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About the Author

Luan Galani
Science & Development Journalist (Curitiba, Brazil)

A twenty-something eternal apprentice who has a passionate interest in what happens around him. Fascinated by the under-reported, he refuses to be a detached observer and never tires of exploring the untold. His long-life dream is reporting from conflict zones to dig up the underbelly side of war.



Published 09th August 2010 - 8 comments - 14288 views -

Photo by Censurado.

This blogger’s lusophone country is undoubtedly largely remembered for its endless string of pearl beaches, alluring bossa nova culture and far-flung green areas, to name just a few.

But be assured: such colossal green forests are not the norm. Besides the deforestation topic with which we are daily bombarded, there is a hinterland place (unheard-of for foreigners) that has been swallowed up by severe droughts.

Map by Brazil Travel.It is a dry (semi-arid) region of northeastern Brazil, so-called sertão, covered with grassy scrubby vegetation. The annual pluviometric index gravitates around 300 mm (!) and it brings huge prevailing problems.

Droughts in sertão tops the list on Brazil’s gravest issues. For centuries (and it is not exaggeration at all!) different attempts have been made to resolve the problem.

Drought policies date back to Pedro II, the head of the Empire of Brazil. Between 1877 and 1879, he ordered the construction of several weirs to mitigate the effects of the dryness. It is widely known that the emperor once declared: “In order to stop hunger deaths, not a jewel will be leftover”.

His turbulent reign came to an end, he had to return to Portugal, republic was proclaimed and the staggering number of hunger deaths did not stop swelling. Detail: the emperor did not sell a single jewel.

In 1951, a leading think-tank made an in-depth research on the region and named it as ‘The Polygon of Droughts’. Prominent and influential national and foreign artists such as painters and writers spearheaded an action to call attention to this stark reality commonly forgotten by Brazilians. But it was only momentary and as quickly as such action came to live, it disappeared in a puff.

The painting below is from Candido Portinari and shows a family of locals walking through the scrubby vegetation towards the capital. It is a long journey of an already dead family being run after by vultures, which wait for the right moment to begin their meal.

One of the worst droughts on record came about in the 1970s and it is believed to have killed half sertão’s population.

According to Unicef, the equivalent to two boeings 737 (nearly 290 children) die every day from hunger in Brazil. Most part from sertão. The Brazilian sanitary doctor responsible for campaigns against malnutrition Flávio Valente says to this reporter that “Brazilians have all the technical conditions to guarantee hunger eradication. But there is a large easy-going feeling to believe it is natural. In fact, hunger is something created by mankind”.


Such environment presents locals with social difficulties hard to endure. It is lack of water and food coupled with extreme poverty, no health-care access and no education at all.

All MDGs are being missed there and in the long run there is not even a whiff of change on way.

In gruesome temperatures, people with precarious nourishment walk through kilometers to get some water. Unemployment in this region is vey elevated and provokes rural exodus as many inhabitants flee from the droughts to look for better life conditions.

Some of them end up becoming street people in many capitals. So that droughts may be considered one of the root causes of rough sleeping in Brazil.

Moreover, the effects of droughts have been amplified by predatory cultivation and excessive deforestation. Without the green protection, the fragile sandy soil barely resists and the region becomes even drier.

What is wealth in sertão?

The Brazilian journalist Washington Rodrigues was on the ground last year and covered the human side of this often only-number-story. Here I present you with some extracts:

In sertão, to be wealthy is to live near water springs or receive governmental pension (worth a minimum wage of 200 reais). Luiz Gonzaga de Araújo, nearly 42, is part of this ‘elite’. He works with cattle and earns a monthly wage of 200 reais (approximately 110 dolars). One third of this amount is spent every single month to get some water, a privilege for few.

Lack of water transformed taps into luxury wares. Vanda Clemente, 34, without any conditions to bring her children up, has sent them to live with their grandparents in an urban town. According to her, the grandparents have better conditions to take care of them, as water is granted.

Nearly 52, Terezinha Trajano da Silva recalls a time when water used to come out of her tap. But it was only in the 1970s. Since then, she lost five new-born children due to lack of water.

The current worldwide famous president of Brazil, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, dubbed Lula, was born in this region. He got the feel of it. He witnessed much of the suffering ruling there. Many thought that when in power he would focus on these plights in the region. But no, again.

