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The climate catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul: the flood of neo-extractivism facing insurgent solidarities

By Felipe Mattos Johnson



The Tribe of Performers Ói Nóis Aqui Traveiz, a popular theater group born in 1978 in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul, premiered in 2024 the play "Ubu Tropical," street theater inspired by "Ubu Roi" (1901), by Alfred Jerry. The play narrates the terrible wanderings of Father Ubu, an authoritarian figure who proclaims himself king of Poland through a trail of killing, corruption, and treachery. In scene 3 of the play, entitled "I kill everyone and leave," the buffoon king sends nobles, judges, and financiers of the kingdom to his gigantic belly. Nothing escaped Father Ubu's insatiable hunger, which ran over the world seeking to "swallow everything and everyone." At the end, upon arriving in Brazil, he is surprised by the figure of Abaporu, "with giant feet planted on the ground, cannibal and anthropophagic, capable of devouring culture, appropriating it, and reinventing it."1 Abaporu prevents Father Ubu from continuing his carnage. In the streets of Porto Alegre, Father Ubu, his troop, and his subjects appeared to be covered in mud, as if coming from a major flood on April 21. Less than 1 week later, the floods would engulf the state and the capital itself.





Between the end of April and the beginning of May, the state of Rio Grande do Sul (RS), in the southern region of Brazil, witnessed the largest climatic catastrophe in its history. An unprecedented flood, following heavy rains never before experienced at this time of year, devastated 401 of the region's 497 municipalities, affecting 1.4 million people. The numbers continue to grow, with current estimates of over 240,000 displaced people. There are many climate refugees in shelters, as well as at least over 100 dead, hundreds injured and missing, and nearly 700,000 people without water. In October 2023, a similar event devastated several municipalities in the same state. This time, there were 14.2 trillion liters of water just between May 1st and 7th, equivalent to half of the Itaipu Dam reservoir, the world's second-largest hydroelectric power plant.2 The Guaíba, which borders Porto Alegre and behaves alternately as a river and a lake, reached the historic level of 5.33 meters, a height that may increase with the continuation of the rains currently underway.


The catastrophe is a direct reflection of the unrestrained plundering caused by large capitalist companies and their representatives in control of the State, linked to corporate land ownership, real estate speculation, extractivism, and therefore, financialization and commodification of life. Rio Grande do Sul is a state whose Pampa and Atlantic Forest biomes have been destroyed by mining, soy, and eucalyptus monocultures, and livestock farming. In addition, the state and municipal governments of the affected cities, with the approval of the various federal governments in power, have been responsible for deforestation of riparian forests, river salinization, destruction of Permanent Preservation Areas, violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, quilombolas, and other traditional peoples, as well as selling cities for the privatization of water, electricity, and real estate companies.




Eduardo Leite, governor of RS, systematically ignored alerts from institutes and researchers indicating the imminence of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, in addition to relaxing 480 points of environmental legislation along with other lawmakers, while expanding soy exports. In addition to the aforementioned privatizations of water and electricity, healthcare was also precarious and privatized, as were the areas near the Guaíba River with already precarious flood containment systems. There is no clear emergency plan. The official categorization of Guaíba as a Lake implies the relaxation of environmental laws, which allowed for devastation on its banks and surroundings.


The indigenous peoples of Rio Grande do Sul, mostly from the Mbya Guarani, part of the great Guarani people, Kaingang, and Xokleng peoples, already number more than 8,000 affected families and 80 communities in a state of emergency. Some ancestral territory repossessions in the Porto Alegre region, such as Pekuruty, had their homes destroyed by the municipality amid the evacuation process. Thousands of small farmers and landless families also lost their relatives, homes, crops, animals, equipment, sheds, and cooperatives. The Landless Workers' Movement estimates 420 families affected by flooding in their settlements and occupations in the state. In the case of quilombolas, whose communities in Porto Alegre, the state capital, number more than 100, the situation is no different: they face floods, lack of water and food, and the loss of habitation and life reproduction sites.


