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Asunto:[CeHuNews] 70/04 - A Political History of Drought in Northeast Brazil
Fecha:Domingo, 17 de Octubre, 2004  12:19:45 (-0300)
Autor:Centro Humboldt <humboldt>

CeHuNews 70/04
A Political History of Drought in Northeast Brazil

 Nicholas Gabriel Arons
This supplementary article to our current issue, available on-line only, explores the historic and on-going relationship among drought, rural poverty, and politics in Northeast Brazil.

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians—among them tens of thousands of children—died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses during the 1979-1983 drought that wracked their country. In four years, reports the Pastoral Land Commission of Brazil, the drought killed 12 times more people than did the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The human toll of drought-related disasters in the country, of which this is but one example, has been monumentous, persistent and unconscionable.

In the sertão—the semi-arid hinterland of northeast Brazil—it rains often, yet it is a region beleaguered by drought. Perhaps more ironically, long after the droughts are over there are still terrific water shortages, as if the droughts had never left. There are expansive cracked landscapes that look like deserts, yet beside them are large private farms, green as Eden. There are vast citrus plantations, yet there is hunger. There are once-fecund and well-fed towns where crusted earth and distended bellies predominate, which just decades earlier saw their own government drain their water supplies, and along with them, any hope for survival. Almost every three years the region is beset by drought. The data is transparent—it has been happening for five hundred years—yet since the beginning of recorded history in Brazil, officials at the national and local levels have done almost nothing to combat water shortages until it was too late.

Explanations of drought cannot be left to meteorological or environmental specialists alone because the primary factor causing malnutrition, disease, death and rural-to-urban migration throughout the northeastern interior is not a lack of water, but the political manipulation of that lack. “O problema não é a seca, é a cerca,” goes the saying in northeastern Brazil (The problem is not the drought; it is the fence). During droughts, while children routinely die of starvation and malnutrition, the region continues to export huge amounts of food. Decades ago, the government was willing to consider protecting its citizens from drought, until drought was found to be a major boon to politicians. It became the explanation for rural poverty, the means of attaining cheap labor, the rationale for securing international loans, the basis for obtaining federal grants, the excuse for failing policies and a strategy to buy votes.

In 2001, Brazil faced one of the worst nationwide droughts in its history. The Northeast had received a pittance of rain, and drought emergencies were erupting throughout the northeastern interior. When the rivers and streams supposedly powering hydroelectric dams slowed to a trickle, power shortages caused blackouts and rationing even in cosmopolitan areas of São Paulo. The National Institute of Meteorology reported there had been no rains during the summer of 2000 and predicted the drought could last until 2002 with the return of El Niño. Agricultural output was expected to drop by 90%.

Shortly before the onset of this drought, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso dissolved the development agencies for the Amazon and the Northeast after a series of corruption scandals involving high-placed Senators disgraced these bodies. A casualty of this was the Superintendency of the Development of the Northeast (SUDENE: the northeastern development agency), a project initiated in 1959 to combat drought. Some Senators were outraged at its termination because they thought the project was beginning to work. “All of this is part of a macabre vision that the ruling elite has of the northeast region,” yelled Congressman Clementino Coelho. “For the first time in one hundred years, we [were] going to confront drought with rationality; [now, we are guaranteeing] the apocalypse of the Northeast.”[1]

In Sergipe, a northeastern state, the first looted supermarket of the season was the unofficial signal marking the commencement of the drought. The supermarket closed, adding 40 more people to the already swollen ranks of the unemployed and hungry. Emergency meetings were called. Governors declared they did not have enough water for irrigation, cattle or even human consumption. Many cities were not able to consume the little water that was available because of high salinity levels owing to poor irrigation practices.

In the northeastern state of Ceará, famished rural workers occupied fourteen cities. Newspapers reeled: “State of calamity declared in several municipalities.” Hunger drove 200 farmers to block a stretch of highway in the Ceará interior. They laid rocks and trees across the road, demanding money from drivers to allow passage. They also camped out in front of the mayor's home and office, begging for food-ration baskets and contemplating supermarket invasions.

