Wednesday, April 21, 2010


“São as águas de março”

Tom Jobim

When it comes to the vagaries of nature, Brazil is particularly blessed. Down here we don't get volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, typhoons or hurricanes.
We get rain.
But before you conclude that rain is entirely inoffensive , peruse these pictures.
They’ll give you an idea of what long-lasting, torrential, Brazilian downpours are capable of.

In many parts of this country it rained, almost constantly, from the beginning of March until mid-April.
And, in some places, the rain is still going on.
This is the main highway between Santos and Rio de Janeiro.  Rain-induced landslides destroyed the road and cut off the two cities, one from the other, for days.
Larger landslides have killed hundreds in the last fortnight.
How many hundreds?
Nobody really knows.
Here’s why: landslides seldom bring down wealthy communities. Landslides almost always bring down shantytowns. (favelas). Those shantytowns are constructed on land too poor, or inaccessible, for anyone with a modicum of money in the bank to be interested in. And the occupation of that land is technically illegal and always unregistered. When the whole community slides down the hill some of the bodies are recovered. Others often disappear beneath the rubble – and stay there.
That was the case here, on Bumba Hill, just across the Niteroi bridge from Rio de Janeiro. The favela was built on what had been a garbage dump up until the late 1970’s. Experts had warned, time and again, that it was going to plunge down the hillside one day. But people built anyway. The municipality did nothing.
And then the rains came.
More than two hundred people died.
Some of them found permanent graves among the still-rotting garbage.

In Angra dos Reis, on the other side of Rio, the disaster was similar, but on a much smaller scale. Estimates of deaths don’t exceed forty.

Depressing? Sure it is. And more depressing still, it happens every year.
The quote with which I begin this post translates as “they’re the waters of march.” It’s from a song by Tom Jobim and, other than the reference to our yearly rain event, has nothing to do with the sad stories I’ve just related.

But, if you need a little cheering up, as I do at the moment, “Aguas de Março” is just the thing to do it. Here’s Tom performing it with Elis Regina back in 1974:

Leighton - Wednesday


  1. This is a great blog. I found you from your post on the Sisters in Crime listserve. I'll be back.

  2. The poor are always victims because they have no choices. The people that annoy me are the wealthy, the very wealthy, who build homes on the edge of cliffs so that they can enjoy unobstructed views of the ocean along the California coast. When a mudslide or severe erosion cause their homes to fall to the ground, they build again, courting the same disaster, and further weakening the cliff. Mansions that fall off a cliff are priced and prized beyond the lives of the poor. Status trumps sense so they build again and wait until the next time their house slides away and the cycle starts over.

    In Brazil, favelas develop where no one else wants the land and when they slide away the cost in lives isn't even counted. The survivors will find another piece of land not fit for human habitation and they will live there until the next time the hill slides away and the cycle starts over.

    I think I am a socialist.


  3. Carol,
    Thank you.
    Yes, please do come back.
    We strive to please.

  4. It would be easy to blame these tragedies on nature. But there is a much bigger responsibility here--to the poor, to the vulnerable.

    Maybe it is an American mindset, but, if this has ALWAYS been going on, why hasn't your government done anything about it? I somewhat understand ignoring the favelas--all governments ignore the poor. But that road? That must contribute to commerce, why don't they see that? Where is the accountability?


  5. After first reading Yrsa's piece and now yours, I'm convinced "National Geographic" has more than met its match. Between her captivating humor and your inability to write anything that doesn't get the reader's pulse racing, why settle simply for great photographs when you can find it all right here! Great work, Leighton.

  6. Hi Beth and Jeff,
    Thanks for your kind words.

    Not an American mindset at all. Many people here think the same way as you do - and ask the same questions. But they are far from the majority.
    The Brazilian government generates more mystery than all of the writers on this blog put together.
    Why so much incompetence?
    Why so much corruption?
    And why do the same people keep getting elected year after year?
    You're quite right about the road. There were commercial considerations, so it got fixed fairly quickly.
    As to the rest, Brazil is making progress, but slowly.
    My next post will deal with a murder, one of many, that the government carried out in the days of the dictatorship.
    And that dictatorship was not so long ago.
    Now, the country has a president who used to be a metalworker and has a grade school education. He has the interests of the poor at heart, is one of the most popular presidents in history, and has done a better job than anyone would ever have expected from a populist. For all the faults, he sets a glowing example of good government if you contrast him with the idiots in Bolivia, Argentina and Venezuela.
    And yet his government has been plagued by much dishonesty and corruption.
    Which Brazilians sigh and complain about, but regard as normal.
    Because that's just the way government in this country IS.
    The fact that a guy has a mistress, or his hand in the till, is no guarantee that he isn't going to win the next election.
    It's sad, but it happens. And it happens time and time again.
    Like I said, it's a mystery.

  7. I remember the cartoons from the slain cartoonist you posted a while back, and how they demonstrate what you are describing here. It is a sad state, but even more sad that is so accepted. Light in the fact that this current president is different. Light in the darkness.


  8. Sad post, hair-raising pictures. I'm so sorry about the seasonal destruction -- seems like the rains always bring death.

    In Southeast Asia, where most of the cities are built on flatter terrain, it's just a fact of life. Before they put drains all over Bangkok, everyone's front step was 18 inches high because otherwise there would be 17 inches of water on the floor. And for someone like me, who comes from a place (California) that's stingy with weather variations, the Thai climate is thrilling, operatic in its excesses. Clouds the color of oil shale, rainfall so heavy you can't see across the street.

    One of my favorite feelings in the world is to have just outrun the cloudburst and be sitting with a cup of coffee in a Bangkok window, watching it come down.

  9. I like rain, though not the kind that causes such destruction. To quote Conan O'Brien about the inability of the Irish to tolerate direct sunlight without turning 40 shades of red, "We were born in a bog". Instead, Ireland gets rain, heavy at times, but frequently a soft mist that stops no one from doing whatever they planned. I spent a summmer at Trinity College and if we planned a picnic we had a picnic, rain or not.

    The Irish has a song called "Forty Shades of Green" and anyone flying in over Ireland can see all 40 shades like a patchwork quilt.

    So, on behalf of soft rain, I'm putting in a word for the rain that makes things beautiful.

    Tim, I like watching rain come down but I like watching snow fall even more.


  10. Love you Beth. Nice sentiment.

    This is a whole different reality.

    Mist is not destroying people's lives...