The Politics of Water: A Case in Brazil

The Cedar Reservoir of Quixadà, Cearà, is one of the most beautiful spots in Brazil. I sat there for hours with my friends Jaymes and Oclesiano, staring up at the mountains and down at the water. I listened to stories about Indians who had once walked this land, of slaves who fought a war over water against Paraguay on behalf of their owners, of children who too early became adults.

Jaymes and Oclesiano had children before they completed puberty, or, more accurately, before puberty completed them. But that day we all behaved like children, awash in the smell of decaying grasses, the cool breeze, and panoramic view. We aimed our slingshots at the few cows wading at the southern bank, though we also tried to hit rocks and trees, missing badly. Cloud-bent sunlight illuminated the low water of the reservoir, hawks and vultures soared overhead, and trees grew right out of the water, fading into the distance on the part of the reservoir hidden by a mud bank. Homeless children played on one end in the mangue (swamp), singing songs about manguetown and mangueboys, penned by the late pop star Chico Science.

On one end of the reservoir is a giant rock formation called the Galinha because it looks just like a giant hen. The Galinha keeps watch over the entire reservoir, protecting the water from invaders and fulfilling the local need for folklore. Some say that slaves were forced to design it, chipping away each day until it looked like a hen. Others, including geologists, argue that a sedimentation process lasting millions of years rendered the stone animal. According to Jaymes, it was probably one of God’s final touches: "He is a good artist. The best." On the road leading to the reservoir are the casa grande and senzala, once the master and slave homes, respectively. Now they are preserved as museums so that the people "never forget."

A distant mountain range is visible above the northwestern banks of the reservoir. In 1967, a plane carrying Brazil’s first military dictator, Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco, crashed on the mountainside. Castello Branco did not survive. Now the mountain is home to a resort, where one awakens to cold temperatures despite being close to the equator. It is one of the few spots in the world where one can stand in a tropical forest and look down on a desert.

Standing on the narrow bridge above the reservoir, you have to be careful not to fall over the low railing; it is at least a 100-meter drop. If you look up and to the east, you can just make out a church sitting on the edge of a cliff, standing taller than anything else and gazing over the reservoir to its west, the mountain range to the north, and semiarid hinterland everywhere else. Farther east, the lights of Fortaleza, Brazil’s fifth-largest city, shine even in the daylight, emitting a fluorescent glow.

At Easter and Christmas, the 20-kilometer path leading to the church is packed with pilgrims carrying banners and crosses, and from afar they look like an ant army marching. If the wind blows in the right direction, Mass can be heard echoing off the water, off the giant granite walls of the reservoir, off the mountains in the distance. It is said that a word spoken on one side of the reservoir is audible at the opposite end, some kilometers away, conditions permitting. At the end of the walkway, you can eat a peixe de açude (reservoir fish) and drink a cold beer, all for a dollar. Children wash clothes and play on the sharp rocks just beyond the eastern bank, where the reservoir’s excess water should wash over into a river leading to farmlands below. But on the day that I sat there, the river was completely dry.

On the day that I sat there, July 30, 2000, the New York Times printed the story "Chinese Farmers See a New Desert Erode Their Way of Life." Erik Eckholm reported from Agan, China:

Tse Rangji fitfully tries shoveling away the waves of sand that menace her home, half engulfing it like some artifact of a lost civilization. Then she gives up in frustration.

"The pasture here used to be so green and rich," said Ms. Tse, 46, waving toward a tattered landscape of anemic grasses, weeds, and dirt among which dunes have erupted like a pox. "But now the grass is disappearing and the sand is coming." She and her husband and seven children have already moved into a tent for fear that their house will buckle under.

The rising sands are part of a new desert forming here on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, a legendary stretch once known for grasses reaching as high as a horse’s belly and home for centuries to ethnic Tibetan herders.

Meanwhile, Africa’s Kalahari Desert had only just recovered from its worst drought of the century. In Texas, 10,000 fish washed up dead around the bayous, killed in part by drought and in part by ten days of 100-degree temperatures. By August 2000, 73,000 blazes had burned nearly 6,300,000 acres in the United States. Seventy-seven major fires were still burning in the West by early September, despite the efforts of 27,000 courageous firefighters. More than $1 billion was spent fighting the fires, and economic losses were estimated to be $10 billion.

