The emergency is climatic, the responsibility is political. Solidarity is our strength.

Friends of the Earth Brazil in solidarity with the people affected in Rio Grande do Sul

Just eight months after what was believed to have been the biggest climate tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul, we are once again experiencing an even worse situation, which demands the mobilisation of internationalist class solidarity and popular organisation for reconstruction and care for the sustainability of life, in the face of the inability of a neoliberal state to respond, with outsourced services, privatised public companies and structural environmental racism.
Intense and heavy rainfall, which reached 800 mm in some places, has hit almost every municipality in the state from 29 April onwards. The accumulated rainfall equalled the entire average rainfall forecast for five months. Streams and rivers reached levels even higher than the events of September 2023. There were landslides, destruction of roads and highways, flooding of cities, death and destruction.

The RS civil defence figures as of 8 May show that 100 people have died, 128 are missing and 372 have been injured in 417 of the 497 municipalities, affecting a population of more than 1.4 million people. These figures are likely to rise, as there have been sinkholes in isolated parts of the countryside and flooded towns in the metropolitan region. Countless domestic and subsistence animals are dead. More than 66,700 people are in shelters and 163,700 are displaced.

For a week now, the army, firefighters, civil defence, military and civil police from Rio Grande do Sul and several other states, individual volunteers and activists from organisations and social movements have been rescuing lives by helicopter, boats, jet skis and land; opening up roads through the forest, distributing water, food, medical and ecological assistance. The material damage is of billions. Rebuilding cities, economies and lives will take a long time.

Roads into the capital are closed. The airport is closed until at least 30 May. More than 70% of Porto Alegre’s population of 2 million is without electricity and water, with difficulties in communicating and getting basic survival items. Drinking water has been a daily dilemma for the entire population, and is in short supply on the shelves of many supermarkets and unreliable natural sources. Regions and municipalities in the countryside of Rio Grande do Sul remain isolated, unable to receive help. Many family members have no news of each other.

The regions hit by last year’s floods, especially the valleys of the Jacuí, Taquari and Pardo rivers and the Serra Gaúcha, have suffered a new impact of greater proportions. Towns that hadn’t even been rebuilt, including Muçum, Roca Sales, Arroio do Meio, Lajeado, Santa Tereza and Estrela, ended up being totally or partially destroyed once again. Municipalities on the north coast, such as Maquiné, and in the valleys of the Paranhana, Caí and Sinos rivers, which were the focus of the floods in June 2023, have once again suffered damage, especially cities in the metropolitan region, the 5th most populous in Brazil, home to around 4.3 million inhabitants.

Porto Alegre is experiencing the worst flood in its history. The water containment systems were designed based on the historic flood of 1941, when the Guaíba River reached 4.77m and flooded part of the city centre and riverfront. This time, the Guaíba River, which receives water from the northern and central regions of the state, reached 5.35m, taking back what was once its bed and advancing into various parts of the city, which is now under siege. Even the headquarters of Friends of the Earth Brazil was hit by the waters after the pumps were turned off due to the risk of electrification, which caused the river to advance over the neighbourhoods of Cidade Baixa and Azenha, where our organisation, unions and solidarity kitchens are located.

All joint efforts continue in order to save lives. We have witnessed a network of solidarity rarely seen before, involving the whole country in rescues, donations of food, clothing, hygiene and cleaning materials and money to help the homeless and displaced, setting up shelters and providing food parcels.

Amigas da Terra Brasil (Friends of the Earth Brazil) continues to work together in active solidarity, collaborating in the Morro da Cruz community kitchen with the World March of Women and Periferia Feminista (Feminist Community), and in the MTST (Homeless Workers Movement ) Solidarity Kitchen in Azenha, which has joined forces with other movements such as MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams) and MPA (Movement of Peasants), providing up to 1,800 meals a day for those affected in Porto Alegre and the metropolitan region. At this time of mourning for the lives lost, in the midst of pain and suffering, we offer our hearts and arms to help those who need the basics to stay alive.

In the impact of this tragedy, we recall what we have been defending for a long time, which are also historical agendas of so many territories of life in struggle, as the indigenous peoples of Brazil have been warning: we need to confront the climate crisis. This confrontation will not come with new market technologies, nor with the charity of the owners of transnational corporations and their marketing campaigns about sustainability and solidarity, which make up practices that are the continuation of a colonial, racist, sexist, LGBTQIphobic project that destroys nature and the community.

