Rio’s Agony: From Extreme Weather to Planet of Slums - LATIN AMERICA - Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)



Chapter 13. Rio’s Agony: From Extreme Weather to “Planet of Slums”

The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. But what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

ALEXANDER HERZEN, on the failure of the 1848 revolutions

THE BLACK POLICE helicopter floated above Rio. Ahead of us loomed the huge mountaintop statue of Christ, arms outstretched to the city; below us lay the long, wide expanse of Ipanema Beach. Inland from the posh neighborhoods on the water rose abrupt mountains of solid rock topped by lush jungle. Stacked up haphazardly along these steep slopes were the favelas, the densely packed unplanned neighborhoods of the poor and working classes.

If the contrast of white beaches and dark mountains defines Rio’s postcard-perfect geography, it is the surreal inequality of luxury condos overlooked by impoverished slums that defines Rio’s social landscape. Originally built by squatters from the rural northeast and named for a hardy weed of that region, the poverty- and crime-plagued favelas are the open sore on Rio’s welcoming smile.

To live in a slum that looks down on a wealthy beach community is a provocation of unique intensity. This contrast makes Rio the geographic embodiment of “relative deprivation.” Sociology reveals that absolute deprivation, poverty alone, does not cause violence. Rather, it is deprivation experienced in relation to the status of others, or in relation to what could be, should be, or once was, that hurts the most and drives crime, rebellion, and violence.1 Thus, relative deprivation destroys the social cohesion within communities.2

The police were giving me an airborne tour of this strange geography and explaining how they manage it with violence and about their new offensive against the favela gunmen. As we approached Favela Vidigal, the pilot steered the chopper out over the water in a wide defensive arc. Vidigal is “hostile,” under the control of the Comando Vermelho (CV), one of Rio’s gangs known to shoot at police helicopters. The cocky young pilot, wearing a blue jumpsuit and dark shades, made sure to point out three freshly patched bullet holes near its tail rotor just before we took off. Damage the tail rotor, and the chopper spins out of control.

In October 2009, favela gunmen shot down a police helicopter during a daylong firefight between two rival gang factions and the police. Three officers were killed and four were badly injured. Twelve civilians were also killed, and in the surrounding area young men firebombed ten buses. A year later it happened again: police raids killed thirteen, and then gang members burned fifteen buses during four days of violence.3

Indeed, the gangs of Rio run the favelas and the city’s retail drug trade. Inside the communities they carry machine guns openly as if they were the police, tax local economic activity as if they were the revenue service, and operate informal courts and mete out punishment as if they had a legal code. Steal a cell phone? Get shot through the hands and feet. Snitch someone out? Expect execution.

Roughly the size of New York, Rio has a murder rate six times higher. In 2009 about five thousand people were slain here. The police enter the favelas only for short and brutal raids—arriving at night in armed columns to ransack, torture, and kill. In most slums, they have not established police stations. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, the Rio constabulary kills more than eleven hundred people every year. Only four Rio police officers have been convicted of abuses in the past decade. But Rio’s cops face other risks: almost ninety died in the line of duty in 2009.

If that weren’t enough, now a third source feeds the violence: off-duty police, firefighters, and prison guards have formed militias to check the gangs. These vigilantes can be just as criminal as their enemies. In 2008 such militias even tortured journalists from the city’s biggest newspaper. The situation increasingly looks like a low-intensity war.

Catastrophic Convergence Urbanized

Why are there so many people in Rio? Why is it so violent? And what will climate change do to places like Rio? I decided to explore this megacity because it reveals how climate crisis in the countryside is expressed as urban violence. One of the most dramatic transformations of the last fifty years has been our planet’s rapid urbanization. The process continues, and climate change is now helping to fuel migration from the countryside to the city. Rio allows us to forecast political issues linked to climate change because, in many ways, it is a city produced by extreme weather elsewhere. A brutal rhythm of drought and flooding hundreds of miles away in Brazil’s arid Northeast, or Nordeste, has fueled Rio’s growth. As weather patterns grow more chaotic and extreme due to global warming, outmigration from the countryside will increase.

Already disruptions in the patterns of the Intertropical Convergence Zone are leading to new weather shocks—prolonged drought punctuated by violent flooding—that are making subsistence farming in the Nordeste even more difficult. Displaced farmers of that regioninternal climate refugees—make their way south to the megacities like Rio and São Paulo. There, they become trapped in the favelas, and many of the youth are pulled into the vortex of the sub-rosa economy, that carnival of guns, drugs, money, sex, music, solidarity, and respect. Thus, by displacing people into the favelas, the extreme weather associated with climate change fuels Rio’s crime wars.