In Afghanistan, United Nations officials reported that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people could die because of prolonged drought. One quarter of the U.S. experienced moderate to severe drought, with experts predicting longer and stronger droughts to come.

They came one year later; 2001 was the second-hottest year on record (the hottest was 1998). In the first six months of 2002, nearly 2,000,000 acres burned in the United States. A U.S. government worker responsible for monitoring fires reported in the New York Times, "In terms of largeness and complexity, I do not recall this many fires this complex this time of the year." In autumn 2003, California experienced the worst fire in its history.

In 2002, glaciers in Alaska were melting at more than twice the rate previously thought. Janine Bloomfield, a climate expert, exclaimed, "We’re getting to the point that this melting is affecting human society." Nearly every state from Nebraska westward, excluding Texas, Oklahoma, and Washington, experienced "conditions that range from abnormally dry to exceptional drought." In Arizona, thousands of residents were evacuated as the biggest fire in the state’s history raged on. "Signs of drought are everywhere," reported The Economist. Arizona Governor Jane Dee Hull, speaking about the biggest forest fire in her state’s history, exclaimed, "This is like a freight train coming at us."

We are no longer merely approaching a disaster of global proportions. It has arrived. Scientists have found that the Sahara Desert is expanding; the level of the Dead Sea has plummeted more than ten meters; the Arctic ice pack has thinned 40 percent in four decades; the Athabasca Glacier has receded two kilometers in 100 years; Lake Chad is shrinking at a rate of 100 meters per year; and northern China loses a meter of its water table annually.

The degradation of worldwide water resources is evident everywhere. But my personal path led me to witness its effects in Brazil, where the Cedar Reservoir of Quixadà was filled to only 1 percent capacity in July 2000. Nearby, the smaller White Rocks Reservoir, serving the rural parts of Quixadà, stood at 5 percent capacity and would have dried completely if the December rains had not come.

Fortunately, there was no drought during the 2000 winter. Nevertheless, both reservoirs were near empty. There was barely enough water for the taps to continue running. Farming, the only source of employment, had become a dead-end career. According to the regional newspaper Diàrio do Nordeste, 5,000 rural workers were unemployed in the White Rocks region "because there [was] no water in the reservoir for irrigation." Another 2,000 rural workers were unemployed in the region fed by the Cedar Reservoir. The head of the state government’s project Path of Israel explained, "There is not enough accumulated water to liberate any for irrigation."

In July 2000, several attacks were waged on food trucks destined for a large supermarket in the Quixadà county seat. Farther south, nearly 1,400 pilgrims arrived in Juazeiro do Norte, Cearà, to pay homage to their padrinho (spiritual godfather), the late Padre Cícero Romã£o Batista. Most pilgrims traveled hundreds of miles on foot to fulfill "promises" for wishes already granted or sought. Among the crowd were two cadres from Quixadà, who hoped that their trek would bring rain to their reservoir. Others simply needed an object from the holy city, such as a fork, a spoon, or a glass. July is in the fora de época (off-season) for visits to the padrinho. But the absence of rain caused religious tourism to flourish.

In July 2000, more than 1,000 landless farmers marched on the Bank of Brazil in Iguatu, demanding money that they had not received for water bills. They had spent five months without water for irrigation and had not received the subsidies that the government had promised for their beans, rice, and corn. In the nearby state Pernambuco, 71 farmworkers were injured while protesting against the intransigence of the Instituto Nacional de Colonizaçã£o e Reforma Agrària, Brazil’s land-reform agency.

On this same day, Francisco Augusto da Silva, a 48-year-old, un-schooled farmer, released the 21st annual edition of the Yearly Almanac. He predicted that the 2000-2001 winter would begin in December with great rains, floods, and dam breaks. Da Silva admitted that although he is half prophet and half astrologer, his predictions all came down to mathematics. He foretold drought and hunger in some parts of the region and predicted that women would have more power in the upcoming year. In da Silva’s 21 years of assessing weather patterns and human behavior, he has been wrong only once—-owing, he insisted, to an error in mathematical calculations.

