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Vulnerability as social
oppression: the traps of
The way a nation decides its development model both affects and is
affected by the development of other nations. These interactions are
lately occurring at a speed never seen before. A development model is
considered here in its broad conception, which involves the dynamics of the
economic activity (production, distribution and consumption) and its regulation,
the values, beliefs and collective aspirations that dictate the practical life of a
society, and the rules for organization and functioning of political institutions.
The different spatial scales of this social life, in which we participate at
different levels (individual, communitarian, national, global), are interwoven
by diverse socio-environmental connections, even more complex. Some of
these connections are created consensually by the involved parties. Others
occur by default and might be accepted by the parties or may constitute an
undesirable field for disputes. Whereas some connections indicate possibilities
of generating shared economic benefits for the parties, other links result from
the political or economic asymmetry, which allows the ones on top to impose
their agenda of self-benefits at the others’ cost.
Not only has the number of socio-environmental connections risen
exponentially in the last decades, but also the frequency and the volume of
exchanges. There are natural resources shared in a planetary scale, which transcend
the exclusive geopolitical control of few powerful nations, such as the atmosphere
and oceans. However, these resources are directly affected by the harmful effects
of the production logics that these nations impose to all others. The increase of
pollution and loss of marine biodiversity are consequences that may affect the
health and survival of other peoples that are not even involved in these economic
choices. Islander peoples, including some very poor, are losing part of their territory
due to the sea level rise caused by the effects of greenhouse gases, obliging them
to find an escape route through either local or international migration. Although
tropical rainforest has clear local and national borders, the benefits that might be
extracted from their existence and functioning, as well as the negative effects from
1. A previous version of these ideas was presented by first author in the Newton Scoping
Workshop on the Social Science of the Food-Energy-Water Nexus, in London, April 2015.
112 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
their devastation, amplify their spatial impact and interfere in the ecology and in
the well-being on a much larger scale than the local socio-ecological one. For
example, uncontrolled forest fires threaten wild animals which lose their habitats.
The increase in communication technologies in the world made the exchange
of ideas and information easier. It contributes to spread contents reinforcing
democratic values. However, contents of violence, racism and extremism are
spread out in the same way, reaching niche groups and empowering them. Hence,
in the core of these relations, uncertainty increases. The fluxes of wealth and
people can happen both physically (number of transnational companies, depen-
dence on cross-borders exchange of goods for simple consumption/production,
voluntary and involuntary migrations) and virtually (financial market, and
relationship networks), creating a new composition of social forces of great scale
(regional blocs, new multilateral institutions, global social movements). The
spreading of conflicts, wars, walls, and bilateral or multilateral breaches of
agreement grows in a pace faster than the peace treaties and the quest for
consensus between the nations in dispute for territory or resources. These forces
may act in the creation and limitation of social opportunities. None of these
forces alone, though, have the necessary power to define the global pathways,
therefore this field is in constant dispute and apprehension.
On an individual and local scale, the instantaneity in which certain actors
become visible using the internet, makes them globally recognized and
prestigious. The counterpoint of this superfluidity is the fleetingness of the
exposures, which tends toward mere narcissism (Bauman,1995). While the
public management discourses valorize the environmental concerns and
principles of precaution, their practices are contradictory. The same is occurring
in issues such as the territorial rights of indigenous and traditional peoples,2 the
need for improvement of the urban configuration in the metropolis, the
priorization of infrastructure (of public health, transport and sanitation), the
creation of jobs with satisfactory pay and conditions (labour rights), the fiscal
duties (payable taxes). These are some aspects of how the increase in
multiscale connections does not solve the issues of social invisibility of those
who find themselves in an underprivileged position.
Actions considered a good policy of national development for a majority who
supports the government might also result in damaging effects for their
neighbours, as well as for migrants. The guarantee of well-being for some
2. Indigenous and traditional peoples are different social categories. The first one emer-
ged during colonial interactions. Nowadays, in Brazil it is a category for collective
mobilization to guarantee territorial rigths related to ancestral ties to the land. Indigenous
people are a reference for Brazilian traditional peoples, like quilombolas or seringueiros,
with environmental practices and artisanal instruments that have low impact in their
places. The cultural repertoire of the traditional peoples is committed with environmental
services, which shapes their collective identity (Cunha and Almeida, n. d.).
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 113
groups, within some nations called developed, walks hand-in-hand with the
abandonment of the refugee camps with growing populations. When economic
expansion occurs in midst of social inequalities, and political unbalance
persists, this indicates the weakness of public institutions to represent
collective interests, which favors the practice of corruption.3 On one hand, there
are negative loops for the broad society when the institutional mechanisms for
formulating public policies priorize the particular interests that dominate the
state apparatus, and the maintenance of poverty is indicative of this (Acemoglu
and Robinson, 2012). On the other hand, each society presents its own way of
shaping the institutional and social dynamics to make normal and acceptable
the practice of corruption (Chayes, 2015).
Nowadays, the idea of civility has been reduced to indicators of technological
advances that allows people, businesses and governments to be connected. But
being connected does not mean a peaceful integration or benefits for all. Quite
the opposite, there have been simutaneous expansion of tense social fluxes,
which is possible to understand from a dialectical perspective. The historic
pathways of contemporary Western civilization have disseminated a process of
disenchantment of the world4 – known as enlightened reason – whose technical
content operates the greatest economic dominion over both the society and
the natural world. However, as Adorno and Horkheimer (2002) have already
3. Acemoglu and Robison (2013) and Chayes (2015) make an important contribution to the
understanding of these mechanisms that deteriorate the public institutions and their
relationship with the broad society in several countries. Both show that social do-
mination is not something static, but changes its forms of manifesting over history. The
first mentioned authors offer a macrossocial panorama of economic and political
institutions, and refute the geographical hypothesis that the climate factor naturalize
the poverty found in some countries. They consider that the practices of domination
combine the action on the collective imaginary with the control over territory, labor, and
wealth. The last author adopts a microssocial perspective oriented to the day-by-day
corruption practices of public agents and its effects in the deterioration of the life of
ordinary people. The simultaneous reading of both books provides an understanding
about the problem of institutional susceptibility to corruption in a social multilevel.
There are commom examples in both books, such as the Uzbekistan case. Acemoglu
and Robison explored the importance of cotton production in the GDP, and the loss of
social capital when children can not go to school for several months due to compulsory
work in the cotton collecting. Chayes shows the way the kleptocracy has adjusted itself
to international pressures against child labor. She explained that, now, teachers and
doctors have been required to do this service instead. Meanwhile, the rest of society
still continues to pay bribes to guarantee basic access to the most essential things. For
exemple, bribes are given to the bosses in exchange for keeping their jobs.
4. Disenchantment of the world is a Weberian term. It refers to the historical process of
demystification of the meanings of the world (linked to the religious beliefs) when the
capitalism advanced in European society in partnership with sciences. However, new
myths emerged, such as the arianism, to justify new ways of social domination and
violence against social groups considered inferior. The Holocaust was one of the
strongest expressions of this new type of barbarism.