The climate emergency is a reality imposed on structural and systemic inequalities: environmental injustices fall on those least historically responsible for the problem, who are the most helpless to deal with the consequences. It’s as real as the context we live in today, where there is a lot of life to fight for. That’s where the point of being here lies. It is possible to put the brakes on the nefarious logics that are advancing on Earth, drastically reduce the impacts and increase the capacity to rebuild in situations like the one we are currently experiencing. This involves politics.

It involves our fight against agribusiness, especially when land use change in Brazil is the main factor emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and when state government policies in Rio Grande do Sul encourage the practice and release of pesticides, many of which not allowed in their countries of origin. That generates a series of violence and conflicts in the countryside, as well as hindering and even discouraging family farming and agroecology, which provide real answers to the crises of this century. Agribusiness keeps us in an economic and social relationship of dependence on the countries of the global North, the centre of capitalism, which generates even more inequality and devastation of nature, turning neighbourhoods and entire cities into sacrifice zones.

The mining offensive in the state of Rio Grande do Sul also brings us to a disaster scenario: Most of the coal available in the country (around 90%) is concentrated in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and its extraction is a threat to the climate crisis and could even increase it. The Guaíba Mine project, for example, envisaged the operation of the largest open-cast coal mine in Brazil, between the towns of Eldorado do Sul and Charqueadas (RS), 16 kilometres from the capital Porto Alegre. The project, which would affect the indigenous territory of the Mbya Guarani, without consulting the communities to obtain the prior licence, would today be underwater, generating acid drainage and contaminating the fresh waters we have. Fortunately, popular mobilisation and denunciations of the flaws and omissions in mine company COPELMI’s studies led to the mine being shelved. The Guaíba mine would also affect agrarian reform settlements, the Delta do Jacuí State Park and surrounding municipalities that would be hit hard by water, as well as the Pampa biome, which stores one of the largest reserves of drinking water in the world, the Guarani Aquifer.

Now, six dams connected to mining processes are at risk of breaking and affecting more people. As the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) said in a statement, highlighting the partial collapse of the dam at the 14 de Julho Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP), located in the Taquari-Antas river basin in Cotiporã (RS): the climate emergency increases the risk of dam collapses. In the face of the extreme events of the climate crisis, no dam is safe.

The policies adopted in recent years in Rio Grande do Sul have made licensing more flexible and guaranteed the advance of extractivism over lives. Municipalities such as São José do Norte, close to Lagoa dos Patos (lagoon), are currently in a state of alert due to the waters that are rushing towards them from all over RS to end up in the sea. Traditional communities that make a living from fishing and family farming are under evacuation. The same communities which are already resisting the Retiro Project, which plans to extract titanium, putting at risk the waters, as well as the livelihoods of traditional fishing communities, family farming communities and the Vila Nova Quilombo.

We defend that the solution to avoiding and confronting the catastrophes of the climate emergency is the people in the territories: the demarcation of indigenous lands, the titling of quilombola communities, agrarian reform, land restructuring in the cities, with permanent public investment based on social policies built close to the territories, with popular participation and with the guaranteed right of traditional peoples and communities to be and exist, preserving their ways of life, which have been proven to cause the least socio-environmental impact on the planet. Solutions will only come with the end of austerity policies, with the reversal of the process of neoliberal advance, which in practice privatises common goods such as water and energy so that corporate power and big businessmen can expand their profit margins. Because when governments are not committed to the public interest and to serving society, the people are left to fend for themselves and can spend up to a week without electricity, as happened in Porto Alegre in January this year, and this time a third of its population is without power and water. We highlight the privatisations of CEEE and Corsan as well as DMAE, the dismantling of urban sanitation capacities and state planning functions as processes that have brought us to the current collapse.

The constant tragedies in Rio Grande do Sul show that the municipalities that will be holding elections in Brazil this year are not prepared to deal with extreme weather events. Mayors have been slow to warn the population about the impacts of the heavy rains predicted by meteorological institutes and the Civil Defence. Part of the water containment systems, dykes and dams overflowed, forcing people to evacuate. Most of the flooding occurred in places that have historically suffered from unresolved drainage problems. The vast majority of the people affected are impoverished and working class, living in floodplains, on the banks of rivers and streams, or on hillsides, deprived of concrete policies regarding basic rights, such as access to water and affordable housing, so that they can leave areas considered to be at risk for a more dignified life.