Rio, too, faces extreme weather. Just after I visited, a freak storm dropped eleven inches of rain on the city in about twenty-four hours—the worst downpour in its recorded history. The streets flooded with sewage, traffic seized up into daylong jams, slabs of shantytowns slipped away down hillsides, and more that one hundred people died. In January, São Paulo had seen similar weather; two rivers broke their banks, thousands were temporarily homeless, and sixty-four people drowned.4 But the real front line of climate change in Brazil is the dry Nordeste.

New Climatic Normal

Since the 1970s the Nordeste has suffered increased drought; now, it is also regularly hit by flash floods. The summer of 2010 saw devastating floods, as had the year before. They killed almost 50 people, made 120,000 homeless, wiped out 1,200 miles of roads, and destroyed at least 80 bridges. The crisis was bad enough for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to skip a G20 conference.5

This new normal of flooding, drought, and freak storms forms part of a larger pattern of extreme weather that scientists say is the product of anthropogenic climate change and predict will hit northeastern Brazil very hard. Though they are careful to point out that no single weather event can be definitively blamed on climate change, the larger pattern, on the other hand, can be. Consider the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report: “Over the past three decades, Latin America has been subjected to climate-related impacts of increased El Niño occurrences… .The occurrence of climate-related disasters increased by 2.4 times between the periods 1970-1999 and 2000-2005, continuing the trend observed during the 1990s.”6 Later the report notes, “Prolonged droughts in semi-arid north-eastern Brazil have provoked rural-urban migration of subsistence farmers” and increased outbreaks of disease.

Many favela residents are from the Nordeste. Dejacir Alves, whom I met on a stairway in the favela Do Morro dos Cabritos, is typical. He migrated to Rio from Varjota, up in Ceará. “I came here to work, about twenty years ago. My family was in farming. We have a big family, but only two of us still work the land. They do subsistence farming. It is very hard to survive there, and now it is getting harder; there is so much drought there.”

Alves has done “all sorts of work” in Rio—construction, services, taking tickets on a bus. Talking on this concrete-covered hillside, inlaid with walled paths and a warren of hand-built homes, he wears flip-flops and a green football shirt; farming and the land seem far away in the past.

In colonial times the Nordeste hosted a coastal plantation economy and cattle industry. Then, droughts in the late 1870s and early 1880s provoked the steady outmigration of the region’s poor. During much of the twentieth century, Brazilian agriculture remained backward and underdeveloped. Unlike many Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Bolivia, Brazil never had a proper bourgeois revolution to check the power of the feudal landed oligarchy and impose land reform. The redistributive programs of the 1930s Estado Novo only affected urban workers and the middle classes.7 The military takeover of 1964 brought a government-led program of rapid modernization in agriculture, but that did not include land redistribution.

To this day, about 3 percent of the population owns about two-thirds of all farmland.8 Agricultural modernization in the form of the Green Revolution and mechanization caused rising rural unemployment, thus a mass outmigration to the cities. By 1972, major crops, like wheat and soybean, were nearly 60 percent mechanized. Displaced rural workers moved to the cities and built the favelas.9 In 1940 only 15 percent of the country’s population lived in cities; by 1970 that ratio had reached 50 percent. 10 Today, over 80 percent of Brazilians live in cities. And now, we see harbingers of a new wave of migration driven by the strange weather of the unraveling climate system.

Repression in the Megaslums

Social pressure in the cities—driven to some extent by socioclimatological crisis in the rural Northeast—is expressed as criminal violence and state repression. After leaving the favelas to fester for decades, the state is moving to retake them. The strategy runs as follows: First, Rio’s military police special forces—known by their Portuguese acronym, BOPE—invade the favelas and suppress the gangs. Then regular military police units establish permanent bases and begin patrols. Once an area is secured, government services—such as health care, education, cultural facilities, and civil courts—move in. Or that is the plan. They call it pacification; it is classic counterinsurgency except the enemy is a specter, an amorphous threat, a milieu of crime, gangs, and chaos rather than a coherent insurgent foe.

When I was in Rio in early 2010, about ten of the city’s roughly one thousand favelas were undergoing pacification. The people of the favelas were of a mixed mind about the occupations. The gangs, however, were not pleased, and they were taking revenge on the larger society by firebombing commuter buses down “on the pavement,” as nonfavela Rio is called. “Whoever has the guns is the law,” explained Claudio Carvalha, president of the resident association in Do Morro dos Cabritos. For years this favela was subject to a constant struggle between the CV and a rival gang, Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends).

“When one of theirs was wounded, they would dump the guy—bleeding, half dead—at the association, and we were expected to take them to the hospital,” explained Claudio.

In Dona Marta, the first favela occupied back in November 2008 and said to be a showcase of social programs, I met a group of unemployed young people. They may or may not have been enrolled foot soldiers of the CV, but they saw the occupation as all stick and no carrot.