114 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
emphasized, this process is dialectical because it has energized the opposite of
human enlightenment, which is barbarism. Large economic conglomerates
direct human progress toward consumerism-mediated relationships. This
engenders a social alienation that dispenses alterity. Ordinary people are
satisfied with the tickets thinking5 of the advertisements, while their anxieties
are extended to those considered different, reinforcing predispositions to
intolerance. The market value of things that people possess becomes the
reference of their own human value and the sustenance of their sociability, and
a culture of vigilance over those who do not wish or cannot fit into the same
mode of thought or enjoyment (Bauman, 2008; Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002).
The expansion of the power of economic conglomerates over essential natural
resources for human life (water, soil, minerals, and territory itself) establishes
new social relations of power-obedience based on market rules. These
relations, in turn, influence state policies to the point of reducing them to elite
thinking, which has nothing more to offer to the undesirable social groups than
repressive measures such as arbitrary arrests, summary expulsions, restrictions
on migration, and the construction of new walls that define the barriers
between us and them.
A naked and fleshless man in a concentration camp does not mean he is an
uncivilised person, reflected Primo Levi in If This is a Man (1959) but it is an
image of the barbarism of the society that put him in such cruel condition. This
reflection is equally valid for the present times, when we identify the updated
strategies of barbarism and social oppression – from the most hidden to the
most explicit, where security for some people is built over the removal of
dignity for others. The deprivation of essential needs, like food, water, work
and shelter, now adds to the deprivation of a nation for dozens of millions of
people, characterising a humanitarian crisis on a global scale, where the tendency
of the developed countries is to close their doors, turn their backs and ignore.
Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, concerned about
how the European society has taken the action of denying legal and moral
obligations to thousand of people asking for refuge, expressed his distress about
how quickly many European countries created more border controls and erected
fences to prevent the entry of migrants they considered undesirable. These
5. Ticket thinking is a structure of thinking based on clichés, that is, pre-established
patterns in which the acceptance of one element implies accepting all others that
follow, even if they are contradictory to each other (in British culture, it can be
intrepreted as doublethink). In the contemporary democratic of several countries – such
as Brazil – both the stereotypical figure and the personalism of political candidates are
part of the tickets that hide their true intentions. While they focus only in private
interests, their manner of governing impose onerous taxes financing subsequent
diversions of public resources. The impoverishment of the citizens both substracts their
monetary resources (and closes jobs) and makes it impossible to improve public
services, including welfare.
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 115
refugees were trying to escape from many menaces, and most bring with them
many skills, ideas and aspirations of common interest, but governments have
blindly chosen to protect their “own citizens” against these “strange people”. The
commissioner concluded (Grandi, 2016, p. 1): “Ignoring a crisis and them
demonizing its victims when they are forced to move is not a proper approach”.
Analogously, the ones to blame are not the fragilized communities –
psychologically, morally, materially, territorially and socially oppressed –, but the
actors and relations that led to the degradation of their dignity.
This complex panorama also includes disasters, considered a stressful
collective experience that disrupts the regular dynamics of social functions,
demanding a readjustment of daily life. Cultural beliefs, social rules and political
interests take part in this process (Fritz, 1961; Quarantelli, 1998). Such
sociological perspective allows for the true understanding of vulnerability, i.e.
not merely as a social condition, opposed to human security, but something that
is created inside the social structures and the dynamics of domination across
different levels, from the individual to the national.
Disasters generate disruptions to the routines, plans and achievements of a
community, when all is abruptly lost (Quarantelli, 1998). People that considered
themselves independent suddenly are caught in midst of an acute crisis which
becomes central in their lives. Communities have their routines dismantled due
to the unexpected impact affecting family and friends (dead, injured, ill) and
the loss of both private and public material goods which mediate their daily
interactions. A naïve view of the tragic scenario would consider the participants
of this affected collectivity as being levelled, due to the similar and sudden
precariousness affecting their immediate lives. The argument proceeds by
considering that the affected have no alternative but to accept the condition of
victim and the relation of dependency on external support provided by others
to recover their previous routines. However, in a complex perspective,
considering the intertwining of actors in different scales of social life and
environment, such disruptions are part of a hidden process of depletion of
socio-environmental dynamics which apparently were under control. This
means, ambiguously, that although disasters are characterized by socio-
environmental disruptions (which are considered surprising or exceptional at
first glance) they are also a consequence of a way of functioning of society, as
it will be detailed throughout this work. Hence, the disaster is a specific form
of how a certain society deals with complex problems, which demands an
integrative analysis in micro and macrosocial levels (Perry, 2007). This
ambiguous relationship between rupture and continuity in different levels of
social life exists in other circumstances. For example, wars significantly disturbe
daily life of the local civilians, which includes disruptions and threats to
immediate physical, social and material conditions of them, but are also a
constituent part of a political process where diplomatic efforts failed.
116 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
Analogously, it would be inappropriate to consider disasters as an issue apart
from the social context, reducing people to a sample of statistical analysis
(Hewitt, 1995). When the notion of vulnerability is discussed, it is important to
link it with these hidden or denied processes of social life beyond the statistical
data, as well as with the maintenance of uncertainties on the present state and
on the short and long-term futures. Inequalities and social injustices are strong
players in disasters. The main strategies of social domination are to naturalize the
oppression to the point of becoming socially acceptable that some groups live
under simultaneous risks (e.g. related to racism, violence and crime, sanitation
problems, unemployment or sub-employment, precariousness of living, famine,
and general lack of access to fundamental rights). When a disaster occurs, the
affected actors in such social disvantages lack the basic conditions to cope with
damages as well as the new threats associated with more precarious situation.
Preservation of human dignity becomes a difficult task for them.
This process of rendering people vulnerable6 (Acserald, 2006), which is
rooted in the structures of society, collaborates for such groups becoming easy
targets to other kinds of threats (droughts, floods, diseases, contamination),
which are seen, from the dominant scientific perspective, as disaster factors.
However, these factors are only apparent – and not true – causes of disasters;
they only mask the contributions of many actors that generate the conditions
of social disaffiliation,7 some of which are the same actors that will pretend to
save the day and prevent new risks.
This chapter focuses on these issues from different angles. One takes a
critical reflection on what is underneath the discourse of “immediate action”
to control or eliminate the risks. Another angle provides three recent cases
where out-of-mainstream views about disasters revealed inconvenient facts
that dismantled the belief of the existence of an effective political or technical
control over the risks, with trustable “experts”. The third angle focuses on the
Brazilian context of social production of vulnerability. It will show, for this
context, that both the comprehension of the logic of political, social and
economic construction of the risks, and the understanding of the past disasters
6. “Vulnerabilization” is a term created by Acserald (2006) to describe this process of rendering
people vulnerable. The term “vulnerabilization” refers not to the vulnerability as a state
of a subject, but to a social relation of domination that results in precluding the dominated
from any condition of self-protection. He explains that when the focus is on the state of the
subject (considered vulnerable), questions about how other subjects and social interactions
contributed to such degradation of their human dignity are minimized.
