Flooding in Brazil Has Displaced More Than 600,000 People From Their Homes as States Slash Prevention Funding

“Underneath is this deep-seated trauma that will last for years and decades and sometimes lifetimes for people.”

Maximillian Alvarez

A child walks on a temporary dump with flood debris in the Vila Farrapos neighborhood, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul State, Brazil, on June 17, 2024. SILVIO AVILA/AFP via Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

Southern Brazil is facing its worst climate tragedy ever,” Latin-America-based journalist Mike Fox wrote from Brazil for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) in early May. Unprecedented floods have impacted 1.4 million people and forced more than 160,000 people from their homes… The images are shocking. Downtown Porto Alegre, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, is underwater… On May 2, a dam collapsed, unleashing an over 6-foot-high wave and worsening flooding in the area… Although the tragedy is a natural disaster, experts have pointed out that the lack of preparedness on the part of state and local officials may have contributed to the devastation. According to one report, Porto Alegre slashed funds for flooding prevention over the last three years and didn’t spend a cent on it in 2023.” 

In this episode, we talk with Mike about his reporting trip to Southern Brazil, the devastation he witnessed firsthand, and the conversations he had with poor and working-class people who have borne the worst impacts of the floods and who continue to bear the greatest costs of man-made climate chaos.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Fox: I am Michael Fox, freelance reporter based in Latin America and the host of Under The Shadow podcast.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, all right. Welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you, Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. If you’re hungry for more worker- and labor-focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network because there are so, so many. And please support the work that we’re doing here at Working People because we can’t keep going without you. Share our episodes with your coworkers, friends and family members. Leave positive reviews of the show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts and reach out to us if you have recommendations for working folks that you’d like us to talk to.

And please support the work that we do at The Real News Network by going to the​re​al​news​.com/​d​onate, especially if you want to hear more reporting from the front lines of struggle around the US and across the world. My name is Maximillian Alvarez and I am very excited to have the one and only Mike Fox with us on the pod today. Mike is an incredible reporter, an incredible human being, a dear friend, even though we’ve never met in person, and he is one of our kick-ass collaborators at The Real News in this extended Marvel universe of journalistic superheroes we’ve got here. Mike is a heavy hitter. If you follow The Real News, you already know Mike’s incredible work. Over the past couple of years, we’ve teamed up with Mike and the great folks at the North American Congress on Latin America or NACLA to produce two vital, wholly unique, highly produced and hard-hitting narrative podcast series.

The first one, Brazil on Fire, was released to coincide with the lead up to the high-stakes national elections in Brazil in 2022. In that series, Mike took listeners on an intense and incredible journey to understand Brazil’s turn towards fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro and how the US helped push it along. And the series culminated in an examination of the reelection of the leftist former President Lula and the failed January 8th invasion of Brasilia by Bolsonaro supporters. The second series that we’ve co-produced with Mike and Nala is called Under the Shadow, which you heard him mention up top. And we’ve been publishing that throughout this year. We’re about two-thirds of the way through the first season right now, and it’s fucking incredible. Pardon my French. Under The Shadow is an investigative podcast series that really takes listeners across Latin America straight to the scenes of some of the region’s most devastating revolutionary and historic moments.

And in season one, Mike has been diving deep into the past of Central America uncovering the history of US intervention and its lingering effects in the region today. And I cannot recommend this series highly enough. It’s kind of weird being on the production and publishing side for this series, but at the same time, I’m also just a Supreme fan and I’m always bugging Mike because I need my fix and I always need those new episodes. But those episodes, as you guys know, if you’ve listened to any of them, take a lot of work to put together, which is why if you guys want to hear more of them, you got to support Mike’s work. You got to support the work that we’re doing at The Real News and you got to support NACLA. And speaking of Mike doing incredible work and traveling wherever he needs to go to report from the front lines of struggle, we’re having Mike on the show today to talk about a serious and important story from Brazil that you guys have probably heard about over the past month in a report that he published with NACLA on May 8th.

Mike writes, Southern Brazil is facing its worst climate tragedy ever. Unprecedented floods have impacted 1.4 million people and forced more than 160,000 people from their homes. As of May 7, at least 95 people have been killed and 130 people remain missing. The images are shocking. Downtown Porto Alegre, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, is underwater. The water level in the city’s Guaíba River surpassed the historic 1941 flood levels by more than a foot and a half after days of heavy rain. With more extreme rains forecasted, experts say the flood waters could remain for at least the next 10 days. On May 2, a dam collapsed, unleashing an over 6-foot-high wave and worsening flooding in the area. President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva flew over the disaster area on May 5 with Rio Grande do Sul’s Governor Eduardo Leite. The following day, Lula asked Congress to declare a public calamity in the state which would open up additional government spending.

