Old Plan, Old River

      Old Plan,
      Old River

California and Israel have been used as inspiration for several
irrigation plans in the Northeast. Until now, however, no plan has gone beyond the drawing
By Émerson Luís

Brazilians from the south and the more affluent areas these days are being shown on TV
and the printed press daily images that for many might seem from a faraway land. Images of
people hijacking food trucks, looting supermarkets, and attacking government food
warehouses. And there are scenes of whole families in line, despair in their faces, trying
to get a little food basket from the government in order to survive a few more days. One
of these nights the prime-time newscasts showed a peasant preparing a large lizard to feed
his family while another man, beaming, displayed the meal for the day that he had just

The images are from the Brazilian Northeast—a region twice the size of Texas,
taking 18% of the national territory—that is home to 45 million Brazilians. Here, the
huge gap between the wealthy and the poorest is more evident than anywhere else in the
country. According to a recently-released United Nations study, 46% of the northeastern
population lives under the line of poverty compared with 20% in the richer south. The
area, known for it cyclic lack of rain, is suffering its worst drought in 15 years, with
no end in sight.

In Rome, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), an agency from the United Nations,
has also sounded the alarm saying that 10 million people in the Northeast were threatened
by hunger, adding that the production of cereals in the area this year would only be 4.5
million tons, half of the usual output. FAO’s report noted that in some areas this
reduction was up to 90%.

As in the recent case of the Roraima fires, the country’s worst ecological disaster
that Brazilians can remember, the severe drought shows how ill prepared is Brazil for any
catastrophe. Both, the ravaging fires in the Amazon and the severe drought stretching
across the eight northeastern states and threatening with hunger 10 million people, were
blamed on the El Niño weather phenomenon. Once again the government showed that months of
warning were not enough to make the state machine work.

Even though the government had reports since October forecasting a severe drought, not
before mid-May—and only after much looting and stories of desperation reported in the
media—the Nordestinos received the first emergency food packages known as cesta
básica (basic basket). By mid-May, 117 municipalities in the state of Bahia had
declared state of emergency. About the same period, a report by the Baiano government
revealed that 257 of its 415 municipalities had been affected by the lack of rain. Close
to 400,000 people who risked starvation were suffering directly the consequences of the
severe dry spell. According to governmental agency Sudene (Superintendência do
Desenvolvimento do Nordeste—Northeast Development Superintendency), 70% of the
Northeast’s municipalities were in a critical situation by the end of April.

As stated by Bahia’s Fetag (Federação dos Trabalhadores na
Agricultura—Agriculture Workers Federation), at least 550,000 people were left
jobless in the state due to the drought. In Irecê, for example, a city 300 miles from
Salvador, the bean crop, which was expected to wield 200,000 tons, was wiped out by the
lack of rain. The drought also killed all the corn, papaya and cotton planted in the area.
In response to the situation, Agriculture minister, Francisco Turra, promised the
distribution of 800,000 cestas básicas per month.

of Woe

Newspapers are filled with stories of despair and misery like the one from Everaldo
João dos Santos, 45, his wife Conceição, 33, and daughter Joana D’Arc, 3, who walked
for 25 days from Maceió, capital of Alagoas state, to São Paulo—1524 miles, roughly
the distance between New York and Dallas—,fleeing starvation, as reported by daily Folha
de São Paulo, on May 7.

In their cross-country odyssey they begged for food on roadside restaurants, slept just
four hours or so at night, in the open, and walked most of the time. They were received at
the Associação de Voluntários para Integração do Migrante (Association of Voluntaries
for Migrant Integration) where they had their first meal after 24 hours without any food.
The prospects weren’t very encouraging though. Said dos Santos: "For now we are here
in this shelter, but I don’t know what’s going to happen next. We might have to go on the

Everaldo told Folha that he and his wife planted lettuce, potato and onion on a
leased lot. With the drought, however, everything died and they started picking up food on
trash cans. And why have they walked? They tried to hitchhike, dos Santos explained, but
twice only were they lucky to get a ride for a small stretch of their trek.