7. Social disaffiliation refers to a detachment from social life, i.e. a simultaneous loss of
working conditions, loss of the feeling of belonging and weakness of social bonds, and
invisibility to the public authorities. This loss of social references generates a simultaneous
incapacity for economic self-sufficiency, inability to obtain the social support either to the
primary network (family, friends and neighbours) or through social protection (Castel, 2010;
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 117
could provide important clues for the discovery of the core and the scale of the
transformations required for the effectiveness of protection actions.
Three layers of immediate action, blind but not naïve
Unfortunately, the mainstream scientific study of disasters (which directs the
institutional view of the subject) clings to the reductionist understanding of
disasters, and generates successive layers of a simplifying rationale of the social
world in which disasters occur. The features of three of these layers are briefly
During the post-war period, there was a dominating speech that disregarded
the importance of the social, economic, cultural and political context of
disasters, and only focused on technical explanations, which converged with
military interests in a limited notion of control and physical defence (Gilbert,
1998). In this approach, the physical sciences –with their methods of prediction
and monitoring– gain precedence, and their solutions are considered the most
adequate to obtain public funding, ignoring society at large (Lavell, 1993).
Society is either fully disregarded or simplified to a level incompatible with a
consistent analysis from the social sciences point of view. This technical, socially
simplified view encourages the adoption of “action at any cost”, driven by the
current mainstream thinking. The scientific groups that participate in this
scientific domination make alliances with political and corporate elites to obtain
benefits from a unequal development model. Hence, these groups will not
question such model, even when political-corporate practices of these elites
contribute to catastrophic disasters. A recent example is the disaster in river
Doce related to the collapse of an iron-ore tailing-dam in November 2015,
directly killing at least 17 people and devastating the environment along the
river across two Brazilian states, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo (Valencio, 2016;
Milanez and Losekann, 2016).
With the second layer of simplifying rationale on disasters, the theme of
vulnerability starts to enter in the debate (Gilbert, 1998); however the dominating
discourse in countries with accentuaded social inequality reinforces stigmas by
arguing that in the so-called natural disasters, impoverished victims are to blame
because insist on perpetrating “self-harmful actions” and living “in the wrong places”
(Valencio, 2010). There is still resistance to recognizing that a communitarian
construction of risks prevention is a fundamental aspect of the local culture, which
can improve the guidance of public policies (Garcia-Acosta, 2014). Meanwhile, the
chosen manner of interpreting the so-called technological disasters avoids
identifying social responsibilities for structural or security failures.
A third and disquieting layer of simplification has two components that
complement each other. The first component is the allegation that criticism is
unnecessary and anachronic, a “waste of time”, because priority should be
118 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
placed on the “risk-prevention actions”. It means to consider risks and “risk-
prevention action” as independent of the social complexity and neutral. This is
an interpretation that is blind to the view that risks are the result of the clashes
between different cultural repertoires as well as the complex interactions
among society’s constituent parts. For example, in Brazil, cultural clashes in
catastrophes were analised by Vargas (2013) in Teresópolis disaster occurred in
January 2011, in Rio de Janeiro state. She identified the mismatches of
interpretations of causes and solutions for this problem by the technicians
(geologists, engineers, public prosecutors, civil defense agents and others) and
by the affected people. The prevalence of some interpretations over others had
implications for the policies adopted, but these were inadequate for those
affected, increasing their social suffering rather than attenuating it. Thus, the
conception that justifies and guides “risk-prevention actions” narrows the scope
of the problem and avoids the intricate network of power relations (symbolic,
political, economic, technologic, territorial, etc.). The second component of the
concept and practice of “risk-prevention actions” is the non-disclosure of the
scientific, technical, moral and ethical assumptions behind the recommended
action, assuming they were already given facts, i.e., universally known,
assimilated and socially accepted. This has been an authoritarian strategy of the
mainstream to delegitimize the critical thought – disqualifying it as a “boring
repetition” or “low impact”, even “useless research” – that does not contribute
to the technical solutions demanded by the “real world”. Not rarely such
comments come accompanied by self-gratifying expressions of their “rigor”,
“impact” and “appropriate metrics”, so to reinforce the status quo in academic
power relations. These are the ways that spaces for debate about risks and
disasters become empty, tough questions about the modus operandi manage
to be avoided, controversies are suffocated, and funding support opportunities
are obstructed (without reasonable arguments, often without any) to research
qualified as dissonant voices (Valencio, 2015).
These issues are hidden when there is a dominant voice – from scientists,
technical actors, and government authorities – that claims it is necessary to “act”
to control risks, disregarding previous reflections on the contradictions between
different diagnostics. It falsely assumes that society will voluntarily and
automatically join in, suppressing questions, simply following the instructions
from the dominating actors who had previously formulated the most beneficial
and efficient solutions for all involved parties. This is the essence of the
When the concept of vulnerability is limited by such simplifying rationales,
there is no reference to the interactions and complex clashes. The “experts” on
risks avoid questions about the process that led to such difficult condition
(Acserald, 2006), so to avoid exposing the actors in power who contributed to
the maintenance of social interactions resulting in the vulnerability of others.
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 119
In the neoMalthusian perspective, disasters are results from the bad choices of
negligent subjects. This view considers the precariousness in the lives of these
subjects as a consequence of their bad character, unpreparedness, and
addictions, and demands a “blunt action” to “put them back on track”, aided by
policies of symbolic/material barriers to control them. On this point, there may
even be energic interventions to justify and recommend punishment to the
vulnerable subjects (Cardoso, 2006). Punishment goes from the stigmatizing
approach adopted by civil defense agents and social workers during response
actions to the lack of effective recovery measures. It occurs, for example, in the
poor management of shelters – where technicians are not sufficiently
committed to preserve the dignity of those affected and to provide essential
goods – and in the delay of housing solutions. New forms of violence emerge
in this context such as: disrespect for community ties; disregard with the
demands of the affected; housing decision-making taken without considering
families’ views; lack of school infrastructure, medical care, security, and
transportation in the new housing area (Valencio, 2012; Valencio and Darós, 2013;
Siena, 2014; Marchezini, 2014). This type of corrosive social interaction occurs
when, in a neoMalthusian optics, the vulnerable subjects are not considered as
part of the “good society” (Sennett, 2004).