Leite says the state will need a type of Marshall Plan for reconstruction.” Although the tragedy is a natural disaster, experts have pointed out that the lack of preparedness on the part of state and local officials may have contributed to the devastation. According to one report, Porto Alegre slashed funds for flooding prevention over the last three years and didn’t spend a cent on it in 2023.”

So that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Mike himself was there in Brazil reporting on these horrific floods and the fallout from them. And we are actually going to be publishing a video report, so you guys can see that devastation at The Real News very, very soon. But we wanted to get Mike on to take our listeners there and help us understand basically how bad this is, what Mike saw and felt and talked to people about and what working people in Brazil are going through right now as the climate emergency continues to worsen. So Mike, thank you so much for joining me on the show, brother, it’s so great to have you on the pod. And I want to just shut up with all that kind of context up front and turn it back over to you and ask if, yeah, you could kind of take our listeners to the front lines where you were in Brazil and just sort of help us understand what you saw, what’s going on down there and how these disastrous floods are impacting our fellow working people in Brazil.

“There’s roughly 50,000 people who are still in shelters.”

Michael Fox: Thanks so much, Max. Boy, what a great intro. I need to take you with me everywhere. I really appreciate it. Yeah, so I was in Alegre in kind the regions around Porte in the very end of May for about five days. This is a region I know really well. I used to live in Porto Alegre about two blocks from the Guaíba River. My wife is from São Paulo, which is kind of a town of 220,000 people close to Porto Alegre. 80 percent of the town was impacted, over half of its residents were evacuated and including the mayor who I interviewed, and you will see him in the video story I’m doing for The Real News because he lost everything as well in his home. And actually there’s this crazy reality because when he first came to this town 30 or 40 years ago, he was part of a movement.

He arrived during a flood and he was part of the movement that fought the build the floodgates and the flood protection system that then helped protect the town, but which was still engulfed with so much water, and it was actually neighboring town where the water came in past their dikes and he sent people to the neighboring town to shut their floodgates. So it’s this crazy, crazy story, and I was there. The flooding began, the start date of all this is seen as April 29th. So when I did that story for NACLA, it was about a little over a week, week and a half after that. And when I was there in the end of May, so we’re talking an entire month later, you still had entire neighborhoods that are underwater; and I don’t mean a little bit of water. I mean if you were walking through the water, it’s over your head and just shocking, shocking realities.

There’s roughly 50,000 people who are still in shelters. The numbers in that article that you quoted from, I think it was like 150,000 people have been pushed from their homes. It’s now between 600,000 to 2.3 million people have been impacted across the state. More than 90 percent of the municipalities across the state have been impacted by the flooding and the rains. And just to put this in perspective, it’s hard to understand when you talk about states like, Oh, it’s the southernmost states, so it borders Argentina, it’s 15 percent larger than the UK.” So we’re talking about big, it’s a very big size. And yeah, it was the worst climate disaster ever. The response from the federal government, Lula’s government has been unprecedented. The local governor, Eduardo Leite had said that they would need, I think you mentioned, a Marshall Plan for the region and said that the total cost of recovery would be somewhere around $4 billion US dollars.

Lula has already allocated $10 billion to it. In fact, former president who is now the head of the BRICS bank has already said that they would be providing another billion of U.S. dollars in aid to the region. Lula has already said he wants to build homes for every single family that’s lost one. And so it has, while at the same time as it’s been the largest climate disaster, tragedy the country’s ever seen, the government response has been unprecedented. And that’s been extremely important. Obviously I can’t even imagine, so many people I spoke with when we were there were just like, I can’t even imagine if Bolsonaro was still in power, what this would look like.” It’d be whitewashing and just kind of leaving people to fend for themselves. And then a bunch of Twitter bots would be talking about how great Bolsonaro is. At the same time, I’ll just say, I did a story for Al Jazeera a couple of weeks ago about the intense amount of fake news. We haven’t seen this level of fake news since the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro fake news in the most part, attacking Lula’s government or trying to push out disinformation to make it seem as though Lula’s government isn’t doing anything or that Lula’s government is blocking aid to regions or that Lula’s government is trying to get in way or that Lula is trying to get in the way. And it’s all because this is this moment where so much is being done, so much in the way of donations and things and so much attention is focused on this. And so you’ve seen this right-wing campaign to try and undercut the potential benefits in terms of approval. 

There’s this really interesting moment where we could see the shift back to supporting Lula and supporting the Partido de los Trabajadores (PT), particularly in the midterm elections that are happening later this year. But part of that, the voting in of people in the center, in the center has meant that those folks, largely climate deniers, whatnot, have been gutting environmental protections across the state. And that has led obviously to this, or it has been part of why this tragedy was just so, so bad. But I’ll just say really quick on the ground, like I said, it’s still really intense. People are traumatized and they’re afraid.

