“If I step on it, will it bite?” asks little Rafael, 3 years old, curious. The mother, Graziela Reinolde, 37, says no. “He’s gone, leave it there,” he says, as he looks at the dried crab carcass that catches his son’s attention. Around it, a lot also looks dead. Like the dam on the small rural property rented by the family, where the cracked earth floor now houses the remains of fish that have long had no place to swim. Or part of the orange plantation from which they make their living, but whose dehydrated leaves close in an attempt to preserve what little moisture is left. In the rural area of Estrela D’Oeste, in the northwest of the State of São Paulo, it has not rained for months. “It’s the worst drought I’ve seen in my more than 30 years of life in the countryside,” says patriarch Antônio Reinolde, 43, the third generation of his family to dedicate themselves to the land.
The property rented by Reinolde is on the banks of the Euclides da Cunha highway, which pays homage to the journalist and author of the Sertões. In his major work, he praises the determination of the sertanejo, and says that “the drought does not frighten him (…) it is a complement to his stormy life”. But these words do not reflect the despair experienced by those who depend on water to make their living from the land. “I’ve thought a lot about quitting, in fact many people I know have left the fields. A cousin of mine went to be a truck driver. Because we are poor and suffer a lot in this situation [de seca]. He doesn’t know what he’s going to earn or when, we currently go from zero to zero every end of the month”, says Antônio, who works on the small property rented with his wife, Graziela, and their eldest son, Daniel, 13. The three observed , incredulous, the dam dried up for the first time in decades: from the thousands of liters of rainwater and the stream, which came to overflow on the dirt road “complicating our passage”, a small mud puddle remained.
Much of the northwest region of São Paulo is in a critical situation, suffering the impacts of the climatic emergency that devastates the entire world with different effects. What for many is a distant image, personified by ice melting in Antarctica, already has direct consequences in the richest state in Brazil. The imbalance in the climate has a devastating impact on the country’s hydrology, causing more expensive electricity bills in cities (since the reservoirs of hydroelectric plants are empty, increasing the use of thermoelectric plants), floods in Manaus (with good concentration part of the rainfall in a short period of time), and loss of crops for the worst drought in the last 91 years in the Southeast and Midwest of the country. The climate crisis also accentuates atmospheric phenomena such as the La Niña, which favors the drought in the region.
A report released in July by the National Center for Monitoring and Alerting of Natural Disasters (Cemaden), an agency linked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, points to a situation of “extreme drought” (the second most serious category) in northwestern São Paulo, with over 80% commitment in agricultural activity and “high risk” for family farming. The Cemaden document also says that “there are no expectations for relief from the current water crisis in the next three months” in view of the drought period.
But things were not always like this in the region that is part of the call paulista orchard from the interior of the state. “Until four years ago we planted everything without using irrigation. Only with rainwater,” says Antônio. According to him, this year the last waters came in March. And they weren’t nearly enough to fill the dam, which has been dry since the end of last year. From the Açoita Cavalo stream, which also supplied the family’s small lake, only carcasses of dead fish were left. An entire field of corn planted by Reinolde at the beginning of the year is gone, causing a loss of 12,000 reais to the family. “Everything dried up and the ears twisted and fell to the ground”, he says. “This had never happened.”
In order to survive, they were forced to invest in an expensive water pumping and irrigation system that would save part of the crop. 6,000 reais were spent on equipment, including pumps and pipes. The electricity bill increased by 1,000 reais, and there was an increase of 3,000 reais a month in the family budget in spending on diesel, used in the pump that takes water from the well (which cost more than 8,000 to drill) to the crops. Even so, only 70% of the Reinolde’s lemon and orange plantations were irrigated, and the difference between watered and dry crops is visible. The leaves of the dehydrated orange grove are twisted and dark, and the fruit is sour and has a low market value.
The impacts of the drought in northwestern São Paulo are not only felt by small farmers in the region. The Água Vermelha and Marimbondo hydroelectric plants, both located on the course of the Rio Grande, almost on the border with Minas Gerais and close to Estrela D’Oeste, are operating with the reservoirs at 14.3% and 11.7% of their total capacity. , respectively. These are two of the lowest levels in the entire national energy production system, according to data from the National Electric System Operator.
Debts, lack of customers and drought
A few kilometers away, the Barbosa Marques family is also struggling against the drought to make a living from the land — which is also leased. Brothers José, 51, João, 40 Marcelo, 32, and his son Davi, 12, do what they can to try to save the plantation, doomed by the lack of water. The forecast of harvesting a ton of papaya has now been revised to 250 kilos: without water, more than half of the fruits of the tree do not develop. Where the Viadão creek used to be, which supplied the local dam, there is now a clearing with grass. The situation is so serious that not even irrigation can handle it. “We irrigate for two hours a day just to keep the plants alive, when the ideal would be eight hours”, says José. This is because there is not enough water. “If you leave the pump running any longer, everything dries out. Even if we had all the money in the world to pay for water, at the moment we have nowhere to get it”, he explains.
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The lack of water is compounded by the problem of debts with input and equipment stores, acquired at a time when the drought horizon was not yet so arid. They add up to more than 100,000 reais. To try to alleviate costs, one of the agricultural machines purchased last year, which throws earth into the trunk of the papaya plants so that they do not fall over with the weight of the fruit, is being sold. This hard work will now have to be done by hand. Only one tractor from the 1980s remained as the brothers’ assets. “We go to the bank to try to get a loan on good terms and we don’t get anything, because we don’t have property [terra] in our name”, laments Marcelo. Finally, with schools closed due to restrictive measures imposed by the new coronavirus pandemic, another problem arose for the Marques family: part of the fruit production was sold via lunch programs in the municipal and state education system. Without classes, the brothers lost one of their main clients.
“Gradually, family farming is disappearing and only the large producers remain,” says resigned Claudinei Ferreari, 53, president of the Family Farming Cooperative in Fernandópolis, a city neighboring Estrela D’Oeste, which has 26 cooperative farmers. “Our generation, from 40 to 60 years old, will stay on the farm, because that’s what we know how to do. But young people will not want this difficult life”, he says. This is the case of Davi, son of Marcelo Barbosa Marques, who helps his father and uncles plant papaya. “I want to be a biologist. I don’t see a future in agriculture”, he explains. Despite his young age, he knows what is happening in the country. “Global warming right? That’s why it’s dry here. . I see everything on TV!”, he says. The eldest of the uncles, José, adds: “We will already have wars over the water”.
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