Pigeon and Rebotier (2016) highlight the contradiction in the discourse of the
authorities, which announces the efficacy of their strategies of disaster risk
prevention, but are not at all able to recognize the uncertainties derived from the
complexity of factors. The “rush for action”, driven by the catastrophist appeal of
the risks, is being used by many actors, including scientists, to focus only on the
aspects of their preference and recommend priority measures, but sistematically
placing the social sciences in the margins of the discussion. The way how the
questions related to disasters are outlined by the technicians determine the set
of disciplines, methods of analisys, and scientific groups of power which support
the decision-making of the authorities. There are political, institutional and even
disciplinary boundaries that block the possibility of sharing information as well
as convergence of interpretations and decisions. Questions about the progress of
the risk management, which go beyond the implemented technical measures,
are topics of political and sociological essence, but these dimensions of the
problem are not even discussed. Pigeon (2007) provides an example. In this case
water management policies implemented in France has cross-border
consequences in Switzerland. Drainage and construction of dikes in France
triggered a disaster in the village of Lully, Switzerland in 2002. What was lacking
was a complex perspective applied to understand the challenges involved in
sharing the water resources. This case has shown that the approach adopted only
at local level dismissed problems in another scale of territorial relations, linked
by water. The risk reductions strategies recommended in one place resulted in the
creation of other risks elsewhere.
120 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
The mainstream of disaster studies leaves aside key social aspects which
uncovered the roots of this problem. This is illustrated next in three examples.
The first one was in Bhopal, India, 1984. The disaster involved the leak of a
cyanide-based pesticide directly affecting over 500,000 people. Immediate
deaths were about 8,000 people, mainly due to respiratory and circulatory
problems, as well as multiple organ failure and necrosis. The anthropologist
Veena Das analysed the case through an innovative lens, defining the concept
of critical events (1995). She did not place her focus on the technological
processes that failed, causing human contamination; instead, her attention was
given to the daily violence in the relations between State and the poor
communities, which explains the increase of deaths and injuries related to this
disaster. It occurred, for example, through the inefficient way that medical care
was provided to the victims, from emergency care to long-term treatment. The
survivors had respiratory diseases which worsened over time until their death,
which could have been avoided with adequate care under those circumstances.
The most relevant aspect highlightd by Das was the persistent maintenance of
symbolic violence of the State against the affected, when the public
responsibility was denied. The public mitigation measures were the minimum
possible, because even before these groups became “victims” of a disaster,
they were missing voices in the public agenda, and completely invisible in
political terms. Historical inequalities normalized the fragility of material
conditions, which produced spatial susceptibility8 of those people to many
kinds of critical events (Das and Poole, 2008). Although the classification of
“victim” could lock the affected people in a process of sub-citizenship, the
deepening of their humiliation and suffering also fostered social mobilizations
and a strong demand for new ethical reference lines. The perspective from the
margins of society can shed light on the obscurity of political and economic
structures and also show the tension between the power versus social rigths,
the legal and the illegal (Das and Poole, 2008).
The second illustration is the disaster related to Hurricane Katrina, in New
Orleans in 2005, killing between 1,200 and 1,800 people. This case was
characterized as a catastrophe due the lack of preparedness of the authorities
to act in a timely manner (Quarantelli, 2006). The social actors that were
8. In the mentioned book, Veena Das is concerned about how the social disafilliation is a
constitutive aspect of critical events and generates social suffering. It occurs in many ways,
including the loss of economic possibilities of the communities to maintain the place
meaningful to them (in terms of collective identity and social bonds) and the lack of
territorial options. The options available are those under more threats (especially due to
the lack of sanitation infrastructure and other essential public services). Here, the spatial
susceptibility refers not only to geographical location, but a deteriored place in terms of
social ties which subject that community to a range of constraints, oppressions and threats.
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 121
supposed to take actions to minimize the community losses and damages were
apparently disoriented in the catastrophic scenario. In this context of
misunderstandings in which the measures were being taken, conflicts between
the most affected groups and the authorities occurred in a marked way. There
was abuse of police and military power, including unrestricted use of violence,
after an unprepared and prejudiced mass-media broadcasted information
claiming civil disorder and chaos (Tierney, Bevc and Kuligowsky, 2006). From the
perspective of environmental justice, Bullard (2006) emphasized that the
reasons behind inadequate response and recovery measures were the racism.
According to this author, the delay and insufficient rescue services, associated
with complex criteria for compensation that turned out to disadvantage of poor
and black citizens, contributed for the catastrophic scale of the devastation
coming into place. He emphasized that, one year after this flooding crisis,
schools for black and poor citizens were not propely recovered, bank rates were
differentiated (higher) for their reconstruction measures, and even when they
lived provisionally in trailers, in public places, the white neighborhood treated
them as undesirable. Four years later, Bullard (2009) confirmed the bias of social
class and race in this catastrophe through the social unbalance of contamination
with toxic debris. He explained that Katrina left about 100 million cubic yards
of debris, over thirty times of the debris of September 11, 2001. The Lousiana
Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) allowed the opening of the 200-
acre Old Gentilly Landfill to dump the storm’s debris, located in an African
American east New Orleans. In 2006, another landfill was authorized, through
issued permits by LDEQ and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, placed nearby a
community mostly compose by African American and Vietnamese families. And
the author further detailed how the environmental racism9 appeared in the
interaction between the State and the disadvantaged communities through the
way that the contamination of the trailers provided by FEMA was dealt with:
Many of the residents displaced by Katrina were placed in temporary
housing, including 120,000 travel trailers purchased by the Federal
Emergency Management Agency for $2.6 billion. More than 140,000
families were housed in FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes across the
Gulf Coast. The Sierra Club found unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 of 32
travel trailers it tested in 2006. Even though FEMA received numerous
complaints about toxic trailers, the agency initially only tested one occupied
trailer to determine the levels of formaldehyde in it. The monitored levels were
75 times higher than what the National Institute of Occupational Safety and
Health recommend for adult exposure in industrial workplaces (…) In August
2007, frustrated with government inaction, more than 500 hurricane survivors
and evacuees in Louisiana filed legal action against the trailer manufacturers
9. According to Bullard (2006), environmental racism is an way of social discrimination in the
environmental practices, in which negative effects have a strong racial/etchnical bias.
122 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
for exposing them to the toxic chemical formaldehyde. (…) In February 2008,
more than two years after residents of FEMA trailers first complained of
breathing difficulties, nosebleeds, and persistent headaches (and after the EPA
gave New Orleans a clean bill of health), CDC tests found that average levels
of formaldehyde gas in 519 trailers and mobile homes tested in Louisiana and
Mississippi were about five times normal levels in most modern homes. In
some trailers, levels were nearly 40 times customary exposure levels — levels
that could have long-term negative health effects. (...) Formaldehyde is a known
carcinogen, and long-term exposure to levels of 77 parts per billion could have
serious effects (...) CDC scientists who conducted the study used an unusually
high threshold of hazard to evaluate the formaldehyde in the trailers: Instead
of 30 parts per billion, they used 300 parts per billion, 10 times greater than
the long-term standard (Bullard, 2009).
A decade later, impoverished neighbourhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward
remain a scene of desolation, despite the recovery in wealth areas, as showed
by media (NPR, 2015). These example illustrates the delicate arrangement of
social forces in a disaster, and the great responsibility carried by the actors in
charge of informed opinion-making such as scientists and journalists. These
privileged actors have the duty to make a critical analysis and not falling for the
easy traps of legitimizing only those in position of power.
