Tue Jun 18, 2024
June 18, 2024

Tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul: Latest Chapter of Disaster Capitalism


In 2005, faced with the terrible and tragic consequences and policies adopted after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the United States, North American analysts coined the term “Disaster Capitalism” to refer to how capitalism produces catastrophes and then takes advantage of them to prey on and profit even more from the suffering of the people. Now, history is repeating itself in the south of Brazil.

Rio Grande do Sul is suffering its greatest tragedy. Towns in the interior of the state have simply become rubble and many are cut off from everything else. With the Guaíba flooding, part of the capital, Porto Alegre, is under water, and projections indicate that the flooding could continue until the 20th.

Drinking water and electricity are lacking in most neighborhoods, and the threat of shortages hangs over the population. Stories of deaths, disappearances, despair, pain, suffering, and revolt sound like something out of a war zone. But stories of solidarity are also multiplying. Neighbors, family members, workers, colleagues, and friends are trying to support each other as best they can, rescuing victims and organizing shelters.

While people are organizing solidarity actions, the ultra-right is spewing fake news, promoting lies, and spreading disinformation, making the situation worse. It wasn’t enough that they already supported climate denialism in Brazil, spreading ignorance to justify making environmental laws more flexible and favoring big capitalists and landowners.

The Climate Tragedy is a Creation of Capitalism

Global warming is a reality; 2023 was the hottest year ever recorded in history. Ocean temperatures were also the highest, and they are the biggest factor in regulating the earth’s climate. Consequently, El Niño 2023-24 was one of the most intense ever recorded since modern records began, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The current concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is the highest recorded in the last 800,000 years, at 424 parts per million (ppm). In 1850, the CO2 level was 280 ppm.

The climate catastrophe is the result of the capitalist industry of the imperialist countries and their colossal consumption of fossil fuels, the blood that runs through the arteries of capital accumulation, responsible for more than 70% of global carbon emissions.

But in Brazil, it is capitalist agriculture, agribusiness, that is the main contributor to emissions. The sector alone emits 75% of the country’s greenhouse gases, according to the System for Estimating Emissions and Removals of Greenhouse Gases (SEEG). This is a clear result of the country’s economic reprimarization, with the growth of the extractive agro-mineral sector, always supported by fat state incentives and environmentally flexible measures, as we’ll see below.

One of Many World Environmental Tragedies

The catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul is unfortunately not an isolated case. There have been others throughout 2023-2024, such as the heat waves and forest fires in the United States and Canada, and the tragic fire in Chile in February; the torrential floods in the coastal city of Derna in Libya, which killed more than 10,000 people; and, most recently, at the end of April, the floods in Kenya that killed 200 people.

Most scientists know that we are rapidly heading towards an uncontrollable climate situation that threatens civilization, especially the poorest and most vulnerable peoples. This makes climatic events more intense and more frequent.

Rio Grande do Sul is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change because it is at a latitude where hot and cold air masses transition, facilitating the formation of torrential rains. Further, the hydrographic conditions and terrain do not favor the flow of large volumes of rain, resulting in the flooding of valleys and floodplains.

The tables have turned. The climate situation is deteriorating rapidly. Other extreme events like the one that hit the state will recur more frequently, punishing the poor and exacerbating misery.

Responsibility Lies at All Levels of Government

The tragedy that struck the state was more than foreseen. It was proclaimed by climate alerts and bulletins issued by various meteorological institutes, which even warned of the risk of the state suffering severe rains again, as it did in September last year. They all warned of the risk of major floods and catastrophes caused by El Niño. But the governments at each level (municipal, state, and federal) austerely ignored all the warnings. In addition, they applied policies in favor of environmental destruction, demanded by agribusiness, and promoted an absurd scrapping of warning and prevention systems, which led them to collapse.