Finally, we’ve had many clear days without rain. The water level of the Guaíba River has been dropping. It reached 5.33 meters above the normal level, and that’s been a historic high. It’s now dropped back down to lower than three meters. It still is high, but in most neighborhoods, the water has been leaving, but it still is flooded in many other places. Really, the big concern for many people is what things look like for September. September is traditionally the big rain, the big flooding month. May is not. This is one of the driest months of the year. So the reason why this happened now is this combination of El Nino together with climate change together with deforestation in the center of Brazil and the Amazon that kind of created this atmospheric blockage over the state that wouldn’t let the rains flow up into other places of Brazil.

They kind of just sat and just dumped their rain for days and weeks. And so that has been this perfect storm together with the cutting of environmental legislation, the deforestation along the river banks, the building and the permitting of construction along those river banks, which has kind of channeled the river. And so when the water’s funneled into port and the Guaíba River, then they just rose to unprecedented levels, but it still is a terrifying situation. I spoke to someone about how it could take 10 years, a decade for the full kind of reconstruction of the state. And many people are concerned that this type of flooding is going to continue. We’ve never seen this before. It might not be next year, it might be the year after that, but it’s very likely we’re going to see this way more often. What climate change does is it makes climate disasters more and more often.

“It might not be next year, it might be the year after that, but it’s very likely we’re going to see this way more often.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and no, you’re right. And it’s like, yeah, this shit’s only going to get worse, people. And I mean, again, that’s what we keep telling you. That’s what the folks we keep talking to keep telling us. So we got to do something. And I want to circle back in a second to kind of how we’ve in fact been doing the opposite we’ve been making, at least at the state level, at the industry level, we have been pressing the gas pedal to the floor in the exact wrong direction. But I want to hover on that point about who this is impacting the most, who is suffering the consequences of this because this connects to where the show Working People has gone over the past year and why instead of interviewing more folks about contemporary shop floor struggles and unionization efforts like I’ve traditionally done in years past, I have now become obsessed with interviewing workers living in and working in what we call sacrifice zones in the US and around the world starting in East Palestine, Ohio where the train derailed and folks have been poisoned by corporate and Wall Street greed and left abandoned by their government, to residents of South Baltimore who are living amidst a toxic cocktail of industrial pollution coming from coal cars in the CSX rail terminal, trash incinerators.

All of this just blasting them in the faces in their lungs. One resident told me that she knows so many people walking around with oxygen tanks in South Baltimore, literally 20 minutes from where I’m sitting right now. So I bring this up because in many ways the point is the same. And in fact, sacrifice zones are not just limited to areas where industry has polluted the residences around certain factories and plants. Like sacrifice zones, like functionally, mean areas where people live that we have just effectively abandoned to the elements or to industry or to government pollution. Let’s not forget the Department of Defense has more Superfund sites than any other industry in the United States. And so climate sacrifice zones are very much a thing, and this is one of them. And there are plenty that exist here in the United States around the world. I mean, look at Pakistan.

I mean half of Pakistan’s been baking for years. That is effectively a zone that the world has more or less deemed ripe for sacrifice. We’re not going to do anything to change the conditions that are making it unlivable. So I say that all to say, why are we talking about this on a show called Working People where we interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams and struggles? Because who the fuck do you guys think are living in these zones? Who are the working people who are trying to make a living and trying to raise their families in these areas and now they can’t because their homes are underwater? So that’s the connection that we’re trying to make here on the show, on The Real News by drawing the connections between our different areas of reporting is that your life as a working person does not end when you leave your job.

You are a working class person living in a working class reality and living in an area like this where you are for so many reasons, put on the front lines of sacrifice, that is tied to your class position. Your ability to combat that, to survive it, to carry on afterwards are directly impacted by your class position. So I really wanted to draw that connection. I’m talking to Mike on the day that I am going to South Baltimore to cover a protest action by residents living in that sacrifice zone while we’re here talking about residents living in a climate sacrifice zone in Southern Brazil. So Mike, I wanted to just ask if you could say a little more about the folks that you were talking to. What are their lives like, what are they saying? What are the things that they are worried about right now as they try to pick up the pieces?

Michael Fox: Yeah, thank you Max for making that connection. Before I go to what people are saying, I just want to draw attention to this study that came out just this last week, and it was put together by the National Science and Technology Institute. And they basically took a map of the major flooding areas and then a map of the poorest communities in those regions, and they laid them on top of each other and they just matched perfectly. So it is very clear that the hardest hit communities were the working class communities, were the poorest communities. And you see that by going to different shelters across the city. I went to several, but one particularly in São Leopoldo is this massive gymnasium and you have basically 500, 600 people that this is their only option. I used to live in this gymnasium with everybody, and that’s one thing kind of in the days just after a flood disaster. But folks there understand that they’re going to be there for months if not six months, if not maybe a year. Like I said, the federal government has said they want to build homes for everybody, but that’s going to take a really long time. And so the folks there just have their backs against the wall. A lot of people, they had jobs, low-wage workers, whatever, but they’ve lost those jobs or they can’t get to their employment or they’re just trying to barely get by.