In some roads women with four, five, six barefooted, dirty and malnourished children
spend hours under the inclement sun begging for any kind of help from the drivers passing
by. At BR-202 for example these mothers are spread over miles, each one separated from the
other by some 200 feet. Many of them are the so called viúvas da seca, drought
widows, women who were left by their husbands who went in search of a job far away. As it
happened in droughts past, scores will never come back.

Nobody expects the repetition of the 1877-1879 holocaust when it is estimated that more
than half a million Nordestinos died in consequence of the drought. The situation
is grave enough, however, to generate deep concern. In the previous dry spell in 1993,
11.7 million people were affected and two million of them had to be drafted into one of
the various emergency labor fronts financed by the federal government. While in the Nazi
concentration camps prisoners consumed 900 calories a day these people are not getting
more than 500 calories.

A Call
For Action

Stills and films of squalid people picking up cacti and rodents to eat and dirty little
children waiting for a government handout have moved some Brazilians to action. They have
been collecting food to send to the area. The Nordestino plight has provoked more
than just outrage at what has not been done to avoid a repeated catastrophe in the
backlands. There was also an outpouring of solidarity gestures including one from
prisoners from Papuda, a jail in Brasília, Brazil capital. The inmates skipped their
meals so the food could be sent to the victims of the drought. There were also scores of
donations from residents of favelas (shantytowns) in Rio and São Paulo.

In the short period between May 8 and 13, FAB (Força Aérea Brasileira—Brazilian
Air Force) planes were loaded with 106 tons of food that were collected in spontaneous
drives that sprung in São Paulo, Rio, Brasília, and Minas Gerais. Another 247 tons were
waiting on warehouses, ready to be flown to the afflicted regions. Lélio Calheiros,
general coordinator for the Civil Defense by mid-May had a tall order to fill: finding a
ship that would carry 250 tons of frozen fish, a donation from the state of Amazonas. All
this generosity got a cold shower from the authorities, however, when they concluded that
the cost of shipping this food was bigger than the goods themselves.

Some had a more radical approach in their response to the problem. The MST (Movimento
dos Sem Terra—Landless Movement), for example, which has made a name for itself
invading vacant farms and claiming rights to the land as a way to force the government to
enact land reform, after helping stage some looting of supermarkets and food trucks in the
Northeast, took its guerrilla tactics to the big cities, planting themselves in front of
supermarkets while threatening to invade them.

In the state of Ceará, Baturité’s city hall was invaded by 1,000 people on May 18.
The protesters wielding scythes and machetes demanded the immediate creation of 3,000
vacancies in the labor fronts in the area. Threatened by generalized looting, Mayor
Fernando Lopes and business owners put their money together and bought food that was
distributed to protesters. They took the food, but kept the occupation of city hall. In
Canindé, also in Ceará, the crowd occupied city hall for seven days until they were able
to sign up for a job.

On the same May 18, another crowd of 1,500 or so peasants and small farmers near the
city of Tabuleiro do Norte blocked highway BR-116, the main road linking Ceará and the
Northeast to the South of the country. Starting at 5 in the morning, the protesters used
tractors and a human barrier to completely interrupt the traffic provoking a 2-mile jam.
On May 4, about 1,000 residents from Tabuleiro do Norte had taken to the streets demanding
jobs and food. That demonstration was followed the next day by the looting of the school
lunch program warehouse. By then Ceará had already seen 41 acts of looting plus 68 street
manifestations, according to Fetraece (Federação dos Trabalhadores da Agricultura no
Ceará—Ceará’s Federation of Agriculture Workers), the organization behind many of
these actions.

In response, Ceará’s government announced that it is investing more than $60 million
in a project to combat drought that at the same time will create 65,000 jobs. In the state
of Pernambuco, a man trying to stop a truck on the road linking Cabrobó to Orocó, was
killed when the truckdriver refused to stop.

A Federal Police report showed that until May 7 there had been registered 43 looting
episodes in the states of Ceará, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte and
Sergipe. The document talked about the participation of the Catholic Church CPT (Comissão
Pastoral da Terra—Land Pastoral Committee), CUT (Central Única dos
Trabalhadores—Workers Unified Central) and the MST, and seemed concerned that the
movement might spread to urban centers.

