Friday, April 16, 2010

Rio: Prophets of Ecology Are Lacking

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Between April 5th and 8th of this year, the State of Rio de Janeiro (the city and neighboring ones, especially Niterói) experienced the largest flood of the past 48 years. There was extensive flooding in the main street, landslides, a one and a half meter rise in the level of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, caused in part by the high tide that prevented the drainage of rainwater. The most terrible thing was the death of hundreds of people buried under tons of earth, trees, rocks and trash.

There seem to be three main causes which led to this tragedy, which from time to time descends upon the city, which is charming for its landscape which combines sea, mountains and forest, and its warm and welcoming people.

The first is the floods themselves, typical of these subtropical areas. But with an aggravating factor, which is global warming. Rio's tragedy should be analyzed in the context of others that have occurred in the southern part of the country, with hurricanes and prolonged rains with massive landslides and hundreds of victims, and in the city of São Paulo, which suffered floods for more than a month that left whole neighborhoods under water continuously. Some analysts speak of changes in hydrological cycles caused by the warming of the waters of the Atlantic, as has already occurred in the Pacific. This picture will tend to recur more often and even more intensely as global warming continues to worsen.

The climatic tragedy brought to light the social tragedy experienced by the most needy populations. This is the second cause. There are over 500 favelas (poor communities), perched on the slopes of the mountains that snake around the city. Not that they are to blame for the landslides, as the governor noted. People live in these risk areas because they simply do not have anywhere else to go. There is a remarkable general insensitivity to the poor, the result of the elitism of our slave and colonial tradition. The State is organized not to serve the entire population, but mainly the affluent. There has never been a consistent public policy to include the favelas as part of the city and therefore urbanize them, ensuring safe housing, sewerage, water, and electricity infrastructure, and, not least, transportation. There have always been poor policies for the poor, who are the vast majority of the population, and rich policies for the rich. The consequence of this neglect is revealed in the disasters that destroy the lives of hundreds of people.

The third cause is what I would call lack of "prophets of ecology." Observing the flooded streets and avenues, all kinds of garbage, bags full of waste, plastic bottles, wooden boxes, and even sofas and cabinets could be seen floating on the water. That is, the people had not incorporated a basic ecological attitude of taking care of the garbage they produce. That garbage clogged sewers and stormwater drains, causing the sudden rise in storm water and its slow evacuation.

Porto Alegre, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, offers a good example. Under the guidance of a Marist brother, Antônio Cecchin, who has been working for years in the poor areas that surround the city, the installation of hundreds of garbage disposal points was organized. About twenty large warehouses were erected near downtown, on the tip of Grande dos Marinheiros island, where garbage is sorted, cleaned and sold to different factories that reuse it.

He raised the awareness of the garbage collectors that their job is helping to keep the city clean so that it can be a place where people can live happily. The garbage collectors proudly wrote their dignified title in large letters on the back of each of their carts: "Prophets of Ecology."

They made the words of one of our greatest environmentalists, José Lutzenberger their ideal: "A single garbage collector does more for the environment in Brazil than the minister of the environment himself." If there had been these "prophets of ecology" in the State of Rio de Janeiro, the flooding would have been less overwhelming and hundreds of lives would have been saved.

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