It’s completely pushed back on the working class in that entire area. Don’t forget, Max, that in Brazil, roughly 40 percent of the population works in the informal sector, roughly 40 million people. And so now the federal government has said it’s going to actually, in order to support small businesses and businesses in the state, it’s already said that it’s going to be providing minimum wages for the next two months for workers in the formal sector. But those people that might be vendors, street vendors, workers in the informal economy and whatever they might be, you’ve just lost your income and there’s just no way of getting that back. I spoke to these fishermen in one of the most hardest-hit neighborhoods of Porto Alegre, and I spent a day there going and visiting these homes, I mean, first off, your entire means of financial support has been just wiped off the table.

Second off, your home has been inundated to even over your head. It’s just now starting to recede, but you have to gut every single thing you have ever owned. So you’re taking that out of the house, you’re ripping it in front, you’re putting it in front of your front stoop or the streets so that the city can come by and clean everything up, and then you’ve got to clean that out. The other thing that is a major concern is leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease. It’s caused by the urine of infected animals like rats and things like that. And during flood times, this bacteria, I mean it gets in all the infected flood waters and everyday folks are just trying to get by. You’ve been in those waters for weeks. So we already have eight deaths, so we have 2000 potential cases, suspected cases across the region, and now people are finally being able to go back in.

But you’re talking, you have this just contaminated sludge of mixed flood waters from the river and then sewage and feces from the town, which has all been flooded. And so it’s just this terrible, terrible, perfect storm. And that’s the thing, is what is the next couple of weeks? What do the next couple of months look like? And that’s the big question, right? Because it’s one thing, like I said, the disaster is kind of slowly starting to come to an end, but tens of thousands of people are still living in shelters. You have, Lula was talking about you might have to build homes for as many as 200,000 to 250,000 families. The numbers are just massive. And where do we go from here when your means to be able to survive, your means to be able to support yourselves and your families, has just been wiped off the table.

The main public market in downtown Alegre, usually there’s about 110 different stands in this main public market. 50,000 people passed through this market on an average day, and it’s been inundated underwater. When I was there two weeks ago, I mean, it smelled like putrid, it was going to take days and weeks to get the whole thing gutted. And that’s the reality. So it is an utter devastation. And the people who are the hardest hit are the working-class families. The people who are the hardest hit are the poor communities. I was speaking with this one guy, if you saw any of the images from the days after when this happened, you saw these kinds of boats, motorboats bringing people in, picking people off the rooftops and bringing them to this area where it kind of looks like there’s this road that kind of curves upward and they would drop people off and go back out.

I don’t have the figures of how many people were impacted, but it’s well over half the town. It might be close to 70 or 80 percent of the town had to be evacuated. So he was one of those people that his home, even when I was there about a week and a half ago, his home was still completely inundated. He was like, I can take you there. You can see it. It’s over your head. And the thing is, is that it’s like you have this tale of two cities right now, Max, where the city that’s above water in many cases, it’s almost as if nothing has happened. You still have stores, you still have restaurants, people are going out. In many cases, those areas, if they didn’t have electricity and water the entire time, it came back relatively fast within the first week or two weeks.

The other side of the city is just devastated, just completely devastated. And there’s some towns outside of Porto Alegre in the mountains that have just been, entire neighborhoods just been wiped out?. They don’t exist anymore. Lula was there last week walking through one area and you see the images, and just Lula is walking over what used to be rubble. There’s just nothing there. But what this guy told me who used to live in Canoa in Brazil, it’s as if this disaster for the first week or two, it was all the headlines. Everyone talked about it. And now it’s kind of becoming the story on the second or third pages, it’s leaving the front headlines. But he’s like, look — for those of us who have been impacted, this isn’t over. This hasn’t ended. This is just beginning and it’s going to last for months and it’s going to last for years.

And so that was really, really profound, really deep. And I want to say one thing, Max, there was a really interesting experience that I got to spend two days at an occupation of people who had been in shelters across Alegre who said they weren’t treated well. And so they came together and they occupied an abandoned building. And I thought that this was just amazing and fascinating, people taking this situation and saying, no, we are going to take action. We’re going to do this ourselves. And so they occupied this abandoned building, no electricity, no running water, but every single person I talked to said, this is our lifeboat. This is our means to go forward. And every single one of them was from a poor community whose house either doesn’t exist anymore or who they’re going to still have to wait weeks to just get in and then gut everything and start over anew.

And this was their way forward. And they were doing that, their communal kitchen. They each had their own little apartments. And in fact, the last day I was there, they had just received donations of mattresses and clothes and they were super excited. Now, three days later, you had the owners of that building — and that building has been abandoned in downtown Porto Alegre for 12 years. And the owners had called for their eviction and then? the local police and a judge had moved in to try and evict them from the building. And then there was negotiations that were happening. So I mean, again, this is capital. This is like, we’re the powerful, and you can’t be in my building even though that is actually using that building for what that is, the public good. That’s what it should be used for. But that was just such a powerful, powerful experience of people taking their lives back and saying, no, we can create change ourselves. And in fact, there were other people talking about, oh, we need to replicate this. Brazil is one of those places where the occupy movement and the occupation movement for housing has been extremely important traditionally, historically. But that was really powerful.

