- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

SOLIDAO, Brazil

Pedro Iziodorio says the rains have become scarcer each year in the semiarid outback of northeast Brazil known as the Sertao.

Mr. Iziodorio, 46, said that what little rain falls has washed away much of his property’s thin topsoil, partly because of his family’s excessive plowing. He has had to resort to growing corn and beans, some of the few crops that still grow from what he calls “the bone of the land.”

Farming can be accomplished only during the “rainy season,” from January to May, and only if the season truly is wet.

The altitude and low mountains block Atlantic moisture from reaching the high interior region, but the dryness apparently has increased in recent years. Some point to climate change, and others blame the clearing of dry local vegetation to make attempts at farming.

“As soon as it rains, everyone hurries to the field to plant,” said Mr. Iziodorio, who calculates that his land grows one-tenth of the corn it once yielded. “We can only grow enough to survive, not enough to sell.”

New desert looms

The so-called “Drought Polygon” is a nearly 390,000-square-mile area that includes nine northeastern states, practically a third of Brazil. Rain is so infrequent that Brazilians joke that the first sign of drought is news of supermarket looting.

Specialists, who are not joking, say the scant rainfall, deforestation, overgrazing and unsustainable farming practices could make this region of 18 million people the world’s largest new desert.

In Brazil and Latin America, as elsewhere around the globe, desertification is wreaking havoc on ecosystems.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) reports that vast parts of every continent are turning dry. Africa is the largest concern, where more than two-thirds of the land area is becoming desert. The United Nations predicts that more than 60 million people will be forced to migrate from sub-Sahara Africa to North Africa and Europe during the next 20 years. In Asia, advancing soil erosion in China causes dust storms in Korea and Japan.

“Desertification” is the process by which human activity leads to the degradation of so-called “dry lands,” areas that have naturally low levels of rainfall and are susceptible to desertlike conditions. The United Nations estimates that each year, the world loses nearly 58,000 square miles of land to desert, an area slightly larger than Greece. Unless the trend is reversed, the amount of arable land could decline by two-thirds in Africa, one-third in Asia and one-fifth in South America, the United Nations says.

“If desertification is not stopped and reversed, agricultural production will decline or disappear in many parts of the world, affecting the food supply for many millions of people, especially poor communities,” said Alexandrina Sobreira de Moura, executive secretary of the Environmental and Water Resources Secretariat for northeastern Brazil’s Pernambuco state.

Land mismanagement

Despite its image as a lush region, most of Latin America suffers from desertification. Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico are hardest hit. About 618 million acres of land in South America, one-third of the continent, is becoming desert, the United Nations says. The figure is 156 million acres for Central America and Mexico.

The main causes of desertification in Latin America are overgrazing and slash-and-burn agriculture, said Heitor Matallo, coordinator of the Latin America and Caribbean Unit of the UNCCD. “Overall, there is an increasing mismanagement of land,” he said.

In Chile, 60 percent of the landscape is undergoing desertification, said Wilfredo Alfaro, director of the desertification program for Conaf, Chile’s forest service. Deforestation and crops planted on hillsides are key reasons.

Trees protect soil from erosion and flooding by cushioning the effect of rain. In dry lands, trees especially help maintain precipitation because they retain moisture that evaporates and returns as rain. They also absorb solar radiation and create fertile microclimates.

Mr. Alfaro said that an area from just below the Atacama Desert in northern Chile to the lake district in the south was widely deforested over the past century. Soil erosion and declining precipitation make agriculture difficult in many areas.

“The lesson is: You must keep forest ecosystems forested, especially on hilly terrain, or you’ll have lots of erosion and lose the soil,” said Mr. Alfaro. “The forests also are a driver of rainfall. In our northern Region IV, rainfall declined on average by more than half over the past century.”

Mr. Alfaro said three decades of government subsidies for tree planting and irrigation are reversing desertification on more than 7.4 million acres in Chile, but he emphasized that the process is slow.

“To give you an idea of the magnitude of this task, at our current rate of tree planting — which is well ahead of everyone else’s in the region — it will take 300 years to reverse desertification everywhere that it exists in our country,” he said.

Worrisome’ scenario

“Even after reforestation, the soils only regenerate by about 1 centimeter [0.39 inch] every 100 years. The soils lost in our Central Valley, many of which were originally 2 meters [6.5 feet] deep, will need about 1,800 years to return to their former condition,” Mr. Alfaro said.

Paulo Nobre, a scientist at Brazil’s Weather Prediction and Climate Studies Center in Sao Paulo, said human intervention has worsened the drought in northeast Brazil. “The increase of population and agriculture has led to greater soil erosion,” he said.

“That erosion has caused rivers to silt, so they now carry less water. And with less vegetation, the moisture captured on land is not lasting as long. Together, this contributes to rainfall of less intensity and shorter duration.”

Mr. Nobre said his research shows that if climate change continues, rain precipitation will decline by nearly a third in the northeast.

“Desertification and drought affect areas around the world. If we consider the linkages between desertification and climate change, and the mutual feedbacks, the scenario is really worrisome,” Mr. Matallo said.

Desertification causes a crippling cascade of environmental, economic and health problems that force people to leave the affected area. Their migrations elsewhere tax other regions. A prime example is the decades-long migration of impoverished settlers from northeast Brazil to the country’s Amazon region, where many newcomers support themselves by slash-and-burn agriculture or garimpeiro mining, in which small-scale miners extract gold and other minerals with mercury and other contaminants.

Millions of the displaced also have migrated to Brazilian cities, straining public services.

‘The drought industry’

Despite the spread of desertification, governments too often ignore and sometimes encourage activities that contribute to the phenomenon. In northeast Brazil, less than 10 percent of rainwater is retained. Critics say this is mainly because federal and local governments have failed to invest in reservoirs, irrigation systems and other projects to capture rainwater.

Lauso Silva, 29, president of the farmers association of Antonica in northeast Brazil, blames the “drought industry.”

He points out that a few farms in the region are getting wealthy by exporting grapes, mangoes and other fruit, while the majority struggle to find water just to meet their daily needs. “There is a problem of distribution,” he said.

Hyperides Macedo, secretary of water infrastructure for Brazil’s National Integration Ministry, said earlier government efforts fell short, “but in recent years this has changed.”

“Now, we are working harder to reach more people, especially poor communities and isolated areas,” Mr. Macedo said.

The national government said drought relief is on the way. This year, it announced plans for a $1.7 billion project to create hundreds of miles of canals to send water from the Sao Francisco River basin in the central state of Bahia to the dry northeastern states.

Although this project will replenish reservoirs used by big agriculture, critics say, it will not address the needs of subsistence farmers who make up the poor majority.

“What’s really needed is to put that money into many diverse smaller projects targeting specific communities without access to sufficient water,” said Valdemar Rodrigues, president of the Brazilian research group Instituto Desert.

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