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Northeast Brazil reels from worst drought in 30 years

The worst drought to hit Brazil's impoverished northeast in 30 years is wreaking havoc among thousands of local farmers, including small producers like Jose Holanda de Moraes who have lost entire harvests.

"Last year, I produced 800 kilograms (1,763 pounds) of cotton, 300 kilos of sesame and 400 kilos of black beans," said de Moraes, a 43-year-old farmer near Apodi in Rio Grande do Norte state.

"This year I planted seeds but it did not rain and I lost everything," he said.

De Moraes farms 19 hectares (47 acres) in the village of Moacir Lucena right in the heart of the semi-arid Sertao hinterland where less than 150 millimeters of rain fell in the first half of this year.

In 1999, the government confiscated some land in the area and redistributed it to landless peasants as part of an agrarian reform program.

The Sertao, a region known as the "Drought Polygon," covers the northeastern states of Piaui, Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraiba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia.

The area is covered by a distinctive scrubby vegetation consisting mainly of low thorny bushes adapted to the arid climate.

Over the past decades, the cyclical droughts have caused large-scale migrations to the Amazon basin and to the urban centers of southeastern Brazil.

An estimated four million people have been affected by the current drought in a region where scant rains normally fall between February and April.

At least 600 millimeters of rainfall are needed to ensure production when there is no irrigation, as is the case for most small farms.

According to the Civil Defense National secretariat, more than 1,134 local communes are facing an emergency due to the current rain shortage.

"I am 51. I have been a farmer all my life and this is the first year I have not produced anything because it was so dry," said Jose Maria Sousa, who lives with his three children in Moacir Lucena.

Until recently, Sousa was a landless peasant working for a local landowner.

Under the government land reform, he acquired a small plot, but says he has lost all his cotton and corn crops due to the punishing drought.

Nearby, 36-year-old Ivone Brilhante, the mother of a 13-year-old child, also lost her entire corn and cotton crops, which normally bring her $300 a month.

"This year we had no rain," she explained, adding that she was relying on her honey production and her few cows to get by.

Sousa said irrigation would be the solution, but explained that drilling a well is very expensive and unrealistic for most small-time farmers, costing between $25,000 and $75,000.

"We face endemic drought and we need measures to cope with this problem," said Rosane Gurgel, an official from the agrarian development ministry that assists poor farmers.

Brazil's national integration ministry says it has earmarked $1.3 million for emergency measures to combat the drought, including the purchase of tanker trucks and the installation of tanks and repair work on 2,400 wells.

Since the 1960s, the Brazilian government has mitigated the impacts of the droughts by constructing hundreds of earth dams in order to store torrential rain water.

But the local economy continues to be extensively based on large-scale cattle farming -- a major cause of deforestation -- and crop farming based on highly inefficient production systems.
Source: NtN 24
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