A Drought Ravages Northeast Brazil

By Kathleen Bond
[http://www.globalexchange org/campaigns/brazil/economy/drought.html]

The last drop of rain fell on the rural community of Juarzerinho, in Brazil's northeast state of Paraíba on November 16, 1997. A trip to Juarzerinho eight months later found signs of the drought everywhere. Large tracts of land, normally full of corn, sweet potato and manioc, were overrun by a cactus called palma. The constant search for water was evident as women carried tin cylinders on their heads and people pushing wheelbarrows lined up at wells in the centers of small towns in search of the precious resource. At year's end, the drought has not abated, and palma, used for cattle feed and only as a last resort for human consumption, is virtually the only crop that has survived.

In the midst of what is perhaps the worst drought of the century, 9.5 million people are on the verge of starvation in Brazil's northeast, a semi-arid region of nine states and 45 million inhabitants. The impact of this drought has been exacerbated not only by the effects of El Niño, but by the already-existing misery caused by a severe maldistribution of resources. Brazil is the world's tenth-largest economy and a net exporter of agricultural products, but a mere 1% of the Brazilian population holds 47% of the arable land. Large tracts have historically been left idle for speculation. Though the 1988 Constitution guarantees land reform, large landowners have used their close ties to the political elite to block progress on its implementation. Under such conditions, when large numbers of people have nothing to fall back on, drought becomes famine.

The drought came as no surprise. Since August 1997, various climatic research institutes including the Brazilian National Meteorological Institute have been predicting extremely low rainfall for 1998. By April 1998, a federal report was warning the country to prepare for what could be the worst drought of the century. The administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso was slow to take preventive steps such as drilling more artesian wells or completing abandoned irrigation projects. Underground water sources are extensive, but--indicating the political nature of the famine--they remain largely untapped.

As the drought continues, many of the hungry farmers of Juarzeirinho have sought refuge in Brazil's large urban centers. Others have stayed on the land waiting stubbornly for the rains to come. For long-time farmer Rivaldo Jose de Oliveira, who has elected to stay, the struggle to survive without rain is not new. He has lived through eight droughts, though he admits that this one is particularly severe. The soil of his 32 acres of land is so poor that even during years of good rainfall only a tiny portion is used for corn and sweet potatoes for his family's consumption. His land does not produce enough to survive on so, like almost all of the small farmers in this area, he works for a large landholder. "We do all the work and give him a third of our crops," he says. "We haven't produced an edible crop in over a year. Now the only thing that grows is palma, which I feed to my six cows."

Of Oliveira's 15 children, the three oldest have already left for São Paulo. Their frequent remittances help the family survive along with the $100 monthly income of another daughter who is the local school teacher. When asked why he stays, Oliveira says that despite the constant struggle for survival and the too-little, too-late government relief efforts, his life has always been in Juarzeirinho. "We suffer just as our ancestors did," he says, "but I stay because I love the land."

When the drought set in, so did the desperation of the poor. Hungry people started raiding schools and grocery stores for food. The Movement of Landless Workers (MST), a militant organization supported by Catholic lay leaders, religious workers and some bishops, played a leading role in organizing the raids to pressure the government to take some action to aid the poor. MST raids have since leveled off, but were frequent occurrences early in the year. Throughout the Northeast, 110 such raids were reported through the end of last May.

The response of the Catholic Church to the drought has been unusually strong. Speaking at last April's Assembly of the National Conference of Bishops, Archbishop Dom Marcelo Pinto Carvalheira of the Archdiocese of João Pessoa stated that a starving and destitute person has the right to steal food. "Those who take something that does not belong to them in order to survive do not sin," said Pinto. "Catholic Social Doctrine emphasizes the universal distribution of the resources of creation." President Cardoso harshly criticized the statement, but it prompted government action. Within days of the Archbishop's declaration, the government dispatched emergency food supplies three weeks ahead of schedule and stepped up emergency public-works projects. When the government defaulted on paying the newly contracted workers their $50 monthly salary, however, more riots ensued.

It was not until June 1998--several months after the drought began--that the government began to implement a series of medium-term measures to assist the most severely affected sectors of the population. In a national broadcast in early June, Cardoso announced that $2 billion would be allotted to drought relief, including expanded unemployment coverage and the creation of thousands of additional jobs in the region's 52 public-works projects. But the situation has become so severe that it is beginning to affect the urban areas. A few months ago, Campina Grande, the second-largest city in the state of Paraíba, began to ration water. The length of the frequent water cut-offs has now been extended from 24 to 48 hours. State officials predict that the system that provides water for the city will be completely dry by April 1999.

Forecasters predict no new crops for subsistence farmers for at least a year, and despite the relief measures, the threat of starvation remains. The monthly government ration of flour, beans, rice, cooking oil and noodles is barely enough for two weeks. Distribution of the emergency food baskets has also been erratic, with many communities yet to receive assistance. There is also a fourishing "drought industry," in which much of the government and international drought-relief assistance is diverted for private or political gain.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. During the 1989 drought, a state politician from Pernambuco held up the distribution of 30 tons of donated black beans in order to distribute the beans in a calculated move to embarrass his political opponents. In 1995, the Brazilian Environmental and Natural Resources Department cited 50 incomplete drought-relief projects that had consumed $408 million since 1979. Many of the projects had been on hold for several years, including an irrigation project in the community of Ibimirim, Pernambuco, Paraíba's neighboring state. This 20,000-acre project was supposed to be completed within six years of its 1979 starting date, yet after almost 20 years, there is still no termination date in sight. "The numbers point to corruption, special interest politics, waste and incompetence," says Environment Minister Gustavo Krause. "We are throwing away money while people are dying of thirst."

Meanwhile, for Oliveira and other farmers, the threat of starvation remains. "Children are dying because they have no food to eat," said Archbishop Pinto in an interview in early June. "People are eating roasted grasshoppers and competing with the cattle for cactus. Some Brazilians have everything including money to go to France for the World Cup. I'm not angry with them. I'm angry with the system that allows this to happen and forgets the misery of the poor. The rich raid the resources of the government and no one says anything. When the poor raid to eat, everyone screams."

During the recent presidential campaign, the impact of the international financial crisis on Brazil's precarious economy eclipsed all other issues. Prior to the Asian crisis, coverage of the drought was nightly news on all the major stations but, with some rare exceptions, the issue has almost completely fallen off the media's map. Only when the issue is somehow related to the country's broader instability does the media take note. There was ample media coverage, for example, when government officials admitted that some $45 million budgeted for emergency relief was diverted to help pay off the country's galloping public debt, the largest total debt in the developing world.

Isolated and infrequent incidents of the looting of government food trucks have been reported in the last few months. After a brief respite for the October elections, the MST has resumed land occupations throughout the country. The government's response continues to be hard-line--refusing to negotiate with the leadership of the MST and threatening to stop the lengthy, drawn-out reform process on idle lands that have been occupied.

Unlike the international attention devoted to the famines in North Korea and the Sudan, and to the flood disasters in other parts of the Americas, news of this tragedy has only occasionally extended beyond the borders of Brazil. Like the country's terribly skewed distribution of income, the famine has become one more silent scourge of Brazil's impoverished majority.

Kathleen Bond works in João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil, as a MarykNoLinkList lay missioner. This article appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of NACLA.