“They are just beating people up,” said a short, tattooed twenty-three-year-old named Max. He wore red shorts and plastic flip-flops and leaned on the wall of the old wooden shack where he lived with his wife, Amanda. A small radio blared a tinny stream of baile funk, essentially Brazilian hip-hop, as Amanda did dishes by an outdoor tap just off one of the main stairways. A few other young men, shirtless and wearing baggy shorts in the heat, gathered as we talked.

“Most people just want the cops to go away and find someone else to harass,” said Amanda. “They treat us like criminals. They force us inside after eleven. If you have what they think is too much money, they take it from you.”

“They push us around when we leave or enter the community,” said another guy, his arms heavily tattooed, who went by the nickname The Moor. “They take us in for minor crimes; they kick us, grab our crotches, search us, kick in our doors, beat us up. They do whatever they want. And we can’t fight back, or we get killed.”

“This whole ‘social vision’ is not well thought out,” said Max. “They promised day care, clinics and jobs. But all I see are cops.”

Blowback Brazilian Style

Scholars argue that Brazil’s crisis of violence is rooted in its history of slavery and frontier conquest. This is true, but more recent origins lie in the country’s intense economic inequality and the violent class struggles it has provoked. Workers’ organizations were long met with brutal repression. From 1964 to 1985, Brazil suffered outright military dictatorship and a decade of “dirty war”; from that age of rebellion and repression, it now experiences a form of blowback. In this history, we see two elements of the catastrophic convergence at play: neoliberal economic restructuring and Cold War violence.

The story of the largest and oldest Rio gang is rooted in the armed struggle of the Cold War, specifically in the story of right-wing military dictatorship and the Marxist resistance to it. According to its veterans, the Comando Vermelho was founded during the mid-1970s in the Cândido Mendes Prison on Ilha Grande, when captured guerrillas were housed with common prisoners.

Like most Latin American countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brazil saw the rise of urban guerrillas opposing economic exploitation and political repression. In 1968, commandos from the tiny MR8 even managed to kidnap the US ambassador, Charles B. Elbrick. The man who coordinated the kidnapping, Fernando Gabeira, is now a famous journalist, author, and leftist politician. The film Four Days in September is based on those events. Another prominent former guerrilla and political prisoner of that era is Dilma Vana Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president.

Not all the revolutionaries had such illustrious careers. The dictatorship met the Left with the extreme violence of death squads, torture, and incarceration. More broadly, it applied a sweeping national security law that allowed the detention of anyone who gave off the slightest whiff of bohemia—long hair and a guitar could get one arrested. A very complete history of the repression exists thanks to the Catholic Archdiocese of São Paulo, which assembled a secret team of lawyers to illegally copy and publish documents from 707 secret military-tribunal cases, involving 7,367 defendants.11 The purloined dossiers show that torture and murder were widespread, and when a synthesis and summary was published as Brasil: Nunca Mais, it became a sudden bestseller.12

While some elements of the revolution later rose in politics, other lumpen cadre became the first-generation leadership of Comando Vermelho (other gangs later formed by splitting off from the CV). As Ben Penglase writes, “In a fairly direct sense, the Comando Vermelho was the bastard child of the dictatorship’s attempt to repress armed political opposition.”13

From Guerrillas to Gangs

Behind bars, the political radicals of Galeria B of Cândido Mendes Prison organized themselves and then united with the general-population inmates. The common criminals saw how the political prisoners maintained unity and, through it, had strength and a higher standard of living. The jailed radicals were “sharing any food or money that they received from outside the prison and enforcing strict discipline that banned inmates from attacking or stealing from each other, practices which were common in the prison. The political prisoners also joined together to defend any political prisoner who had been assaulted by guards or by other prisoners and to demand better conditions.”14

The first written account of this history was Four Hundred Against One, the memoir of William da Silva, who as a young prisoner helped start the CV. He describes how the first “red” prison gang was the Falange LSN, which in 1979 killed off the leaders of several rival apolitical organizations, assumed control of the whole prison, became the Comando Vermelho, and then imposed new revolutionary rules. These, according to da Silva, included “death to anyone who assaults or rapes fellow prisoners; conflicts brought from the street must be left outside of prison; violence only to attempt to escape; constant struggle against repression and abuse.”15

This discipline and unity was soon extended to the favelas. The notion was to support returning prisoners and control the communities, including the drug trade, in preparation for a revolution in Rio and beyond. The CV functioned as a political organization and a beneficent society for prisoners and ex-convicts. It reached into communities, armed in the name of self-defense and revolution, and started taxing the drug trade.16 The first generation of radical CV leaders was soon wiped out, and by the mid-1980s Comando Vermelho had become just another drug gang, albeit very big and well organized.

As the CV was beginning its rise, Brazil’s larger political economy began a process of brutal, neoliberal transformation. It was the concatenation of the early stages of the catastrophic convergence taking form: political violence met a new wave of poverty.

