Seridoão (part I)
or There and Back Again, or A Terran Testimony
Are the drylands of Northeastern Brazil a small-scale model of how climate change is produced and will be lived globally? Rondinelly Medeiros leads a walk through the history and the ecology of the sertão in the company of his father. Published in three parts.
The path of about four kilometers that my father takes from the urban area of São Mamede to the Várzea Alegre farm, where he tends a small garden, is a partial portrait of the historical-ecological sedimentation of the Caatinga biome.
My father’s name is Francisco, Chico de Adolfo; in our community, as in all small towns in the sertão, people carry their father’s or mother’s name for the recognition of family groups. My father’s father was called Adolfo de Chico (Francisco was his father’s name) and so on. They are part of the huge mestizo clan of Medeiros, which can be found all over the region. The genealogical legend says that the Ribeira do Seridó, as this location was called in the olden days, was the destination of the first Azoreans with this surname who, in the 18th century, arrived and married two baptized Indigenous women.
Almost everyone around there is a Medeiros, and the search for the common ancestors is fairly trivial. Our branch of the Medeiros clan inhabited the rural area north of São Mamede, in the plains of Gatos, Várzea Alegre, Campo de Cruz, São Nicolau, and Lapa, interspersed with hillocks of great symbolic value. There, you are at the kernel of the Seridó, which, in turn, is in the marrow of the semi-arid sertão. It is a micro-region between the states of Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte, in the northeastern tip of Brazil, with an ancient but sparse colonial settlement.
My father is 60 years old; he lost his mother as a child in an episode of brutal domestic violence. His maternal grandmother, he remembers with watering eyes, had been a beggarly wanderer. In her old age she lived with no last name, silent and long-haired, her skin burnt, piping her prayers in a shack with clay pots and pans, a log fire and a chest, benches made of trunks of the sabiá tree, and a hammock. My father has a strong peasant agricultural vocation, although he never owned any farm. His recurrent experiments with vegetable gardens and orchards are conducted annually, sometimes with other partners, in small plots of land lent by distant relatives, almost always in that northern part of the municipality.
Leaving his house in the small urban area of the town by motorcycle or bicycle (depending on the time of day), he crosses the Sabugi river, which has had no water for a good number of years, and in whose bed we find a great deal of sand and many opportunistic bushes. The Sabugi river is a symbolic wadi of this stretch of the sertão, so much so that it lends its name to the eastern side of the Seridó, called the Sabugi Valley. In the rainy season, its streams pour from the depths of the mountains to the south, into a mountain range full of cliffs, caves, and covert places, where quilombos and villages flourished ; and from here, down through the Yayu mountain range, to converge far to the north with the mother-river Açu. Its waters dry up as the rains grow scarce, returning only with the following wet season. This intermittent flow was blocked in the 1970s so that the river could serve as a tributary of the water reservoir that supplies the urban area of São Mamede. Since then, its course downstream has become even more dependent on a considerable amount of rainfall, as it only flows when the dam ‘bleeds’ (the verb used locally to designate the overflow of the reservoir).
As dad crosses the dry bed of the Sabugi River, he remembers, almost as if in a vision, the youthful adventures he had in the historic currents of the river. On the southeast bank he leaves behind the final tip of the urban area; on the other bank, he finds a stretch of Caatinga, a unique biome in Brazil. From January to June, the heavy summer rains (which is precisely called winter there) and the autumn drizzles fill the vast spaces of the sertão with verdant vegetation.
July and August bring winds that drive off humidity, and eared doves begin to migrate in the wake of waters.
And the months ending in -ber bring the peril of dryness: the carnival of bugs respectfully falls silent, the vegetation retreats into gray and lays down its leaves like a carpet, so that a remainder of moisture in the soil escapes the thirst of the sun. This goes on until January replenishes everything, or almost everything. That is, if everything, or almost everything, is remotely normal.