Da Silva’s predictions proved correct yet again: thousands of people were left without homes or shelter when for four straight days floods swept through the coastal cities of Recife and Maceió, southeast of the dry regions of Crato, Juazeiro, and Quixadà. There was so much rain that the city drains became clogged and water poured onto the streets, at times forming five- to seven-foot waves. Poor, urban squatters saw their precariously perched homes wash down steep slopes and float away. By August 2000, dozens of people had died. One particularly bad storm on August 3 destroyed 6,500 houses and killed 18 people, including five-year-old Jeferson Joã£o da Silva.

Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso flew over the flood-stricken areas and at the same time looked down on drought-ravaged plains. Imagine, just for a moment, a region where you can view flood and drought simultaneously from the air. Imagine a land where you can stand in a tropical forest and peer down on a desert. Peru has its Nazca lines; Brazil has this contradiction of drought and deluge. On the day that floods killed 18 in Recife, the northeastern state of Piauí declared that 25 of its municipalities were in states of emergency owing to drought.

Every day the Diàrio do Nordeste conveys evidence of regional devastation. One article tells a story about rural unemployment in Crato, which explains why so many rural farmers are wasting their money on slot machines. It basically comes down to boredom and a regional predilection for the gambling lifestyle, given the precariousness of subsistence farming and the fleeting nature of coins in the pocket. And farther down the same page is the story that inspired me to travel to Brazil to study the drought. This story is about a farmer named Francisco Mesquita de Soares, who died in Ocara, not far from Quixadà, on his way to Mass. There is a graphic photograph of a dead man lying in a pool of blood with a straw hat in his hand. The hat has a red bow tied around it. His arms are at his sides.

I read this story and visited Francisco’s family one week later. The events discussed here are real. Francisco’s wife asked that his story be told, but that his real name not be used. I have respected this request.

Twenty-eight-year-old Francisco was brought down by two bullets, one to the head and the other to the lower thorax. His wife, mother, and six children survive him. They were homeless and landless because their adobe house was built on squatted land. Francisco was the sole provider for his family. He worked his entire life, never attending school, taking a vacation, or owning his own land to farm.

Francisco is one of approximately 1,600 rural farmers who have lost their lives in violent land disputes over the 15 years that the Pastoral Land Commission has been collecting data. More farmers have died in land disputes under democratic regimes than did political dissidents during the most recent Brazilian military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1988. On the surface, it would appear that Francisco’s death is a mere footnote to a much larger phenomenon. But a closer look reveals a personally compelling and tragic story, a story with a plot and theme inextricably tied to the politics of water. It is a story that requires a retelling.

Francisco was shot through a hole in a fence that separated a wealthy landowner’s property from a piece of "occupied" land housing 30 families. The assentados (squatters) were waiting to find out whether they would obtain the land under Brazil’s agrarian policies, which allow people to squat on private land that has not been cultivated—"made productive"—-for five years. The fence was erected the day that the landless arrived. They were considered dangerous.

No source of water was on or near the occupied land, except a reservoir on the private property of 78-year-old Jacinta Nascimento, the fazenda (large, rural estate) owner who built the fence. The assentados had no choice; if they could not make the land productive, they would have no right to it. But to make the land productive, they needed water.

The private reservoir had plenty of water, enough so that allowing children to carry pailfuls away each day would not make a huge difference. Though on private property, the reservoir was built with government money, which, incidentally, constitutes an illegal use of public funds. Parents instructed the children to sneak through the hole in the fence to fetch water. The landowner warned them repeatedly that stealing water was a crime, and indeed it was, but it was a crime they committed out of necessity. In the absence of water, life stops.

July 25, 2000, the day of Francisco’s death, was a typical dog day in the dry interior of northeast Brazil. Dust blew everywhere. Men and women had on their best Sunday clothes, and though they looked like poorly fitting rags, the shirts were tucked in carefully. No one could stop sweating. Flies were everywhere, the sky was dark blue, and the sun was inescapable, even in the shade. Francisco and several friends were on their way to Mass when eight men came toward them from the other side of the fence. Without warning, the men released more than 30 bullets, instantly killing Francisco and injuring several others, including eight children. This small operation was intended to drive the peasants from the occupied site because the landowner was tired of their water pilfering. Five of the attackers were fazenda employees, and the other three were hired for the job.

