Brazilian socialist MP: Rio Grande do Sul tragedy caused by capitalism

June 6, 2024
group of people in flood affected area
Luciana Genro with members of a flood affected community in Rio Grande do Sul. Inset: Luciana Genro. Photo:

Storms that began in April triggered record-breaking and catastrophic flooding in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. The ongoing climate disaster has affected about two million people, left at least 170 dead and displaced more than 600,000.

Rio Grande do Sul state MP Luciana Genro spoke to Green Left's Ben Radford about the flooding crisis, the government’s response and the solidarity efforts to help those affected.

Genro is a founder of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), a member of the party’s National Executive and of the Socialist Left Movement (MES) tendency within PSOL. She is a lawyer and president of the Lauro Campos and Marielle Franco Foundation. Genro was re-elected to Rio Grande do Sul’s legislative assembly in 2022 with 111,126 votes, making her the most voted-for woman MP in the state.

Fellow PSOL/MES leader Mariana Riscali will be speaking at the Ecosocialism 2024 conference from June 28-30 in Boorloo/Perth and online.

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For years, there have been warnings about the increasing severity of flooding in Rio Grande do Sul. What caused the most recent flooding crisis?

What is happening in Rio Grande do Sul is not simply a natural phenomenon; it is a calamity caused and exacerbated by human actions, the advancement of the capitalist mode of production and the actions of successive neoliberal governments that have reduced the role of the state and relaxed environmental protection laws.

This is the largest flood ever recorded in our state. In the city of Porto Alegre, the capital, such a devastating flood had not been seen for 83 years. The scientific community is very clear in stating that climate change is the cause of these extreme events.

We are experiencing a climate emergency worldwide, and the situation in Rio Grande do Sul has demonstrated this in a very cruel and sad way. There are more than 170 deaths, two million people affected, more than 600,000 people displaced and almost 100% of the municipalities have been impacted by the floods.

What was the government's response to the floods?

Since the beginning of the floods, we have seen a very active stance from the federal government. President Lula [da Silva] himself has visited Rio Grande do Sul four times and has created a ministry dedicated exclusively to the reconstruction of the state. Additionally, he has implemented some important policies, such as the emergency transfer of R$5100 [A$1460] to each affected family. But clearly, much more needs to be done.

The federal government is the one best positioned to act, as it controls the country’s economic policy and has the most structure, resources, and power at its disposal.

We acknowledge that the Lula administration is taking action and doing its part, which is an incomparable advancement compared to Bolsonaro’s government, which was in denial about climate change, but it is necessary to go further and change the logic of an economic policy geared towards the market and not towards the needs of the people.

It is impossible to have a [public] spending cap in the face of a climate emergency of catastrophic proportions. The limits on government spending should be the limits of the people’s needs, not an imposition of the financial market.

Rio Grande do Sul governor [Eduardo] Leite is a young centre-right and neoliberal politician in his second term who has been implementing a policy of reducing the role of the state, withdrawing rights from public sector workers and showing total disregard for the environment. In six years of government, he has managed to amend more than 400 articles of the state Environmental Code, privatised environmental protection parks and allowed the use of pesticides that are banned in their countries of manufacture.

This is a government that has never been committed to the environmental cause, a proponent of minimal state intervention that has left the population to suffer the consequences of the state’s absence in their lives during this moment of tragedy.

The mayor of Porto Alegre, Sebastião Melo, is a politician aligned with former President [Jair] Bolsonaro, with strong ties to the Brazilian far right. He did not perform adequate maintenance of the flood protection system, despite being warned by city engineers and technicians about the need for numerous repairs and improvements.

When the river water began to recede and people could return to their homes and start the cleaning process, many destroyed furniture pieces were placed on the sidewalks and people wrote on their sofas, cabinets and tables the phrase “Culpa do Melo” (“Melo’s Fault”) ... The mayor has been repeating the phrase that “this is not the time to seek out those responsible” for the flood. Well, that is something only the guilty would say, isn’t it?

How has MES/PSOL responded to the crisis?

As a state deputy in Rio Grande do Sul, I vigorously denounced the dismantling of environmental policies by Governor Leite. Not only did I vote against his projects, but we also engaged in direct mobilisation on the streets, and we even achieved some victories. One such victory was the defeat of the construction of an open-pit coal mine near the Guaíba River.

In Porto Alegre, our councillor Roberto Robaina had already been denouncing the mayor’s actions, such as the privatisation of a department responsible for the city’s pipelines and allegations of corruption in the department responsible for the potable water supply.

When the tragedy began, all our efforts turned towards saving lives. In the first days, this was our absolute priority. People sent me messages on social media asking for rescue, sending photos showing they were on their rooftops of their flooded houses and needed to be saved. It was a desperate, calamitous situation. We set up a team to respond to all these messages and forwarded all requests directly to the sector responsible for rescues in the state government.

A member of our team, who is a police officer, managed to get a boat; we provided fuel and resources and he spent entire days rescuing people. We also immediately launched a collective fundraising campaign, which was used to purchase fuel for rescue boats, food and other items for donation to the affected people.

After the initial phase of rescues, we continued working on solidarity initiatives, helping to organise shelters with our MES comrades on the frontlines in poor neighbourhoods of Porto Alegre and areas far from the city centre. We are also involved in support actions for animals that were rescued. Over 12,000 animals, mostly dogs and cats, were rescued in Rio Grande do Sul and are now living in temporary shelters. We are supporting these shelters, providing food, structure and demanding concrete measures from the governments.

Our actions are structured around several points: rescue efforts, active solidarity and strong demands on the governments to meet the people’s needs. We go to the communities, to the shelters and to the homes of those affected without making false promises. We are not like the system politicians who promise to solve people’s problems in exchange for votes. Our work aims to strengthen popular organisation and mobilisation capacity. That is why we help organise the Flood Victims Movement.

We know that only the organisation and collective struggle of the people can bring about change. Our role, as parliamentarians and leaders of a socialist political party, is to assist in this organisation, support these struggles and hold the governments and politicians responsible for this tragedy accountable.

What needs to happen to confront the increasing climate-related disasters in Brazil?

There needs to be a complete change in the political and economic system in which we live, not only in Brazil but worldwide. The climate crisis is caused and aggravated by the capitalist mode of production, which is always expanding, producing more and devastating more without regard for the consequences. Only ecosocialism can save humanity from extinction and offer a future perspective for life on the planet.

In Brazil, the federal government believes it is possible to improve capitalism and make it more sustainable. This is an advance compared to the previous government of Bolsonaro, which denied climate change and science, but it still assumes that capitalism can solve this crisis, when in fact it only exacerbates the situation.

Within the government, there are various competing lines of thought. For example, Petrobras, a public oil company, advocates for oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon River. This is a harmful practice to the environment, with the potential to damage the entire rich ecosystem of the region.

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change opposes this exploration and has been trying to prevent it from happening. This is a significant dispute within the government itself. Ultimately, the decision lies with President Lula. He has the final say, but unlike President Gustavo Petro in Colombia, Lula has not shown himself to be a defender of ending fossil fuel exploration.

Therefore, we, as socialists, need to pressure and fight for another political and economic model where nature is not seen as a resource to be exploited but as an asset to be protected. It is a global fight in defence of the planet that cannot be separated from the anti-capitalist struggle, because the enemy is the capitalist system.

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