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Francisco Soares Oliveira in his field. His maize and bean crops were lost to this year's unusual floods.
Credit: Mario Osava/IPS
Report
When Brazil's Arid Northeast Turns Green
By Mario Osava

The green landscape of Irapuá doesn't look like the usual postcard of Brazil's Northeast of dry, twisted bushes and parched grasses.

NOVA RUSSAS, Brazil, Jul 20 (Tierramérica).- The rain - usually much desired because it is so scarce - this year has come in excess, destroying many crops. But in this town in Brazil's far northeast, the impact of the heavy rains was less than in the past, thank to the diversification of crops and productive activities.

"It rained too much and our soil doesn't need so much rain," said Francisco Soares Oliveira, 63. Eighty-nine families make up the Irapuá community in Nova Russas, a municipality of 30,000 people located in west-central Ceará, a state in Brazil's Northeast region.

The current landscape of this part of the Northeast - with abundant, verdant vegetation - is not the usual postcard of the Semiárido, a biome of twisted bushes and withered grasses, the result of the cyclical droughts here.

Irapuá stands out for its greenness and its large trees, benefited by the moisture from a stream that passes through it. But the municipality in which it lies, Nova Russas, is nevertheless drier than other parts of the Northeast.

The water issue is a priority in local action, Ana Paula Oliveira, territorial supervisor of the Dom Helder Cámara Project (PDHC), explained to Tierramérica.

The PDHC, financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Ministry of Agrarian Development, operates in six northeastern states, promoting family farming, rural leadership and the coordination of various institutions to improve life in the semi-arid climate.

In Inhamuns, where Irapuá is located and one of the seven rural development areas created by Ceará, Oliveira said that 71 percent of the 1,376 families supported by PDHC already have tanks for collecting rainwater, which is used for drinking and cooking. Progress is also being made in other ways to collect and store water for irrigating local fields.

Francisco Oliveira (no relation to Ana Paula) is one of the 25 small farmers in Irapuá who this year joined an effort to grow "partner" cotton, meaning it is combined with other traditional crops, like beans and maize. Cotton was the least harmed by the floods and made up for some of the other losses.

Another plus has been organic production, which does not utilize agrochemical pesticides or fertilizers, allowing the cotton to be sold at twice the price of conventional cotton, noted Oliveira. Furthermore, the community joined a network to create added value.

Others, like Deusdete de Carvalho, 70, former president and current treasurer of the Irapuá Association of Family Farmers, are raising bees, in addition to livestock and crops.

"Now there are nine families producing honey, and there were just two when the project began" in 2006, a time when "we didn't have equipment and had to pay for services from people from the outside who kept half of what we produced," recalled Carvalho, who hopes to sell 500 liters of honey this year.

The group processes and packages the honey. Most is sold to the government's National Supply Company, which provides food for public school meals.

The beekeeper's wife, Maria do Socorro Carvalho, takes care of 50 hens, producing about 200 eggs per month. "Before, we didn't have a henhouse. They lived outdoors and we lost a lot of eggs to other animals," Carvalho said.

"The project improved our life," she said. Technical assistance taught them about poultry and livestock management, diversification with sheep, dairy cows, honey and crafts, all of which prevented "a disaster this year," she said.

There is a group of 16 women who produce hand-made items, mostly clothing and knit articles. There would be many more women in the group if there weren't some men who prohibit their wives from participating, complained Aurilane Carvalho, a tall young woman in a community that is mostly of shorter stature.

"Many have left craftwork" because of sexist "violence," she said, and because they have to take care of children and household duties. But participation in the project - with technical assistance from PDHC and other organizations like the Catholic Caritas - "has reduced alcoholism" that contributes to domestic violence, and also the exodus of youth, Carvalho said.

She demonstrated her leadership abilities when she spoke in public Jun. 21, during a visit by IFAD president Kanayo Nwanze to the community.

Keeping young people in the community is "a challenge," she admitted. "Many leave for Rio de Janeiro." The school curriculum is "a far cry from the reality of the countryside," parents don't want their children in farming, "suffering the same difficulties," and there is a lack of cultural and recreational activities.

But Nwanze, a Nigerian with a doctorate in agricultural entomology and with 30 years of experience in rural development, said at the conclusion of his visit: "I learned more here than in books" about family farming, a sector that feds more than 80 percent of the global population.

Product diversification creates "an active rural community" and a local economy, two elements that are "the beginning of the solution to many problems," like national food security, the rural exodus that creates problems in the cities and emigration, the IFAD official said.

IFAD is a United Nations agency created to fight rural poverty in developing countries, and has already financed six Brazilian projects for a total of around 142 million dollars, primarily in the Northeast, where another 46 million dollars are being earmarked for two new initiatives.

"Harmony with nature" is another crucial dimension for rural development, Nwanze added.

Tractors are no longer used for plowing in Irapuá, said Francisco Oliveira. The farmer who was born and raised here and has 50 hectares. "The tractor exhausts the soil," he said. With direct planting, without removing field stubble, the soil better maintains its moisture and nutrients.

"The project has opened many doors for us," including making it easier to obtain credit, he said.

Irapuá "is a synthesis of a good part of what we do," said PDHC director Espedito Rufino: creating leadership in the communities, participatory management and associations to expand resources.

But development requires "ongoing public policies, not just projects" for the poor, he said.

PDHC and other local organizations have accumulated experiences that can "guide policies for development" in the Northeast, but the authorities and the private sector have to understand "the specific social, economic and environmental realities of the semi-arid region and the culture of its people," he stressed.

The presence of IFAD provides a path for "international repercussions" of the local actions and is a boon to poor farmers, "who are always excluded from public policies" and ignored for their role in culture, food production and preservation of natural resources.

IFAD also promotes cooperation for Brazil to share knowledge with the world, and to learn from experiences in other regions. This transfer of "products and processes technologies" is important with Africa, but it's better to talk about "swaps" and "participatory generation of knowledge," Rufino concluded.

* IPS correspondent.

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