Drought in Northeast Brazil

Lúcia Gaspar
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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Drought is a natural phenomenon characterised by a delay in the precipitation of rains or their irregular distribution, which ultimately jeopardises the growth or development of agricultural plantations.

The problem is neither new nor exclusive to Northeast Brazil. It occurs frequently, appearing relatively periodically, and can be somewhat predicted prior to occurring. Drought occurs in Brazil as it can in Africa, Asia, Australia and North America.

In Northeast Brazil, according to historical records, the phenomenon occurs approximately every ten years, although it can last for periods of three, four and, in extreme cases, five years. Droughts have been known of in Brazil since the 16th century.

Droughts manifest with different intensity. They depend on rainfall indices. When there is an accentuated deficiency in the quantity of rain in a year, lower than the minimum required by the plantations, the drought is absolute.

In other cases, when the rains are only sufficient enough make the leaves grow in the ‘caatinga’ (flora of the semi-arid region) and accumulate a little water in dams and artificial lakes but not enough for the normal growth of agriculture, it is a green drought.

These climactic variations harm the growth on plantations and cause a serious social problem, as a large number of people inhabiting in the region truly live in a situation of extreme poverty.

Drought is a result of the interaction of several factors, some external to the region (like the circulation of wind and ocean currents, which are related to atmospheric movement, impeding the formation of rainclouds in certain areas), and others that are internal (such as not very robust vegetation, the topography and the high reflectivity of the soil).

Many causes have been pointed to, including deforestation, the region’s temperature, amount of rain, flat topography and sun spots. The phenomenon “El Niño” should be noted too, which consists of an increase in temperature in the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Peru and Ecuador.

Human activity has also contributed to the worsening of the situation as the constant destruction of natural vegetation through burning brings the expansion of the semi-arid climate to areas were it previously did not exist.

Drought is an ecological phenomenon which is manifested in the reduction of farming production, causing a social crisis and transforming into a political issue.

The most evident consequences of large droughts are starvation, malnutrition, misery and migration to urban centres (rural exodus).

Problems that follow droughts result from failures in the process of occupation and use of soil and in the maintaining of a profoundly concentrated and unjust social structure.

The first issue is manifested in the introduction of cultures with difficulty in adapting to the existing climatic conditions and in employing techniques for using the soil that are incompatible with the ecological conditions of the region. The second concerns the control of the land’s ownership and the politics practiced by local oligarchies.

These aspects make the results of the droughts more serious and cause the destruction of nature, the pollution of waterways and the exploitation by some of the landowners and leading businesspeople of resources destined to fight the region’s poverty, which has been called the “drought industry”.

The question of drought is not simple a lack of water. By rule, there is no lack of water in the Northeast.

There only lack solutions to resolve its poor distribution and the difficulties in utilising it. It is “necessary to demystify drought as an unbalancing element in the economic and social life of the Northeast and as a source of increased expenditure for the Union… to demystify the idea that drought, being a natural phenomenon, is responsible for the hunger and misery that dominate the region, as if these elements were only present there”. (Andrade, Manoel Correia, A seca: realidade e Mito [Drought: Reality and Myth], p. 7).

With a much smaller population than the Northeast, the Amazon, which possesses water in abundance, also shows inhumane living conditions, much like in various other Brazilian regions. There the problem is different, as the environment is inhospitable due to floods, poor-quality soil and the proliferation of tropic diseases.

Periodic climatic crises, such as floods, frosts and droughts, occur all over the world, causing damage to agriculture. In some cases they become social catastrophes.  However, they only become social scourges when precarious social, political and economic conditions allow them to. Semi-arid and arid regions throughout the world are used for agriculture by way of the development of drought cultures or irrigation, as happens in the United States, Israel, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Senegal.

Defined by the Federal Government in 1951 (Law n° 1.348), the Polygon of Droughts, with a size of 950,000 km2, equivalent to over half the Northeast region’s territory (52.7%), extends from Piauí to the northern part of Minas Gerais. The climate is semi-arid and it has ‘caatinga’ vegetation. Its soil is shallow, mostly, and the rate of surface water evaporation is high. This is the area most affected by periodical droughts.

The natural phenomenon of droughts gives opportunity to the rise of a political phenomenon called ‘drought industry’.

The large Northeast landowners, thanks to their political allies, interfere in decision-making at federal, state and municipal levels. They benefit from government investments and from special credit lines provided by state banks. It is common for them to apply the financing obtained in other sectors as opposed to agriculture, and to use the dramatic spread of droughts to not pay their contracted debts. The dominant groups come out stronger, while the search for solutions to social problems and the availability of work to the poor are delayed.

Landless workers (minimum wage workers, partners, tenants) are the most vulnerable to drought, because they are the first to be laid off or have their agreements cancelled.

The tragedy of drought covers the vested interests of those who have political influence or the economically powerful who want to eternalise the problem and impede effective actions from being adopted.