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Maximillian Alvarez: And we’re going to link to another great report that Mike did for us in the past on the landless workers movement who doing just that, taking buildings and saying, this is ours now, motherfucker. Yeah, we’ve also published incredible documentary reports from Puerto Rico and folks there doing the same thing after the hurricanes there. And they’re like, look, yeah, this building is owned by white investors from the north or rich people in our own country and our own people are living on the streets or can’t afford to live in the homes that they grew up in. Something’s got to give here and the climate’s getting worse and pushing more people into the precarious position of being current or potential climate refugees. Again, get ready for more of this because we are thoroughly in the age of manmade climate change. We are continuing down the road of increasing manmade climate chaos, and that’s where, and we’re not taking the necessary steps writ large to really prevent or mitigate that, let alone radically reform our society in a way that could save our shared planet and what’s left of our shared society.

But that’s a topic for maybe another full podcast, but I want to, with the time I’ve got, man, circle back to that question of how we got here. Obviously there are many big and small answers to that question, but I wanted to give us the frame of looking first at Brazil, kind of picking up on the reporting you did at Brazil on Fire. You looked at Bolsonaro’s policies, particularly his just gross exacerbation of the deforestation of the Amazon and all the climate effects that come with that. But as you mentioned, there are other things here that really speak to what we’re dealing with in the United States, like states in the Southwest where you traditionally don’t have a lot of concrete are dealing with flooding like this because when you have heavy rains and that water doesn’t seep into the ground and it goes into these concrete canals, it creates flood zones.

Or right now everyone’s been talking about the kind of decaying infrastructure and the pipes bursting in Atlanta and the floods that, that’s causing the boil water advisories that working people there are dealing with, just folks in Flint and Jackson, Mississippi, so on and so forth. So the reason I’m drawing these comparisons is that that infrastructure doesn’t decay overnight. I mean those are policy decisions that are made over and over again to disinvest, to deregulate maintenance and protective measures are always seen as too costly until you end up with a situation like this where the costs are in the tens of billions. So I wanted to ask in the local context what could have been done to prevent this or what has been done to sort of exacerbate the effects, but also even zooming out farther, what has your work in Brazil told us about how we as a planet have gotten here in the climate emergency?

Michael Fox: Yeah, I mean on the local level, this is one of those really interesting situations where Porto Alegre had a plan. 1941, like I said, was this historic flood. When I used to live in Porto, you would walk through and see the images of the flood and in different restaurants they’d be like, oh, remember the flood? It was a thing. It was a thing you talked about because it was the biggest natural disaster up until that point. So over the next 30 years, they developed a flood protection system. It went online in 1970 and it was supposed to protect the city from flooding up to six meters. What is that? 18 feet over normal. In this flood, the water rose to 5.33, so it didn’t even reach the six meter mark. But the problem was, is, that that system was just gutted in recent years. Particularly in the last three years, I mean they spent $0 on maintaining the flood prevention system last year, and then in the previous two or three years they’d been already decreasing that number.

But we’re talking about the lack of maintenance and repair for the system going back for the last 10 years, 15 years, they could have done this in Porto Alegre at least, because in some of the other towns that were just, entire regions wiped away, they don’t have that same flood prevention system. That’s kind of another situation. But in Porto Alegre, all of it could have been prevented. They had the system and they did not maintain it. They didn’t repair it. So what you saw were floodgates, which just didn’t close. They got stuck, right? Pumps were not working or areas where they should have been pumping the water up, but it was actually letting the water in. There are these images of firemen and police who are carrying sandbags to shore up the dikes and levies. You don’t have to do that.

Not in a city like Porto Alegre that already has its flood prevention system going back 50 years. This is not something, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to make sure it’s not going to fail in times of crisis, and they couldn’t do it. And here’s the worst thing is this was not the first flood the city had over the last year. This was the third or fourth. So you had a massive flooding that was going on. Now this was the worst obviously, but I think it was last June, you had the high floods last September. The city was hit massively as well. So this is the third or fourth time just in the last year. So it was like if the city didn’t wake up for the other ones, oh man, we really got to get our shit together really. So that’s why you had a couple of weeks ago, different groups and organizations calling for the impeachment of Mayor Sebastião Melo, just saying, listen, you just failed this completely.

