By Saulo Araujo, Director of Global Philanthropy
Since the beginning of the year, hundreds of thousands of families have faced devastating floods in the state of Bahia, Brazil. The floods displaced more than 93,000 people and left 26 dead. People search for their few remaining possessions and frantically search for loved ones.
These floods are a tragedy. I should know. My family and I experienced a similar tragic flood in the state of Pernambuco years ago.
Many of our neighbors refused to leave their homes, moving furniture and small appliances onto rooftops and improvised boats. My mom knew we couldn’t salvage much from the mud, so she fought tooth and nail to pack a few things before our house flooded. It was very traumatic for all of us, especially my mother. I know that many families affected today will live with the same flashbacks that we experienced.
Moreover, this tragedy is of human origin. In recent years, Brazil has continued to build dams in order to expand the country’s hydroelectricity despite their havoc on the environment and indigenous communities. And when they erupt – which is increasingly likely as climate change worsens – they leave havoc behind.
In this case, following some of the heaviest rainfall in Bahia’s history, overflowing local rivers caused two dams to burst within 24 hours.
Bolsonaro ignores fate of families in Bahia
Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has largely overlooked the crisis in Bahia, a state ruled by the opposition party. His ministers made only one appearance in the region after an outcry in the national media. But so far, their visit hasn’t resulted in them committing federal resources to local families — just empty promises.
As is often the case in crises like these, most of the support on the ground right now is coming from neighbors and local organizations. Neighbors helping neighbors is what made it possible for my family to pass safely so we could join our loved ones. It will take a basic solution to help people get through this – and to tackle the underlying causes of climate change and ecological disaster.
MAB and other social movements mobilize
the Movement of people affected by dams is a national movement formed by approximately 80,000 families displaced or threatened with displacement by hydroelectric dams. Despite limited resources, MAB has sent several organizers from other regions to help in this latest crisis.
The organization has grown in number because the problems of mega-dams in Brazil, a boon for energy companies, have only grown. For years, the movement has been monitoring dams that are at risk of collapsing, denouncing the problems to the authorities, providing solutions and, above all, defending their rights.
People affected by the dams trust other families who have gone through the same experience. They understand that government and corporations see the rights of affected families as competing with and opposing their pursuit of profit and power. And as MAB said in a recent statement, “We [have] learned that in the most difficult times of life, it is better to fight together.
Meanwhile, other social movements in Brazil, such as the Movement of Landless Workers (MST), have also mobilized to help families by distributing meals, mattresses and cleaning houses.
It is critical that those of us in the United States and elsewhere support MAB, MST, and affected families now and for the long term. A social movement led by those most affected is where the grassroots power lies. And where we have grassroots power, there are solutions and inspiration for others.
A man-made catastrophe accentuated by climate change
While Bolsonaro plays politics with the fate of the families, the media in Brazil and the United States have paid little attention to a catastrophe of such magnitude. As João Pedro Stedile, member of the national coordination of the Movement of Landless Workers (MST) pointed out in this tweet, the real culprits of this disaster are working hard to shift the blame.
Uma ambient tragedy abate sobre o povo baiano. O MST est lá, solidário, distribuindo alimentos e ajudando na medida do possível. E cadê as empresas que destruiram a mata atlântica e auction a region com monocultivo de pasto e eucalipto? Vao culpar Sao Pedro?
— João Pedro Stedile (@stedile_mst) December 27, 2021
The exploitation of forest reserves for the expansion of agro-industries (mainly soybeans for export) has made watersheds vulnerable and less able to feed aquifers. Without trees, the steady flow of water erodes the soil, generating a massive amount of sediment that strains the capacity of dams. With more water flowing to the surface, flooding is inevitable.
The destruction of the environment for profit, coupled with changes in rainfall patterns created by climate change, has resulted in the loss of homes, lives and livelihoods.
MAB and the families of Bahia need our support now
People have been without power and income for weeks.
Water in some areas has returned to normal levels. While some families have been able to return to their homes and begin to rebuild, many others cannot and must remain in makeshift shelters with minimal facilities for personal hygiene and cooking.
Knowing from personal experience, this will be an extremely traumatic time for them. My relatives let us stay with them for months, until my parents could afford to rent a small house in the same town where my two grandparents lived. But many of my neighbors weren’t so lucky.
Grassroots International, where I am director of global philanthropy, has already sent $10,000 to recovery efforts in Bahia. But MAB, MST and other social movements in Bahia need additional support. They provide meals, mattresses and medical support to families; personal hygiene supplies and protection against COVID-19; cleaning tools and equipment; and transportation to ensure families can get to shelters.
We have set up a special emergency fund to support families in Bahia. Given the difficulties these families are going through now and for the months to come, we call on all people of conscience to act immediately in solidarity.