MST’s regional coordinator in the state of Pernambuco, Jaime Amorim, in a challenge to
the federal action, promised that the movement would not change its course of action
despite the repression and intimidation by police. "As long as there is a
municipality not receiving food, the MST will be backing, helping, and organizing workers
to occupy city hall, block roads and loot," said Amorim. He also explained that the
MST did not invent looting, which according to him, has always occurred in the area when
there is extreme hunger.

The Army was present when the federal government started distributing food and medicine
on May 31. The first place to receive aid was Lagoa Grande, in the interior of Pernambuco
state. This is a town where the MST has been very active leading the attack to several
food trucks on highway BR-428. MST leaders followed at a distance a truck with food
baskets escorted by 50 Army soldiers.

This was a rehearsal for the full-blown food distribution that started on June 1, when
the Army used the 700 soldiers of its 72nd Battalion to accompany 37 trucks loaded with
900 tons of food to be distributed in 50 municipalities of Pernambuco, Ceará and

Full Plate

Taking the moral high ground, opposition presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da
Silva lambasted the government for coming too late in assistance of the drought victims.
"The government could not have been caught by surprise in a question like the
drought, which has occurred 19 times during this century alone," said the former
labor leader.

He criticized Cardoso for condemning the looting, adding some decibels to the political
controversy stridency by declaring at Ceará’s Assembléia Legislativa: "The
President has no moral authority to criticize anyone in this story because he is a
professional looter. He looted the municipalities and the Kandir law—Antônio Kandir
is the former planning minister who eliminated taxes on primary products for
export—loots the states."

Talking in Fortaleza to small farmers, Lula justified the looting for food as an act of
human rights defense. Said he: "To fight for the food that maintains a person alive
is a question of human rights. It is a question of disrespect to human rights when someone
goes hungry."

Lula also credited the MST with avoiding a civil war, by liberating some of the steam
through looting and protests. During a meeting with São Paulo’s businessmen, the PT
(Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers Party) leader made a passionate defense of the
MST: "It is the MST that gives dignity to a parcel of the population that was
becoming a pariah in our society."

Rebuffing accusations that he only criticizes without presenting viable solutions, the
presidential candidate for the PT presented a five point project to help the drought

1. To start paying retirement pensions to those already entitled to the benefit.
2. To extend the unemployment insurance to the rural worker.
3. To give emergency health assistance.
4. Use the money from the Northeast Fund to fight the drought.
5. To utilize subsidies of the electrical sector to irrigate the area.

In Question

A victim of the drought when he was a child, Don Francisco Austregésilo de Mesquita
Filho, 74, bishop of Afogados da Ingazeira, a town with 28,000 residents in Pernambuco
state, got front stage and the front pages during the recent 36th General Assembly of CNBB
(Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil—Brazilian Bishops National Conference)
when he defended assaults against supermarkets and government warehouses by hungry crowds.

"Looting, in cases of extreme necessity, according to the law, is no crime,"
he declared. He accused politicians of not solving the problem because "with people
starving it is easier to buy votes."

Don Francisco, who has been working for 37 years in Afogados, says that many
politicians in the Northeast use the drought to maintain themselves in power.
"Everybody knew that this drought was coming, but no governor, mayor or deputy has
done a thing." He says that authorities are just waiting for the coming elections:
"In October the price of a vote will be lower because the people afflicted by the
drought will do anything not to starve."

The prelate was born in Reriutaba, state of Ceará, and says that he knows what a
drought is since he was eight. He recalls being taken with his family and neighbors to
areas fenced with barbed wire where they were fed twice a day. "It was like in the
concentration camps," he observes. "The concentration camps ended, but the
situation of those drought-stricken people continues to be dramatic. People in my city are
eating even cactus leaves to keep from starving."

After an initial phase of irritation and confrontation, the government opted to ask the
Catholic clergy for assistance in dealing with looting. In two months there were at least
80 episodes of looting food warehouses, supermarkets and trucks. The CNBB says that it is
in favor of looting when it involves cases of extreme hunger. But while leaders of the MST
were reluctant to meet with government representatives to try to find a solution for the
hunger problem, the Church has accepted to dialogue with the authorities, through Don
Austregésilo de Mesquita, bishop from Afogados da Ingazeira, in the state of Pernambuco.