Neoliberal Brazil

It was 1983, the lapels were still wide, the sideburns long, and the protesters furious. Newly unemployed industrial workers—thousands of them—marched down São Paulo’s streets. Screw the military government! These people had reached their limit. Some chanted, “The people united will never be defeated,” but others just screamed, “We’re hungry!”

As the Comando Vermelho was moving into the favelas, the Brazilian economy was falling to its knees; the protests were a symptom of that. In the first two weeks of January, 14,860 workers in São Paulo were fired. At the same time, the government was implementing austerity measures: cutting public services, aid to the poor, and support for industry. In early April, the rage boiled over: the unemployed marched, only to be met by 10,000 riot police. The protests and chanting soon gave way to rock throwing and looting. The police answered with volleys of tear gas, charges, and vicious beatings. For three days the violence went on, and at least 11 supermarkets and dozens of bakeries were looted; thousands of protesters, shouting for jobs, even attacked the state governor’s palace. Police arrested more than 450 people; damages reached $1.5 million.17

Brazil was entering a period of painful economic restructuring. Mired in debt, the government turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank for new loans, but emergency help came with strict new economic conditions. To balance the books, Brazil would suffer a wave of pauperization, unemployment, hunger, homelessness, and desperation.

This was the context for the rise of the drug trade and the Comando Vermelho’s pivot from Rio’s prisons out into the favelas. To understand the catastrophic convergence, we must first understand the foundational crisis of violence and poverty into which is now added accelerating climate change.

From ISI to IMF

Like many developing economies, Brazil had followed a model of state-directed import-substitution industrialization (ISI) from the 1930s onward. Arrived at as a reaction to the collapse of markets for traditional exports during the Great Depression, this state-led form of capitalist development involved an uneasy compact between business and labor brokered by an interventionist state. In exchange for discipline on the shop floor, the state created social security programs and allowed rising wages for the aristocracy of labor. Investment and finance were regulated, and banks were often state owned. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, in response to the Great Depression and World War II, forms of corporatism took root in many places. Sometimes corporatist policies were enacted by democratic states; witness the American New Deal. More often the developmentalist pact between labor and capital was delivered by “relatively autonomous” and authoritarian states, such as mid-century Italy, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Bolivia, and Argentina.

Domestic industry and markets were heavily protected. For example, in 1960 Brazil’s tariffs on manufactured imports were almost ten times as high as those charged by the European Economic Community (EEC)—a 165 percent markup in Brazil versus 17 percent in the EEC.18 Both infant and well-established industries were heavily guarded against foreign competition. Under this regime, industry grew robustly but unevenly. Some sectors were dynamic, efficient, and innovative, “a group of leading firms gained a competitive edge in the manufacturing sector,” while others languished due to the artificial monopolies allowed by ISI. Overall—and contrary to the assertions of today’s economic orthodoxy—labor productivity, living standards, and the economy as a whole increased under ISI.19

David Harvey described the age of state-led development as follows: “This system had delivered high rates of growth in the advanced capitalist countries and generated some spillover benefits (most obviously to Japan but also unevenly across South America and to some other countries of South East Asia) during the ‘golden age’ of capitalism in the 1950s and early 1960s.”20 In the early 1970s, the model in its various iterations hit trouble—partly due to internal problems and partly due to a worldwide crisis of overproduction and overaccumulation.21

The so-called golden age of capitalism, roughly 1945 to 1973, was essentially the story of postwar reconstruction: the long boom was the big rebuild following the devastation of World War II. The war destroyed not only 59 million human lives but also vast amounts of existing capital: factories, cities, farms, docks, gas works, water mains, roads, rails, and communications systems. For six years the scientific genius and herculean industrial might of the major economies was fed wholesale in the maw of war. The overall costs are variously estimated as at $1.5 or $2 trillion, but we’ll never know the real total.

The post-1945 economic boom was essentially the big rebuild or big recovery. The war’s end meant there was pent up demand and plenty of investment, and industrial planning enjoyed broad legitimacy. During the big rebuild, wages, taxes, and profits all grew together. However, during the mid-1960s there started to be too much stuff and not enough demand.22 By 1970, 99 percent of American homes had refrigerators, electric irons, and radios. More than 90 percent had washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and toasters.

As one economist put it, “Saturation in one market led to saturation in others as producers looked abroad when the possibilities for domestic expansion were exhausted. The results were simultaneous export drives by companies in all advanced countries, with similar, technologically sophisticated products going into one another’s markets… . Increasing exports … from developing countries such as Taiwan, Korea, Mexico and Brazil further increased the congestion of mass markets in the advanced economies.”23

By the early 1970s, capitalism was suffocating from industrial success. Around the world and across industries, firms found it increasingly difficult to maintain their amazing (if not aberrant) postwar profitability.24

Continent of Debt

By the early 1970s, a new factor had entered the equation: there was a global glut of liquidity—too much capital was competing for too few investment outlets. That translated into very inexpensive and abundant credit. Brazil had always borrowed to fund its industrialization, but now growth slowed, and capital became cheap.

