Amidst floods in Brazil, government minister turns environmental racism into a national debate

People affected by floods in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 2024 | Image: Prefeitura Rio Instagram/Art made on Canva by Global Voices

Floods and heavy rains in the state of Rio de Janeiro, including the city of Rio, caused 12 deaths and devastation in the middle of January, an effect of the climate crisis that has been repeated in many regions of Brazil in the past year.

A new term was added to the national debate this time around after Racial Equality Minister Anielle Franco pointed out environmental racism as one of the causes of the climate-induced tragedy in the region.

About the rains in Rio de Janeiro, environmental racism and how it manifests in big cities.

The federal government and local powers are acting together to reduce damages.

Franco, who is the sister of Marielle Franco, Rio's city councillor assassinated in 2018, said in a video published on her social media that, when one looks at the areas that were most affected by the floods, places that already face housing issues, one sees a majority of Black people being hit by the outcome of extreme weather events.

Isso acontece porque uma parte da cidade, do estado, não tem a mesma condição de moradia, de saneamento, de estrutura urbana do que a outra. Também não é natural  que esses lugares tenham a maioria da sua população negra. Isso faz parte do que a gente chama e define de racismo ambiental e seus efeitos nas grandes cidades.

This happens because a part of the city, of the state, does not have the same living, sanitation and urban structure that the other has. Also, it's not natural that those places all have a majority of Black people. This is part of what we call and define as environmental racism and its effects in big cities.

Right-wing news outlets and op-eds in mainstream media disagreed, and some mocked Franco's comments.

Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca argued in an article on Folha de São Paulo that:

Há áreas em que o recorte racial é relevante, porque joga luz em mazelas de que a simples desigualdade social não dá conta. (…) Mas será que as chuvas castigam mais um negro favelado do que seu vizinho branco? Claro que não. A raça aí é incidental, não tem relação direta com o problema, e tampouco é parte de sua solução.

There are areas where a racial framing is relevant, because it sheds light on ills that the simple social inequality cannot tackle. (…) But is it so that rains will punish more a Black person in a favela than their white neighbor? Of course not. Race here is only incidental, it's not directly related to the problem, and therefore is not part of the solution.

In December 2023, a poll revealed that 55.5 percent of the Brazilian population identifies as either Black or mixed ethnicity (a category called pardo in Portuguese). A report by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) from 2021 showed that the poverty rates among the Black and mixed ethnicity population were almost twice the white population's. The rate considers the poverty line for people living with a monthly income inferior to USD 100.

Franco tweeted this January 16 that, between 2010 and 2020, the number of people who died during floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in favelas and peripheral areas in Brazil.

Environmental racism

The expression environmental racism has been used since the 1970s–1980s in the United States. It is usually credited to African-American activist and author Benjamin Chavis.

An article on the World Economic Forum website defines it as ”a form of systemic racism whereby communities of color are disproportionately burdened with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads and emitters of airborne particulate matter.” But another editorial, published by The Lancet in 2018, notes that ”environmental racism is not confined solely to the locations of polluting industries”:

It can also be seen in the historical siting of many minority communities on less desirable tracts of land, such as flood plains or other areas vulnerable to the extreme weather events. Nor is environmental racism limited to the treatment of minority groups within a nation, as many polluting industries have moved from high-income countries, where they are monitored closely, to lower income ones with less stringent environmental oversight.

While a common counterargument to the narrative of environmental racism is that these are conditions that arise from poverty, not racism, a growing body of evidence suggests that this is not the case (…)

Journalist Flávia Oliveira also explained the term on TV Channel Globo News, noticing the Brazilian context:

É importante a gente chamar atenção para isso que você está chamando de descaso (…) que recai somente para um determinado grupo da população. É essa orientação que alguns vão chamar de ‘destino’, de ‘sina’, a que se dá o nome de racismo ambiental. De modo geral essas intempéries, inundações, deslizamentos, desmoronamentos, mortes (…) no Brasil, se abatem quase sempre sobre o mesmo grupo: um grupo de baixa renda que vive em más condições habitacionais, que vivem em situação de vulnerabilidade e que são predominantemente pessoas pretas, pobres, muitas mulheres chefes de famílias.

It's important to pay attention to what people are calling neglect (…) which only lands on a certain group of the population. It is to this orientation, that some will call ‘destiny’, ‘faith’, that is given the name environmental racism. In general, these climate events, floods, landslides, deaths (…) in Brazil, they take down almost always the same group: low income people, who live in poor housing conditions, in vulnerable situations and who are predominantly Black, poor, breadwinner women.

Environment Minister Marina da Silva posted a statement on her social media as well, supporting Franco's stance and reinforcing the urge to discuss climate justice, adding:

A política pública precisa integrar novas linguagens, que sejam capazes de objetivamente dar nome às demandas, e o racismo ambiental é uma das realidades que precisam ser enfrentadas. Eventos climáticos extremos atingem toda a população, mas é um fato que pessoas pretas, mulheres, crianças, jovens e idosos são duramente mais afetados.

Public policy needs to integrate new languages, that are able to objectively name the demands, and environmental racism is one of the realities that need to be faced. Extreme climate events affect all the population, but it is a fact that Black people, women, children and the elderly are affected harder.

A story published by piauí magazine in 2022 says that ”at least 17.4 million people live in a situation of housing deficit – in precarious or improvised living conditions or spending the larger part of their income on rent.”

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.