There are no separate crises: one social and one environmental. The reality is a major socio-environmental crisis and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil, paints a painful portrait of this reality.

Southern Brazil is facing the biggest climate catastrophe in its history, revealing a portrait of a devastating socio-environmental crisis, marked by days of uninterrupted extreme rainfall that has left a trail of destruction and mourning in its wake. With 95 confirmed dead so far and more than 130 people still missing, the region faces a bleak scenario, with no signs of immediate improvement.

The recent heavy rains have resulted in a significant impact throughout the state, with the Civil Defense registering a total of 364 municipalities affected as of Monday, May 5th. This has had a direct impact on the lives of more than 870,000 people, with more than 20,000 of them seeking emergency shelter and around 120,000 being displaced from their homes.

The relationship between climate factors and the social impact they cause tragically brings to light a reality that Pope Francis has long pointed out in his encyclical Laudato Si’: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (LS, 48).

How it all began: climatic factors

The catastrophe is not just an isolated occurrence, but an alarming symptom of the climate crisis affecting the planet. The sequence of extreme events began with a persistent heat wave in the Southeast and Midwest regions of Brazil since the end of April. This phenomenon, combined with wind currents and humidity corridors coming from the Amazon, together with the effects of El Niño, created the ideal conditions for the heavy rains that culminated in the tragedy.

In interviews with the most diverse media channels in Brazil, dozens of meteorologists have categorically stated: It is crucial to understand that the magnitude of this tragedy is not only the result of local factors, but also the result of the global climate crisis. This is because the continuous increase in heat on Earth and in ocean temperatures directly contributes to the intensification and frequency of extreme weather events like the one recorded in Rio Grande do Sul.

As a consequence of this environmental imbalance, the state faced the highest volume of rain ever recorded in its history. This chaotic scenario exposes the urgency of concrete and coordinated actions, both at local and global levels, to tackle climate change and mitigate its devastating impacts.

As Pope Francis reminds us, “These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course” (LS, 53).

Congregations, Chapters and Laudato Si’ Animators affected 

Rabeca Peres, coordinator of the Laudato Si’ Chapter of the State of Rio Grande do Sul and resident of the region, shares an emotional testimony about the reality in the state: “I don’t even know how to describe the situation here, but it’s very sad. It’s sad enough to cry, it’s sad enough to ask yourself, ‘My God, this is a nightmare, what’s happening?’ It’s everything we’ve seen in Laudato Si’ and which is written about climate change, its effects and its consequences,” she says. The animator highlights the feeling shared by those who were affected: “The intensity of what happened is devastating because it is not just one place, it’s the whole state that has been hit. Indirectly, those who were not affected equally suffer because we have relatives elsewhere and we feel each other’s pain… I don’t even know how to describe it.”

If, on the one hand, the pain of devastation crushes life and families, the light of solidarity palpably represents the love and compassion coming from all sides: “Solidarity is very strong, the help from people. That is very strong because this solidarity is full of love, of tenderness, it is full of ‘I think about the other and put myself in the other’s shoes’. That’s what keeps hope alive!”, says Rabeca.

Sr. Claudia Chesini, religious sister of the Sisters of Saint Catherine and religious outreach coordinator for Laudato Si’ Movement, shares with us in dismay the pain of seeing the congregation’s house in the city of Novo Hamburgo completely flooded. “Our house and the entire project were flooded. We left the house in the afternoon and things will take time to stabilize. We have no electricity and we can’t cook. People in the neighborhood lost everything. The house is completely submerged.” Images show the building, now taken by water, which used to host the Laudato Si’ Action Platform activities promoted by the congregation in the region. 

Sr. Samanta Karla, of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters, expresses concern about the current situation, mentioning that “there is a lot of water and more is expected”. She points out that despite being safe, “the feeling of sisterhood makes us worry about the river flooding.” The Missionary Fraternity, which also participates in the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, turned the congregation’s headquarters and its social center (which have not been reached by water) into donation collection points.

In the neighboring state of Santa Catarina, members of the local Chapter have expressed their concerns as well. Telmo Viera, leader of the local chapter comments that it is “really frightening. Here in Santa Catarina, we are constantly mobilizing. The southern and western regions of Santa Catarina have also been hit hard, but Rio Grande do Sul is frightening. Cities have disappeared, entire neighborhoods have been washed away, not even the house structures remained,” he says. 

Fortunately, despite the magnitude of the catastrophe, all Laudato Si’ Animators in the region who were contacted at the time of writing are safe. 

Pope Francis’ message and the light that solidarity bestows

Pope Francis has sent a message of condolence to all those affected by the tragedy. “I assure my prayer for the populations of the State of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, struck by major floods. May the Lord receive the deceased and comfort their relatives and those who have had to leave their homes,” said the Pope.  

In addition to the collective efforts of federal and state governments, municipalities, and organized civil society, the Church is also taking part in a chain of solidarity by donating  materials and financial resources.

Various fundraising channels are available. At an international level, a fundraising channel has been created by the State Government of Rio Grande do Sul, and will be managed by Civil Society.

The Church has also established a national fundraising channel through the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (South III Region). 

While solidarity appears as a beacon of hope for those affected, we cannot ignore the immensity of the grief, pain, and consternation. Not only are we called to offer our prayers, but also share in the suffering by “mourning with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

To directly face the socio-environmental crisis, a tireless fight for climate justice and atonement is crucial, especially in favor of the poorest, who suffer pain, loss, death and injustice along with our ‘common home’, aware that “where our sibling suffers, God is suffering in them”.

In our struggle, it is essential to be aware that this pain calls on our responsibility, as well as on our “ability to work together in building our common home” (LS, 13).