In 1973, the other shoe dropped: Arab defeat in the Yom Kippur War led to an oil embargo by many key exporters. The price of oil quadrupled in less than a year. That hit Brazil hard. Though now a major oil producer, it then imported 80 percent of its petroleum. Before prices could subside, the Shah of Iran fell to a revolution, precipitating a second oil shock in 1979. Prices nearly doubled again. By the early 1980s, the Brazilian government was desperately trying to stimulate its economy by borrowing and spending. The Miami Herald business section pointed out the unfairness of the macroeconomic situation: “In contrast to Argentina and Mexico, a very high proportion of the billions borrowed here went to productive projects, analysts say. Many were the projects of ‘Brasil Grande’—nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, jungle highways, petrochemical complexes, an export-oriented arms industry, steel mills, and a $3-billion railroad to facilitate steel exports.”25 But Brazil was subject to the same austerity as those who had borrowed less productively.

Then, a third layer of the crisis hit. The world’s leading economy, the United States, also faced deep trouble. Overcapacity globally meant a collapse in the rate of return on investment—a collapse of profits. “From a peak of nearly 10 percent in 1965, the average net after-tax profit rate of domestic non-financial corporations plunged to less than 6 percent during the second half of the 1970s—a decline of more than a third.”26 After twenty years of continual expansion during the long postwar recovery, profits began to sag in 1966 and continued to decline steadily until 1974, until they reached a low of around 4.5 percent.27 The same pattern was visible from Germany to Japan, as all advanced capitalist countries experienced an after-tax profit decline of between 20 and 30 percent.

Robert Brenner, a leading scholar on this history, put it this way: “Due to the onset of over-capacity and over-production, world manufacturing prices had been unable to grow in line with product wages and the cost of plant and equipment: the result was falling profit shares and output-capital ratios, making for falling profit rates.”

How was this to be dealt with?

Fundamentally, for profits to recover, wages had to fall, and not just wages, but the social wage—the share of national production redistributed to the working class in the form of public goods like government-funded education, health care, and welfare. Rescue arrived in the form of Paul Volcker, the new chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Beginning in 1979, Volcker began a dramatic rise in interest rates from 7.9 percent in 1979 to 16.4 percent in 1981. This had the effect of cutting borrowing throughout the economy, and with that, investment and consumer spending also ratcheted down abruptly. Unemployment reached 10.8 percent by December 1982.28 At the same time, both Reagan and Thatcher launched offensives against the power of organized labor, cut social spending, and slashed taxes on the wealthy. As a result, the US economy plunged into what was then the most severe recession since the Great Depression.29 In the process, it dragged down many of its trading partners with it, as US imports shrank radically.

In Latin America the new monetary policy also meant that interest payments on existing debt soared. Thus began the Latin American debt crisis. From 1978 to the end of 1982, total Latin American debt more than doubled, from $159 billion to $327 billion. Debt servicing—that is, interest payments—grew even faster: the average Latin American country used more than 30 percent of its export earnings just to service its debts. Brazil paid nearly 60 percent.30 Journalist Andres Oppenheimer explained, “As the old debt gets more expensive it begets new debt; to meet their interest payments the major Latin American countries have had to rely more and more on emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund and commercial banks. In effect, they are receiving with one hand and paying back with the other.”31 As public debt soared, the Brazilian currency lost value until chronic inflation became hyperinflation, hitting 1,765 percent by the end of the 1980s.32


The solution to the crisis came in the form of IMF- and World Bank-enforced austerity. In 1983 Brazil had the largest foreign debt of the developing world: $83.8 billion. Just to service its debt, it had to borrow more and more in a downward spiral. In early 1983, Brazil went to the IMF for $6 billion, then the single-largest loan in the Fund’s history. In return, Brazil agreed to a brutal austerity program: to cut inflation, growth was strangled, public spending cut, the currency devalued, imports restricted, public assets privatized, and exports boosted.33 In São Paulo, workers soon rioted.34 Over the next decade the crisis dragged on.

Brazil’s military government did push back a bit, resisting the Bretton Woods institutions’ more draconian stipulations. As Finance Minister Dilson Funaro explained in 1986, “The way out of the debt crisis is through growth, and the IMF formulas don’t provide growth.”35 But, in the end, neoliberalism won; deflationary austerity, deregulation, privatization, aggressive exporting, unemployment, suppressed wages, hunger, corruption, crime, and migration all defined the economic landscape.

Unfortunately, Brazil’s export drive took place amidst falling commodity prices. Two factors contributed to this. The Bretton Woods institutions were simultaneously pressuring other Third World debtors to export more; meanwhile, deep recessions and high interests rates in the richer countries held down consumption. Increased supply plus reduced demand meant plummeting prices. Sugar, copper, aluminum, and other raw materials all hit deep lows.

