Mud Slides & Popular Politics

It takes a brave man – and one with a secure job – to tell the truth in the face of great “natural” tragedy.  I saw that today on “Bom Dia Brasil”, where commentator Alexandre Garcia talked about the recent mudslides in Brazil that killed hundreds of people and left many thousands homeless.

The cause is easy to identify. People build dense settlements on steep hillsides, destroying trees and natural cover. This results not only in their own houses being destroyed by mudslides, but also can affect those down the hill who didn’t do anything wrong.

Garcia points out that Brazilian politicians love to make rules, but are less enthusiastic about enforcing them.  (This is not limited to Brazil, BTW. We have mudslides in our country true for some of the same reasons.) It is already illegal to build houses on most of the affected hillsides. But the poor, and sometimes the not-so-poor, invade the green zones and nobody has the political will, or maybe the actual force, needed to stop them. Local politicians, and sometimes even those at the Federal level, play the victim card and pander to voters. It seems unjust to not allow the poor people to have a place to live. There is also little support to solve the problem among the more established parts of the population, who are happy to have the poor living somewhere else.

And each time the predictable “natural” disaster happens, everybody can show solidarity and stick together to overcome the trouble.  Politicians can take credit for “solving” problems everybody should have avoided. Garcia says that the Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Sérgio Cabral, knows what everybody knows:  populism helped kill people. (Sérgio Cabral sabe o que todos sabemos:o populismo ajudou a matar.) But what can you do about it?In the mountains of the Serra Gaucha in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, there are very nice towns such as Gramado & Canela. They are built in the mountains and are surrounded by steep slopes. But they rarely experience these sorts of problems because the slopes are covered with trees and vegetation that protect the soils.  As Garcia pointed out, this is also part of Brazil. Above is based on what Garcia said. Don’t blame him for the rest, which is my extrapolation.

Finding space for people to live in growing cities is always a challenge, but you have to recognize real options and constraints.  It doesn’t matter if the people and the politicians want to build houses on steep hillsides.  They cannot do it and expect not to suffer dire & deadly consequences.  

In other words, expanding in steep and unstable places is not an option and cannot be made an option by anything government can do.  Some places need to be protected, not to achieve some abstract aesthetic perfection, but because the immutable laws of physics and ecology forbid some kinds of development. It will rain. Mud will slide. If your house is in a place where the dirt moves, you will slide with it. If you remove the vegetation, even more mud will slide and destroy houses and vegetation that would not otherwise be affected. In other words, if you build houses on an unstable slope, you are responsible for significant property damage and maybe for murder.

The government’s role here is more difficult. It has to go against the manifest “will of the people” and constantly suffer criticism. Those enforcing the rules will be characterized as heartless, mean and cruel. Inevitably, a few people will occupy part of the preserved area.  How hard will it be to evict these people, who seem to have no other option?  How much can “a few” little people hurt the big hill? And how can it be fair not to allow more if you allow some?  You see the problem.

Preserving land in steep places is a never-ending challenge and not always as simple as just leaving things alone (although that can be far from simple, as I mentioned above). I read about the forests and meadows in Switzerland.  That very pretty and effective environment has been carefully managed by the human inhabitants for centuries and many lessons were learned. Sometimes they cut too many trees, but sometimes they didn’t cut enough.  In 1876 they made a law to prevent deforestation. Today forest may be becoming too thick. A dynamic balance is what we need. I wrote a little about the dilemma at this link.

An ecosystem is a living thing in the state of constant change. What works today might not work tomorrow w/o modification. The Swiss established forests on slopes where nature would not have put them, since frequent avalanches knocked them down. Once established, however, the trees helped prevent further avalanches and became mostly self-sustaining. I say mostly, because there is sometimes a disturbance that kills the trees locally. If they were not quickly reestablished and a meadow formed on the steep slope, snow would slide quickly down that area, destroying forests below, expanding the treeless area until you had again the unfavorable “natural” conditions.

The Swiss learned how to manage their mountains through centuries of hard experience and no doubt sometimes paid terrible prices for their education. The people in Gramado have evidently also come to equilibrium with their mountains. Gramado looks a lot like Switzerland, since its Italian and German immigrants brought their building styles. Maybe they also brought some of their forest management skills.  

In any case, the sooner others can learn the better. Many disasters can be avoided. Then maybe we won’t need the heroism we saw in the wake of the recent tragedies.

PS – I have some experience in mud sliding on a smaller scale. I have seen that the ground is always moving near my creeks. It doesn’t hurt anything and it is interesting to watch the changing conditions. It doesn’t hurt because it is just moving dirt from one natural place to another. During a big rain last year, it looks like the water rose at least five feet above the usual water surface and deposited mud many meters away from the creek. The water soaked in and the mud deposits will help fertilize the woods. If you had houses there, however, they would have been severely damaged. Even worse, they would have prevented the natural process.  There are some places that are not suitable for some uses.