The final illustration is the case of the disaster related to the Grenfell Tower
fire in London in June 2017 with the loss of at least 80 lives, of which only about
50 people where identified as of the moment of writing (BBCNews, 2017). The
Grenfell Tower was a high-rise building designed and completed in the period of
1967-74 with the purposes of social housing in the Royal Borough of Kensington
and Chelsea (RBKC), west London. A process of social exclusion was present
throughout the life of the building. Although RBKC is considered one of the most
affluent areas of London, the site where the tower was erected has previously
been an area of substandard accommodation with high density of immigrants,
which faced exploitative landlords and suffered from the racist movements in the
1950s, perpetrated by gangs of white young men referred as Teddy Boys (Vague,
2012; Travis, 2002). In the late 1950s and early 1960s mass slum clearances took
place in London boroughs and plans for high-density social housing schemes were
set (Hamnett, 2001), leading, among others, to the Lancaster West Estate, which
contains Grenfell Tower. Although in a first moment the tower blocks seemed to
be a solution to substandard living, soon these buildings became heavily
associated with crime cases, anti-social behaviour by young people and
unresolved racial tensions (Curtis, 1999; Moore, 2013), i.e. the residents of tower
blocks were subject to the same stigmatization of the previous inhabitants of the
area. During the late 1990s privatizations, the management of the tower block
passed from the RBKC council to a limited company (KCTMO) with the board
composed of elected residents, council representatives, and independent
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 123
members (KCTMO, 2017). In the period 2012-2016, Grenfell tower underwent
major renovation with the purpose of improving insulation and energy efficiency
and updating the external appearance, an attempt to match the design with the
affluent neighbourhood. At the same time, a group of residents organised as the
Grenfell Action Group repeatedly complained to the management company
about more pressing issues such as the lack of maintenance and adequacy of fire-
safety structure, allegedly without effect (Booth and Wahlquist, 2017). In this
context of historical disadvantage of the dwellers of that area, and recent conflict
between the residents and management priorities, the worst occurred: a rapidly
spreading fire in the early hours of 14 June 2017. The details of the technical
causes and adequacy of response actions are currently under investigation,
however the questions and issues which succeeded are so common to other
disaster cases, prompting the follow editorial reflection in the 20 June edition of
the British Medical Journal:
The questions began within hours of the tragedy. Could it have been
foreseen? Was there a design fault? Why had the victims been concentrated
among the poor and marginalised? More questions followed a few days
later. How could politicians appear so insensitive in the face of such
suffering? Why were so many warnings ignored? Who was responsible for
the budget cuts that increasing numbers of people blamed for the disaster?
This was not London in 2017, in the aftermath of the fire in Grenfell Tower,
a residential block that turned into an inferno trapping scores of people,
with at least 79 people dead or missing. It was 2005, in New Orleans. (...)
Many watching events unfold in June 2017 in west London felt that history
was repeating itself. Even while the fire engulfing Grenfell Tower was still
burning, local residents described how they had repeatedly attempted to
draw the authorities’ attention to the risk of fire. (…) But if public health is
concerned with the prevention of illness, injury, and premature death, it
must work to avoid tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire by seeking to
address the causes of the causes and, above all, by confronting those with
power. It is the powerful who define the narrative in the media and in
political discourse, decide who is to blame, what policies are acceptable,
and even whose lives are important. They set the rules that relax standards
on safety and employment rights. And they silence the weak, ignoring or
discounting their views. In response, public health professionals must make
the invisible visible (McKee, 2017, p. 1).
The silencing of survivors became explicit in the public hearing of 14 September
2017 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The survivors were told in advance that no
questions would be accepted and that residents would not be included in the
assessment team (Gallagher, 2017a). This caused a sense of injustice in the affected
people, because their perspectives, based on their suffering, were not accepted by
the authorities as valid point of view in the inquiry (Gallagher, 2017a; Gentleman,
2017a). Even the chosen venue, the auditory of a luxury hotel, was regarded
124 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
incompatible with the expectations of the victims, especially given that hundreds
of them remain in temporary accommodation three months after the fire, only
hoping for a normal life back (Gallagher, 2017b; Gentleman, 2017b). As of the
moment of the opening, the inquiry team presented little ethnical and class
diversity, reinforcing the distrust of the survivors in the inquiry process (Gallagher,
2017a; Steel, 2017). Given that the terms of reference of the inquiry include “the fire
prevention and fire safety measures in place”, “the response of the London Fire
Brigade to the fire” and “the response of central and local government in the days
immediately following the fire” (Grenfell Tower Inquiry, 2017), a complete picture
can only be obtained with the residents voices, who experienced the chain of
failures in each of these. If the survivors are not properly listened, the inquiry
outcome can still provide technical recommendations (such as the adoption or not
of sprinklers), but socially will only reinforce an authoritarian social interaction with
the affected group. This is the face of social oppression.These illustrations raise
many concerns about the hidden conceptions of actors that call for “action at any
cost”, dissociated from any preceding critical reflection about their social effects.
Main socio-environmental challenges in the
Brazil is a society in which risks related to progress and risks related to
inequality and poverty are mixed (Valencio, 2012). This generates very
complicated social effects, which although attributed mainly to economic
factors, are not displaced from political and cultural factors. Structurally, the
country maintains features of both extractive political and extractive economic
institutions, even if, in the recent years, there were some advances towards
social security and protection (Acemoglu and Robison, 2012). Unfortunately,
these advances have been rapidly lost in new legislation (already processed or
in progress in the national congress) on labor rights and territorial rights of
indigenous and traditional peoples. For example, it is about to be voted the
new Mining Code (MPV 790/2017),10 which allows exploration of mineral
resources in Conservation Units. Other example is Time Frame,11 wich favours
10. More information is available on the institucional link of the Chamber of Deputies (Lower
House of the Congress): http://www.camara.gov.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?
idProposicao=2145820 (accessed September 10,2017).
11. Time Frame is a legal interpretation involving indigenous and quilombola territorial
rights against big farmers. It is being used since the judgment of Raposa Serra do Sol
case in Roraima state. The interpretation considered that indigenous groups only have
territorial rights if the land in dispute was in use by them in 1988, when the new
constitution was promulgated. This disregards the situations in which the indigenous
or quilombolas were expelled from their lands, and the cases where the lands were
invaded previously. The current Brazilian president (Michel Temer) wants to adopt this
legal interpretation for all similar disputes that are taking place in the country, to
favour a large farmers in land demarcation processes.
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 125
farmers in the territorial disputes against indigenous and quilombolas peoples.
