Friday, April 09, 2010

The Social Effects of the Rains in Rio

By now, you may have heard of the devastation in Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi (across the bay from Rio de Janeiro). On Tuesday,the city received 288 millimeters (11.3 inches) of rain in a 24-hour period. Stop and think about that - nearly a foot of rain in 24 hours. The results were devastating. Well over 100 were dead before Wednesday, and that was before more mudslides in the mountainous areas buried hundreds more alive, leaving Niteroi to declare a state of emergency while Rio declared three days of mourning and dealt with destruction in the storm's wake as well. Overall, news sites and blogs alike have done a good job covering the story, and I have little to add to them in terms of the basic facts of the immediate story.

However, the deaths point directly to the social inequalities of Brazil and remind us once again how class, race, and environment are inherently tied together in this type of disaster. In Rio, the poor and marginalized were most directly impacted. This is because of the simple arrangement of urban space in Rio de Janeiro. And this isn't a recent project - state-led efforts to displace the poor from the best land in the city date back to the late-1800s. While the government has tried to improve infrastructure in the favelas (notably during Leonel Brizola's terms as governor from 1983-1987 and 1991-1994), that hasn't prevented the elites over the 20th century from buying up and developing the best land, flat and near the beach, within the city, forcing the poor to the outskirts of the city or to build the favelas along the side of the region's mountains. And when rains like this happen, what would have been a landslide that perhaps affected few suddenly turns into a catastrophe that leaves hundreds dead.

And it's really hard to blame the favelados for this. Certainly, where they build had and has very real environmental consequences, but to place the blame for this on their shoulders is to ignore the broader socio-economic realities and history of Rio for well over 100 years. Due to the enormous gap in wealth (which only increased in Brazil in the last 30 years of the 20th century), as well as increasing urbanization throughout the 20th century (the country went from 70% rural/30% urban in the early-20th century to 70% urban/30% rural by the 1980s, even as the population grew), Rio's poor have constantly found them forced to live and get by in the geographically and environmentally worst places available (the landslide in Niteroi that buried 200 was built on top of an old landfill, not exactly prime real-estate). Indeed, it's quite common to see luxurious apartment buildings in places like Sao Conrado, Tijuca, Ipanema, Botafogo, and elsewhere within direct eyeshot of a favela, making the tragedy only that much more painful for the poor. Those with the least in Rio were stripped of everything they had, within eyesight of apartment buildings housing Rio's middle- and upper-classes, resting safely on flat, solid ground.

Certainly, the rains in Rio and the loss of life are horrible and sad, no matter how you cut it. But this isn't an isolated incident, or a once-in-a-lifetime kind of disaster; it's a direct result of issues revolving around poverty and urban space. Virtually none of the dead from these rains are middle- or upper-class. They were safe in land and buildings that have been their province for generations, even while the poor were excluded, isolated, and forced to make do with the options available to them, which by and large happened to be mountainsides that could erode in heavy rainfall. Obviously, favelas do lead to environmental degradation that can result in loss of hundreds of lives; at same time, city has adopted policies since late-1800s that have forced poor to the "marginal" parts of Rio, either on outskirts and/or forcing poor to build fragile housing along moutains; thus, when there is plenty of rain, favelas suffer disproportionately while middle-class and upper-class housing is safe. And while certainly the nearly-foot of rain has led to a very high death count, these kinds of landslides are not infrequent on a smaller scale when Rio sees even moderate rainfall (which happens annually), affecting both people's lives and basic infrastructure in the city. And thanks to climate change, some climatologists predict Rio (and Brazil) can expect with much greater frequency the kind of rainfall they saw Tuesday, which will undoubtedly lead to the deaths of more of Rio's poor, all while the wealthy and well-off can look out their windows, click their tongues at the tragedy, and never think about the broader social processes that have led to such a loss of life.