Rio Grande do Sul – catastrophe announced and ignored

Image: Kent Spencer Mendez


“This is not the time to look for culprits”, said the governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Eduardo Leite, in an indirect confession of guilt

“Eliminate the cause and the effect ceases”
(Miguel de Cervantes).

The strong storms that shook Rio Grande do Sul with massive floods caused an unprecedented environmental catastrophe. Hundreds of missing and dead people, destruction of industry, commerce, plantations, lack of drinking water, electricity, food, destruction of roads isolating municipalities, a true chaos that took the Gaucho authorities by surprise, who ignored the warnings of scientists and ecologists about the climate crisis and extreme weather events.

“This is not the time to look for culprits,” said the governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Eduardo Leite, in an indirect confession of guilt. He cut or changed 480 points of environmental legislation in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in 2019. When nature reacts with floods, it is high time to look for those responsible for violating environmental laws to protect the environment. According to AGAPAN (Gaúcha Association for the Protection of the Natural Environment), the new Environmental Code of Rio Grande do Sul represents a setback of 40 years. But the mainstream media generally only shows the consequences and ignores the causes.

According to the former Director of DEP and DMAE, in Porto Alegre (Department of Sewage and Water), Carlos Atilio Todeschini, the City Hall did not maintain the drainage and flood protection system (dikes, floodgates, pump houses, walls containment). Two floodgates could not resist the water pressure and collapsed. They had a rusty, corroded structure. They did not perform preventive maintenance.

For those who don't know, the current mayor of Porto Alegre, Sebastião Melo, is a Bolsonarist and climate crisis denier. Porto Alegre City Hall has not invested a single cent in flood prevention in 2023. The situation occurs even though the department that takes care of the area has a profit of R$428,9 million in cash. When contacted, the mayor's office did not respond (UOL, 7/5/2024).

Rio Grande do Sul is one of the richest states in Brazil, now it has a saucer in hand asking for help. Agribusiness receives privileges from the government, evades taxes, deforests and destroys the environment and, at the time of tragedy, disappears. The Bolsonarian senators and deputies from Rio Grande do Sul, who have always denied the climate crisis, disappear and hide. But the mainstream media, in general, doesn't say that. Explains the tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul as a natural catastrophe. It does not identify those responsible.

Lack of planning and maintenance goes hand in hand with real estate speculation, agribusiness, livestock farming, mining, polluting industries, in short, all economic activities that destroy the natural environment, leaving the population unprotected in the event of predictable and ignored extreme weather events. .

The right has always been a denier of the climate crisis and environmental degradation out of interest. And a segment of the so-called developmentalist left considered the environment as an obstacle to development. It was only years later that the notion of sustainable development paved the way and gained respectability in the political world, with the exception of neoliberals and the extreme right.

Decades ago, environmentalists were called “alfacinhas” by the mainstream press and by politicians, right and left, “fags”. This changed when scientists, gathered at the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), linked to ONU, began to produce reports, based on serious research, warning about global warming and climate change.

The media began to publicize these scientific warnings, but in general continued to support and protect denialist conservative politicians. This time, the catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul was so scandalous that some media outlets did not limit themselves to the effects and showed the causes, at least in part.

One example was the complaint by journalist André Trigueiro, specialized in the environment, blaming Gaucho deputy Lucas Redecker, rapporteur of the project, approved by the Constitution and Justice Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, authorizing the deforestation of 48 million hectares of “native fields ” (area equivalent to the sum of the States of Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná). The climate crisis is not the result of chance.

According to journalist Malu Gaspar, in her column in the newspaper The Globe, “the column team consulted the government programs submitted by governor Eduardo Leite (PSDB) and the mayor of Porto Alegre, Sebastião Melo (MDB), to the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) in the 2022 and 2020 elections, respectively, and found that disaster prevention and the possibility of extreme weather events were not mentioned once in the documents.”

According to the Secretary of the Climate Observatory, Marcio Astrini, the tragedy is also the responsibility of parliamentarians who dismantle environmental laws. There are three possible types of response to the climate crisis: mitigating the causes, adapting in preparation for the consequences and reducing damage in the face of tragedies. The problem is that the actions taken by federal, state and municipal authorities tend to focus only on this third stage of response. “People only act when they are already at the level of disgrace”, says Marcio Astrini.