The IMF’s structural-adjustment program resulted in higher unemployment, rising poverty, and growing urbanization as the rural poor went to cities in search of work. From 1980 to 1990, Rio’s overall population growth rate was 8 percent, but the favela population surged by 41 percent. As economist and Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot explained, “From 1960-1980, income per person—the most basic measure that economists have of economic progress—in Brazil grew by about 123 percent. From 1980 to 2000, it grew by less than 4 percent.” Weisbrot estimates that, had Brazil not embraced neoliberalism, “the country would have European living standards today. Instead of about 50 million poor people as there are today, there would be very few. And almost everyone would today enjoy vastly higher living standards, educational levels, and better health care.”36 Even if Weisbrot overstates the case a bit (Which Europe? Rural Greece or urban Holland?), his larger point about neoliberalism’s damaging impact is valid.

Human Costs

Had Brazil not embraced neoliberalism, violence would surely be less of an issue. As poverty increased and the favelas grew, social relations within them frayed. Amidst this neoliberal transformation, the Comando Vermelho and other gangs grew to become guerrilla armies minus the ideology or political cause, employing only the methods and organization of war.

“By 1991 the CV had become purely criminal. There was no ideology anymore,” explained Commander Rodrigo Oliveira of Rio’s Civilian Police Special Forces when I met him in his office to discuss the gangs and the war on them. “Now their goal is power, plain and simple—not even huge private fortunes for the slum ‘owners,’” he said, using the colloquial term for the gang leaders. “Mostly it’s just about organizational power, weapons, and status.”

Academic analyses of Rio’s gangs often note the absence or failure of state institutions. Others, most notably Enrique Desmond Arias, argue that the criminal structures in the favelas bring together gangsters, police, community leaders, and mainstream politicians in a matrix of mutually beneficial relations. Such an arraignment, essentially the criminalization of the local state, has evolved out of the crisis of neoliberalism.37 To the extent that Arias is correct, criminality in the favelas becomes a matter less of state withdrawal and more of societal rot—a whole society infected by the gangrene of sub-rosa economics, corruption and violence.


The red flag of revolution whips in the hot wind atop a roughhewn pole. Below it sits a small squatter camp where poor farmers occupy land belonging to a distant and wealthy rancher. Welcome to the hot scrublands of the Nordeste and the tiny village of Boqueirão in Brazil’s Ceará Province. The village sits on a dusty one-lane track at the bottom of a long valley, hemmed in on either side by looming mountains of dark, barren rock. If you look on Google Maps, Boqueirão is, roughly, due north of Iracuba, which sits on the road BR 222. The long valley shows up like a pale scar amidst the dark hills.

On one side of the road is the village of solid little whitewashed homes, with smooth cement floors and red-tile roofs. On the other side is the camp of peasant activists, members of the landless people’s movement Movimento dos Trabalhadore Rurais Sem Terra (MST). The MST is a social movement of some 370,000 people organized in more than 1,000 communities across Brazil. Their objective is simple: redistribute land to hungry farmers. And in the last twenty years they’ve had remarkable success. Their methods are also simple: move in and start using the land. That is what is happening here. The MST cadres have used heavy black plastic and wood to build two long, collective shacks called barracos, or “barracks.” One is for cooking, eating, and meeting; the other, strung with hammocks, is for sleeping. The camp is never left unoccupied.

Drought Land

The Nordeste is semiarid, receiving very little rain. Severe floods punctuate its frequent droughts. In 1877 to 1879, a catastrophic drought killed more than five hundred thousand people and sent the rural Northeast into political crisis. 38 Now, fear of drought is etched in the region’s culture. For example, in parts of Ceará, the year traditionally ended with drought-prediction rituals. On December 13, the eve of St. Luzia’s Day, an old man would set six pieces of rock salt out on a banana leaf, each piece representing a month of the upcoming rainy season. The following morning, the salt pieces that had melted away in the dew symbolized the months of the coming season that would receive rain. The farmer who explained this tradition to me also said, “It doesn’t seem to work well anymore.” In any event, research indicates that the drought cycle “has become more frequent over the last century, with five droughts recorded during the current decade.”39

The rainy season in Ceará runs from January to June, with much variability in duration, timing, and intensity and between localities. The rain is delivered as the Intertropical Convergence Zone moves to its southernmost position.40 A study in the Journal of Applied Meteorology finds that sea surface temperatures are the primary factor responsible for “the interannual variability of rainfall in northeast Brazil,” meaning among other things that droughts “tend to coincide with the warm phase of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) episodes.”41

More broadly, regional studies of temperature trends in the region “show changes that are in line with expected warming, most notably warmer nights.” The majority of climate models find that northeast Brazil “is expected to experience more rapid warming than the global average during the 21st century.” Depending on the model and the potential amounts of greenhouse gases loaded into the atmosphere in coming decades, projected temperature increases for this century range from 1°C to 6°C. In more concrete terms, most forecasts predict northeastern Brazil will be a region of very severe water stress by 2050.42

Rio’s favelas are largely populated by people from these dry lands. Despite its harsh climate, the Northeast is densely populated.43 As climate change grinds down subsistence farmers, more Nordestinos leave to search for work either in the depressed cities of their nearby coastal areas, like Fortaleza and Recife, or down south in the megacities of São Palo and Rio. Thus, the social dimensions of the ecological crisis in the Nordeste (a frontline region for climate change) are expressed in cities as unemployment, makeshift housing, the narcotrade and violence.

