Pedreiras, home of legendary Baiao composer João do Vale, is one of the towns in Maranhão that was hardest hit by the recent floods that have left 100,000 people homeless in the state. I was drinking cachaça in the local intellectual/bohemian bar (which in Northeastern Brazil means a bunch of middle-aged men in tight jeans and dress shirts with a lot of gold jewelry) and, during a long night of drinking, a local told me this: “This flood happened because of the fucking dam that José Sarney had built on Flores river in the 80s. The project was funded to be a hydroelectric plant, a flood protection system, and a huge irrigation project to grow pineapples and papaya. The thing is, those assholes never finished it. The irrigation project never got off the ground because the cattle ranchers were against it. They never built the hydroelectric plant either. They just sent millions of dollars to their private bank accounts on the Caymen Islands and flooded Flores valley. Nobody’s done any maintenance on it in 20 years.” A few days ago we showed you photos of people partying in the streets, but it’s actually not the best situation. Read on for some history of the state, plus a bunch more photos.
Maranhão is the poorest state in Brazil. Former President of Brazil Jose Sarney started off in charge of the state’s oligarchy in 1966. As he first rose to power, during the military dictatorship, he arranged a series of aerial maps of the state and with a pencil marked off huge tracts of land for ranchers from neighboring states. He handed out land seemingly willy-nilly, and the people who lived off of the forests there were kicked out and forced onto the thin strips of ground between rancher fences and the pothole-ridden federal highway. Forty years later, the roadside throughout the state is filled with houses made out of taipa, a material made from mud that fills in a thin stick framework. It’s one of the favorite hiding places of the chagas beetle, which bites you and causes you to die ten years later of respiratory failure.
Sarney became leader of the official Military party in the Senate during the 70s. When democracy finally returned to the country, he became the first democratically-elected vice president in 1985. On the eve of being sworn into office, the president-elect (who was from the opposing party) died of a mysterious illness, so Sarney was inaugurated as president. Five years later, with inflation at an unhealthy 1000% a year, Sarney was so unpopular that he couldn't appear in public without having rocks thrown at him. A shoe would have been a compliment. He is the last of Brazil’s “coloneis”–the Northeastern political strongmen who traditionally ran the media in their states and put one son in the communist party and one in the priesthood, just to make sure they covered their bases. Today, Sarney is also president of the Brazilian Acadamy of Letters (for his many novels) and is for the third time in his life Senate Majority Leader, currently representing the state of Amapa, where he has never lived.
Maranhão, as they say, is the only state with four senators: the three henchmen of his in Maranhão, and the old man himself. If you come to São Luis, the Capital of Maranhão, you will drive past the Marly Sarney Hospital, named after his wife, then the Roseana Sarney State Court complex, named after his daughter, over the rotting Jose Sarney Bridge to the Merces Convent, built in the 1600s, where Mr. Sarney has constructed the Jose Sarney Museum and is allegedly planning to install his mausoleum.
Mr. Sarney has three children. His son Fernando owns most of the media outlets and the Globo TV network franchise in the state, is former owner of the state electric company, and is Vice President of the notoriously corrupt and powerful Brazilian Soccer Federation. His daughter, Roseana, used to be governor but now just serves in the Senate. His other son, the friendly and bumbling Jose Sarney Filho, is national president of the green party and the former Federal Environmental Minister who cut the amount of preserved Amazon Rainforest in half while serving under Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
And here’s what that family’s state looks like now…
Major Saraiva is a fireman and the leader of the Civil Defense Operations in the calamity zone. I ask him how things are going and he says, “Think about a town that is 90% underwater. How would you think it was going?” He is smiling and friendly and gives me a copy of the latest damage report.
Hundreds of houses destroyed…
23,000 people living in shelters…
Crap mixing into the floodwater from the town's open sewage canals…
The water company’s pumping station is submerged, causing townspeople to bathe, wash clothes, and do dishes in filthy floodwater.
Saraiva's cellphone rings and he starts yelling, “The problem is that there are all these bloodsucking leeches here trying to make a buck shuttling people back and forth on their leaky canoes and nobody has a lifejacket.”
I am here to do an emergency needs assessment, so my friend Ronaldo negotiates with a friendly team of “bloodsucking leeches.” We hop into a motorized canoe and cross the fierce river into the largest of the flood zones.
Kids are happily jumping out of trees into the floodwater, carelessly catching intestinal worms and scabies with the joy of an extended holiday caused by flooded schools.
Many people have apparently just decided to keep living in their flooded houses. There are flooded bars full of wet drunks.
Kids are playing in the water, teenagers are fishing and drinking cachaça, and older people are walking around carrying groceries or laundry.
Later in the day, Major Saraiva takes me to meet the Muncipal Secretary of Health and the Secretary of Social Service at the Mayor’s house. The Secretary of Health is a stunningly beautiful nurse from the state capital. She hands me a list of all of the diseases diagnosed that week among the 15,000 people living in shelters. It says things like “Scabies: 384 cases; Diarrhea: 411; Worms: 465.”
As the mayor's wife, who is also an alderman, orders her maid to serve us caja juice, I ask the Secretaries what we could do with a donation of $30,000, which obviously isn't a whole shitload of money for a disaster on this scale (the US government has given a whopping $50,000). I am told, “Towels, to prevent passing on various diseases that are going around the shelters; port-a-potties, feminine hygiene products, clothes, and medicine.”
The Mayor's wife interrupts. “You know a lot of people are trying to help us out but they just don't have time to spend working out the details.” She hands me a bank deposit slip with all the details filled out except the amount. “That's why my husband and I have set up this bank account. Would you like to make a deposit?”