The matter of drought has provoked various government actions. The first initiatives to deal with the question were to supply the semi-arid zone with water. This approach led to the creation of the Inspectorate of Works against Droughts (Decree n°-7.619, 21 October 1909), today Dnocs, with the purpose to centralise and unify the direction of services to create an action plan to combat the effects of climatic irregularities. The construction of roads, dams, artificial lakes and wells was begun as a way to provide support to agriculture in overcoming periods of drought.

The idea to resolve the water shortage in the semi-arid region was, basically, the guideline drawn by the Federal Government for the Northeast and prevailed at least until the middle of 1945. At the time that the Brazilian Constitution of 1946, a Government budget reserve of 3% of tax revenue was established to be spent on the Northeast region, giving rise to a new and different approach to the ‘hydraulic solution’ in anti-drought policy, abandoning the emphasis on works for a more rational use of resources.

With the purpose of utilising the potential for electrical generation of the São Francisco River, the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company (Chesf) was founded (1945). In 1948, the São Francisco Valley Commission (CVSF) was created, today called the São Francisco Valley Development Company (Codevasf) and in 1952, the Bank of Northeast Brazil (BNB). The idea was to create a mid to long-term credit institution specifically for the Northeast region.

In December 1959, the Superintendence of Northeast Development – Sudene – was created (nowadays defunct, with projects to recreate it in new forms), an organ constructed to study and propose guidelines for the development of the Northeast economy, with the goal of reducing the then-existing disparity with the Central-South of the country. It looked to establish a new intervention model centred as much around the problem of drought as around the Northeast as a whole.

From the drought of 1970, the Programme for Land Redistribution and Stimulation of Agricultural Industry in the North and Northeast (Proterra) arose in 1971, with the purpose of promoting peaceful agrarian reform in the Northeast through the purchase of land from large landowners without expropriation and at market rates. In 1974 the Programme for Development of Integrated Lands in the Northeast (Polonordeste) was instituted, to promote the modernisation of cattle farming in selected areas of the region. The Sertanejo Project, launched in 1976, sought to act in the semi-arid areas to make their economies more resistant to the effects of droughts, through association between irrigated and dry agriculture.

With the purpose of incorporating prior projects, considered to be failures, the Support Programme to the Small Rural Producer (Projeto Nordeste – Northeast Project) in 1985, looked to eradicate absolute poverty and innovate resources destined to be used by small producers.

The distribution of food through basic foodstuffs and working fronts, created to give services to the unemployed for a long period of drought through the construction of roads, artificial lakes and bridges, have been employed as emergency actions.

The problems of droughts will only be overcome through profound socio-economic changes on a national level. Several proposals have been formulated:

- Transforming the current agrarian structure, concentrated on land and income, through an Agrarian Reform that gives social justice to the rural worker.
- Establishing an Irrigation Policy that adopts easily-accessible technologies for rural workers and that can be adapted to the reality of the Northeast.
- Instituting irrigated agriculture in the areas where water is available and developing drought agriculture with xerophytic plants (those that survive a lack of water) and short vegetative cycles. Foods such as sorghum and millet, as corn substitutes, would be important for the Northeast, similar to the example in India, China and the western United States.
- Establishing an Industrialisation Policy, with the implementation of industries that benefit local raw materials, to reduce transport costs and offer employment opportunities to the region’s workforce.
- Proportioning the access to the use of water by utilising water accumulated in the large catchment areas, artificial lakes and dams, digging wells, creating subterranean dams and rural cisterns to benefit the currently excluded sections of the population.
- Changing the practices of soil occupation in terms of cattle-grazing, eliminating the excess of cattle in pastures which can cause serious damage to the pasture and soil; the burning of pastures which destroys the existing organic material; and deforestation for the purpose of selling wood and firewood.
- Stimulating the rational use of native vegetation (caatinga) for coal and the commercialisation of timber.
- Implementing the Transposition of water from the Rio São Francisco Project to other watersheds in the semi-arid region.

It is impossible to eliminate a natural phenomenon. Droughts will continue to occur. But it is possible to live with the problem. The Northeast is viable. Its greatest problems are more due to the action or omission of men and the conception of the society that has been implanted than the very droughts of which its inhabitants are victims.

The semi-arid region is one favourable to irrigated agriculture and cattle raising. All that is needed is a rational approach to these activities, especially from an ecological standpoint. In some areas that are even more arid than the Brazilian Northeast, like the Negev desert in Israel, the local population is able to enjoy a good standard of living.

Solutions imply the adoption of an official policy for the region that respects the reality in which Northeast residents live, giving them means to access the land and to work. The issue of managing the adopted guidelines can not be forgotten, given the diversity of the organs that deal with the subject.

Structured and concrete measures are required so that the dramas of droughts do not continue to be faced.

Recife, 11 July 2003.
(Updated on 31 August 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2011.


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A "SECA" no Brasil: editorial. Cadernos do CEAS, Salvador, n.88, p.3-8, nov./dez. 1983.
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Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Drought in Northeast Brazil. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.


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