In this light, we can read the struggle of the farmers in Boqueirão as an inadvertent struggle against violence and social breakdown in the cities. At the same time, their struggle to stay on the land is a struggle for social justice in one of the most unequal countries in the world. It is also a struggle to adapt to climate change in an already extreme environment; as such, it encapsulates the possibilities and perils of Brazilian life in the face of the catastrophic convergence.

Technologies of Adaptation

“Thank God we are all strong people. We don’t take loans,” said Osmar Careinro Araujo. We were sitting in the shade of the MST camp’s kitchen shack; around us the afternoon landscape was still and hot. Everything seemed to be waiting for the sun to relent. Osmar, the de facto community leader, was in his early forties, short and dark, with squinty, thoughtful eyes and a full black mustache. He had come up with the idea of the land occupation. He said,

We had a few years without bad drought. And then last year—we have never seen a winter like that. It rained until August. As for the temperature rising, we can’t measure this, but it feels much hotter. We feel the increase over the years. And for agriculture this is bad. Last year we had a really bad year. Because it flooded, we lost 50 percent of our beans. The fava did well. But there was a bumper crop, so prices were low. A real farmer always keeps back some seed. We are okay despite last year. But if the weather is really bad again we will have a hard time to recover.

This community has twenty-seven families, most of them related to each other. In face of drought and flooding, they have begun to adapt both technologically and politically. First, they switched from monocropping cotton and beans, which require burning the fallow fields and using expensive chemical inputs, to a form of mixed-crop agroecological farming, agroforestry, and integrated pest management that uses few or no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. They are also using inventive forms of low-impact water-capturing and rain-harvesting technologies.

Osmar and some of his compatriots take me across the road to show me “the system” and some of their alternative water-harvesting techniques. One method involves building “underground dams.” It goes like this: First the farmers find a dry streambed or natural area of drainage. At the bottom of this feature, below and away from the slope of the hill, they dig a long ditch across the natural path of drainage. The ditch may be one hundred or three hundred feet long and deep enough to hit solid rock—here, about five to ten feet down. Then, within the ditch, they build a cement and rock wall—or dam—lined with heavy plastic. Then the ditch is filled in, and the wall is buried. This underground dam greatly slows the natural drainage and creates a moist and fertile field “upstream.”

The agroforestry crops are a mix of fruit trees, corn, cover crops, and climbing-vine crops. The fields seem abandoned due to the tangled mix of plant species. This lush mesh captures moisture and creates a balance of competing insects, limiting or eliminating the need for chemical pesticides. During the first three to five years, yields decrease, but then they increase as soil health improves. And the produce, as organic, commands higher prices.

For individual plants that need irrigation, they attach punctured empty plastic soda bottles to stakes above the thirsty plant. With this form of low-tech drip irrigation, a farmer can feed an individual plant little bits of water, allowing the precious liquid to drip out slowly and only onto the plant that needs it. The farmers’ list of ingenious methods is long and evolving, thanks in part to groups like the Catholic NGO Caritas, which works to spread knowledge of best practices among the communities.

Altogether, these agroforestry or agroecological methods, which revive and enhance old ways, are in use all over the world. The IPCC mentions them in the Fourth Assessment Report: “Agroforestry using agroecological methods offers strong possibilities for maintaining biological diversity in Latin America, given the overlap between protected areas and agricultural zones.”44

“The system,” as the farmers call it, preserves and enhances the land’s fertility and moisture, and because the fields are never left as bare ground, it helps prevent erosion. “People talk about sustainable farming, but that takes money and time,” Osmar said. “We need land reform and help with water harvesting and storage facilities.”

Politics of Adaptation

During my time in Boqueirão, I noticed a contradiction. While Osmar and the others championed “the system” and used the green farming methods on the side of the road where they owned land, they were still burning and monocropping on the land that they merely occupied. The reason for this reveals how adaptation and social justice really are linked: agroforestry takes three to five years to become profitable. Without land rights—without legal title—these families could not afford to invest their minimal capital and precious effort in the long-term and labor-intensive project of land restoration and stewardship. In another village, further north along the dirt track, I found further confirmation that land reform is climate adaptation.

