Interview of the month: Jeovah Meireles

Popular knowledge needs to be part of city planning

Aligning popular and ancestral knowledge with knowledge produced at the university is at the heart of the work developed by Professor Jeovah Meireles of the Department of Geography and the Graduate Programs in Geography and Development and Environment at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC).
One of the country’s leading experts on geo-environmental indicators of relative sea level fluctuations and climate change, the professor conducts research that combines this knowledge with current discussions on tackling climate change, particularly in coastal areas, creating and testing alternatives that actually focus on public planning and infrastructure management in these regions. All of this with the inclusion and active participation of the communities that are most directly affected, such as traditional extractive populations, farm families and indigenous people.

Recently the professor was in São Paulo to participate in a workshop on the new study by the Escolhas Institute, which examines whether water should be treated as an input by the electricity sector. In this interview, held shortly after the debate, he comments on the conflicts over water use generated from the construction of the Pecém Thermoelectric Plant in Ceará, and the experience of developing the first Municipal Plan to Fight Climate Change, in the city of Icapuí. , among other subjects.

Escolhas Institute – What is the contribution of geography to the climate change agenda in Brazil, especially at this time when science is put in doubt by a political field?

Jeovah Meireles – I have been studying for a long time, from the point of view of the evolution of nature, the environmental systems that originated from climate change and sea level variations. These are systems that show that, in fact, this phenomenon occurs in our planet. The northeastern coast and the coast of Ceará are full of indicators of sea level fluctuation and climate change. As I joined the Geography department, my thesis is how this data can bridge coastal planning and management, one of the most stressed environmental systems because most of the planetary population lives in the coastal zone. This bridge began to be built, but within very special aspects of how to elaborate this relationship of knowledge with society. And in this specific aspect, which has been conducting all our research at the university, we work with certain groups that historically have been invisible and completely annulled in this process of thinking about this dimension of coastal zone planning and management. It is through the inclusion of these social groups that we are effectively addressing this link and addressing traditional and ethnic knowledge at the same level as academic and scientific knowledge, in this dimension where these two knowledges are fundamental to address the issues foreseen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC.

Escolhas – What are these expected impacts on Brazilian coastal cities, especially in this region that is the object of their work?

Meireles – We are analyzing this issue through two major axes: along the coastal plain and in the metropolitan region of Fortaleza. From the point of view of the coastal plain, we have hard data on groundwater salinization and continued and cumulative erosion on nearly 573 kilometers of coastline. We took a section of the least impacted by the construction of building complexes, roads and soil sealing, which is the municipality of Icapuí, in the extreme east of the state, between Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte and evidenced the evolution of the coastline in the last 40 years. There is only a certain stretch with increase of sand rather than erosion where the dunes are providing this environmental and ecological sand supply service to minimize erosion. The dune is a sponge that holds water and causes the salinity to be somewhat barred despite rising sea levels. The coast of Ceará is practically a large dune field, so we are partly calm, but all these issues are also related to real estate speculation, inadequate occupation, extensive mining and very poor basic sanitation of small municipalities.
In the metropolitan area of Fortaleza, we are analyzing which ecosystem services linked to environmental systems still resist this growth pressure – dune fields and mangroves – and their importance for climate, biodiversity, leisure and scientific research. Therewith, we are making management plans for integrated management and public use of the Fortaleza waterfront, all within this scope so that we can in an integrated way, think about how to act on climate change.

Escolhas – And how does this integration of the knowledge produced by you with the public powers, especially from the point of view of these policies for urban infrastructure and coastal planning happen?

Meireles – Right now we have a group of Swedes in our department studying urban climate to address these issues from policies and processes that end up providing grounds for public policies. In this specific case (of Icapuí), we will now finish in December the first Municipal Climate Change Plan. We do not know of any such plan on a coastal plain, with the involvement of technicians and the population of the municipality. We have talked with over 400 people and we are building a tool for community power and to face the consequences that have already been observed, such as salinization of the groundwater table and the deforestation of mangroves.
Escolhas – Is this an isolated example or are there other initiatives in Brazil?
Meireles – From the point of view of placing the consequences related to warming as a fundamental axis of planning, I believe that most Brazilian researchers already have this very concrete dimension. But in our case, we are indeed devising an intervention plan, which is interesting for us because above all, it must be a youth formation plan that is in a municipality of less than 20,000 inhabitants, which already has serious problems with that. So, we always do this exercise of bringing this discussion to the bottom and empowering this information in indigenous, farm and shell fishermen communities. It is a university, a group of researchers, that produces science by illuminating the importance that popular questions and knowledge become minimally part of evaluations of economic models, which are always very financial.

Escolhas – Pecém Thermoelectric is always presented as an example of the conflicts generated in this sense between large enterprises and local populations…

Meireles – Pecém is an environmental, climatic, ecological and ethnic disaster. It is a collapse. We are talking about low quality coal-fired power plants and steel mills. It is unknown what will be done with the waste from this burn. There is also water use, higher carbon dioxide production than the city of Fortaleza. It is a terrible example to think about development. In fact, it is a concrete example of developmentalism, technicalism, fast-tracked environmental licensing with little monitoring data, the invisibility of traditional communities, the non-inclusion of the city of Fortaleza in this process and the occupation of indigenous territory. Can you imagine consuming that much water in the semiarid? Furthermore, stealing water from the ecosystems that minimally provides food production and livelihood for these populations in the region that is the city’s green belt. The thermoelectric plant is on top of the groundwater table. A thermoelectric plant was placed on top of an aquifer and covered several lagoons and rivers. There were no minimum location alternatives, technological alternatives or cumulative impacts. These are issues that really make it an example of environmental and social collapse, especially when one has the long-term prediction of the cumulative collapse that these industries generate.

Escolhas – There is a big discussion about the need to equate energy production and its social and environmental impacts, but how do we make this debate ongoing?

Meireles – This path is clearer every day. And it is very clear from the manifestations of society, especially indigenous groups, food producers, agroecology and family farming. And there are already some encouraging scenarios, where there is the possibility of feeding the population our plans with this kind of sovereignty, investment and restructuring of matrices. This path is already planted by groups, institutions, organizations, basic environmental movements, communities and rural movements, this is already very well built.
We are now working hard with the mining debate movement in Ceará. We have done more than 80 social cartographies in our geoprocessing lab, which is in contrast to traditional cartography, which is the cartography of power. We are constructing these cartographies in the face of concrete propositions, very well analyzed and anciently proven, but that do not receive resources and large investments. Today, models are built on cost-benefit ratios often imposed by the investor, and enter the level of speculation. Why not making an investment test? We will calculate only the cost of agro-ecologic production, farmer production, adequate mining, polyculture production, the cost of water for this type of activity. And with that precisely define territories free of coal-fired thermoelectric plants in the semiarid. This is really what we would like to discuss. I think the Escolhas Institute has this in its hands, with the participation of groups that have a well-ordered structure and well-defined processes that already produce food, produce extremely effective water management, produce wealth, makes young people remain in the countryside and avoid several problems.
Escolhas – Assessing the costs involved in using water as an input for energy production, as this study that is underway in Escolhas, is an important contribution to begin this debate?
Meireles – The example of this meeting is incredible. Since Escolhas can bring this group of people together with concrete perceptions, well-constructed perceptions, very qualified technicians and who, for the questions that have been raised, I am sure that they are ready for this other debate.