"Every year The government of Rio Grande do Sul is extremely surprised that the rains are intense. The government of Rio de Janeiro is super surprised when it happens in Petrópolis. It's a surprise in San Sebastian (SP), in the north of Minas Gerais, in Recife, in south of Bahia”. But, he adds, “for nine consecutive years the The planet's temperature averages are the hottest ever recorded. There are no more surprises. We need to prepare for this.”

For him, Congress is also to blame, where “the conservative majority has approved several projects considered harmful to the environment. We have never had a Congress so dedicated to dismantling.” Extreme events like this – increasingly common due to climate changes – can no longer be treated as “unforeseen events”. “Deputies work to destroy Brazil’s environmental legislation. Right now they want to end the Environmental Licensing Law, legal reserves in the Amazon, and indigenous reserves.”

Climatologist Carlos Nobre, General Coordinator of the Center for Weather Forecasting and Climate Studies (CPTEC/INPE – National Institute for Space Research), stated: “What happens in Rio Grande do Sul is not a natural tragedy. It is a consequence of human action, irresponsibility, disregard for the Environment. On our planet, nothing like what happened in Rio Grande do Sul this month of May has ever happened. I'm talking about a period of 125 thousand years. What is happening in Rio Grande do Sul has never happened in our history. Public bodies could have taken preventive measures, because we knew since last year that this could happen.”

According to him, floods like those that hit Rio Grande do Sul are a direct result of global warming. Disasters like the one in Rio Grande do Sul will be increasingly frequent in Brazil (UOL, 7/5/2024).

Another authoritative voice is that of Prof. Dr. Rualdo Menegat, from IG-UFRGS. He denounces that there was a blackout in the infrastructure of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, privatized by the current state government and managed in an incompetent manner. Natural drainage and water cycles have been destroyed by intensive land use policies. According to him, “they relaxed laws to increase soybean planting areas, dismantled master plans to expand real estate speculation in riverside areas, to establish coal mines and to encourage real estate speculation.” He highlights that the University is the possible hope for developing a social intelligence that encourages society to face the climate-environmental emergency of the 21st century.

But, on a political level, the preserved environment has often been seen by the right – and also by certain segments of the developmentalist left – as an obstacle to development. A good example is the article published on August 22, in Commerce Newspaper, under the title “The bottleneck of environmental licensing”, by a deputy from the Republican Party, who currently chairs the Economic Commission of the Legislative Assembly of Rio Grande do Sul. He accuses environmental licensing of causing damage to the State's economy and insinuates that environmental defenders would belong to a segment that wants to keep society in the stone age. The principles of sustainable development are ignored or rejected.

It is to be hoped that the right in Rio Grande do Sul takes the climate crisis and allegations of deforestation seriously, and stops thinking that all of this is an invention of environmentalists. Extreme events like this can no longer be treated as “unforeseen”. Climate experts have already predicted that calamities like the one that hits Rio Grande do Sul will be increasingly frequent in the country. Last year, the sixth IPCC report already predicted a scenario of more intense and frequent rains, droughts, heat waves and fires across the world, and Brazil, as we see, is no exception.

“For science, this is nothing new,” says physicist Paulo Artaxo, member of the IPCC and researcher at USP. “For more than 20 years, all climate models have shown that, with the increase in global temperature, the amount of rain and very intense droughts will increase, that is, the climate It's going to get more extreme. The Brazilian Panel on Climate Change report that we produced eight years ago already predicted more extreme rains in the South and droughts in the Amazon” (Folha de S. Paul, 7/4/2024).

Thus, The tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul is not a consequence of chance or unforeseen nature. It is a tragedy announced and with double denial. Conservative governments deny the role of the State, reduced to the minimum State foreseen in the neoliberalism manual, and also deny the climate crisis and the extreme weather events announced and predicted by scientists and ecologists in Brazil and around the world.

There is a large national campaign for individual donations to the homeless in Rio Grande do Sul. But political parties receive billions from the electoral fund. Why can't they make donations? Why doesn't Congress tax billionaires to obtain extraordinary resources for Civil Defense in Rio Grande do Sul?

While Rio Grande do Sul faces the biggest ecological disaster ever recorded in Brazil, its denialist deputies and senators, all Bolsonarists, support in Congress the extinction of environmental licensing, indigenous reserves and the reduction of legal reserves in the Amazon. In Rio Grande do Sul, the penny dropped, but in Congress the herd continues to pass.

*Liszt scallop is a retired professor of sociology at PUC-Rio. He was a deputy (PT-RJ) and coordinator of the Global Forum of the Rio 92 Conference. Author, among other books, of Democracy reactsGaramond). []

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