A prolonged drought stretching across 10 states in the north-east Region
of Brazil is severely affecting crop production in the area and threatening
the food supply situation of the population. The position is difficult
for almost 10 million people of which about 4.8 million are facing critical
food supply problems. The drought is largely attributable to El Niño
weather phenomenon, which has exacerbated the regionís annual dry spells.
The crop and food situation is likely to deteriorate further in the months
ahead if drought, as forecast, continues at least until December 1998.
The rainy season normally extends from a pre-rainy season in December to well-defined rains from February to May. This season, probably as a consequence of El Niño phenomenon, rainfall has been insufficient or virtually non-existent in large areas of the states of Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Pernambuco, Piaui, Sergipe, Paraiba, Rio Grande do Norte, and the northern parts of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo. According to a report released by the Governmentís regional development agency (SUDENE), the situation is critical for the region as a whole, as dry conditions are forecast to continue until December, with the possibility that it might extend into March 1999, overlapping part of the next rainy season.
The main foodcrops grown in the region include maize, rice, beans, cassava, and soybeans. Maize production in 1997 was some 2.6 million tonnes, or about 8 percent of Brazilís total output. A slightly smaller area is expected for 1998, but due to the lack of rains (planting generally starts in February), plantings have been reduced. In some of the most affected states, such as in Ceará and north of Minas Gerais, reductions are between 60 and 90 percent of projected plantings. The outputs of rainfed rice and beans in the region, the main staples in the populationís diet, were about 1.9 million tonnes and 1 million tonnes respectively in 1997. The planting of paddy in the region normally starts in April, while that of the main beans crop begins in May. Both crops have experienced substantial reductions in plantings, in some locations exceeding 80 percent of the expected area planted. Total grain production in the North-East in a normal year is about 4.5 million tonnes. Current indications are that this yearís
grain output is unlikely to exceed 50 percent of the normal production. The North-East region accounts for about 40 percent of the national cassava production, where it is also a major staple food. In 1997, the region produced about 10.5 million tonnes of the total 24.9 million tonnes produced in the country. Planting generally starts in February. Deterioration of the cassava crop so far reported is smaller than that experienced by other crops because cassava is more drought-resistant. In some states, like in the north of Minas Gerais, cash crops such as coffee and sugarcane are also reported to be severely affected by the drought. Coffee is planted from the beginning of the rainy season in December, but due to the absence of rains, potential losses range from 30 to 50 percent of planned production in various growing localities. Fruit production is also likely to be severely affected by the drought and cattle deaths are being increasingly reported.
According to SUDENE, as of early May 1998 approximately 4.8 million people of the 10 million people in 1 233 municipalities affected by the drought, were at the "immediate risk of starvation". Emergency relief operations have been initiated by the Government. Relief food distributions have eased the situation that had become very grave in some of the most affected locations, where looting and raids on food stores have been reported. Food assistance from some non-governmental organizations and other institutions is also being provided. Coordinating committees (Comissao Municipal do PRODEA/Comunidade Solidaria) at a municipal level, in close collaboration with other public institutions, are in charge of the relief distribution operations.
In order to prevent a similar crisis in the future, the Government has
recently announced the allocation of funds for the rehabilitation of the
area. These include subsidized credit to affected farmers for the construction
of wells and dams to help mitigate the effects of the recurring droughts.
Farmers will be encouraged to use the loans for investment in drought-resistant
crops or in other irrigated crops. One-half of the allocated funds are
expected to be distributed to small farmers who will be required to repay
only 50 percent of the amounts borrowed.
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