It means that the Brazilian problems of capitalism in maturity are mixed with
the problems of an oligarchic society. The issues of a capitalism in maturity are
illustrated by: (i) large financial transactions for the production of commodities
in such a way that takes the land from small-scale farmers, favouring large-scale
high-tech monocultural or cattle-production agribusiness, focused on exportation
(beef, coffee, soy) or production of raw materials for industry (sugar-cane for
ethanol, or cotton for textile), but putting less attention on internal market needs;
(ii) use of genetically modified seeds that produce infertile crops, creating a
strong relation of dependency between farmers and seed-providing companies;
(iii) pollution and water contamination, resultant from the widespread use of
pesticides, release of industrial chemicals, discharge of mineral extraction
residuals, and dumping of sewage, all increasing the destruction of river
ecosystems. Typical problems of an oligarchic, older capitalism in Brazil are the
existence of millions of families without agricultural land or employment, and
semi-slavery conditions12 for workers in cities and farmlands. An history of social
and political inequality has resulted in this complex scenario. The mix between
root causes and dynamic pressures (Wisner et al., 2004) (see Chapter 1) result in
confrontation between different development models.
Not only political and economic inequalities are roots of social disagreements
and disputes about the territorial rights and development policies, but cultural
clashes, too. For example, in relation to the land disputes, there are different
conceptions of better use of the same space: construction of new dams and
hydropower plants, environmental conservation, monocultural agribusiness,
and land demarcation for indigenous livelihoods. The development model
adopted by the State historically places the top priority on the water and energy
supply to large farm producers and mineral extraction companies, instead of
small-scale options and demands from traditional communities of small scale
farmers. The rights in dispute in the case of the hydroelectric consortia and the
12. In the contemporary Brazil, there are still several cases of work similar to slavery, both
in the countryside and in the cities. Just in 2016, more than 800 people were rescued
by agents of the Ministry of Labour and Employment (Portal Brasil, 2017). The Labour
Public Ministry (public prosecutors) has also been paying attention to this problem
through actions in the field to curb this practice, elaborating guidelines for Brazilian
workers, and reflecting about it in their publication, Labor magazine, e.g. paper of
Farhat (2013) e Almeida (2013). Detailed sociological and antrophological studies of
this subject have been done by many Brazilian researchers, such as Martins (1999; 2002;
2009). This mode of inhuman work is related to the extraction of natural resources or
production of manufactured goods for the both Brazilian domestic market and
international market. For example, in the state of Maranhão, there was a farm with
20 migrants in forced labour for the extraction of the carnauba wood, which was been
sold to the American and Chinese markets. The workers were only released after a joint
operation of the Federal Highway Police, Federal Public Ministry and the Ministry of
Labour and Employment (G1 Maranhão, 2017).
126 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
indigenous and traditional groups are not about the piece of land itself, but
about the right of access and use of its particular natural resources and about
the symbolic linkage of communities and peoples with the place. The biota
conservationist approach, in legitimate defence of ecological equilibrium,
typically puts excessive focus on the land itself and disregards the contribution
that small communities around could provide to preserve it. In consequence,
even when there is demarcation of land for conservation, the communities
around often are not engaged, and deforestation continues to occur, despite
efforts of patrol and law-enforcement.
Food security is under threat in Brazil because of the prevailing development
model, especially when one considers water and energy supply. Artisanal fishermen
and riverine communities are banished from the river waters when the interests
of the agribusiness or hydroelectric projects overpower communitarian rights,
increasing the number of landless rural workers. The compulsory displacement of
thousands of families and the disruption of their communities is associated to a
desolate scenario involving urban migration and increase of prejudice, discri-
mination, and poverty in some urban areas. It contributes for the rise of risks
simultaneously experienced, such as precariousness of housing, lack of sanitation,
food insecurity, social exclusion, lack of employment, day to day violence, contact
with water-related diseases, and malnutrition. It is in this territory where disasters,
such as related to landslides and floods, take place. The core of this type of crisis is
not the natural event itself, but the social process to deal with it, which trajectory
is chronologically more extensive. Thus, the crisis brings to light the conjunctural
problems and also the structural problems that were poorly balanced. Therefore,
some of the praised renewable energy options, such as hydropower, might actually
be inappropriate social alternatives, producing terrible social results for the
affected groups, decreasing substantially their life quality. Biomass production
(sugarcane for production of ethanol biofuel) is expanding because it helps to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, it supresses the former biodiversity of
the agricultural setting, demands more water, and destroys autonomous labour
practices that rural families have used for many generations on their farms.
Another structural problem is the mismatch between the large diversity of
the traditional communities and the single technical view adopted by the actors
in power regarding the reduction of vulnerability. This view is not culturally
adaptable (often tailored for one specific, urban, subgroup, in one
environmental setting). Brazil, as a nation, is defined by its great socio-
environmental diversity, with very different cultures and biomes in interaction.
Inside the country there are many different indigenous communities with
specific sets of traditions, as well as other kinds of traditional peoples, such as
the traditional fishermen communities, the African-descendent communities
called quilombolas, small farmer producers with specific characteristics
(vazanteiros, geraizeiros, subsistence-farmers). These mix with the modern
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 127
groups of urban, peri-urban and rural people in their many subdivisions of social
class, origin, community size, and frameworks of reference. However, this fusion
is not as peaceful as it might appear from outside where some groups become
subjected to others. The very different types of traditional groups aforemen-
tioned have built different kinds of livelihoods, with a huge variety of collective
identities and strategies for using space, resources and producing “place”. Also,
each group addresses their “education of attention”13 (Ingold, 2001) in a different
way, applying it to identify and use the natural resources, to claim territorial
rights, and to increase the repertoire of knowledge that may be transferred to the
next generation. These distinct collective identities –and the ecological and
environmental settings where they are inserted– involve particularities in their
susceptibilities and forms of adaptation, in such a way that it is quite concerning
when generalist visions of risk reduction are employed. Typically these generalist
visions are applied to undermine local knowledge and attempt to shatter the local
conceptions of human security that are different from those written down on
training manuals of emergency services.
Finally, the social movements that claim land rights, labour rights and social
rights in general are, so far, missing or weak voices in the agenda of public
policies. Most worryingly, some of their members are under constant threat in
Brazil: community leaderships are being killed, politically arrested, threatened
and prosecuted when they criticize people in power. This includes members of
the scientific community that conduct research on issues related to these
communities and movements. Part of a conservative media acts to discredit such
social movements by making pre-judgements or by deliberately “forgetting” to
cover some sensitive topics. In a recent book, a set of key Brazilian social
scientists, representatives NGOs and public prosecutors explained the recent
ways in which the political, technical and economic actors in power (literally or
socially) kill vulnerable people and communities in Brazil, and how people are
dying because of socio-environmental conflicts (Zhouri and Valencio, 2014).
In the middle of the conflicts, there are different environmental and
development policies under question. The dominant groups use dispositifs14
13. “Education of attention” refers to the process by which the cultural repertoires are
transmitted between generations. It depends on the experience of living of the
individual, that validates (or not) the values that were received. This creates a dynamic
of self-organization in the relationships and situations. The individual can adjust to new
disturbances and challenges, quickly reconfiguring his behahiour (Ingold, 2001; 2002).