Even among authorities there is no consensus on how to treat looters. Pernambuco
governor, Miguel Arraes from PSB (Partido Socialista Brasileiro—Brazilian Socialist
Party) is against using the police to prevent looting, arguing that this is a social and
not a police problem. He ordered his state police to work as mediator and not in a
repressive way. "The police," he said, "must anticipate themselves in order
to mediate the situation, getting in touch with city hall, the church, the commerce, and
associations, so that with the government’s help they can assist the drought-stricken
population through the distribution of food."

For Cardoso, a sociologist turned politician— he has been accused by many people
who voted for him of having forgotten his social commitments as a leftist
intellectual—finding a balance has revealed close to impossible. If he maintains
himself at a distance from the northeastern misery he is called uncaring and callous. If
he travels to the area to meet people and watch the situation in loco he is presented as a
demagogue and opportunist. Cardoso, who has been an atheist most of his life, was also
much criticized for declaring: "The drought problem depends on God, on the time, on
the rain."

Justice Minister, Renan Calheiros, says that he fears that the looting would create a
climate of anarchy. "These are not looting actions by the hungry anymore," he
said, "but something organized with ample covering by the media." Calheiros sent
a letter to all northeastern governors asking their commitment to prosecute those who
incited looting.

At beginning of June only Bahia and Pernambuco had people in jail for having
participated in looting. In Juazeiro, state of Bahia, there were six MST members detained
accused of leading the attack to a government food warehouse. In Pernambuco there was a
teacher indicted for inciting people to invade a food store in the town of Ouricuri.

Blaming milk producers for speculative prices, the government decided not to include
powdered milk in the food baskets. In order to assist more people the package was reduced
from 42 lb. to 22 lb. The cesta básica being distributed contains 11 lb. of rice,
11 lb. of corn flakes, 7 lb. of pasta, 11 lb. of beans, and 2 lb. of manioc flower. Only
the bare essential. No meat, no sweet. But Sudene promised to regularize the situation
soon by acquiring $15 million in food.

The looting may have delayed the distribution of food, since authorities were afraid to
take the food out of the warehouses and have trucks be ransacked. On the other hand, some
of the towns that received prompt assistance were guaranteed special treatment due to the
threat of looting in the area. That’s what happened for example in Serra da Telhada with a
volatile situation involving 20,000 peasants in a state of extreme misery.


Chief of the military staff, General Alberto Cardoso—no relation to the
President—, says that the government is ready to act in order to avoid any semblance
of anarchy. "We will never allow the installation of a state of anarchy in the
country," he declared. "And we are mobilized in a way that we don’t have even a
sensation that we live in anarchy with looting being shown on TV at all times. This
sensation of anarchy is not good for the people, for those afflicted by the drought, for
the movements or for the democracy. We condemn those who profit from the situation and
bring people who are not hungry to loot."

In his weekly radio program, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso asked those hit by the
drought not to allow themselves to be used by unscrupulous politicians. He gave listeners
a 800 number—(800) 61-1995— to call the new service disque-cesta in case
they knew improper use of the food. Said the President: "Whoever has already suffered
of hunger in the past knows that who was hungry not always received food. This is
something that Brazil cannot accept anymore. We cannot accept that even one family goes
hungry in our country."

Talking to reporters, the President added: "This is immoral. They are using
poverty and hunger to disorganize what needs to be done to solve the situation."
Cardoso also threatened to take legal action against union leaders, the Landless Movement,
and members of the clergy, who have defended looting by hungry peasants and small farmers.
And the President announced that Sudene had already certified 1,209 municipalities as
being in critical situation.

During a press conference in the Alvorada Palace’s gardens, in Brasília, at the end of
May—the first tête-à-tête with the press in Brazil in seven months—the
President responded to those who accuse his administration of doing very little to end the
drought drama. And used the occasion to announce a package of measures starting with the
June 1 release of $650 million for what he called "productive fronts", an
activity better known as labor or emergency fronts.

