Living with climate change in Brazil: Three farmers’ views

Environmental sustainability

Collecting water from the stream as water levels fall. Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund
Collecting water from the stream as water levels fall. Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

Conserving water

Francisco Geraldo Neto lives with his family in Caiçara village, northeast Brazil. The family cultivates half a hectare of land and they earn about US $1,500 each year from selling their products in the local markets. Diaconia (a Tearfund partner) helps them avoid the use of middlemen so they can get better prices. They grow an amazing range of about 50 different species of fruit trees, vegetables, cereal and fodder plants on their farm, together with traditional plants, which they conserve.

It has not been easy to achieve this as they started with poor soils which had been damaged by the practices of slash and burn and single cash cropping. Neto comments: ‘I hear of climate change in the newspapers, but I can feel its effects on myself and on my crops. The sun is hotter, the temperature is higher, and the wind is drier. I hear about the greenhouse effect, desertification and “El Niño”. I don’t understand it, but the results are drought in the Amazon, floods in some parts of northeast Brazil and more whirlwinds.’

Carrying water back home. Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund
Carrying water back home. Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

Neto remembers that in the 1980s there was a stream running through their farm that flowed nearly all year. In the 1990s the water level fell gradually. This meant that three months after the rainy season ended the stream was dry. To help solve this problem the family built a dam in 1999. ‘Water from the dam is used for irrigation and livestock. We are now irrigating much more than we did five years ago, because it is hotter and drier for half the year. We used to irrigate once a day, now it’s twice, but even so the plants wither. We are concerned we may run out of water in the future as the climate is now so variable.’ 

Sustainable agriculture 

José Ivan Monteiro Lopes lives with his parents and family in the Pajeú region in Pernambuco state. In 1998 there was a drought in the area and Diaconia established an emergency help programme. Their first objective was to improve water storage capacity for families. They established a foodfor-work scheme where families were given food in exchange for digging wells and building water tanks to collect rainwater from roofs. 

The following year Ivan’s family was chosen, together with five other families, to participate in a food production programme using small-scale irrigation. One condition was that instead of their traditional practices of slash-and-burn and their use of chemicals, the families should start to use practices that respect the environment and people’s health. They now use sustainable agricultural systems that provide them with enough food and with surplus products to sell at market. 

Ivan believes that the climate is ‘now so out of balance that even the experience of our oldest people to predict the rains no longer works. Before, in years with good rains, we produced maize and beans watered only by rainfall. There was enough for us to eat and sometimes even to sell. Today we need to use irrigation to guarantee food for the family.’ 

‘Reading’ nature 

José and Isaura Mendes live in Pernambuco state in a semi-desert region that suffers from drought. There are regular losses of livestock on their farm because of the lack of fodder. 

The family hears about climate change on the radio. They are very concerned about the melting of ice in the Antarctic and hurricanes. They believe these changes are caused by people’s lack of care for ‘the things of nature’. They are very worried by the ‘rise in temperature’. 

José comments: ‘Winters are shorter and the rainfall is more irregular. It used to start raining in October and continue until July every year. The local stream that runs through the village either had surface water, or people could easily collect water there by digging a little hollow. Today it’s much more difficult to find water there. Clearing trees from the banks of the stream and elsewhere around the springs has made this situation worse.’  

José uses irrigation but still finds their plants suffer from the heat. Their cashew tree flowers dry out from the sun’s heat and many of the fruits wither. He now irrigates the plants several times a month to keep the trees alive. 

He has some experience of natural signs that indicate ‘good or bad rain years’. Usually when the flowers on traditional plants fall off unevenly during the flowering period, it indicates a period of poor rains. When they flower abundantly, and the flowers remain on the top of the tree for a long time, the rains will be regular. ‘Older people used to know the times of the rainy seasons better, but then, they used to be easier to predict.’ 

These interviews were sent in by Marcelino Lima who works with Diaconia-PAAF in Brazil. Email: marcelino@diaconia.org.br