A heavily armed police force went to the site to “prevent violence.” To avoid further disturbances, the military police initiated an operation along the entire highway to ensure that people did not block traffic to request handouts. According to the lieutenant who was responsible for the force's actions, they were going anywhere there was a serious drought “because that is where people do outrageous things.”[2]

`With a $9 million budget, Agricultural Development Minister Raul Jungman announced that he would immediately begin dispensing government handouts—ultimately, however, no funds were allocated to his work or to the agencies still existing to combat drought. He visited drought-stricken regions and wept upon seeing the poverty and sadness abounding throughout the interior. Brazil’s emperor did the same two centuries ago, when he vowed to sell every jewel in the royal crown in order to prevent mass starvation (the crown stayed intact and nearly one million Brazilians died). The Brazilian dictator Gen. Emílio Médici also visited in the 1960s. The cycle seems endless. The social consequences of this drought were considered relatively minor when compared to previous droughts; yet thousands of deaths occurred throughout the Northeast from dehydration, diarrhea and other diseases commonly linked to water shortages. Tens of thousands of rural farmers migrated south and west that year alone, adding further pressures on overcrowded cities but giving Amazonian developers access to even cheaper labor.

Droughts have been a fact of life in Brazil as long as history has been recorded. Indigenous tribes migrated according to the rain cycle. Portuguese priests wrote about devastating droughts as early as 1559. Severe droughts throughout the 17th century led to a scarcity of resources, intensifying the conflicts between the colonizers and the indigenous populations. The 1721-1726 drought was calamitous, as was that of 1777-1778, which killed almost 90% of the cattle in the Northeast. The 1790-1793 rain shortage was called the “Big Drought” because not a single drop of water fell during this period; cattle ranches were decimated and thousands of people perished. Historian Marco Antônio Villa reports that during these years “water disappeared completely in most of Ceará.” Three plagues then visited the region: grasshoppers “looking like clouds blocking the sun,” snakes and rats. A third of the population of Pernambuco died. The 1824-1826 drought brought smallpox, and a third of the sertão's population died of hunger and disease. During the 1877 drought, well over 330,000 died of hunger, 100,000 of fever and 70,000 of smallpox.[3]

Since 1877, republic replaced colony, and dictatorship and democracy alternated various times. Yet the curse of water deprivation remained constant. Statistics from recent decades paint a grim picture: Health directors reported that, of forty thousand deaths in towns in 1969, 13.2% were caused by dehydration and diarrhea—causes of death usually associated with drought. The average age of death in the Northeast hovered around 42 years. A 1971 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report found no agrarian policy or irrigation program to speak of in the region, and that resources were wasted and personnel inefficiently used. In 1979, a drought beset the “polygon”—the drought-prone region that the federal government redefines annually—causing “irreversible damage and trends in thousands of municipalities,” documents Maria do Rosário Vieira de Almeida. She further records how, in 1980, the production of beans, rice and corn fell by 2.4 million tons, compared to production levels just two years before. More than 250,000 people died throughout the sertão as a result of the drought; infant mortality rates jumped to 250 per 1,000 births in some places. In Pernambuco, many reservoirs had not reached capacity in 20 years, and the only available water was unsafe to drink.[4]

An investigation into the history of Brazil’s drought agencies uncovers two persistent themes: government incompetence and corruption. While other nations around the world—from Israel to Iraq, China to South Africa—used irrigation to get through dry spells and droughts, Brazil was never able to solve its drought problems. The first federal agency to combat drought was created in 1906. This agency was replaced by National Department of Works Against Drought (DNOCS) in 1934, and augmented by the Superintendency of the Development of the Northeast (SUDENE) in 1959. The performance of both has been markedly poor.