When he stepped into office, Lula acted as if such situation wouldn’t exist. What a shame on you, Mr. Obama’s favourite president.

How to reduce droughts’ impact?

In the short-term, in topics, it would be:

- Constructing more weirs;

- Investing in infra-structure;

- Distributing water in drought seasons;

- Implanting a development system for people no more to be dependent on government’s assistencialist actions;

- Governmental incentive for family agriculture with irrigation systems.

Contrary to all these, the government simply decided to transpose the São Francisco river flow.

In 2005, a controversial irrigation project was proposed. It is flown around that it will bring water from the river to semiarid areas, but environmentalists argue that it will only benefit large landowners and consequently few people, while bringing considerable ecological impact.

In the meanwhile, only timid improvements have been reached and the same politicians’ families continue to rule there for over 30 years (!), as mayors and governors. Doing these people small favours (a priori, their duty!), such politicians get votes easily from this region, which has the highest illiteracy rate in Brazil (nearly 20%). Only such influential political families in that region benefit from this strikingly sad reality.

Some special programmes of combat against poverty in this region have existed for many years, but only benefitting powerful farmers. While weirs and electricity networks were installed in farms, the poor continued in the same distressing situation. “Only the wrong use of the budget and embezzlement can explain why this region, which received billions of dollars along decades to be invested in social programmes, continues to be the area with the highest concentration of poverty in Latin America”, says professor Antônio Márcio Buainain, from the University of the State of Campinas (São Paulo).

Palpably can anyone see that the region of northeastern Brazil looks like a seething cauldron of recurrent rights abuses.

Photo by Geraldo Maia blog.

And there is one extra challenge to face: to put this stark topic on the agenda again. It is totally out of the Brazilian radar. It is downright revolting: the Brazil that eats does not see what is occurring with the Brazil that has nothing to eat but cactus. It has to be more than worrisome stats.

While we weep over it, the only thing left for them to do is to struggle for their dry lives day after day in a trembling uncertainty.

Photo by Oliveira Jr.

Category: Hunger | Tags: water, lula, drought, northeast of brazil,


  • Bart Knols on 09th August 2010:

    Woow - amazing story. And indeed something I had never heard of. This is the kind of story I really like on TH!NK3. New stuff that creates awareness (and deals with the MDGs). Thanks, Luan.

  • Helena Goldon on 09th August 2010:

    Luan, lovely post. I found that your statement that ‘Brazil that eats does not see what is occurring with the Brazil that has nothing to eat but cactus’ applies to the developing world in general, doesn’t it?

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 09th August 2010:

    A double check..

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 09th August 2010:

    Sorry for my previous spam - I put up a comment on this post and it didn’t show up, so I wanted to double check if this was a one-off system error or what.

    Anyways, I wrote that I find the quote that Helena picked up really brilliant. I’d add “Does not see and doesn’t want to”.

    And Lula the president is being ignorant, really. Not that he’s supposed to focus only on his native region and forget everything else, but come on, knowing the situation first hand should be a further push for action.

  • Clare Herbert on 10th August 2010:

    Harrowing images. Drought really scares me. We are nowhere near ready to make desalination technology mainstream and without it witha g rowing population and a warming planet, this is a big worry.

  • Luan Galani on 10th August 2010:

    @Guys, first of all, thanks for reading. Thanks a million.

    @Bart, indeed this topic (the entire region) is the elephant in the room when assessing the progress of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Even in our (Brazilians) daily lives we shirk from discussing it. There is also much prejudice towards northeastern people. As I said, it is a challenge without precedent.

    @Helena, I believe you’re right in your assumption. It can undoubtedly (and unfortunately) be applied to the developing world in general. Poignant, isn’t it?

    @Giedre, no problem about your two-comments-presence wink
    You got it. “Do not see and do not want to”. Exactly it.

    And about Lula, well, what can I tell you? Now most Brazilians consider him a major disappointment. It was believed that he would change Brazil more than he did. But it did not come about. Many corruption and embezzlment cases undermined his government’s morale too. Personally, I think he did well in many areas. He now can be considered one of the best presidents we have ever had. However, regarding his own birth region, he did little, almost nothing.

  • Luan Galani on 10th August 2010:

    @Clare, thanks for reading. It is spooky to me as well.

  • Bill Hinchberger on 13th August 2010:

    Lajedo do Pai Mateus: Backlands of Paraíba

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