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Rio Grande do Sul floods: It’s not the climate’s fault

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Heavy rains cause flooding across Rio Grande do Sul, in the state’s biggest climate tragedy. The environmental crisis has its origins in the very way in which the system organises the relationship between human beings and nature, the writers say. – Picture: MST / RS

By Márcio José, Renata Menezes, Camilo Augusto and Diógenes Rabello

Humanity has deeply supportive values. Even though capitalism attacks life and seeks to spectacularise the tragedy, with its most important anchors highlighted to cover the chaos, there is a collective feeling that connects people without expecting individual recognition.

When a global reporter goes to interview one of the doctors responsible for welcoming flood victims, he refers to her as the most important figure, and she promptly responds that it is not her who is important, but everyone there.

With this, we want to reaffirm all our solidarity with the people affected by the floods in Rio Grande do Sul , and recognise ourselves in the professionals and volunteers who have been joining efforts to face this difficult time. Everyone, collectively, is important for overcoming pain, loss and grief.

The State of Rio Grande do Sul has 497 municipalities. Of these, 388 were impacted in some way by the storm, totalling 1.3 million people affected at different levels, whether by floods, lack of energy, shelter, water, etc. The data so far informs that there are 90 people dead, 132 missing and 361 injured.

There are no words that can comfort people who are experiencing this everyday horror. We can characterise them as part of the various climate refugees around the world, who in essence are poor, workers, residents of urban and rural peripheries and impacted by the common thread of capitalist destruction.

Two questions emerge strongly in our days, but they are not new. The first is contained in the phrase: “capitalism destroys its main sources of wealth: human beings and nature”. Karl Marx , who stated this 150 years ago, remains and will continue to be current as long as the capitalist way of producing exists, as destruction is in its nature of operation.

The environmental crisis we are experiencing goes far beyond the climate crisis and has its origins in the very way in which the capitalist system organises the relationship between human beings and nature. Production guided solely by the accumulation of profit generates a huge waste of natural resources, or as we prefer to popularly call it, the common goods of nature.

After all, who can have private ownership of rivers, plants and animals? This consumerist and accumulator model goes beyond the needs of a dignified life of humanity, and it is now in a deep crisis, a structural crisis of the capitalist system.

In fact, interests in unbridled exploitation only serve to make the rich richer, and this scale of production, circulation and consumption guided by the logic of accumulation poisons the planet with toxic gases, garbage, water and soil contamination, waste of electricity. It is important to highlight that the problem is not whether or not to turn off the tap, as while some people can use thousands of cubic meters of water, others do not even have potable water to drink.

Therefore, in a perversely unequal system, the consequences of this – whether social such as hunger, poverty, lack of sanitation, armed violence, or environmental, experienced in the Rio Grande do Sul lands and also in Kenya, Tanzania and other Africans countries in these weeks – always fall on the shoulders of those who produce everything and own little.

They are the workers who live in the most socially vulnerable places within cities, such as hillsides and valley bottoms, as they are pushed by real estate speculation and action of the State that legitimises the installation of companies and gated communities in the most privileged locations.

Just like the Covid-19 pandemic , we are not all in the same boat. There are boats equipped with the best technology to face the environmental disasters caused by the actions of big capitalists, boats full of lifeboats – boats that take people to places where they can take refuge, stay warm and rebuild their lives without so much cost.

And there are boats that are overcrowded, leaky, without vests, without engines, and these boats are much more numerous. The climatic and environmental effects of the crisis of capitalism fall on the poorest and most numerous portion of society. This was the case during Covid-19, which, by the way, is a consequence of the degradation of Asian forests, as shown by the research presented in the book Pandemic and agribusiness: infectious diseases, capitalism and science, by Rob Wallace.

Let’s move on to the second question: what is humanity doing to solve this serious problem? There are a series of initiatives by the international community to debate the environmental issue, since the end of the 1970s, which gained more strength and projection in countries from the 1990s onwards, especially with Rio-92, or the famous ECO-92 , which it is the predecessor of the United Nations Conferences on climate change, the famous COPs (Conference of the Parties).

The COP serves, or should serve, to search for solutions, prepare proposals and alternatives to climate change, built between countries together with the scientific community. However, these spaces proved to be, first and foremost, a place to organise the accumulation of wealth with the climate crisis, or “a place of opportunities for profits”.

They have designed ideas for energy transitions that generate millions in financial resources, designed carbon markets and “smart” agriculture that fill the pockets of those responsible for the crisis, but do little to address the centrality of the climate debate, such as the need to adapt cities. and the field to address the climate crisis.

If we look closely at the proposals drawn up at these international events we will see that they are nothing more than, in good English, an attempt to “cover the sun with a sieve”, as they are profitable ways of facing the problem and not a paradigmatic change in the way of use and occupation of territories and common goods, since an alternative to the destructive way of relating to nature is not proposed, but rather a change in the way of destroying and polluting.

Carbon emissions are exchanged for contamination from mining and the production of immense amounts of waste resulting from the production of “clean” energy in the medium term.

Dramatic and catastrophic situations like the one in recent days in Rio Grande do Sul alert us to the inability of mechanisms like the UN to propose concrete alternatives, but they are not the only ones dealing with the issue. There are several countries in the so-called Global South that have been looking for alternatives.