The intention, announced the President is to assist as many as one million people with
literacy programs, agriculture training and work, and food baskets. Said Cardoso:
"Nobody is going to die of hunger." And added: "The northeastern people
want respect. They accept food because they need it, but what they want is work. "

Cardoso classified the widespread looting as anarchy and an assault against the
interest of the population. "This is against the democracy," he said. "This
is against the law. We fought a lot to have a democratic regime. I don’t want to see
Brazil again in a regime in which the President has to order people in jail, has to send
the army. I am not going to do this. I don’t want this to happen. (…) I don’t want to
imagine what is going to happen from now on and also I am not saying the looting occurred
just because there was some political intention. It occurred because there were
difficulties, because there was somebody without food. This is an objective data. It not
my style denying reality. We don’t discuss if a hungry person has the right to loot. The
problem are those who are not hungry and are looting. If this happens it has to be

The administration has some ideas of what it wants the "productive fronts" to
be. One plan is to make them into a tool to improve the quality of living in the area and
possibly create a permanent job for the participant. Among the trades to be taught there
will be carpentry, cosmetics, and the travel business. Those involved in these groups will
be encouraged to organize themselves into co-ops once the emergency program ends.

For 27 hours of weekly dedication, people will get around $17 a week or a little over
$70 a month. The federal government is covering 82% of this amount, being the rest left to
the states. There will be "ecological fronts" to work in the recuperation of the
soil and the cleaning up of water sources, "cultural fronts" for the artistic
inclined, who will learn how to make hammocks and crafts with argyle and leather.


Can Cardoso be trusted? Mãos à Obra (Getting to Work), the book containing
Cardoso’s platform when a presidential candidate, establishes the irrigation of small and
medium properties in the Northeast as a priority of his administration. Cardoso’s goal,
according to the publication, was to extend irrigation to 1.5 million hectares. With less
than seven months left on his four-year mandate, the President was able to implement his
irrigation program in less than 300,000 hectares, or a mere 20% of what was promised. Why
the huge disparity between promise and reality? They are due to a crisis in agriculture
and lack of funds, the administration responds.

As a counterpoint for the government’s poor performance, the Environmental Ministry’s
secretary of Water Resources, Fernando Rodrigues, notes that from 1974 to 1994, the
irrigation effort was smaller than during Cardoso’s tenure. Ambassador Sérgio Amaral, the
President’s spokesman, responding to opposition candidate Lula, who accused Cardoso of
being a "demagogue" and a "liar" for not having followed through on
his promise of diverting the waters of the San Francisco river to irrigate the arid areas
of the Northeast, said: "The project is progressing and the bidding for the necessary
studies have been opened. This is a complex situation, however, and it needs a careful
evaluation of the environmental implications."

The present administration has been accused of delaying for months the release of funds
to fight the drought so it could pressure congressmen to vote with the government in some
controversial measures like the reform of the social security system.

More than $130 million that were available since January only started to be passed to
the states and municipalities at the end of April. This amount had been approved in
December by Congress in order to combat the anticipated effects of El Niño in the region.
Most of this money though is being used now to pay for pet infra-structure projects of
legislators who are friendly with the administration.

Bahia’s Geddel Vieira Lima, who is leader of the PMDB (Partido do Movimento
Democrático Brasileiro—Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement) in the lower
house was complaining about the delay. He was promised $1.4 million for his electoral
bases, but by the first week of May hadn’t been given the money yet. "If the
government had given the money in January much of the work to fight the drought would have
already been done," he commented. Vieira Lima admitted that in the balance are the
10,000 votes he expects to get in the area.

In January, Ricardo Barbosa, then secretary of Social Communication for the Secretariat
of Regional Policies was very candid and clear on how the administration works, when he
commented about the priority given to projects of the government’s allies: "This is
kind of obvious. You wouldn’t expect us to liberate money to our foes."

