suffer and succumb to the pressure of real estate capital due to a widespread disorganization of the territory, with the destructuring of urban planning policies. Since 1960, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul has undergone a process of urban growth and increased population density. During this period, the city's population doubled, from 600 thousand inhabitants to 1,3 million.

The negative impacts on the population as a whole and on urban infrastructure deepened with the application of neoliberal policies in the municipality, with the flexibilization of urban planning (the so-called Master Plan), fiscal restrictions for adapting infrastructure and the privatization of bodies, public structures and services.

Bankruptcy of institutions

Faced with pressure from big capital, governments, parliaments and the Judiciary, in different spheres, submitted and created an “institutionality” to enable the expansion of the project of large companies in the countryside and cities.

The federal government has supported the growth of agribusiness since the beginning of the 2000s. The country has undergone a process of deindustrialization, while the monoculture agricultural production model with excessive use of pesticides to export commodities has become a pillar of the market-dependent economy external.

Federal government investment in agribusiness rose from R$59 billion in 2002/2003 to R$256,5 billion in 2015/2016, in values ​​corrected by the Central Bank calculator. It was an increase of 335%. Thus, the Brazilian State has financed the replacement of native vegetation, essential for controlling temperature changes due to the climate crisis, with the production of soybeans, sugar, corn, cellulose and pastures for livestock farming.

The National Congress launched an offensive to make environmental legislation more flexible and clear the ground for the expansion of agribusiness. The changes to the Forest Code, approved in 2012, for example, dismantled the regulatory frameworks for the preservation of native vegetation. Survey published by the newspaper The Globe estimated that at least 11 laws approved have reduced environmental protection in recent years.

At the state level, 480 rules of the Environmental Code of Rio Grande do Sul were changed in 2020, at the beginning of Governor Eduardo Leite's administration. The dismantling of state environmental protection laws was approved by the state Legislative Assembly and sanctioned by the governor.

The irresponsibility towards the population of local authorities, Governor Eduardo Leite (PSDB) and Mayor Sebastião Melo (PMDB), is evident from their own statements and from studies by bodies they administer, which announced the tragedy that destroyed homes, belongings and part of the stories of thousands of people.

The tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul has those responsible who need to be identified so that the causes of the climate crisis can be addressed, which threatens the population in hundreds of cities and the lives of humanity. The capitalist production model, with the need to expand permanently, cannot adapt to the imperative of changing the way society is organized and produced. That there is no need to wait for another major disaster.

*Igor Felipe Santos is a journalist and social movement activist.


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