Even though this is the 4th and worst major climate tragedy that RS has faced in less than two years, there are still denialist municipal governments and parliamentarians who ignore the effects of climate change. There are also affected regions that haven’t recovered from other floods, such as the Taquari Valley, which, in addition to a series of human rights violations, has received countless reports from residents that funds from the federal government have been passed on without being implemented by the municipalities.

Scientific research shows that deforestation, including in the Amazon, has a direct impact on rising temperatures and, consequently, on the increased incidence of rainfall and extreme events in Brazil and on the planet. In Rio Grande do Sul, the devastation of the Pampa biome and the Atlantic Forest to make room for agribusiness and its voracious thirst for land also leads to the heavy floods we experience, as well as prolonged periods of drought.

The state government of Rio Grande do Sul and the city hall of Porto Alegre, although saying they are concerned about the climate emergency, do not demonstrate this in concrete actions. Their practices are heading in the direction of intensifying disasters. The state budget proposed for this year by governor Eduardo Leite (PSDB) provided for only R$115,000,000 to deal with climate events in 2024 throughout RS, including investments in the state Civil Defence. Both Leite’s and Melo’s administrations have worked to dismantle and ‘relax’ environmental legislation. This is to benefit high-end property sectors, large companies, agribusiness and destructive economic activities such as mining. That leads to more deforestation, the devastation of natural biomes, the contamination of water resources and the occupation of open areas and riverbanks, such as the Guaíba itself. In March of this year, the Rio Grande do Sul Assembly passed a bill authored by deputy Delegado Zucco (Republicans), which amends the State Environmental Code and relaxes rules in Permanent Preservation Areas (APP), allowing the construction of dams and reservoirs there.

In the case of Porto Alegre, the city hall has issued evacuation alerts without giving any guidance on how they will be carried out. In a hurry, it improvises shelters in areas at risk of flooding, so that climate refugees who have lost their homes have to migrate again without any security for the future. There is not even a policy to consider workers and their travelling around the city by public transport, which could be guaranteed with a free pass, and save lives. Extremely elitist, Mayor Melo’s recommendation is that the population, or part of it, should take Uber or go to their beach houses.

At state government level, we point out Leite’s responsibility in disfiguring the State Environmental Code, ignoring warnings from civil society to the state of Rio Grande do Sul and his government about their responsibilities in the face of the climate emergency. And while the people of Rio Grande do Sul are suffering the greatest socio-environmental tragedy in their history, a bill (PL 4.015/2023) is being processed in the Senate that makes further changes to the Forest Code, allowing rural properties in cities in the Legal Amazon that have the majority of their territory occupied by conservation units or indigenous lands to reduce the legal reserve from 80% to 50%. Nature has no borders; what impacts one place impacts everyone.

For the first time, we have experienced climate refugees in droves wandering around in the water in the cities of Rio Grande do Sul; wandering aimlessly along streets and highways with the few belongings and animals they could carry. Waiting for days on rooftops for rescue, huddling for days in shelters because they have lost their homes, or not being able to leave their homes to get food and water and fearing looting and the violence that is escalating in the face of chaos. What we would like to avoid for the next generation, we are experiencing today, here and now.

Solidarity is the premise. Class solidarity, not ‘Solidarity S.A.’ of companies in their corporate social responsibility nonsense. The people who are suffering the most at the moment are those who are on the margins of the system, who are unable to guarantee a dignified daily life. Today, more than ever, they are precarious, suffering from a process of impoverishment, denial of rights and the impossibility of sustaining life. If these families are considered impoverished, they will become even more so, as they lose family members who, through their work, ensure the day-to-day live, generally overburdening women and unpaid care work. The ability of these families to support themselves, to organise themselves, will be reduced. First by losing people, then by losing their homes, their jobs, their living conditions and by the traumas, which are certain to happen.

In the face of the dismantling of the state at various levels and the destruction of services and the capacity for management and planning in the public interest, the strength of unity is emerging. From the diversity of ways of doing things and organising popular movements in the countryside and the city, connecting territories of life, often those also threatened and sacrificed by the system that gives rise to the climate emergency. This real and radical class solidarity will continue. Rebuilding and mobilising popular power to take back the place of the working people in politics, confront the climate (which has already changed), and change the system.

Friends of the Earth Brazil, 8 May 2024

Photo: Deriva Jornalismo e Fotografia


  1. Boa sorte a todos vocês,
    Nossos corações estão com todos vocês e estamos fazendo tudo o que podemos aqui na França para garantir que as mudanças climáticas também sejam levadas a sério por nossos líderes e que nossa sociedade capitalista pare de espalhar a miséria e a injustiça.

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