Extractivism at the heart of the catastrophe


Hegemonic narratives, whether in the media or in the sphere of institutional politics, seek to present a scenario of "national reconciliation," where to face the flood, the unity of the country is necessary. They flatter the military, disseminate accounts for bank transfers of donations to private entities associated with the government, and strengthen the panegyric of developmentalist discourse as a solution: they defend the reconstruction of cities to maintain the same predatory model. Change everything so that everything remains the same—consistent with the current configuration of the Federal Government. They associate the climate catastrophe with natural causes, hiding the root of the problem. The "unifying" narrative disguises those responsible for the devastation and the direct link to the neocolonial model of an export matrix that violates and commodifies the vital forces for capitalist accumulation chains globally.


Corporate land ownership - disguised in euphemistic terms such as agribusiness - and the State are concerned about the losses of soy crops, which have driven indigenous peoples and peasants from their territories to allow for the expansion of the agricultural frontier. Rio Grande do Sul is the second-largest soy producer in Brazil, with an expected harvest in 2024 of 20 million tons. Only 7% of the original Atlantic Forest biome remains in RS. At the same time, the Brazilian Midwest suffers from a historic drought, which impacts monocultures but not the profits of rural insurance. However, the context mainly impacts small farmers and indigenous peoples, targets of violence in the region, which ranks among the largest in the country regarding repression of the land struggle. Nationally, the soybean harvest is estimated at 153.9 million tons, figures that align with the abyss of land concentration in the hands of a few and the pressure exerted by large landowners against life and biodiversity.




The relaxation of Brazilian laws on the environment and the right to land for indigenous and traditional peoples accompanies the relationship between extractivism and anthropogenic climate change. Legislation is relativized to allow new areas to be integrated into global chains. The recent approval of Bill 14,701 of 2023, which confronts the 1988 Constitution regarding indigenous rights, is an example: with the weakening of land demarcations, monoculture farms, mining, and prospecting can spread over territories without legal obstacles. These facts, however, already occur. However, in the tenuous line between legal and illegal that characterizes different points of the extractive chain. Mining in the Amazon behaves in the same way, encouraged alongside mining by international market demands on one hand and, on the other, timidly condemned in the public sphere - and increasingly confronted by indigenous self-defense and territorial recovery initiatives. It is relevant to recall the substantial public resources allocated to the Agricultural Plan, whose financing is mainly directed at agribusiness. For 2023/2024, the government announced an amount of 364.22 billion reales.


The fact that 20% of the original territory of the Amazon biome was cleared for the expansion of monocultures, cattle ranching, and mining also has a close connection with the floods in RS and the drought in the Midwest, given how rainfall cycles are affected by the forest's ability to regulate the climate. The reduction of biomes, as in the case of those in RS, leads to increased soil erosion and a reduction in its water storage capacity.3 Meanwhile, large landowners, in conjunction with different levels of government and the State, join hands to spectacularly offer a palliative solution to floods, while people (and peoples) organize autonomously to save neighbors, communities, outskirts, and lives, while strengthening land and territory recovery and establishing new loyalties in memory.


Bottom-up solidarity: only the people save the people


Amid the chaos, numerous popular initiatives of solidarity, direct action, and mutual support take over the city in the face of government inaction and neglect, involving social movements, grassroots community-based movements, anarchist organizations, indigenous and traditional peoples, temples, unions, among others. We do not intend to exhaust the references in the short space of this text, which are multiple. However, some of these experiences will be briefly presented below based on three main categories: indigenous peoples, social movements, and quilombolas.


The multi-ethnic indigenous retake Gah Ré, located on Morro Santana in Porto Alegre, is a recovery of Xokleng and Kaingang ancestral territory, mobilized by different peoples and movements. It is currently inhabited by 42 families. In December 2022, they suffered an eviction attempt, which resulted in victory for the community. In the area, which was destined for the construction of 11 buildings through financing from former bankers, there is a spring. Morro Santana also houses areas of Pampa and Atlantic Forest, and the spring flows into Arroio Dilúvio, which crosses some regions of the city. After 2 years of resistance, amid the flood that engulfed Porto Alegre, the retake became a water distribution center for the peripheral communities nearby, which suffered from the water shortage caused by the climate catastrophe. Meanwhile, the streets and outskirts of Porto Alegre saw huge lines of people with jugs around taps spread across different urban areas, given the lack of water in homes and markets.






The MST, in turn, promptly initiated a national solidarity campaign and made its militants and settlers available to, first, ensure the safety of landless people in affected areas (settlements and occupations); and then start solidarity kitchens and centers for shelter and distribution of food, water, clothes, medicines, and hygiene products. Tens of thousands of meals were distributed by the movement to the outskirts affected by the flood and to refugee shelters. Settlements in the Viamão region that were not affected also began to produce food for other settlements, as in the case of Dourado do Sul, hit by the flood: thousands of meals and daily meals were prepared.


Although a significant part of the movement's food production was affected, the autonomy guaranteed by the production of healthy, pesticide-free, and non-transgenic food was crucial to supply the displaced people. Solidarity kitchens were also built by other social movements, such as the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), the Small Farmers Movement (MPA), and the Dam Affected Movement (MAB), which had already warned that there is no safe dam - on May 2, there was the breaking of the July 14 dam between the municipalities of Cotiporã and Bento Gonçalves during the rains, demonstrating that these structures are not adapted to extreme events and should not serve as the basis for a non-extractive energy model.




The quilombola people of Rio Grande do Sul, especially in greater Porto Alegre, mobilized to defend their communities, lives, and territories, as well as to compose a fundamental solidarity network with urban outskirts. Porto Alegre has the largest number of urban quilombos in the country, totaling 11 territories. It is in this city that the Quilombola Front of Rio Grande do Sul was formed, which has been working for more than a decade to strengthen black, quilombola, and indigenous peoples, as well as alongside the poor people of Porto Alegre. The hindrance to the regularization of quilombola territories by state bureaucracy and private interests of real estate speculation directly influence the context faced by these territories during the flood.




In the map above, it is possible to visualize 1) Quilombo dos Machados, in imminent risk of flooding and lack of supply; 2) Quilombo Kédi, affected by lack of supply; 3) Quilombo Silva, affected by lack of supply; 4) Quilombo Mocambo, community affected by the flood and displaced from its territory; 5) Quilombo Fidélix, ditto; 6) Quilombo do Areal, ditto; 7) Quilombo Lemos, ditto; 8) Quilombo Flores, lack of supply; 9) Quilombo Santa Luzia, lack of supply; 10) Quilombo dos Alpes, lack of supply; 11) Quilombo de Ouro, lack of supply. Except for those affected by the flood, the quilombos remain as points of action for a broad support network, focused on solidarity kitchens and supporting the surrounding community.


Quilombo dos Machados was one of the quilombos that self-organized for mutual support and direct action in the face of the continuing necropolitical act of killing and letting die, characteristic of a white supremacist state that leaves communities to their own devices during a catastrophe. The community, located in the Sarandi neighborhood - one of the most affected by the flood in the capital -, was already threatened with eviction in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The action was filed through Real Empreendimentos, linked to the real estate sector. The history of Quilombo refers to the 1960s-70s, when the Machado Family arrived in Porto Alegre. Only in 2012 was the area taken back by the quilombolas.


During the flood, 97% of the quilombo suffered total loss, according to Jamaica, leader of the Quilombo and the Quilombola Front. He stated in interviews that the losses are ancestral.4 The neighboring community is called Vila Respeito, and the context in both places was already precarious due to socio-spatial segregation. The headquarters of the quilombo was not affected and became a reference point in the territory. They collectively set up a community kitchen, received donations of drinking water, clothes, medicines, blankets, and hygiene products. All donations and local productions began to be shared with the Quilombo itself and with residents of Vila Respeito. They organized the evacuation of the elderly and children in the face of the imminent flood and set up community task forces to analyze the degree and speed of rising waters. In the meantime, they prevented widespread panic and activated care and psychosocial attention networks.



Headquarters of Quilombo dos Machados during food distribution. Photo by Elisa Casagrande.



Headquarters of Quilombo dos Machados receives water tanks to strengthen water distribution to those affected by the flood. Photo by Elisa Casagrande.


Retake territories to postpone the end of the world5


Territorial retakes, which spread throughout Brazil mainly through the self-organized action of indigenous and traditional peoples, also consist of taking back the ways of being of these peoples. And there is no room, in these ways of being, for extractivism. Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman who wrote the book "The Falling Sky," already told the world of whites that there is no possible future for those who plant their thoughts in merchandise. Shamans and spiritual leaders of different indigenous peoples narrate that since the arrival of whites, the imminence of great catastrophes has become a ghost that looms closer with each advance of capitalist looting and its zones of human and socio-environmental sacrifice.


When landowners and police officers kill Vitor Fernandes Guarani and Kaiowá in the massacre of the retake of Guapo’y, on June 24, 2022; When landowners kill indigenous people like Nega Pataxó, killed on January 21 after a brutal attack by ruralist militiamen from the Zero Invasion Movement against the Pataxó land retake in Bahia; when they kill and carbonize José Roberto da Rocha, MST leader in Paraíba, for fighting for land; when they kill Mãe Bernardete, a quilombola killed in Bahia for fighting for her territory against real estate speculation; all of these are ways to accelerate the catastrophe. They are ways to try to make capitalist modes of life and death hegemonic. However, they are counteracted by the emergence of collective entities that make life and death circulate, such as Mãe Bernardete, Vitor, and Nega, beyond their individual forms.


To postpone the end of the world, it is necessary to stop seeing the territories as investment opportunities for banks and corporations. It is necessary to stop thinking about indigenous peoples, quilombolas, peasants, and small farmers as impediments to the expansion of the global food and energy market. The end of the world is a project of a minority, and it is this minority that the government represents. Its apocalyptic discourse is the only truth that matters to it. And the only alternative that this discourse leaves is authoritarianism. However, the end of the world is also a narrative - one of many. And counter-narratives are everywhere, as long as we know where to look.


Solidarity beyond Rio Grande do Sul


In addition to the social movements and organizations already mentioned, numerous entities and collectives throughout the national and international territory contributed to the solidarity campaign with Rio Grande do Sul, including the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (Contag), the Landless Workers Movement (MST), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Interuniversity Network for Popular and Solidarity Economies (Rieps), the Feminist Anti-Prohibitionist March (Marcha das Vadias), the Independent Platform for Climate and Energy Policies (Pipce), the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), the Quilombola Front of Rio Grande do Sul, the Rio Grande do Sul Environmental Justice Network (Reaj), the Brazilian Association of Agroecology (ABA-Agroecology), the Brazilian Association of People's Lawyers (Abrapo), the National Association of Environmental Agents (ANAMMA), and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), among many others.


International entities and governments also pledged support, such as the Vatican, the European Union, the United Nations, and numerous embassies. It is worth mentioning that direct support for the affected population should occur through the popular movements and entities already listed and not through private initiative accounts.


Solidarity initiatives were also formed outside the country. Brazilian immigrants, popular movements, and collectives abroad, such as the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro, Friends of the Earth International, the People's Climate Movement, the Brazilian Migrant Solidarity Network, the Brazilian Popular Front, the Brazilian Union in France, the Workers' Party Abroad, the Latin American Revolutionary and Progressive Movement of New York, and the Assembly of the Brazilian People of Chicago, among others, were organized to collect resources for popular movements in Brazil.


It is in the face of adversity that popular power reveals itself. Against the collapse, it is the articulation of communities, peoples, movements, and collectives that has a transformative potential. The floods in Rio Grande do Sul reveal the possibilities of the power of the people. It is up to us to strengthen and multiply them.



 

1 The author of the text experienced the play on the streets of Porto Alegre. Some of the information in this paragraph describing the play is taken from a booklet distributed by the theatre group, produced by Tribo de Atuadores. In particular, the passages in inverted commas are extracts from the booklet.

5 Ailton Krenak, an indigenous philosopher from the Krenak people, has written the book Ideas to postpone the end of the world (2019).

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