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How drought is sapping the mojo from Brazil's cowboy capital.
SERRITA, Brazil — Antonio Nivaldo dos Santos, known around his hometown of Serrita as “Tonio the Ranchero,” took a break from work to sing a few lines from a Brazilian folk song.
“When the mandacaru blooms in the dry season / It’s a sign that the rains will come.”
It was mid-November, and it had been a long time since the mandacaru cactus had blossomed in much of Brazil’s northeastern region known as the Sertao. With almost no rain in two years, Serrita's fields have gone barren.
As the price of feed soared, dos Santos and his cowboy friends watched their cattle die, one by one, until more than 4 percent of Pernambuco’s entire cattle herd — hundreds of thousands of cows — had been wiped out.
Like many of his friends, dos Santos was in crisis mode. Of his 60 cows, eight had died. He’d sold most of the others off cheaply, and only six remained healthy.
It was a big struggle to keep those surviving six alive.
He scouted the countryside twice daily on his motorbike, looking for mandacaru to cut down and load into a rickety trailer.
Back at his farmstead, the ranchero burned the spikes off the cactuses with a blowtorch, before grinding up the thick lime-green stems and adding them to store-bought grain to feed his cattle.
“We’re just suffering, suffering, waiting for God,” dos Santos said.
A sign above the main road into Serrita proclaims “Cowboy Capital.” Kids here grow up aspiring to be cowboys or cowgirls.
But the drought is starting to kill off some of that old country spirit.
In summer 2012, cows started dying of starvation. By December that year, normally the height of northeastern Brazil’s rainiest season, local television stations were touring ranches that had turned into cattle graveyards, interviewing tough farmers weeping.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff pledged to help the northeast last August, but by then the situation for small farms like this one was already dire.
By November 2013, the town was sick.
The main reservoir had shrunk to a fetid, green-tinged pool surrounded by coagulated octagons of dried mud. A well dos Santos had dug on his land yielded only salty, foul-tasting water.
“My three sons want to be ranchers, but I want a better life for them,” he said. “I tell them to study, because agriculture won’t even pay for a new shirt.”
Across northeastern Brazil, between 2011 and 2012 the cattle herd diminished by more than 1.8 million heads — a loss of about 4.5 percent, according to data from the Banco do Nordeste.
The region also lost almost 790,000 sheep and 700,000 goats, about 8 percent of each livestock species, in the same period, the bank said.
Some rain has fallen in parts of the Sertao since then, but weather forecasts and projections for the region's recovery remain grim.
“There is no doubt that the drought has depressed agricultural production,” Luciano Ximenes, a Banco do Nordeste researcher, wrote in an email. “But we should have already learned to live with drought. In my view, it is not the drought that reduces agricultural production, it’s the lack of investment that is limiting the growth of the region.”
There has been some government investment here over the years, and there are plans for more.
East of Serrita, in the scrub around the city of Serra Talhada, a local government engineer showed off a dam project and explained how farmers have invested in deep wells that keep water flowing to their fields year-round.
And plans are in the works to divert the Sao Francisco River, the region’s main artery, to provide irrigation throughout most of the Sertao.
But these large-scale projects, talked about for years, have been delayed in the planning stages. And for many of the farmers who spoke to GlobalPost, the thought of borrowing money to invest in their own solutions is simply inconceivable.
Even with future investment, any solutions will likely come too late for many of the millions of subsistence farmers.
The dust bowl
Driving through the northeast, the land changes drastically as you move farther from the few natural bodies of water. The soil turns from red-brown to brown-gray, and eventually, in the driest areas, to a fine white powder.
Jose Ferreira da Silva lives in a tiny two-room house deep in the Sertao, about 90 minutes outside the city of Petrolina, on the border of the states of Bahia and Pernambuco. His small farm sits at the end of an almost impassable road that’s become clogged by the fine white dust.
Da Silva’s farm once lay in a verdant valley. The rains ran off the surrounding hills and collected in a pool a few yards from his goat pens. To feed his herd, he simply opened a gate and sent the animals scampering off into the brush.
Two years ago, all that began to change. Da Silva watched as his livelihood started to wither, sucked dry by hot winds that swirled into the valley, whipped into jeers by the blackening trees.
A year into the drought, in desperation, da Silva grew a fodder cactus known locally as “palma.” When times are really hard, farmers grind up palma and feed it to the livestock.
He stood surveying the shells of his pitiful palma plantation that was supposed to keep his goats alive. Then he stamped angrily on a plant. It crumbled like tissue paper.
Da Silva has now lost or sold much of his livestock. By last November, he was down to a couple dozen goats and two emaciated horses.
He kept the animals alive by cycling two hours each way in the thickening dust to fill plastic jugs with water from a nearby well. The water was no good for human consumption, but the animals drank it.
Squatting among his remaining flock, da Silva held the forefingers of his hands in deep hollows on one goat’s haunches. The fingers almost met in the middle, separated only by a thin strip of skin.
"I try not to cry, because sometimes a guy doesn't want to. But it's hard not to," he said, tears welling up.
Da Silva belongs to a subgroup of residents of the northeast who will be the last to receive help from their government to keep their farms healthy.
In 2011, the Brazilian government launched a program dubbed “Water For All” that aims to bring clean running water to every community in the country.
While GlobalPost visited Pernambuco in November, government workers were installing water pipes at a farmhouse a few miles from da Silva’s land. It was to be the most remote home to receive the service, the owner of the home said.
Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, DC, said plans to combat the drought have fallen well behind schedule.
Burdened by a lack of investment and an undereducated workforce, Brazil’s big public works projects, from new airports to soccer stadiums to irrigation systems, are lagging.
But the drought has long been a powerful tool in Brazilian politics, Sotero said, and in 2014 — an election year — politicians in drought-stricken states may well play the water card to speed up aid programs to farmers like da Silva.
It’s this sort of long-term investment that Brazil so needs, Sotero said. The country has made massive strides in combating poverty since 2000, but it must move now into a new economic era, he said.
“The big challenge for Brazil is to find a path to sustain its economic growth based on investment in two types of infrastructure: physical infrastructure like public works to stop droughts, and human infrastructure — education,” Sotero said.
Video by Jimmy Chalk.