14. Dispositif is a Foucaultian concept to explain the integration of different elements to
generate a context and a meaning oriented for the collective action. Among the
elements that integrate this network and form inseparable subsets are: words and
things, speech and practice, architecture and work, ideas and actions, attitudes and
behaviours, legislation and education, communication and technology. The continuity
or discontinuity of power passes through the modes of functioning of the devices,
which organize the knowledge considered acceptable on the world and the material
means to make it valid (Foucault, 1973; 1977; 2002).
128 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
(the apparatus of social domination) to restrain criticisms by researchers who
study subjugated social groups (Acserald, 2014). Acserald (2014) details various
types of processual harassment, such as prosecutions, non-disclosure
agreements, professional disqualification, pressures on university administrations
against certain research projects, and the presence of executives of a great
corporation in the moment of defence of an academic dissertation.15 These
interventions go beyond the simple level of moral harassment because they aim
to dissuade the critical scientific view, with damaging consequences for the whole
society. Persecution of progressive religious leaderships, such as Sister Dorothy
Stang, assassinated in the state of Pará in 2005, still occurs across the country. This
was the case with Frei Gilberto (a Franciscan friar), who received a death threat
in Belisário (Minas Gerais state) due to his support for the community territorial
and environmental rights in a conflict involving the large-scale mineral extraction
of bauxite (Pedlowsky, 2017a).
In such cases, the intimidation attempts and processual harassments affect
researchers that disclose the existing conflicts and show their views on the
subject, which is the case of an associate professor of an university in Rio de
Janeiro (Pedlowsky, 2017b) who received an extrajudicial notification of advo-
cacy16 representing the interests of a large mineral company who felt their
interest harmed by the criticisms expressed in his blog. The case of a retired
professor in Bahia state was even worse: he was taken from his residence by a
stranger and transported to a remote area, where he was executed by gunshot.
This professor made a considerable contribution in the movement against
insane asylums, as well as in the fight for a conciliation of the human rights
agenda with other public policies, such as civil defence and mediation of
conflicts in indigenous lands. As in many other cases, the circumstances of his
death were poorly investigated by the local police authorities (Conselho Federal
de Psicologia, 2017). In Brazil, it is risky to be researcher, journalist, and
community leader who confront the dominant interests of actors protected by
the State. It is quickly made clear that their opposition is not welcome, nor
tolerated, and it may cost the loss of the few possessions that the individual
might have, causing an obligation to respond to interminable court processes
where the interpretation of the law weights in favour of the stronger side. At
the extreme, the person’s life or his family safety may be endangered.
Without a clear understanding of social inequalities and the naturalization
of these socio-environmental injustices, excessive praise of “actions” to reduce
15. In Brazil, presentations of dissertation and theses are public.
16. In Brazil, an extrajudicial notification of advocacy is usually (not necessarily) the first
step of a judicial process. If someone does not agree with something that was said
about him, it is possible to request an explanation. If the explanation is not convin-
cing, the judicial process can start. It is requested public apology and/or compensation
for moral damages.
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 129
vulnerability to so-called “natural” hazards and to “prevent” disasters is
meaningless, and suppresses the essential discussion about the causes of these
vulnerabilities and risks (see Chapters 1 and 2). The core of the problem thus
remains untouched, because dealing with it demands an effort to acquire
comprehension of the operational logics of the State and economic elites.
There is a considerable fraction of the scientific community that opts for an
alliance with dominant interests to obtain advantages and visibility. Typically,
they maintain an opposite view to those who experience vulnerability and who
are the risk-bearers, and these “experts” enforce their approach using all
available means. The result is both increase of the social interactions that lead
to the vulnerability and weaking of the function of the State that wants to be
surrounded by people who think alike.
Oppressive social conditions hidden in the
The naturalization of social inequalities in Brazil is tied to the development
model adopted by the political and economic elites since the colonization
period. Patrimonialism – which is an example of root cause (Wisner et al., 2004)
(see chapter 1) – can be understood as a way that the State is captured by private
interests, which begin to control it. It creates a centralising public administration
organized to attend personal demands. This is the Weberian concept adopted
by Faoro (1979) to explain the features of capitalism in Brazil, i.e., a mix between
an inflated bureaucracy that places a succession of barriers to the progress of
the society’s productive forces, and the selective control of some productive
forces by means of a systemic corruption. Comparato (2003) highlights that the
State apparatus, with its bureaucracy, is completely averse to efficiency. When
it is subjected to oligarchic domination, the bureaucracy adopts a modernization
mask to leverage the interests of the private businesses related to the small
circle of the constituted elites but not to attempt any shift in the level of social
It is a predatory strategy, in which many segments of society see themselves
subjected to enormous fiscal and tributary obligations from interventionist
state policies. In addition to this, the state apparatus is appropriated by a
coalition of interests from regional oligarchies, party leaders, career
bureaucrats, “experts”, businessmen, and others (Ribeiro, 2012). It forges a
long-term alliance to promote and control the many spaces of power, such as:
(i) permanent access to high positions and salaries; (ii) power to create criteria
for distribution of public resources according to the interests of lobbies (but
which will be publicly announced as great projects for the nation’s welfare); (iii)
influence over the decision processes that guide development strategies from
economic foundations to the regulations of the quotidian life (by means of
public policies in finance, land, agriculture, labour, pensions, health, security,
130 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
education, science, energy, water management, urban planning, civil defence,
and others); (iv) mutual support between the members of the elite groups in
enhanced strategies of social communication, to put forward a positive image
of themselves in the view of the general public, thus increasing their social
capital; (v) construction of interminable barriers to the measures of
redistribution of wealth and guarantee of human rights; and (vi) shameless
exchanges of advantages and privileges that undermine any ideal of justice.
A deep discussion about social oppression and domination before any action
of risk-prevention needs to be undertaken. The way that many groups of society
are being subordinated or marginalized is linked not only to the attitudes of those
who are members of dominant groups, who consider themselves naturally
superior and institutionalize their practices and instruments of oppression, but
also due to the internalization of the values of the oppressors. This is done, for
example, through non-dialogical education (formal and informal) tailored to
produce in students lack of confidence in their capabilities. This leads to self-
deprecation and shame in the subordinated individuals (Freire, 1977; Tappan,
2006). In this way, actions for the reduction of vulnerability will hardly have any
genuine or durable effectiveness, as long as these actions are designed by groups
that consider themselves socially superior, or by professionals that are unable to
dialogue with the know-how of the vulnerable groups. The process of breaking
the link between risk-prevention actions and the oppressor’s imposed image and
worldview is, at the core, a tough fight against subservience (Tappan, 2006). Thus,
it is absolutely innocuous to think that, in Brazil, the problem of improvement of
risk-prevention actions is solved through the dissemination of new technical
formulations or frameworks since the initiatives taken have only transfered
power to small political, technical and scientific groups that dilapidate the society
that becomes dependent on their deliberations, as has been sociologically
studied in detail (Valencio, 2012; 2015).