The Eduardo Leite (PSDB) government, a first-rate ally of agribusiness, implemented a full slate of policies against environmental preservation, with a voracity that would make the former Bolsonaro minister, Ricardo Salles, envious. In 2020, he removed and made more flexible more than 500 articles and sections of the State Environmental Code, created in 2000, loosening environmental protection rules for biomes such as the Pampa and the Atlantic Forest. He then allowed for the self-licensing of large projects through the issuance of Environmental Licenses by Commitment (LAC). The measure authorized the self-licensing of concrete and asphalt plants, the raising of semi-confined cattle, the development of forestry (with pine and eucalyptus), and the creation of animal waste processing plants, among others.

He then made environmental legislation even more flexible, to allow dams and reservoirs to be built in Permanent Preservation Areas (PPA), thus allowing water to be stored for agriculture and livestock farming.

The cattle boom throughout the state was devastating. The entire system for preventing and combating natural disasters was also left in tatters. To deal with climatic events, the government has allocated R$115 million, less than 0.2% of the total budget approved for 2024. A measly R$50,000 was added for civil defense. The entire apparatus for preventing and combating natural disasters was dismantled for the duration of El Niño, which always causes heavy rainfall in the region when it is active.

Not a Penny for Works and Maintenance, Millions for Environmental Destruction

This same playbook was adopted by the mayor of Porto Alegre, Sebastião Melo (MDB), and explains the failure of the Guaíba flood containment system, made up of pump houses, levees, and the Mauá Wall. The city has 18 pump houses, which have the capacity to pump 159,000 liters of rainwater per second, according to Porto Alegre City Hall. However, the system collapsed and only four pump houses were operating in the city as of May 7. The containment levees also failed and many gave way under the force of the water.

The truth is that the system was completely unmaintained, even though the city council already knew about the risks of further torrential rains. The fact is that the city council didn’t invest a single reál in flood prevention in 2023. That’s right: it invested R$0.

This criminal negligence occurred even when the department responsible for the area had R$428.9 million in cash; there was evidence that a tragedy was well underway and the potential effects of El Niño were already well known. And when the system collapsed and the city flooded, the city council had no plan B. There was no contingency plan for evacuating residents in the event of flooding.

But at the same time, there was no shortage of money for entrepreneurs. The mayor even paid R$1.7 million to a Havan department store in the North Zone, which was compensated for environmental damage it had created by constructing the building. Faced with this absurd situation, the State Court of Auditors (TCE) ordered the payment to be suspended.

Privatizations & Fiscal Austerity Under Lula also Contributed to the Tragedy

Everything got even worse with the privatization of state companies. The worsening of services was already visible even before the catastrophe. With the flood, it became clear that the privatizations deepened the collapse. The private company CEEE Equatorial, for example, even turned off the electricity in a pump house, without warning the population or even the mayor, which forced the evacuation of residents in the Menino Deus and Cidade Baixa neighborhoods, because the water was rising.

Reinstating the state’s privatized companies will be absolutely necessary for any plan to rebuild and adapt to climate change. Otherwise, the population will remain in the hands of unscrupulous capitalists who put profit before life.

The Lula government also bears responsibility for the tragedy, by applying fiscal austerity and investing in privatization. The 2023 federal budget for Risk and Disaster Management was the lowest in 14 years. From 2013 to 2022, successive governments earmarked R$19.9 billion for the sector. Only 31% of this total, however, was invested in prevention initiatives, while 69% was used for relief measures and the reconstruction of destroyed sites.

The rest of the money went to the bankers, guaranteed by the Fiscal Framework. It’s worth remembering that last year, Lula allocated 43% of the entire federal budget to paying off the illegitimate public debt. In addition, the government finances the expansion of agribusiness and its trail of destruction. For example, the R$364 billion through the Safra Plan in 2023 (the largest budget in history) will be used, among other things, to finance the destruction of the country’s biomes.

Hurricane Katrina and Capitalism’s Double Catastrophe

The climate catastrophe is combined with another—the social catastrophe produced by decades of neoliberalism, fiscal austerity, and privatizations. This deadly cocktail was already called “Disaster Capitalism” by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans in 2005, exposing the racism and social inequality in the heartland of imperialism.

