By Saulo Araujo, Director of Global Philanthropy
Since the beginning of the year, hundreds of thousands of families have faced devastating flooding in the state of Bahia, Brazil. The floods have displaced more than 93,000 people and have taken 26 lives. People are scrounging for their few remaining belongings, and frantically searching for loved ones.
These floods are a tragedy. I should know. My family and I lived through a similar tragic flooding in Pernambuco state years ago.
Many of our neighbors refused to leave their homes, moving furniture and small appliances to roofs and improvised boats. My mother knew that we would not be able to salvage much from the mud, so she fought tooth and nail to pack a few belongings before our home got flooded. It was greatly traumatic for us all, especially my mother. I know many of the affected families today will live with the same flashbacks we experienced.
What’s more, this tragedy is man made. In recent years, Brazil has continued building dams in order to expand the country’s hydropower despite their wreaking havoc on the environment and Indigenous communities. And when they burst — which is increasingly likely as climate change worsens — they leave behind devastation.
In this case, following some of the heaviest rainfall in the history of Bahia, the overflowing of local rivers led to two dams bursting within 24 hours.
Bolsonaro ignores the plight of families in Bahia
Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has largely neglected the crisis in Bahia, a state governed by the opposition party. His ministers made only a single appearance to the region after outcry in the national media. But so far, their visit has not led to them committing any federal resources to the local families — only empty promises.
As is often the case in crises like these, the bulk of the support on the ground right now is coming from neighbors and local organizations. Neighbors helping neighbors was what made the safe passage of my family possible so we could reach our relatives. It is going to take a grassroots solution to see people through this — and to address the underlying causes of climate change and ecological disaster.
MAB and other social movements step up
The Movement of People Affected by Dams is a national movement formed by an estimated 80,000 families who have been displaced or are threatened by displacement by hydropower dams. Despite scarce resources, MAB sent several organizers from other regions to help in this latest crisis.
The organization has grown in numbers because the problems with mega-dams in Brazil, a bonanza for energy companies, have only grown. For years, the movement has been monitoring dams that post a risk of collapse, denouncing the problems to the authorities, bringing solutions, and most importantly advocating for their rights.
People affected by dams trust other families who have the same lived experience. They understand that the government and companies see the rights of affected families as competing with and opposing their quest for profit and power. And as MAB said in a recent statement, “We [have] learned that in times of greatest difficulty in life, it is best to fight together.”
Meanwhile, other social movements in Brazil such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) have also stepped up to help families through the distribution of meals, mattresses, and cleaning houses.
It is critical that those of us in the United States and elsewhere support MAB, MST and the affected families now and for the long term. A social movement led by those most affected is where the grassroots power is. And where we have grassroots power, there are solutions and inspiration to others.
A man-made disaster accentuated by climate change
As Bolsonaro plays politics with families’ plight, the media in both Brazil and the US has given little attention to a catastrophe of such magnitude. As João Pedro Stedile, member of the national coordination of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) pointed out in this tweet, the real culprits of this disaster are working hard to fend off the blame.
Uma tragedia ambiental se abate sobre o povo baiano. O MST está lá, solidário, distribuindo alimentos e ajudando na medida do possível. E cadê as empresas que destruiram a mata atlântica e encheram a região com monocultivo de pasto e eucalipto? Vão culpar São Pedro ?— João Pedro Stedile (@stedile_mst) December 27, 2021
The logging of forest reserves for the expansion of agribusinesses (mostly soy for exports) has made watersheds vulnerable and less capable of feeding aquifers. Without trees, the regular flow of water erodes the soil, generating a massive amount of sediments that strains the capacity of dams. With more water running on the surface, floodings are inevitable.
The destruction of the environment for profit, coupled with changes in the distribution of rains created by climate change, has resulted in the loss of homes, lives, and livelihoods.
MAB and families in Bahia need our support now
People have been without electricity and income for weeks now.
The water in some areas has returned to normal levels. While some families have been able to return to their homes and start rebuilding, many others are unable to do so and must stay in improvised shelters with minimal facilities for personal hygiene and cooking.
Knowing from personal experience, this will be an intensely traumatic time for them. My relatives let us stay in their homes for months, until my parents could afford to rent a small house in the same town where both sets of my grandparents lived. But many of my neighbors didn’t have the same luck.
Grassroots International, where I serve as Director of Global Philanthropy, has already sent $10,000 to the recovery effort in Bahia. But MAB, the MST, and other social movements in Bahia need additional support. They are providing meals, mattresses, and medical support to families; personal hygiene and COVID-19 protection supplies; tools and equipment for clean up; and transportation to ensure families can get to shelters.
We have set up a special emergency fund to support families in Bahia. Given the hardship these families are going through now and for months to come, we are calling upon all people of conscience to take immediate action in solidarity.