Along his journey, dad spots the “cercados” – the large fenced stretches inside the properties with little or no farming, where the Caatinga can prove its haunting resilience and reforest itself spontaneously. Soon he enters the bush, where – while joking about the arduous walk — he can already notice the worn-out soil, shallow, dry, and full of stones. And that’s it: we see very few of the large trees of the Caatinga, here and there an angico, or a craibeira; no baraúnas, no cedars, and an almost total anarchy of marmeleiros, faveleiros, pereiros, and mainly juremas-pretas.
These are called pioneer species: they appear almost spontaneously and spread rapidly, in a few years covering the ground where the native vegetation has been eliminated. The action of the pioneer plants heals the soil, either by revitalizing the inner layers with the labor of the roots, or by offering litterfall to the midday in the dry season, or, yet, by attracting birds and pollinating insects. They are urgently working against desertification. And in the Seridó, they are often taken as a sort of pest, as they spread. A sign of times past, and a clamor for the future.
The Seridó stands out in the environmental map of the Brazilian semi-arid region as one of the sites of most advanced desertification. In discontinuous portions, it is estimated that 13% of the Caatinga is affected by this process, which involves systemic degradation, with loss of soil vitality, abrupt reduction of water resources, thinning of vegetation, and deflation of biodiversity. Fifty years of studies of this phenomenon show undoubtedly that its main cause is disorderly economic activity.
Seridó was a victim of successive waves of colonial economic exploitation. In the first wave, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the dry regions of what we nowadays call the Northeast of Brazil served as a mere appendix for the exportation of sugar. With the elimination of much of the Atlantic Forest for the establishment of sugarcane plantations, the drylands were destined to become cattle pens for the engenhos on the coast.
At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, the region was crowded with enormous cotton plantations and their primary processing mills, a monoculture that absolutized the use of the land in the area. In the 1970s, this project failed meteorically due to the appearance of a beetle that plagued the cotton fields — something no less than plausible, considering the irrational imposition of large-scale monoculture within a biome of fragile balance.
More recently, after the collapse of cotton, the Seridó became a low-density wood barn for hundreds of ceramic plants and charcoal kilns that burn firewood and overexploit precarious labor. The desertification of the Caatinga, then, can be easily understood as the result of 300 years of draining the ecosystem, including its peoples’ labor. All — people and environment — repeatedly exploited, depleted, and abandoned.
The desertification of the Caatinga can be easily understood as the result of 300 years of draining the ecosystem, including its peoples’ labor.
But all of this did not — and does not — happen in a totalizing way, or without resistance. In the past, Seridó was one of the key places of the so-called Confederation of the Barbarians, a number of insurrections that arose from alliances between the Indigenous peoples of the sertão. Throughout the 17th century, and together with the quilombos (of which the Confederation of Palmares became an emblem), they became the first great process of guerrilla and active resistance against the system of colonial destruction. Both uprisings persisted for a long time and were suppressed only by the militia action of the “paulistas,” the bandeirantes from the south of the colony.
In recent decades, peasant networks have flourished, encouraged by the broad macro-regional movement called Convivência com o Semiárido. They are forming communities with the unique feature of not being territorially contiguous — intensive communities whose strength lies in the recovery and reinvention of agroecological practices, and in the constant exchange of experienced knowledge. Through rainwater harvesting, the recovery of water springs, the reforestation of the Caatinga, the implementation of agroforestry systems, fair forms of animal husbandry and forest extraction, the cessation of burnings and poisoning, the gathering, exchanging, protecting, and selecting native seeds, and many other molecular and pervasive actions, these collectives directly confront the hydro-agribusiness model that has been creating desertification for centuries, and whose non-fruits are there for all to see: in the history of the genocides called droughts, in the wandering lives of landless Indigenous peoples and peasants, in the increasingly accentuated heat, in the increasingly sporadic rains, in the increasingly sandy and stony ground, and in the consequent difficulty for pioneer plants to recover the soil and the microclimate. That’s what my father, a landless caboclo, witnesses on his path through the dry bush, amidst dust, heat, banter, and thorns, toward his little borrowed garden in the heart of the Seridó.