The northeastern governors who in May got together in Recife, capital of Pernambuco
state, for the ceremony of taking office of the new Sudene’s superintendent, Sérgio
Moreira, seemed to agree in one thing: the secular federal-funded emergency labor fronts
are a necessity and should be implemented immediately. Expressing the concern of his
colleagues, Ceará’s governor, Tasso Jereissati, from the PSDB (Partido da Social
Democracia Brasileira—Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy), Cardoso’s party,
declared: "We cannot wait any longer." "The big problem is the lack of work
for the rural workers," echoed Sergipe’s governor, Albano Franco, also from the PSDB.

In his first speech in the new post, Moreira guaranteed that all the regions in need
would have enough federal resources for the labor fronts as well as for the cestas
básicas. Sudene plans to enlist as many as one million people from the 1209
municipalities in state of emergency to work in the labor fronts.

The decision of Cardoso to visit Ipirá in the state of Bahia—a town with plenty
of water and green—didn’t spare him from the uglier side of the drought. Unemployment
is rampant. Every week some 500 people leave the are in search of greener pastures mostly
in the interior of São Paulo, Mato Grosso, and Minas Gerais states. Distant 160 miles
from Salvador, the capital, Ipirá, which was Bahia’s third best producer of milk and was
ranked fourth in grain production, today barely can supply these goods to its own
population. Beans and corn, which were exported to other states, now have to be bought
elsewhere and milk production since the start of the drought has fallen from 34,000
gallons a day to 5,200.

To cope with the lack of rain people have some traditions, which may not help, but that
are religiously kept anyway. One of the more ingrained of these costumes is to
"steal" the image of Saint Joseph from a neighbor as soon as the dry spell
starts and to only return it when the rain comes back.

Things should get much worse before it starts getting better according to the INPE
(Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais—National Institute of Space Research).
With the help of satellite data, the INPE forecasts that the drought will last at least
until July with rain precipitation from 20% to 80% below average for this time of the
year. INPE’s CPTEC (Centro de Previsão do Tempo e Estudos Climáticos—Weather
Forescast and Climatic Studies Center) has already concluded that the present drought is
already one of the three worst to hit the North and the Northeast of Brazil in the last 30

In the past—and this year was no exception—the drought has brought hordes of
hungry flagelados (scourged ones) also known as retirantes (the retreating
ones) to urban slums mainly in Rio and São Paulo. Recent figures show that 5,000 Nordestinos
are arriving daily at the São Paulo’s bus terminal. The city’s mayor, Celso Pitta has
accused his colleagues from small towns hit by the dry spell to give one-way tickets to
their residents so that they can reach São Paulo.

to Do?

In most analyses of the northeastern cyclic drought crises nature is presented as the
villain. According to this point of view, if the problem is water, the construction of big
dams and the implementation of irrigation programs are the solution. And much has been
done in this area, but most of this work of the so-called hydraulic policy ended up
benefiting only the big cattle ranchers of the area.

For USP’s (Universidade de São Paulo) geographer and professor, Azi Ab’Saber, an
expert in semi-arid regions, the Northeast problem is mainly demographic. He notes that no
other semi-arid area in the world has the same high demographic density as the Brazilian
Northeast. The solution in this case would be to promote emigration from Nordestinos to
other areas of the country.

Economist Celso Furtado, who was Sudene’s first superintendent, has a similar approach
in which he notes how for many decades the area kept an explosive demographic growth.
According to him, the hydraulic policy was a creation of the local elites to help their
own agribusinesses and prevent their cattle from dying during the worst droughts.

According to Haroldo Vasconcelos, president of the National Forum of Agriculture
Secretaries and Agriculture secretary of Piauí state, a little investment might
recuperate the more than 20,000 wells that were dug throughout the Northeast region and
then abandoned. Vasconcelos calculates that for $400 or less per well would be enough to
put them back to good use.

They are few success stories though in the long fight against the drought in the
Northeast. California Project in Canindé do São Francisco, in the state of Sergipe, is
one of them. While there is desolation all around, the 1356-hectare California project has
become a prosperous oasis where everything seems to grow. Among the cultures being
developed there are coconut, corn, tomato, banana, and all kinds of vegetables.

The area is irrigated with water from the São Francisco river, which runs through the
city. The water is pumped from the river, taken to the California project through a
stone-lined channel and then distributed to the 333 properties in the project through 15
miles of smaller cement channels.