“Insufficiency of rainfall,” explains author Albert Hirschman, “is by no means the principal characteristic of the northeastern interior area.” The total rainfall in a normal year, he found, is 27 inches, on par with other nations around the world that do not experience water shortages with the frequency of northeast Brazil. The key issue is that less than 10% of rainfall in the drought polygon is actually retained because the Brazilian government has not developed the infrastructure necessary to store water—a major sign of its inefficiency. The water that is not stored seeps off into eroded lands, where it evaporates or becomes inaccessible and polluted.[5]

Brazilian well construction, reservoir projects and agricultural irrigation schemes have always been capital-intensive, but locally ineffective and often counter-productive. The Brazilian government—with millions of dollars loaned by the World Bank—relies on huge projects at the expense of local needs. For instance, rather than dig small, local reservoirs, DNOCS and SUDENE chose to build huge reservoirs on private lands while relocating poor families to supposedly wetter regions. But to accommodate 100 families in the 1960s, they had to expel almost six times that many. Compounding the calamity of moving communities around as if they were chattel—which continued well into the late 1970s—was the sad reality that no formal or adequate system existed to compensate the dispossessed. Lacking official leases to their land, nearly 70% of expelled families received no compensation. What’s more, rates paid by DNOCS were “well below market values,” and people who actually owned their land but could not provide proof at the time were thrown off. It often took several years to secure compensation, during which time the value of any compensation was “seriously eroded through inflation,” observes researcher Anthony L. Hall.[6]

The sites of irrigation schemes were not selected carefully enough with regard to ecological factors. Most, for instance, “were not chosen according to the criteria of highest soil fertility and consistency.” The process “brought with it its own share of problems in terms of soil saturation and salinization, pollution and depletion of aquifers, and drainage of lakes and inland seas,” a World Bank document noted. Reports from DNOCS show that 20% of irrigated land faces problems of salinization, compaction or flooding. Independent scientists argue, however, that the figure might be as high as 30 to 50%. Profits originating from irrigation often correspond to the losses resulting from salinization. “While the profits are whisked away to outside markets, the losses accumulate on the land,” according to Jesse Ribot, Adil Najam, and Gabrielle Watson.[7]

In addition to such inefficiencies, corruption often pervades government efforts. According to a 1993 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, veteran Liberal Front Party leader Inocencio de Oliveira's six wells, producing 26,000 gallons a day, “were not planned to relieve anyone's thirst. Their water is for the private use of Brazil's virtual vice president, and most of it goes to aid the cleaning of motorcycle engines in a shop Oliveira owns.” Since the beginning of drought planning in Brazil, the article says, “DNOCS has drilled 18,000 wells on private property out of 25,000 and built 500 private dams out of 800.” It also notes the Brazilian federal Chamber of Deputies report that “most DNOCS customers are federal deputies, mayors, fazendeiros [large landowners], businessmen and multinational corporations.” The article’s summary assessment reaffirms the centrality of government corruption: “Federal relief efforts in the current drought have been spotty, and the aid is often diverted by local politicians, who resell food for profit. They also use the aid to solicit votes by doling out beans, bricks to build homes and emergency jobs at the minimum wage.”[8]

It is “the social dimension that accentuates the climatic problem in northeast Brazil,” say researchers in an article on climate change and sustainable development. According to Anthony L. Hall, even in times of normal rains, the “meager resource reserves are barely enough to meet [the inhabitants’] subsistence needs.” He further points out that droughts in the polygon are only one of the causes of rural unemployment, underdevelopment, poverty and migration. “The human tragedy of the drought,” he argues, “is a direct result of the way in which the rural structure of the sertão places thousands of peasants at the economic margin, vulnerable to even the slightest climatic vicissitude.”[9]

Droughts are often blamed for rural poverty and marginalization in northeast Brazil, but they only partly explain rural poverty. Brazil’s political, economic and climatic conditions are inextricably linked; drought is a cause of regional poverty, yet ironically, also an effect of it. Northeast Brazil has long constituted the single largest area of rural poverty in Latin America; two-thirds of Brazil's rural poor live in the Northeast. Of its 45 million inhabitants, 47.2% cannot read. A full third lives in “absolute poverty.” The infant mortality rate in the sertão is one of the highest in the world, at 75 per 1,000 live births, compared to a Brazilian national average of 58 per 1,000 (itself a high figure). Seventy-three percent of northeastern households lack access to proper sanitation facilities, compared to 46% nationwide.[10]

