A River’s Contrasts and Inequalities in the Arid Lands of Brazil

Osnir da Silva Rubez prepares the furrows that will take water from the São Francisco river to irrigate his crops in the Brazilian Semi-arid ecoregion. He refuses to join the local drip or micro-sprinkler irrigation system, which is more efficient in water use, fertilisation and soil protection. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS
Osnir da Silva Rubez prepares the furrows that will take water from the São Francisco river to irrigate his crops in the Brazilian Semi-arid ecoregion. He refuses to join the local drip or micro-sprinkler irrigation system, which is more efficient in water use, fertilisation and soil protection. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS
  • by Mario Osava (juazeiro, brazil)
  • Inter Press Service

The São Francisco River, which rises in the state of Minas Gerais, near the centre of Brazil, and flows northeast, has boosted irrigated agriculture in its 2,863 kilometres, much of it in semi-arid territory, with rainfall averaging between 200 and 800 millimetres per year.

It is a privileged basin, located in a region that suffers from water scarcity, especially in the increasingly recurrent droughts, when small rivers and streams dry up.

Water availability, immense due to the river's large flow, was increased by the construction of two hydroelectric dams North and South of Juazeiro, a city of 238,000 people, which has developed a fruit-growing industry, mainly for export.

Mangoes and grapes are the main local crops, grown on large private farms and in the irrigation projects of the state-owned São Francisco and Parnaíba Valley Development Company (Codevasf). Export activity highlights the contrasts and inequalities of the so-called Semi-arid ecoregion.

Flood irrigation

“The ditches that were initially used for irrigation are wasteful in their use of water. Drip irrigation is mostly used nowadays, since it uses only the necessary water, is monitored by computers and measures of soil humidity,” explained Humberto Miranda, chair of the Bahia Federation of Agriculture.

“Before, only 30 per cent of the water was used, today more than 90 per cent is used, which means that little is lost,” he said during an IPS tour of various localities in Juazeiro to visit farms and organisations involved in the irrigation project.

In Mandacaru, the system that enabled the switch to drip irrigation, with ponds and pumping, was implemented in 2011, explained Manoel Vicente dos Santos, one of the first settlers in the project launched in 1973. “Irrigation by furrows was unstable, bringing more water to one plant than to others, a waste,” he recalled.

But Rubez resists the change. In addition to the investment required in pumps and hoses, the drip system uses a lot of electricity, about 1,000 reais (200 dollars) a month. “And I have no heirs to leave the system to,” the 60-year-old single man joked with IPS.

The drip system is a step forward in these irrigation projects. Apart from saving water, it improves soil management, reducing erosion and controlling chemical fertilisation by directing it to the roots through the water, says José Moacir dos Santos, general coordinator of the non-governmental Regional Institute for Appropriate Small Farming(Irpaa).

But irrigation projects, whether Codevasf or private, do not favour local development, concentrate income, nor offer seasonal jobs during harvests, and they promote inequality, Dos Santos criticised.

Prosperity for the few

The wealth amassed by export fruit farming stays in the hands of a few, but creates a perception of prosperity that attracts many poor people to Juazeiro and neighbouring Petrolina, a city of 387,000 people separated by the São Francisco river and linked by a bridge.

Migration to these two fruit-growing capitals of the Brazilian Northeast “swells their populations, especially their poor and infrastructure-poor peripheries, while emptying nearby cities,” said the activist, son of Manoel Vicente, one of the project's settlers.

In his opinion, an “injustice” has been done, because the river supplies the fruit-growing industry that exports its water contained in the fruit to Europe, the United States and Japan. But it does not do the same for the entire riverside population, which also has to resort to other, more distant springs.

In addition, most of the farmers have no irrigation. Communities encouraged by the government many years ago and traditional farmers in the basin have no access to water from the river, nor to the financing or other public project perks.

The dominant monoculture of fruit trees forces food imports. Juazeiro and Petrolina, with a combined population of 625,000, produce less food for local consumption than Campo Alegre de Lourdes, a municipality 350 kilometres away with only 31,000 inhabitants, compared Dos Santos, an agricultural technician.

The flow of goods, with fruits leaving and other products arriving from various parts of Brazil, has transformed the Juazeiro Producer Market into Brazil's second largest agricultural trade hub, surpassed only by São Paulo, a metropolis of 12 million inhabitants – 22 million if its large metropolitan area is added.

“The fruit-growing hub is an artificial system that concentrates the best soils and water of São Francisco on islands and generates the illusion of growth in Greater Juazeiro and Petrolina, where only 5 per cent of the land is suitable for irrigation, with water for only 2 per cent,” said Roberto Malvezzi, an activist with the Catholic Pastoral Land Commission.

Suitable alternatives

For Malvezzi, who has a degree in philosophy and theology, the Semi-arid region’s main economic and productive vocation is small livestock, such as goats and sheep, rather than agriculture.

A mistake that has cost it multiple crises and impoverishment, as well as the environmental destruction of the Semi-arid region, was the historical expansion of cattle in Northeastern Brazil, whose interior is mostly semi-arid.

The industrial and commercial chain for goats should be developed, including slaughterhouses and services such as technical assistance and health surveillance, said Malvezzi, who was born in the state of São Paulo, studied philosophy and theology there, but lives in the Northeast since 1979.

The Semi-arid is a region of family farming, and for nearly three decades has seen a transformation process seeking to adapt its development to local conditions, including the climate. “Living with the Semi-arid”, which means rejecting colonial influences and impositions of the past, is the goal.

Small animal husbandry, instead of water-intensive cattle farming, and rainwater harvesting, both for human and animal consumption and for agricultural production, are some of the proven and effective ways.

In the state of Bahia, a traditional agrarian singularity has been institutionalised, the “grassland fund”, a large collective land, managed for the extraction of native products, such as fruits, and the raising of goats and sheep. Horticulture is expanding strongly throughout the Semi-arid region.

The Family Agricultural Cooperative of Massaroca and Region (Coofama), in the municipality of Juazeiro, is an example of a grassland fund, whose jellies, liqueurs and other native fruit products, such as umbu, and honey, are sold on the nearby highway and in cities.

‘Quiosco da Umbuzada’ is the name given to the roadside shop in the village of Massaroca, and ‘Central da Caatinga’, a shop in the city of Juazeiro, sell the products of Coofama and other family farming cooperatives.

“Goats survive better in prolonged droughts, they eat leaves even from tall trees,” Coofama farmer Maciela de Oliveira Silva, who runs the roadside shop, where she works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a minimum wage, equal to 280 dollars, told IPS.

Eggs are another viable and promising food production in the Semi-arid, according to the Association of Small Producers of Canoa and Oliveira, led by Gilmar Nogueira Lino, owner of some 1,000 hens, also in the south of Juazeiro.

The association's 60 families produced 17,444 dozen eggs in 2023, said Lino. “The hens are faster than goats, start providing income in a few months and don't require large spaces,” he told IPS.

On his half-hectare property, the farmer has chicken coops and a shop that sells food, drinks and cooking gas. He also donated the land for the association's headquarters. He only had to overcome the prejudice that “raising chickens is a woman's business.”

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service