drought polygon

Brazil’s Zero Hunger strategy recognises that poverty reduction, food security, and support for small-scale agriculture are intimately connected. But this is not enough, as climate changes may undermine it.

João dos Santos is 70 years old and remembers the day, sex decades ago, when he and his family ran away at night from the drought, lefting behind part of their belongings. Now he faces the same problem and survive with the Family Grant, a montly payment from the federal government.

“We survive on the Bolsa Família (the Family Grant Program that makes conditional cash transfers to poor people)”, says João dos Santos, aged 70. As a child, his parents woken him one hot summer night, collected their belongings and left their land and cattle to escape the drought. “We left at night, while the cattle slept, so that they wouldn´t follow us. We didn´t have enough food for them,” he says.

João lives in Manoel Vitorino in Bahia, where a long stretch of the Contas river has now dried completely. It is a devastating image to Ronaldo Souza Lima, aged 29: “I never saw the river like this, only sand. It used to be so deep that we needed a ferry to cross it,” he remembers. As a teenager, Ronaldo too went to São Paulo in search of a better life to escape the drought. He got a job, saved money and helped his family. Some months ago, he returned home but now is almost regretful. “People survive because they have Bolsa Familia or someone is retired (and on a federal government pension). If we don´t have Bolsa Familia, it is impossible to survive”. He is thinking about leaving Bahia, again, as a new drought takes away job opportunities.

Ronaldo Souza Lima, aged 29 in the long stretch of the Contas river which has dried completely.

Brazilian´s Northeast is suffering an historical drought this year. It’s the worst in 47 years. More than 800 cities have declared a “state of emergency”. In Bahia state alone, authorities calculate that more than $3.5 billion has been lost, and 2.7 million people affected – most of them living in s rural areas.

A major humanitarian crisis has so far been averted by governmental social policies such as programs that donate food to people suffering from malnutrition and the Bolsa Família. But these are not necessarily long-term sustainable solutions to the misfortunes being suffered by sertanejo (Northeast backland’s inhabitants).

Local government in Bahia state estimates that the long drought affected 2,7 million people, mainly in the rural area, causing US$ 3,5 billion in losses.

According to local people, the long dry periods are now happening more often. This year, the São João celebration – a popular religious party – has been canceled in several cities. It was a painful decision. In some cities, the São João attracts more people than the carnival.

In Conceição do Coité – in the drought-prone heartland of Bahia – “real” rain hasn´t fallen for 10 years and “intermediate” rain hasn’t been experienced for more than three years. Almost half of the 62,000 inhabitants live in the rural area and depend on sisal (a tough fiber plant) for their livelihoods. This year, they lost 40% of the sisal harvest.

In Conceição do Coité, almost half of the 62,000 inhabitants live in the rural area and depend on sisal (a tough fiber plant) for their livelihoods. This year, they lost 40% of the sisal harvest.

Sertanejos are people who live in the Brazilian Semi Arid region. Local government in Bahia state estimates that the long drought affected 2,7 million people, mainly in the rural area, causing US$ 3,5 billion in losses.

Villagers from Nova Palmares, in Bahia, make a colective cistern to hold 50,000 liters of water. It cost US$ 1,500, donated by a Deutsch group and made by volunteers. Cisterns are known as the best solution during the dry season but the ones made by the federal government are considered too small. Local people say it doesn’t rain for the past two years, one of the worst drought that affects 242 cities in the area.

Inhabitant collects water from the cistern. Due to drought, it costs around US$ 80 to get 10,000 liters of water from a truck. The cisterns built by the federal government holds 16,000 liters, not enough to supply their needs during a long term drought.

“Mas doutô uma esmola a um homem qui é são
Ou lhe mata de vergonha ou vicia o cidadão”
Luiz Gonzaga

Urbano Carvalho, president of the Family Farmers Cooperatives’ Union (UNICAFES), says that social programs such as the Bolsa Familia are not enough.  “The Brazilian government must invest in long lasting policies,” Carvalho says, arguing that solutions such as cisterns and rain water reservoirs should be made for dual use, such as for irrigation and not just for drinking water, for instance. The federal program builds cisterns as big as 16,000 liters of water – enough to guarantee the survival of a family during 3-4 months. Urbano says the cisterns should hold 50,000 liters.

Unicafes helps to develop sustainable family agriculture. It helps small farmers to get organized in cooperatives such as the Family Agriculture and Solidarity Venture Co-operative (Coafes) which was founded five years ago by 20 women. They have seen their income double in that time. Today, 200 people trade products of in the Food Acquisition Program (PAA) and Brazilian National School Meals Program, (PNAE), which funds to schools to provide food for students. Both programs are part of Brazil’s Zero Hunger strategy.

In 2009 a law was introduced requiring 30% of the PNAE budget to be invested in buying food sourced direct from family farmers. This meant that nearly R$1 billion ($520 million) was made available to pay local family farmers for their products. To Flávia Amâncio, director at João Carneiro public school, the initiative reinforces a virtuous cycle: “The farmers´ kids go to the school and eat products that their families produce”. Flavia was a student at the school that she now runs and she is proud of the quality of the school’s food. Yogurt, fruits and regional products such as “beiju” and tapioca are raised sustainably and without pesticide. But she also thinks that it´s possible to do more. “If there was a public policy to cope with the drought, we could buy up to 70% – instead of 30% – from small farmers”, she says.

Francisco de Oliveira, 45 years old, waters his crop. It took him 10 years to build alone a cistern to hold 200,000 liters of water. Two years ago, he’s doubled his income when joined a cooperative (Coafes) and now sells his harvest through Brazilian National School Meals Program (PNAE) to public schools.

Coafes main product is fruit pulp, produced by Delicias da Terra, which sells both to public schools and to the National Supply Company (CONAB). The unit started seven years ago with a group of women who made handicrafts. Anelci Sousa da Silva, aged 34, a farmer who doubled her income when she joined Delicia da Terra, says that her crop of corn, beans and manioc didn´t make it through the 2011 drought – and this year, a similar problem is happening. “We wait on the rain”, she mourns. “I painted my house, bought a fridge, a TV and a washing machine. Our income, with Bolsa Familia, is not even a minimum wage. It´s little but we make it”, she says.

Anelci Souza da Silva, 34 years old, is one of the women that founded Delicias da Terra (Delights of Earth), a group that produces juice and sweets using water from the cisterns built in the Semiarid region of Brazil. The group takes part in a cooperative (Coafes) and sells the products through Brazilian National School Meals Program (PNAE), that transfers public funds to public schools to provide meals for the students. A had doubled her income: “My life really changed and I didn’t need to get out of this drought to live in a big city. If we organize ourselves, it’s possible to live well, she says”.

Additional Information:
 State of Bahia, the oldest region of Brazil, remains one of the poorest. The total amount of money destined to Bahia through the PNAE was R$267 million (US$ 140 million) in 2011, 30% or R$80 million (US$ 42 million) of which  must go to family farmers.

Conceição do Coité is located within the “drought polygon”, a big region that crosses the whole Northeast of Brazil, which has a history of drought, and therefore in need of stronger governmental support. The region is currently suffering its worst drought in 47 years. According to Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the municipality has approximately 5,500 rural properties, 11,000 people working in agriculture and 13,000 students. The total federal resources destined to Conceição do Coité through the PNAE is approximately R$733,000, which means R$ 220, 000 (US$66,000) to support family farmers.
Related: Tackling poverty and inequality must be at the heart of Rio+20