The day of the murder was not Francisco’s first encounter with the five fazenda employees. Some months earlier Francisco’s daughter was harassed for stealing water. A farmer protecting the fazenda spit on her. Francisco walked up to them to ask why his daughter was being targeted. As he approached the men guarding the fazenda, however, he realized he knew all five of them. They were old friends. They had played together as children. He asked how they were, and one, it turned out, had a sick child. They did not realize they had been spitting on Francisco’s daughter. In fact, the assault was never discussed because Francisco ran eagerly back to his home, told his wife he needed some medicine, and asked his daughter to take it back to the fazenda guards, his old friends.

Months later the five men were ordered to fire on the squatters to punish them for stealing. They killed their old friend, with whom they had played at the fazenda where their parents had worked together, all wishing they had their own piece of land to farm.

Clearly, this was not a personal vendetta—-a common enough occurrence in the region—-either on the part of the fazenda owner or the guards. It merely was intended to teach the squatters a lesson. The men firing the pistols were instructed to "injure, but not kill," as landowner Dona Jacinta explained to a reporter. She was taken into custody for questioning, but soon released to a hospital because, in her words, "The whole ordeal made my blood pressure rise."

The murder of Francisco confirmed his wife’s conviction that they should never have become involved in the politics of land reform. She understood that they had to squat—they had dreamed their entire adult lives of owning a spot of land they could call their own. She understood that the local code was such that a family is nothing if it does not own its own land. And Francisco was tired of working for others, ending each month in greater debt than before. When an organizer from the Movimento Sem Terra (MST, Landless Workers Movement) came through town announcing that there was unused, vacant land to be squatted, they did not think twice. They knew the possible dangers because the owners living in the capital city would not like losing their land, vacant or not. But they also knew they had little to lose and little ones to feed. In the previous year, one child had died of malnutrition, and Francisco and his wife, appraising the family status, realized two more could easily follow. But no politics, his wife had said, and he had promised.

When one is dealing with water politics, danger is not obvious until it is too late. Francisco grew up on another fazenda, where his father had worked. His father died from "old age" in his 30s, leaving Francisco his life savings, about $200. Shortly after his father’s death, the landowner informed Francisco that his father still owed about $200 to the fazenda. Francisco had no choice but to squat, and squatters have no choice but to get involved in the politics of land reform.

Hundreds of people attended Francisco’s funeral, including the leaders of the MST from Fortaleza. The community could not raise enough money to buy a coffin, so they rented one. Francisco was carried to the graveyard in the coffin, then removed and buried inside two flags: the green flag of Brazil and the red flag of the MST.

On the wall of Francisco’s shack, I found a dirtied and disintegrated news clipping. It was an Associated Press story that had somehow made its way into the local newspaper. Tucked beneath an advertisement for a livestock auction, the article was an illustration of events transpiring thousands of miles away.

It showed a picture of Chinese students protesting in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square. "For Freedom," the caption read.

Scrawled in pencil underneath was the following statement: "They did this knowing they would fail; nevertheless they fought. Will they be remembered by this crazy world where so much happens each day? Were their actions futile? I myself decide they are not futile because the Chinese children inspired a Brazilian man to act for his children. I carry their spirits, for they walk on water."

At that moment, I realized that it is these actions, these seemingly futile actions—children carrying pails of water or standing up, fists raised, to tanks—-that demand our attention. Actions that seem pointless to people like the woman from Sã£o Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, who told me how revolted she was that the farmers would dare hold a protest in her shopping mall, Morumbi Shopping, which her daughter had to witness, "where those farmers cannot even afford a Coca-Cola, which, anyway, has nothing at all to do with land reform."

Actions that seem pointless to the Brazilian banker who asked me, "Why don’t they just do what the rest of us do and get a real job?"

Actions that seem redundant and simplistic to all the human rights lawyers who counseled me to work for a corporate law firm in order to "understand how to produce."

I struggle every day to figure out how to honor Francisco, to make sure that he is not just another footnote—-because there are many good people in northeast Brazil, and he was one of them.

Nicholas Arons

Nicholas Arons is a graduate of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. He carried out the research for this article while working in Brazil as a public health worker, as a Fulbright Scholar, and as a fellow in New York University Law School's Institute for International Law and Justice. He is the author of Waiting for Rain: The Politics and Poetry of Drought in Northeast Brazil.