Droughts are not responsible for rural poverty; rather, they expose pre-existing inequalities. Droughts would be quite harmless, perhaps the subject of policy debate—as in Israel, Texas and California—were it not for the political factors that exacerbate their effects. “Vulnerability, social and geographic marginality, environmental change and dryland degradation,” explain water experts, “are central, interlinked and chronic problems.”[11] The combination of drought, inequality and entrenched, corrupt political structures causes social marginalization and poverty.

Warren Dean writes that only 2.6% of a sample of Paraná University students in the interior city of Maringá knew of the catastrophic drought, freeze and fire that destroyed 21,000 square kilometers of their state's forests 20 years earlier. “Should not this holocaust of human making be recounted from generation to generation?” he asks. “Should not the history textbook approved by the Ministry of Education begin: 'Children, you live in a desert; let us tell you how you have been disinherited'?”[12] One of the 20th century's greatest paradoxes is that in the country with the world’s largest supply of clean water and some of the world’s largest reservoirs, children died of thirst.

About the Author:
Nicholas Gabriel Arons graduated from Yale College, researched in Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar, traveled to Iraq in the 1990s to observe the effects of economic sanctions and is a recent graduate of NYU School of Law, where he was a Robert McKay Scholar, a Hays Fellow, and an Institute for International Law and Justice Fellow. His book, Waiting for Rain: The Poetry and Politics of Drought in Northeast Brazil (foreword by Nancy Scheper-Hughes), will be published by the University of Arizona Press this October.

1- Information on the 2001 drought and Coelho quotation: Edson Luiz, "Ministro transfere-se para Recife para cuidar da seca," O Estado de São Paulo, May 25, 2001.
2- On Sergipe, Ceará, and police response: Andreza Matais, "Governo federal segura dinheiro," O Povo, June 3, 2001.
3- Marco Antônio Villa, Vida e morte no sertão (São Paulo: Editor Ática, 2000), 18, 20-21; Alberto de Oliveira, A saga de um povo (Fortaleza: ABC Fortaleza, 1999), 7, 41.
4- "Brazil: More Promises for the Northeast," Latin America Newsletters, Ltd. (July 16, 1971), 228; Maria do Rosário Vieira de Almeida, O fenômeno da seca no Rio Grande do Norte (Natal: Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, 1993), 30.
5- Albert Hirschman, Journeys Toward Progress (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1963), 14; "Rising Tide of Anger in Brazil's Desert," San Francisco Chronicle, April 22, 1993.
6- Anthony L. Hall, Drought and Irrigation in North-East Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 73.
7- World Bank, Natural Resources and Rural Poverty Division, Brazil: Irrigation, Water Policy, and Legal Implications Report of a World Bank Seminar, Internal Discussion Paper (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, June 1994), i; Jesse Ribot, Adil Najam, and Gabrielle Watson, "Climate Variation, Vulnerability, and Sustainable Development," in Climate Variability, Climate Change, and Social Vulnerability in the Semi-arid Tropics, edited by Jesse Ribot, Antônio Rocha Magalhães, and Stahis Panagides (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 43.
8- "Rising Tide of Anger in Brazil's Desert," San Francisco Chronicle, April 22, 1993.
9- Ribot, Najam, and Watson, "Climate Variation," 14, 21; Hall, Drought and Irrigation, 19.
10- World Bank, Natural Resources Management and Rural Poverty Division, Northeast Rural Poverty Alleviation Program, Rural Poverty Alleviation Project—Bahia, Staff Appraisal Report no. 14390 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, June 6, 1995), 2; Judith Tendler, Good Government in the Tropics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 10.
11- Ribot, Najam, and Watson, "Climate Variation," 13.
12- Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 363.

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