Sergipe has other projects like the ones in Jacarecica and Ribeira where the water
comes from dams. There is a total of six of them. Together they produce more than half of
all the vegetable consumed in the state.

The communities have created a rural middle-class in Sergipe. All the families inside
the projects have their own houses and 70% of them also own some kind of vehicle.

drought, go away

For centuries Brazil has lived with the Northeast’s drought. Even
camels have been used in a not-too-serious fight against the scourge.

The debate over ways to solve the northeast region drought problem is an old one. In
1855, for example, Marcos Antônio de Macedo, deputy from then Pará province, wrote a
report rebuffing those who called as unworkable a project to divert the waters of the São
Francisco river in order to irrigate the semi-desert areas.

Pressed by one of the many severe droughts in the region, emperor Don Pedro II in 1859
appealed to poet Gonçalves Dias and baron of Capanema to find a solution for the chronic
problem. The poet and the noble came out with a simple and practical idea: to import
camels. In years of drought the northeastern region could not transport its goods and
commerce had to stop since the donkeys and oxen that carried them were one of the first to

The camels were bought in Algiers and 14 of them arrived on July of 1859 in the port of
Fortaleza, Ceará, with four Algerian trainers. As reported in Renato Braga’s book História
da Comissão Científica de Exploração (History of the Exploration Scientific
Committee) the desert animals had a cool reception and the "moor" that
accompanied them were seen with distrust for being "forceful enemies of the Christian
faith". The camels didn’t resist the bad vibes and the northeastern weather.

The federal government has been incapable of establishing a policy to solve the
northeastern drought problem. In the last 20 years alone there were at least eight
different projects that were started and then abandoned. They had names like Polonordeste,
Projeto Sertanejo, Programa São Vicente, Projeto Padre Cícero, Finor Irrigação, and
Papp (Programa de Apoio ao Pequeno Produtor Rural—Program of Assistance to the Small
Rural Producer).

Finor Irrigação, for example, an ambitious project that envisioned the irrigation of
1 million hectares for the cultivation of grains, fruits and tubers, has never left the
drawing board. Simply they could not find money to fund the project.

In an article for Rio’s Gazeta de Notícias in August of 1878, when Brazil was
still an empire, writer José do Patrocínio, who had been sent to the Northeast to cover
the deadliest drought ever in Brazilian history—500,000 people died—commented:
"The tragedy of the national shame presented in Ceará has for stage all the vast
territory of this unfortunate province. (…) Expelled from their home by the whip made by
nature with the sun rays, the fate of the hapless is the peregrination about the country
until they find a town in which they keep on miserably postponing their vanishment into a

One hundred and twenty years later the shame, the tragedy, and the same location
endure. It is believed that half of the population of Ceará died of hunger in 1878. The
tragedy has not repeated itself in the same scale, but the more and less severe droughts
have been a cyclical phenomenon in the area. The ones from 1915, 1919, and 1932 were
devastating too.

Even though the Northeast agricultural potential, in special for fruit trees, was
discovered, tested, and approved in the mid sixties, it never led to an ample and
long-term project. As one of the best-known experts on drought in Brazil, José Otamar de
Carvalho, author of the often cited A Economia Política do Nordeste (The
Northeast’s Political Economy) noted: "The actions of development promoted under the
sponsorship of the State have been conceived and executed with a duration determined, in
great measure, by the need to mitigate the drought’s effects."

Experts see two mains reasons for the chronic postponement of a solution for the
northeastern drought: resistance by the big farmers, who are opposed to change their
traditional way of raising cattle and cultivating cotton, and the fact that the political
power has shifted in this century from the north to the south of the country.

The labor fronts were created during the four-year drought that started in 1979 and
affected 20 million people and 84% of the Northeast. The fronts initially were used in
private property with loans subsidized by the government. Criticism on this arrangement
changed the practice into emergency fronts in which the workers were used to toil in
government projects.

Paulo Pereira da Silva, 42, president of São Paulo’s Metalworkers Union, after a
recent visit to the Northeast wrote in the daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo:
"Since the past century, the drought and the development of the Northeast have been
treated with plenty of demagoguery and little action. Don Pedro II promised, in tears,
that he would sell to the last jewel of his crown to solve the drought problem, but the
crown is in a museum nowadays, with all its jewels intact."