Now of course he has his people and city council and they wouldn’t even put it up to a vote. And still people are pushing for this. And in talking with local business folks and social organizations and workers, people across the city are like, it’s asinine. Obviously this guy fucked up and he cannot remain in power, but you also have this, at the same time, I talked about this fake news generation going at the same time. It was a failure by the city and by the local state government that failed Alegre, and that is why it flooded this time. And that is an unmitigated disaster. It needs to be kind of cried from the rooftops there. These Brazilians are very humorous and particularly online. And there was this meme going around where it was like, now is not the time to point fingers.

It’s the time to put people in jail. That was what the meme said, is pointing at the mayor saying, you screwed up. We have a problem. So that’s on kind of the extremely local level of peg. But part of that is also, this goes back to the question of who are the financial interests behind all of this? Who’s behind this? Sebastião Melo and many other sectors particularly allied with Bolsonaro in the center had been talking about the actual removal of the flood protection system because it’s a big wall in downtown and they’re like, oh, that blocks the view, whatever else. So they’ve been talking about, we got to get rid of this thing, we don’t even need it. Why is it there? And financial interests have been really in favor of trying to throw money at the waterfront. Same thing we’re talking about the inner harbor style stuff.

When I was in Puerto Alegre 15 years ago, there was this whole waterfront that they wanted to develop with this whole big revitalization project, exactly like Baltimore’s inner harbor. And that was the push. And they actually did a referendum, and it was with the referendum that they blocked that and they were able to build housing and then something else, whatever else in those areas because big business wanted to completely open it up, privatize it, and then build waterfront shops and really cushy stores, whatever else. And they still did part of that at the port, and it was just totaled. I drove by there, we sailed by there and we motored by there in a boat when I was there and it’s like one of the worst areas of destruction. You see they have this little Ferris wheel and it was like this really cute little thing and it’s just total completely totalled.

The restaurants, the waterfront filled up to the rooftops, but that’s the vision. That’s the capital’s vision. How are we going to make money off of this? It’s not, how are we going to protect the city? How are we going to protect those most in need? Now the bigger vision for the region is, like I mentioned, the deforestation in the Amazon and the hugely dry high temperatures in the center of Brazil. This caused this atmospheric blockage. So of course Bolsonaro helped push that, and helped to open up the doors for the deforestation in the Amazon right now at the same time as you have this intense flooding in the Pantanal, which is supposed to be one of the largest, if not the largest swamplands in the world right now, is super dry. I mean super dry. 

That’s where it’s supposed to go. And so you have this perfect storm of all this together at the same time. You mentioned before, Max, how the rainwater is kind of just pouring off the concrete and just pouring off. The other thing that causes that is the waterproofing of the soil. That’s what happens when you have monocropping and you open up areas, you cut forests and trees and you open up areas, particularly in the region for soy, for soy development. That’s been growing obviously all across Brazil, but in particular in the major areas near the rivers. So when the rains fall there, they just wash right off and they pull kind of the top soil and they just wash right into the river.

So that obviously makes things worse. And then the gutting of environmental legislation, Brazil has really, really good environmental legislation, but they’ve been gutting it in recent years and also in certain terms, allowing local municipalities and cities to decide how much of that environmental legislation they want to use to actually protect the borders of the rivers and the sides of the rivers, which should be floodplains. Okay, if it’s in the floodplain, we’re going to let it go. We’re not going to build right here. But in a lot of different areas, they’ve completely opened it up. There’s a store, a department store called Havan that’s owned by Luciano Hang. And you might remember Luciano Hang, Max, because as I did some reporting on this in 2018 and the lead-up to NATO’s election, he was the one that was forcing his employees to vote for Bolsonaro in the lead-up to the 2018 election.

So he’s a big pro-Bolsonaro businessman in Santa Catarina, and he’s got these Havan department stores. They build one of these right in the middle of the floodplains. And there are these images where the river literally is engulfing both sides of it. It was completely washed away. You just don’t do that. But it was approved because there’s interest there, because there’s financial interest. Yeah, great. Yeah, do it great, awesome, fantastic. Whatever you want. That’s the reality of where money talks and then yeah, let it roll, let it roll. And it’s compounded this tragedy and made it worse than you could possibly imagine. 

These are the same rains that should be hitting the rest of Brazil. They should be rejuvenating forests elsewhere. So the rains here are causing greater drought elsewhere, and we can’t forget, it’s tit for tat. This is all combined, it’s a larger ecosystem problem and we can’t totally mess with one without messing everything else. And it has a global impact. And that’s the thing, people when you talk about the Amazon, you’re like, oh man, the Amazon, but you talk about Southern Brazil, you’re like, oh yeah, that’s too bad. It’s really raining there. But no, actually what’s happening in Southern Brazil is related to the Amazon. You can’t talk with one about the other.

