By LEONARDO BOFF
The environmental, social and human cataclysm that befell the three mountain counties of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Petropolis, Teresopolis and Nova Friburgo, in the second week of January, with hundreds of deaths, destruction of entire regions and immeasurable suffering of those who lost family, homes and all their possessions has as most immediate cause torrential rains, typical of summer, the geophysical setting of mountains, with little ground cover that grows on the lush subtropical rainforest, sitting on huge flat rocks that, because of infiltration of water and vegetation weight, often trigger deadly mudslides.
People who occupied areas of risk are blamed, corrupt politicians who distributed dangerous land to poor are criminalized, the government is criticized for having been lenient and for not having done prevention work – because it doesn’t attract visibility and voters. There is much truth in all this. But none of them is the main cause of this overwhelming tragedy.
The root cause stems from the way we treat nature. It is generous to us because it offers everything we need to live. But we, however, regard this as a trinket, delivered to our pleasure, without any sense of responsibility for its preservation and we don’t even give it any retribution. Instead, we treat it with violence, depredating it, taking all we can for our benefit. And we also turn it into a huge trash from our waste.
Worse, we don’t know its nature and its history. We are illiterate and ignorant of the history that took place in our places on the course of thousands and thousands of years. We don’t care about knowing the flora and fauna, mountains, rivers, landscapes, significant people who lived there, artists, poets, rulers, scholars and builders.
We are still largely tied to the modern scientific spirit that identifies reality with their purely material and mechanistic aspects without including life, consciousness and intimate communion with the things that poets, musicians and artists remind us in their magnificent works. Universe and nature have a history. It’s being told by the stars, the Earth, the outcrop and elevation of the mountains, by the animals, forests and rivers. Our task is to be able to listen and interpret the messages they send us. The native peoples could read every movement of clouds, the direction of the winds and they knew if Waterspouts were about to come or not.
Chico Mendes, who took part with me in long penetrations in the Amazon rainforest, could interpret every sound of the jungle, could read signs of the passage of jaguars from the leaves on the ground and, with the ear to the ground, he knew in what direction was going the herd of hazardous wild pigs. We’ve unlearned all that. With the use of science we read the history recorded in layers of each being. But that knowledge did not come into school curricula or turned into general knowledge. Instead, it has turned into technical knowledge to master nature and accumulate.
In the case of mountain towns: there are naturally heavy rains in summer. And landslides of slopes may occur. We know that global warming is a settled issue that makes the extreme events more frequent and denser. We know the deep valleys and streams that flow into them. But we don’t listen to the message they send us, wich is: do not build houses on the slopes; do not live near the river; and zealously preserve the riparian forest. The river has two beds: one normal, minor, through which the running waters flow and a larger one that gives rise to the great waters of torrential rains. In this part you cannot build and live.
We are paying a high price for our neglect and for the decimation of the rainforest that balanced the rains. What is needed now is to listen to nature and do preventive work that respects the mode of being of every hill, every valley and every river.
We only control nature as long as we obey it and are able to listen to its messages and to read its signals. Otherwise we will have to accept fatal preventable tragedies.
Leonardo Boff, theologian and writer, wrote this article for several media outlets.