Old Plan,
Old River

California and Israel have been used as inspiration for several
irrigation plans in the Northeast. Until now, however, no plan has gone beyond the drawing

To use the waters of the São Francisco river to irrigate the Northeast was a pledge
made by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso during the campaign. It is a mystery why
nobody has done this yet since the work costs roughly the same as what the government
spends in food and emergency work when there is a severe dry spell like now: $1.3 billion.
The São Francisco plan is an old one. It is always remembered when the situation gets dry
and tough on the backlands.

Historians tell that Dom João VI, who in 1808 installed the Portuguese court in Rio
after fleeing Napoleon’s troupes, already thought about switching the São Francisco
waters, an idea that was ahead of its times for technical reasons. Besides, the population
in the area was sparse when compared to the south of the country.

Backed by the study of engineer Tristão Franklin de Alencar Lima, who proposed a
system very similar to what is being presented today, in 1847, Ceará’s representatives
Marco de Macedo and Domingos Jaguaribe suggested taking the waters from the São Francisco
to the Jaguaribe river and from there to the dry riverbeds in the area. The idea didn’t go
ahead though.

The work promised by Cardoso should be completed by now, but it was never started. The
President wants four more years to start and finish the project. For that he would have to
be reelected first, an accomplishment that according to the latest opinion polls is far
from guaranteed. After years lost in some cabinet drawer, the São Francisco river plan
has to be redrawn. The new study with the expected environmental impact of the project
will cost at least a cool $15 million.

The state of Bahia has always opposed the project arguing that the water detour would
severely harm the state’s economy by threatening four essential power plants in the
region. To avoid a collapse, according to Coelba (Companhia de Eletricidade da
Bahia—Bahia’s Electricity Company), the government would have to build more power

When concluded the work would serve a population of six million people, more than
330,0000 hectares would be irrigated and 1,300 miles of dry riverbeds would be brought
back to life. The costliest component of the plan are powerful pumps—at least 18 of
them will be needed—that will take the river’s water to the dry riverbeds in
Pernambuco, Paraíba, Ceará, and Rio Grande do Norte. Each of these pumps can cost as
much as $10 million.

That would be something similar to the project that transformed semi-arid California
into one of the world’s greatest agricultural powers. While in California the yearly
average rainfall is 220 mm, the Northeast fares almost three times better with 600 mm. The
lack of water was solved in California thanks to the diverting of the San Joaquim and
Sacramento rivers in the North and the Colorado river in the south.

According to Antônio Evaldo Klar, professor at Botucatu’s Faculdade de Agronomia, in
the interior of São Paulo, the switch of the São Francisco waters is the only real
solution for the Northeast. "Any other project will be only a palliative," he

The federal government has spent at least $8.5 billion since 1988 to fight the
northeastern drought. The Dnocs (Departamento Nacional de Obras Contra a
Seca—National Department of Works Against the Drought) alone received $3.2 billion,
but the money went also among others to Codevasf (Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Vale do
São Francisco—Company of Development of the São Francisco Valley), and Prohidro,
the Sudene’s irrigation program.

In 1972, another Ceará representative, Wilson Sá Roriz, suggested the construction of
a 150 mile-long canal, but the project was considered Pharaonic even for the general who
were in power at time and had tackled useless and lavish plans like the Transamazônica
road. Another plan with an estimated cost of $1 billion was developed in 1981 by the

In a surprising announcement, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso declared on June 3
that he will start very soon the preliminary work of diverting the São Francisco water
using the Nordestinos who are being hired for the emergency labor fronts. He blamed the
delay on the Union Audit Office, which was investigating how the studies on the
environmental impact of the project were commissioned.

The government says that the changes now are for real—you don’t have to believe
though—and that by 2006, seven million waterless Nordestinos will have plenty
of the liquid, which will be brought by a series of dams and channels that are budgeted at
$1.3 billion and will be financed by the World Bank and Japan’s Overseas Economic
Cooperation Fund.

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