In the village of Bueno, I met Antonio Braga Mota. “The system is a balanced system. I was really surprised that we actually did not need fertilizer and pesticides to do this,” said Antonio as we tour his vine- and tree-covered crops. “The traditional method was destructive. Burning depletes the land. Unfortunately, I did a lot of that.” He said even tapirs and rare birds are returning. He could be passionate about the system because he owned his land. He was not rich but had enough land to make the transition from mainstream methods to green farming.

At the MST camp I also found an example of reverse migration, from the favelas back to the land. Marcio Romero de Araujo Braga, a lean young farmer, had left the valley in March 2003 for the bright lights of São Paulo, where he worked painting buildings.

“It was good and bad in the city,” he explained while taking a break from uprooting small trees on the newly occupied land. In São Paulo he met and married a young woman, originally from rural Bahia, and they had a kid. “But it was dangerous. My wife had to cross a favela every morning to get to work. There was too much violence, always drugs around. I prefer working the land.”

Marcio’s desire to come home was only possible once the occupation of the unused ranch began. Now there is land for him to work. “My dream would be to stay here and keep farming,” he said when I ask him how he saw his future. “When we win this struggle”—he gestured to the field that he and a dozen other men were clearing—“I can do that.”

Rolling Back Neoliberalism

During his eight years in power, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took seriously the task of economic redistribution and development of Brazil’s infrastructure—that is, he sought to roll back neoliberalism in Brazil. He promised something like Roosevelt’s New Deal but delivered something closer to Johnson’s “war on poverty”—providing real benefits to the poor but leaving the rich unmolested. Lula did not address the climate crisis with an ambitious program of mitigation and adaptation. Yet, he laid the groundwork for real adaptation efforts that may come later.

Under Lula, Brazil paid off its external debt and built up reserves of $240 billion. In 2005, Brazil announced it would pay off both the Paris Club (that is, nineteen of the world’s biggest economies) and the much-loathed IMF.45 That, in effect, redirected huge streams of revenue away from wealthy international creditors (who make money by owning the debts of others) back toward social and economic investment within Brazil.

One of Lula’s central economic programs has been the Bolsa Família, which gives payments of up to $104 a month to poor families. Mothers with children are paid for sending kids to school, getting vaccinations, and following proper nutrition. The program gives food not only to the destitute but also to the solidly working class and thus enjoys wide support. The Bolsa was actually started in the 1990s by state governments and expanded under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then expanded again very widely by Lula. By 2010 one in four Brazilians depended on the Bolsa, which had helped lift 21 million out of poverty. The cost is minimal: Brazil spends less than half of 1 percent of its $1.6 trillion GDP on antipoverty programs. This is redistributive social justice, but it is not transformative of underlying social relations.

Lula’s other big initiative was potentially more profound. The Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), a macroeconomic and infrastructural policy—classic Keynesianism—began in 2007 with an initial investment of $4.2 billion and aimed to revamp Brazil’s infrastructure. The PAC has built roads, rails, power lines, and housing; in the Nordeste, it mostly helps agroexporters with water impoundment, irrigation, transportation, and port facilities. The PAC helped maintain Brazil’s robust economic growth: even during the worst of the recent world economic slump, Brazil did well and inequality decreased. Under Lula the top 10 percent of Brazilians has grown 11 percent richer, but the bottom tenth has seen incomes rise 72 percent. But the PAC’s focus on large-scale, capital-intensive projects means relying on well-connected businesses, and this tends to reinforce old hierarchies.46

Climate change and the harsh task of adaptation at the grass roots require an expanded economic role for the Brazilian state. Yet, even simply redistributive actions by the state can inadvertently reinforce the five-hundred-year-old client-patron dynamic that has fettered Brazil. Will climate-adaptation aid in the Nordeste force poor people to depend on local elites—political bosses—to act as brokers with the state? Or will it work with the social movements? Time will tell.

As Donald R. Nelson and Timothy J. Finan, two experts on the matter, have found, government actions now provide food, water, and cash to victims of drought. The Northeast has been targeted for both emergency drought aid and big water-storage infrastructure projects for more than one hundred years. “As a consequence, drought-related mortality is no longer apparent and forced migrations have significantly declined, suggesting that the state has been successful in mitigating the worst of the impacts. Nonetheless, as a result of the high levels of vulnerability, farm families remain dependent on the state political apparatus (and the local elite) during times of crisis.”47

Just as MST and CV represent two contradictory grassroots adaptive responses to suffering, Lula’s tropical New Deal and the paramilitary assaults of the BOPE upon the favelas are examples of the Brazilian state’s conflicting potentials. The social problems of poverty and violence in Brazil will become more intense as climate change takes hold. Some amount of repression is inevitable. The question is, Which tendency within the state will dominate future policy: the move to alleviate suffering or that to violently contain and repress it?