Ethiopia, for example, planted 350 million trees in 12 hours, a combined effort between the State and the population to act directly on the drought situation caused by vegetation reduced to 4 percent of the national territory. The solution to the environmental crisis is the people who make it, with the commitment of the State alongside the most vulnerable.

In the Brazilian case, the tendency is for us to increasingly experience these extreme weather events, and it is necessary to act in the complexity that the situation requires. Territorial adaptation in the countryside and in cities, predictability and awareness of the population about alerts, funds that subsidise the reconstruction of the lives of families and people affected, and mainly the reorganisation of our agricultural model .

It is necessary, for example, for universities, with their geomorphological, climatic studies and other tools, to provide input for territorial planning together with urban and rural populations, a role that should belong to the governor, in the case in question, and which has been neglected.

There is a natural phenomenon that explains the climate situation in the southern region of the country at the moment, which is the general circulation of the atmosphere. One of the factors that contributed to the rain being concentrated in Rio Grande do Sul was the high atmospheric pressure system in the Centre-South region, which prevented the cold front that arrived in recent days from advancing over the continent and spreading the rain, reducing possibility of concentrated rain.

However, there are factors that directly influence atmospheric dynamics, such as the strong heat that emanates from this region, explained by fires and deforestation, especially in the Cerrado for planting commodities. The bare land, without vegetation, heats up and retains heat, which helps the cold front, which forms rain, to advance to other regions.

An example of this was the legacy of Ricardo Salles , who during his term as minister of the environment in Bolsonaro’s government, published more than 300 official acts that made environmental crimes more flexible for agribusiness, putting Brazilian environmental policy at risk, as evidenced by information collected by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (Inesc).

In other words, we have the entire Bolsonaro tragedy, Congress and its huge group of federal deputies with bullets and bulls as directly responsible for this situation. We are literally experiencing the consequences of “passing the herd” promoted by Ricardo Salles, Luciano Zucco and the entire team of land grabbers, landowners, gunmen who promoted environmental destruction during the Bolsonaro government, marked by clouds of soot, illegal mining, days of intense fires, among many other episodes.

This same Congress imposes a spending ceiling that prevents resources from reaching the needs of those affected in Rio Grande do Sul and who turned a blind eye to the collapse of Lagoa Mundaú as a result of Braskem mining in Maceió and which forcibly displaced more than 60 thousand families.

There is no way to separate the environmental tragedy from the Brazilian land issue, nor can we fight in defence of nature without talking about agrarian reform, revocation of the time frame, recognition and regularisation of the lands of traditional peoples and communities.

There is no possibility of an alternative without starting by pointing out the real culprits for the climate crisis , as the environmental struggle is the driving force behind the class struggle, and to stop the tragedies and preserve lives, we must stop the capitalist system and build another model of society , in the name of those who are gone, in the name of those who are alive, in the name of those who will come, nature and humanity can no longer tolerate capitalism.

In this dispute of narratives, which places spectacularisation on one side, and the determining factors of the climate crisis on the other, it is essential to point to the element of solidarity that is renewed in each situation of social vulnerability experienced.

We invest in practice and reflection on class solidarity in this moment of attention to workers in the South. This is not a fundraising campaign, it is about sharing and collective care.

This is, for example, the concern to install Solidarity and Community Kitchens and to allocate part of the food production produced by MST co-operatives in other states that are being sent to contribute to the recovery of families.

It is because of this solidarity that we believe not everything is lost, and move on to the last question: what is possible in this scenario? A first element is the struggle that the countries of the global South have been carrying out, partly in the international spaces for discussing the so-called global climate governance, which is to demand that the countries at the centre of capitalism finance the changes necessary to face the environmental crisis.

However, there is a fight to place financing/funds for climate change adaptation (the ugly duckling of global climate goals and agreements) on the agenda, while mitigation actions gain all the attention as they are part of profit strategies. For example, large conglomerates such as Tesla, by mitigating CO₂ emissions with its electric cars, profits billions from the destruction of forests and rivers to extract the minerals necessary for this.

It is urgent that we think about adapting to climate change, and fight for sufficient investments to do so, think about a city with planning, inclusive, that meets popular and efficient interests and a family-based, agroecological peasant agriculture, adapted to the conditions of the climate, the biome and with state subsidies.

This is done with urban planning and efficient housing policies that enable people to occupy spaces that are not subject to the consequences of extreme weather events, and on the other hand, thinking about agricultural production that creates conditions for production in adverse weather conditions, something that It is already done through Agroforestry Systems.

The environmental issue must be converted into a battlefield so that we can move forward in building truly effective solutions that solve the environmental and social problems generated by capitalism. As our partners from the peripheries say: “nothing about us, without us!”

We will continue to form a cord of solidarity and extend our hands to reach another world, built arm by arm. Our feelings of indignation at the tragedy and solidarity with the gaúchas and gauchos.

Camilo Augusto, Diógenes Rabello, Márcio José and Renata Menezes are activists in the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) and contribute to the construction of the National Plan “Planting Trees, Producing Healthy Food”.

This is an opinion article and does not necessarily express the editorial line of Brasil de Fato