Before the tragedy caused by the hurricane, the city had undergone another: neoliberal shock therapy. The entire system of levies to contain the city’s floods was in a precarious state, with no maintenance. Every warning and rescue service for a possible disaster was also in tatters, with no money because of budget cuts and restrictions. Meanwhile, the country was spending US$5.6 billion a month on the Iraq war and selling US$12.4 billion in arms.

After the tragedy, Milton Friedman, considered the “pope of neoliberalism,” wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The tragedy will also be an opportunity.” And that was that. In the days that followed, the government awarded several contracts to private companies to help the victims. Most of them were active in the Iraq War, in Baghdad’s militarized Green Zone. One example was Blackwater, a company that sent thousands of mercenaries to the war and was hired to contain the “unrest” of the population, angry at the government’s paralysis in the face of the tragedy. A total of US$3.5 billion was awarded in contracts with private companies.

At the time, Naomi Klein also explained that the Heritage Foundation (a stronghold of U.S. neoliberal thinking) had presented a proposal with 32 “hurricane relief” measures. The items recommended “the automatic suspension, in the disaster areas, of the Davis-Bacon wage laws,” which were in force and established a floor for construction workers who had a federal labor contract; “the transformation of the affected region into a free enterprise zone, exempt from taxes”; and “the conversion of the affected territory into a competitiveness zone (broad tax incentives and waiver of regulations).” All these measures were promptly complied with by then-President Bush within a week.

Profiting from Scorched Earth, Racism, and the Suffering of the People

In Friedman’s aforementioned article, the old neoliberal ideologue also pointed out that “most of the schools in New Orleans are in ruins,” but noted that the tragedy “is also an opportunity to radically reform the education system.” The so-called “reform” meant accelerating plans to privatize education.

In the weeks following the tragedy, state legislators advanced the privatization of education, creating charter schools; that is, institutions founded by the public authorities, but run by private entities, according to their own rules. This model has practically replaced public education in New Orleans.

In addition, the destruction of entire neighborhoods aroused the greed of the real estate sector, which took advantage of the tragedy to expel the poor and Black population from many areas and to replace them with luxury condominiums. This is capitalism producing disasters and taking advantage of them to make a killing.

As a result, the proportion of Black people (mostly poor) in New Orleans fell from 67% (2005) to 59% (2013). Many have moved to the outskirts, driven out by the influx of a young, affluent white population, which has driven prices through the roof. In just a few years, historically Black and working-class neighborhoods have become white and wealthy.

Reconstruction Must Serve Workers, not Capitalists

Let this serve as a warning to the people of Rio Grande do Sul. A catastrophe of these proportions, devastating for the entire state, could serve as a sinister laboratory for the capitalists to develop practices and protocols on how they will act in the face of climate change. Their experiments will serve to test the best opportunities for the bourgeoisie to profit from the misfortune of the people through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), corruption, real estate speculation, and expropriation.

The Rio Grande do Sul bourgeoisie itself is already citing the “example” of New Orleans for rebuilding the state. In a meeting with Governor Eduardo Leite at the Piratini Palace on the 7th, “the example of the reconstruction of New Orleans in the United States after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was cited. If the idea goes ahead, a public-private partnership would be set up to carry out the project, as well as using the promised federal funds,” reported Portal GZH.

Reconstruction plans are absolutely necessary and need to encompass a global plan for adapting to climate change, strengthening Civil Defense, building effective flood protection systems, rebuilding devastated cities, strengthening and creating more laws to protect the environment, and confronting the destructive power of agribusiness.

In addition, we need to secure labor rights and expand social rights for the poor and vulnerable. That’s why the workers in the affected neighborhoods and cities will have to organize the discussions and create their own reconstruction plan, with the support of working-class specialists, scientists, and intellectuals who are on the side of the people.

In this process, we must demand that all funds be controlled by the committees of workers and other people affected by the catastrophes. The funds must not remain in the hands of governments, the legislature, or businessmen who will use them to cut their own bargains and then say “take it or leave it.”

At the same time, it is necessary, together with the countless solidarity initiatives that are being created and in alliance with trade-union, social, and popular entities, to advance in organizing to confront the governments and their capitalist “plans,” which will inevitably only increase the misfortune of the people.

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles