News | Brazil / Paraguay - Socio-ecological Transformation Why Are the Floods in Southern Brazil So Devastating?

Climate change and government policy have intersected to create a perfect storm


A resident surveys the flooding damage in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil, 14 May 2024. Photo: IMAGO / TheNews2

In Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, more than 2 million people in 461 of its 497 municipalities have been affected by the rains that have been hitting the state since 28 April. The death toll has reached 151. More than 100 people are still missing and approximately 80,000 people remain in shelters. These numbers were reported by the Civil Defence on 16 May 2024.

Elisangela Soldateli Paim is the Latin American coordinator of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s climate and energy programme.

A climate catastrophe like this one is not an isolated incident. Such extreme phenomena have been happening more often and becoming more intense across all regions of Brazil and around the world in recent years.

Floods have been ravaging Kenya, a country on the African continent — more than 200 people have died since March. In Brazil, 12 extreme climate events were recorded in 2023 alone, according to the World Meteorological Organization. These episodes further aggravate social and economic inequalities in the country.

The consequences of the climate crisis show environmental racism, as climate events hit the most vulnerable populations — mostly Black people, women, children, and older adults — harder.

The heavy rains in Maranhão, northeastern Brazil, and the map of the most affected areas of Rio Grande do Sul show that. In the metropolitan area of Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, lower-income populations are the most impacted.

According to the National Coordination of Quilombo Platforms (CONAQ), all 145 Quilombola communities located across 70 municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul have been hit by the floods.

 “Don’t Look Up”

The situation could have been completely different if local scientists and environmentalists had been heard. At least tem years ago, the report Brazil 2040: Scenario and Alternatives for Climate Change Adaptation, by the President’s Office, already showed there would be heavy rains in southern Brazil as a result of climate change.

The report also showed the need for warning systems and contingency plans. However, the study was shelved after it was concluded, and no measures were taken by any government authorities.

One thing that must be highlighted is that Brazil’s environmental legislation was dismantled during the Jair Bolsonaro administration (2019–22), particularly in Rio Grande do Sul state under Mayor Eduardo Leite (2019–present).

In 2019, 480 points of the state’s environmental law were modified, aiming to benefit economic sectors, especially those connected to the expansion of soybean production, eucalyptus production, and the mining sector. One of the most emblematic changes was the use of self-licensing in some cases, a process that allows businesses to grant licences to their own operations, exempting them from being subjected to review and approval (or not) by environmental agencies. A cut in public funding for disaster prevention was also approved.

Emission Reduction

The signs that the climate crisis is worsening are clear around the globe. To reduce the negative impacts of this crisis, the main way out is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Brazil is the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet and, as such, faces the challenge of ending deforestation in the Amazon and stopping native vegetation suppression in other biomes, including the Pantanal, the Caatinga, the Atlantic Forest, and the Pampas, not to mention the challenge of recovering degraded areas.

It is also necessary to stop fossil fuel exploration and to not promote its expansion to new areas, like what is happening at the Amazon River mouth. The country is also responsible for working across regional and global levels to push other countries to implement concrete policies to reduce emissions.

Brazilian Contradictions

There are great contradictions here, as the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration has always supported the fossil fuel economy and recently joined the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Allies (OPEC+). Also, when we are talking about the energy sector, it is fundamentally not a matter of just promoting the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources, because, when the latter are installed at a great scale, they fragment territories and lead to irreversible social and environmental damages. In addition to implementing just emission reduction measures and energy policies, effective climate change mitigation and adaptation policies are necessary at the local, regional, and national levels. Brazil is falling quite behind in this process.

On 15 May, the Brazilian Senate passed Bill 4.129/2021 — with only one vote against it, from the former president’s son, Flávio Bolsonaro — which sets general rules for the formulation of climate change adaptation plans.

However, in 2023, the Lula da Silva administration resumed their work related to the national plan on climate change, addressing strategies in three areas: mitigation, adaptation, and across these two areas. Several actors from governments, civil society, the private sector, and the academic sector participated in it. The challenges are complex, especially considering the setbacks suffered in recent years.

In Rio Grande do Sul, it’s important to bear in mind that the historical pattern of occupation of the state’s territory is based on deforestation and degradation of the native vegetation of the Pampas. More than ever, measures to tackle coal and sand mining, big soy plantations, tobacco production, and rice crops in Rio Grande do Sul are extremely necessary and urgent.

What Have We Learned?

The tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul sparks a reflection about the development model we are promoting. What lessons are we learning? Who will bear the cost of recovering the infrastructure that has been destroyed? What changes will we make?

It is worth mentioning all fundamental solidarity actions that have been taken — by grassroots movements, social organizations, Indigenous communities, Black communities, and communities on the outskirts — to minimize the hunger, shortage of water, basic hygiene products, the destruction of houses, and so many other damages that will remain in people’s memory.

Immediately after the rains started, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) launched the Landless Campaign of Solidarity with Rio Grande do Sul. The Small Farmers’ Movement (MPA) has already donated more than six tons of agroecological foodstuffs for solidarity kitchens that are ensuring that people affected have access to food. The Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), the Peasant Women’s Movement (MMC), and so many other organizations play an active role in this process of solidarity and care.

It is a concrete fact that floods, heat waves or extreme cold, and tornadoes affect the food security of the peoples by damaging crops, increasing food prices, reducing supplies, and worsening hunger on several continents, also leading to violence.

More than ever, it is necessary to discuss and continue to build transformative political proposals and practices that consider the analysis of the multiple crises we are facing, of which the climate crisis is an increasingly apparent part.

Translated by Aline Scátola.