“What’s happening in Southern Brazil is related to the Amazon. You can’t talk with one about the other.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and to just again, drive home that point with a very, very sad stake to the heart. I was reading this article over the weekend from the Guardian. Headline is: Venezuela loses its last glacier as it shrinks down to an ice field.” The sea ice is disappearing, the jet stream is about to collapse. I mean, that is also going to impact fishing. It’s going to impact everything, and you are not going to save yourself from the impacts of it. And you’re sure as hell not going to just be able to wish away the reality staring you in the face, but yet that seems like what we keep doing by building developments where they shouldn’t be, department stores where they shouldn’t be, ignoring literally every warning sign and then dealing with these massive costs, human, financial and otherwise afterwards and saying like, well, none of this could have been prevented, but here’s all our money going to cleaning our ass when we could have been helping to prevent this in the first place.

Michael Fox: Yeah, absolutely. And to tie it back to this podcast, Max, I was speaking with a lot of people, obviously across the region, but in the islands it was really, really profound because the islands, like I said, this neighborhood about a kilometer across the Guaíba River, it’s largely a fishing area. And of course when it rains, it gets flooded a little bit, but people are just used to that, but not at this level. And a lot of people I talked to, they said, we’re just not going back. There was one woman in particular who, her husband works in the Marines, or I guess her husband works in the Brazilian navy who lives out there. And she said, there’s too much loss. We’ve suffered too much loss. We are concerned for what the future will bring.

She’s lost a neighbor to leptospirosis. Their entire house has had to be gutted. And she’s like, we’re just not going back. And that is the same reality for many, many people on the island. Some people will return, obviously, but she’s just one of thousands of climate refugees here in Southern Brazil. Now, those refugees, they might not go to Argentina. They might be internal refugees within Brazil, but they are going to be moving elsewhere and looking for higher ground. There was one woman who I met, she’s 20, she moved recently from a town inland that just got devastated by these rains. She’s been living in kind of a lower section of Alegre and she’s like, I can’t stay here. I have to go to higher ground.” So what does that mean for the low-lying land when that’s now under threat for future flooding?

Because we mentioned, okay, it might not happen next month and it might be a couple of years because this particular type of flooding tends to happen in the end of an El Niño process. We’re seeing the end of an El Niño, we’re starting a La Niña, but the cycle comes back again and people are saying, I’m getting out. I got to leave. So we’re seeing the price of real estate and homes, people that they’ve lived their entire lives, it’s plummeting. And so not to mention the devastation that’s been caused to everything they own and the fact that in many cases they want to get out, but they can’t because they have to spend their entire savings. So the rising poverty that we’re going to see, and we already are seeing in that region is real, but also the hit to the local housing market. And I don’t mean the housing market for big business and for the elites, but I mean for everyday folks who this is their home and now they’re like, if I stay, I don’t know when the next flood’s going to come.

There’s real trauma, Max. And that’s one of the things that was really, really profound. There was fear and trauma.People are like, Oh God, is this going to be another one? Is it going to rise back up?” What’s happened over the last month is the water levels would start to drop and then you’d have more rain and then you’d have rain, and then it started flooding in areas where it hadn’t flooded before because of torrential rain. And then it would start to drop a little bit again. They’d have more rain. What happened last week? Now it really looks like things are clear for the next couple of weeks, but okay, fine if you don’t have rain for a couple of weeks, but then the next time it rains in a couple months.

And like I said, September is the rainy season, so it’s like, rains will come. That’s just what happens. But now people are scared and that trauma runs deep. And even though in many of these shelters they have health departments and doctors and psychologists who are trying to help people, we’re talking about an entire region of 2.3 million people that were impacted, and even more millions than that, that watched this entire thing happen and that runs deep. So I think that’s one of those layers. We oftentimes, we’re talking about crisis and we’re talking about tragedies and climate tragedies and whatnot, and it’s often you’re talking about kind of the tangible of the home that’s lost all the furniture that’s lost the lives, the real lives that are lost, the people that have to pick up and leave. But underneath is this deep-seated trauma that will last for years and decades and sometimes lifetimes for people.

Like I said, in the 2000s, they were still talking about the 1941 flood, 70 years later. This they’ll be talking about for a century, unless this continues to happen, in which case they’re going to be talking about the new one and the new one and the new one, a new one, a new one. And this is the new world that we live in unless we can wake up. And that’s the thing that I just want to mention is, Max, when I was doing an interview for a documentary I was working on about participatory budgeting and participatory democracy in Latin America. It was called Beyond Elections. And people who can find it online, it’s still there on YouTube.

But I interviewed him because they had done this budgeting process and here I had to come back and I was interviewing him 17 years later and he said, Boy, I missed those days obviously.” I asked him, What is your story? What is your message that you would like to impart? You would like to get across to other people?” And he says, I want people to understand that if we don’t wake up, this will continue.” And it’s happened here for us, but it’s going to happen everywhere else. And so we need to wake up. And what’s scary, and I think really concerning Max, is that we all know this. You and I were talking about this I guess about a week ago. It’s no longer the canary in the coal mine. It’s not the canaries that are dropping dead. It’s people in the coal mine. It’s like we’re beyond that point. We get it. Everybody understands it. And yet, until you are personally impacted, it’s still out there. It still is. Oh yes, Southern Brazil or whatever, or Egypt or whatever’s happening right now. It’s that thing over there until it hits home and then you’re like, oh, I wish I’d known. I wish I’d realized. We need to understand how it’s connected to the bigger picture and the role that we have to play.

Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s beautifully and powerfully put, brother. And it’s like the thing that is overwhelming me right now is just thinking about all the different contexts in which I’ve heard working people express that same level of fear and trauma and foreboding about the future. I’ve heard it from fathers whose children were killed in school shootings who thought that would never happen here. And then it did. And every parent, every community that’s gone through that has said the exact same thing. And that trauma of course will never go away. I’ve heard the same thing from families in East Palestine, Ohio who say that their kids still get a PTSD response when they hear sirens or when they feel a train coming by and they’re worried, is this going to derail and am I going to live through that nightmare again? Right. I mean, like you said, my family and people I know back in California feel that fear and trepidation when we see smoke in the hills because the fires have been getting worse every year to say nothing of the fires in Hawaii and what folks there must be feeling after this past year.

This is the kind of compounding trauma that more and more of us are sadly understanding on a visceral level because it is coming for us. That is the takeaway message. And if you listen to this show, if you listen to the work we do at The Real News Network, you guys know that the people from those areas who we lift up their stories, we find them, we talk to them, we give you access to them and their experience, what they keep telling you and us is don’t wait for it to happen to you. Don’t do what we did. You have to be proactive about fighting this. And whether it’s the floods that more and more of us are going to be dealing with, whether it’s the kind of climate refugees who are going to be showing up in greater numbers at our southern border, and the sort of fascistic means that our government is using to ramp up our border security and expel people who are being displaced from climate effects that we here in the United States are directly and greatly contributing to.

Like this is all a dismal, terrible cycle that we have to be the ones to get ourselves out of. And I could talk to you about this all day, brother, but I know I’ve kept you long enough. And I want to round out by asking if you could just tell folks a little more about where they can find you and your work, because you’re always doing so much, not just for us at The Real News Network. You are a phenom out there covering the important stories that need to be covered from across Latin America. It really is an honor to work with you, brother, not just because we get to talk about critical stories like this and share your great work, video and audio, but because it genuinely feels like we’re on this team that is trying to fight to save the world before we got no world left to save. So tell folks where they can find more of your work and what you got coming up and then we’ll wrap up.

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Michael Fox: Thanks, Max. The best place for folks to find me is on my Patreon, patre​on​.com/mfox, or you can just go to Patreon, type in Michael Fox. I’m trying to link to every story that I do there, and I’ve also just launched a new kind of personal podcast. The idea is to get really personal with my reporting. And so each, every couple of weeks I’m going to do almost like a postcard from the field. And the idea is to walk listeners through what I’ve been up to, what I’ve been digging into, what I’ve been researching, and talking about, what that means, what it feels like, what I’ve been grappling with. And that’s specifically for my Patreon supporters. And it’s a way of helping me to continue to fund my reporting everywhere I can. So I’ve just launched that this week, that’s new, the Patreon’s been up for about a year, but I’ve just launched this new podcast that you can find it there.

And then of course, links to all my other stories. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram. If you look up Michael Fox, M Fox, you’ll find it. I have a website or I had a website and then I had this WordPress website, which I really enjoyed. And then three or four years ago, it stopped updating and every time I tried to update it with new information, it wouldn’t let me save it and it would save it incorrectly, and I can’t get it updated. So now it’s just this dead site of weird old information about me and I can’t fix it. It’s terrible. So I’m going with Patreon for now, so that’s the best place to find me.

“This is all a dismal, terrible cycle that we have to be the ones to get ourselves out of.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Alright, gang, that’s going to wrap things up for us this week. I want to thank our amazing guest, Mike Fox for talking with us today. And I especially want to thank Mike for all of the important work that he’s doing, not just for The Real News Network, but everything he does. It is so good and so, so important. And you guys should definitely go support Mike on Patreon if you can. And of course you should be listening to and supporting the work that we’re doing together to produce Under the Shadow with NACLA, which you can find links to in the show notes for this episode. And you can binge all of Under the Shadow and Brazil on Fire on any podcast player. And as always, I want to thank you all for listening, and I want to thank you for caring. We’ll see you all back here next week for another episode of Working People.

And if you can’t wait that long, then go subscribe to our Patreon and check out the awesome bonus episodes we’ve got waiting there for our patrons, and go explore all the great work that we’re doing at The Real News Network where we do grassroots journalism that lifts up voices and stories from the front lines of struggle. Sign up for the Real News newsletter so you never miss a story and help us do more work like this by going to the real news​.com/​d​onate and becoming a supporter today. I’m Maximilian Alvarez. Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other, solidarity forever.

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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