Two illustrations of how corruption in the State can involve key people
discursively committed with risk-prevention actions occurred recently. One of
them was the Brazilian Federal Police Operation named Lost Treasure (derived of
the Operation Cui Bono?), which culminated in the recovery of the equivalent to
US$ 16 million in cash and the preventive custody of a former Minister of National
Integration17 and the General Director of Civil Defense of Salvador (Brasil, 2017a;
G1, 2017a). It was the largest apprehension of monetary values in Brazil related
to corruption (Brasil, 2017b). The other situation was the Operation Ingenium of
the Special Action Group to Combat Organized Crime (GAECO) of Rio de Janeiro
(a joint investigation of Public Ministry and Civil Police of Rio de Janeiro State, and
other institutions) that discovered a scheme of bribery involving the high rank of
thirty officers of the military firefighters in that state. They are a corporation
17. This Ministry commands the National Protection and Civil Defence Secretariat.
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 131
responsible for civil defense actions in that state. The group involved extorting
owners of commercial establishments and services to issue fire license, and
without proper safety verification (Fantti, 2017; G1, 2017b). This means that the
widespread practice of corruption at the top of power has been able to alter the
institutional mission itself. Instead of identifying threatening factors in the
supervised places, and assuring safety conditions for people, the mentioned
group required bribery to authorize the operation of that place (restaurants, bars,
entertainment places, and others) without any concern about legal recommen-
dations. It resulted in increased risk to the local society. These cases are emble-
matic about the widespread corruption in Brazilian public institutions, in which
illicit gains are made possible through the deterioration of the sense of justice in
daily social relations. In recent years, there has been a great effort by the Brazilian
Public Ministry, in partnership with the Federal Police, to identify the complexity
of the inter-institutional web where political and technical groups act to obtain
immeasurable privileges.18 In the words of the Prosecutors,
The billion dollar defaults of corruption erode health through lack of basic
sanitation. They kill for the absence of hospitals, devices and medicines for
care. They strengthen criminal organizations through poor education and
security, leading to increased violence and marginalization. They generate
a parallel state, which governs private interests. Beyond trafficking,
corruption dangerously undermines people’s confidence in institutions and
democratic regime (Pozzobon, Noronha and Dallagnol, 2016).
(In)conclusion: lives put on hold
Craving to impose their own view of appropriate actions to reduce risks, the
discourse of dominant groups disregards critical thought, claiming it to be
“useless”. This is something considerably more dangerous than it seems.
Beneath this attitude is the idea that things can be transformed by the simple
desire of the elites. Because of the elite’s concern for not losing control over
others’ lives, there is an irreparable loss in the sociocultural plurality of the
marginalized people, including the diversity of meanings of the world and life,
and their own forms of education of attention (Ingold, 2001) and education for
liberation (Freire, 1977).
The convenient interpretation of vulnerability spread by the elites focuses
solely on the direct relations between people with fragile livelihoods in unsafe
18. The most important of theses join operations in Brazil, the Lava Jato Operation, intents
to identify a strong corruption scheme involving the highest levels of the federal
government and the largest public and private companies. To find out more about this
and other anti-corruption operations in Brazil, please see the institutional site of the
Federal Public Ministry: http://www.mpf.mp.br/.
19. Translated by the authors. The original article is in Portuguese.
132 Reduction of vulnerability to disaster: from knowledge to action
conditons and hazards that are alleged to be “natural”. The lack of discussion
about socioeconomic power in the risk-prevention policies continues to
reproduce and increase of vulnerability of people, families, and communities
(Blaikie et al., 1994). It is occurring in countries like Brazil, where the culture of
corruption is historically entrenched in public institutions and requires an
unprecedented effort by the Public Ministry to disclose and restrain it. It makes
imperative that the discussion about risk-preventions actions goes beyond the
approach of vulnerability as an intrinsic state of lack of things in the life of
minorities and poor groups, and be able to show it as an effect of social
relations of oppression. This social interaction cruelly reflects the imposition of
external solutions that, although in discourse claim to be for the welfare and
protection of all, only supports the machinery of social domination. As long a
deeper discussion about it is not done, in sociological and anthropological terms
oriented mainly by the guarantee of human rights, the quality of risk-prevention
action will not advance substantively.
Groups of experts, technical actors, and institutions concerned with their
prestige are obstructing the renewal of ideas about risk-prevention actions to
keep themselves in command of actions. This deflects these actors from their
obligation to reflect seriously on their own mistakes. In a bidirectional flow,
these actors induce a model of development that generates more social
violence while the dispositifs within this model reinforce their power. This
feedback leads to a regression of the human condition of dominated groups to
the point of becoming mere quantified things (Cohn, 1998). Their fate can be
decided or rearranged in their absence and in a way that more threats are placed
in their daily life, thus increasing disasters. As stated by Levi (1959) and
Hockhemier and Adorno (2002), the idea of civility regresses when falls into the
traps of economic progress obtained through social oppression. The limits of
enlightened reason – or what dazes it – is precisely the oppressive socio-
political behaviour of those who, in the use of a strong bureaucratic apparatus,
settle in their alliance with representatives of socially exclusive knowledge,
concentrated technologies, and poorly distributed wealth. The alleged
objectivity in which political and economic decisions are made and socially
accepted becomes a kind of collective madness (Cohn, 1998). Thus, the
rationale that supports the processes resulting in devastation of natural
resources, in policies against minorities and so on generates an inversion in the
relation of subject/object (Cohn, 1998). Corruption of public agents can be seen
as a contemporary form of barbarism as this practice thrives at the expense of
subtracting from society the essential means for its protection. It is especially
serious when it involves risk-prevention actions. Thus, the understanding of the
social rationales behind power is one of the more important tasks of our times
and demands an abandonment of naïve views about the human progress, which
includes the risk-prevention actions. In the above problem, if the quest for
Vulnerability as social oppression: the traps of risk-prevention actions 133
social justice is not the basis of these actions, there will be just another trap
within a bleak path.
Acknowledgments – The authors thank Victor Marchezini and Luciana Londe for
the kindness to invite us to this book. We also thank Ben Wisner for carefully
reading and reviewing the content, as well as for the suggestions offered. N.V.
is grateful to CNPq, CONFAP, ERSC, and Newton Fund Committee for the
opportunity to present a preliminary version of these reflections in the meeting
in London. A.V. acknowledges a scholarship from CNPq-Brazil.
Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail. The origins of power, prosperity
and poverty. London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013.
Acselrad, Henry. “Vulnerabilidade ambiental, processos e relações”. Paper presented at
the II Encontro Nacional de Produtores e Usuários de Informações Sociais, Econômicas e
Territoriais, Rio de Janeiro. Aug 24, 2006. Accessed Jan 02, 2011. http://www.fase.org.br/
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