The Caatinga is an ambivalent biome: of an extremely fragile balance due to its climatic constitution — that is, its absolute reliance on the seasonal equilibrium between wet and dry —, it is also highly resilient due to its well-attested capacity for forest regeneration. But this capacity, miraculous as it seems, has its limits. Of course, no living system can indefinitely withstand the thirst for extraction and transformation of the Western-modern production system. However, in specific cases, the skin of the system of living interconnections proves to be so particularly delicate, so surprisingly thin that the fabric of nature’s rhythmic interactions, including the human communities that coexist there, is almost immediately torn to pieces when a scheme of extreme predatory efficiency crashes in. It seems to me that this is the case with the ecosystems of the semi-arid region of Brazil.
The thick lines of the history of the droughts in the Caatinga must be read having as causal substrate the socio-environmental fraying resulting from successive predatory production models, carried out in the latifundia, in monoculture, in extraction on a massive scale, in the suffocation of the peoples and communities that know how to live with the flow of the intermittencies of the Caatinga. These models depend on the simultaneous exploitation of human labor and natural resources. The modern culture/nature or human/nature dyad is mapped in the colonized hinterlands around the world in an owner/worker dichotomy: the exploited laborer is perversely coerced to transmit their plunder to the natural resources, thus amalgamating, in the “worker’s” pole, the labor of women and men, animals, soils, streams and forests, all having their vital sap drained into the farmhouse, the company’s balance sheet, the mill’s silos, the bank’s vault…
Droughts are eco-political phenomena not in the mere sense that there are dire social, economic, and political (i.e., cultural) consequences caused by an unfortunate and inescapable climatic, hydrological, and pedological (i.e., natural) occurrence. More than that, they are historically successive eruptions that react to the shock of socio-environmental disintegration, to the dismantling of ecosocialsystems caused by production systems that, to function, require the massive elimination of woods and forests, the suction of springs and rivers, the forced conditioning of the soil, the enslavement of human labor — reaping in the aftermath the depletion of the wealth and abundance (sensu biological sciences) of sociobiodiversity. The production system that pretends to collapse with the drought, reducing peasants to migrants (known as retirantes) or semi-enslaved people, is itself what triggers the fatal unbalance of drought, transferring the loss of life to the ones it exploits — as popular wisdom from the sertão cleverly states: “o problema não é a seca, é a cerca” (“the problem is not the drought, it’s the fence”).
In this context, the so-called “drought industry” resembles a pilot model of “disaster capitalism,” in the words of Naomi Klein, since it is precisely the economic utilization of the socio-environmental weaknesses resulting from the drought by the very entities that caused the disaster:
- The drought episode begins with the delay of the rainy season — a phenomenon of apprehensible periodicity in the semi-arid region. The exhaustion of the springs is accelerated precisely because, at this point, the fine-tuning between soil humidity, vegetation cover, adequate water management, and living sociobiodiversity has been almost completely dismantled;
- From then on, the lack of water hits first families that are merely “residents” of the farms or the small squatter communities harassed and seduced by the large estates. Both groups have already been deprived of sufficient means to implement the various simple rainwater storage facilities to get through the periodic droughts. No water: no food: completely vulnerable families and communities;
- This is because the appropriation (in the manner of enclosure policies imposed by Europeans at the beginning of Modernity) of large tracts of land that contain the remaining stretches of humidity leaves, in this context, the entire population at the mercy of the favors of the landowners, who thus privatize access to water;
- As production depletes, landlords and merchants hold stock to increase the value of goods. The general scarcity of inputs causes
- the elimination of surplus labor (the widely documented genocide by neglecting the starving hordes of peasant migrant retirantes)
- and, on the other hand, the inhumane cheapening of remaining labor;
- The plea for bankruptcy by the agricultural establishments justifies the expulsion of workers from the farms — which increases the number of retirantes (points 4.1 and 4. 2) — and demands the detour of public resources (managed by the system’s representatives at the governmental levels) to the large properties, either by direct financing, or by recruiting, disciplining, and remunerating semi-enslaved labor (“emergency fronts”), or even with infrastructure benefits on the properties (roads, wells, dams — which leads, in turn, to point 2);
- Finally, the stretches of free land are abandoned by the peasant families suffocated by this perverse scheme and are phagocytosed by the farms, which thus expand their areas for farming or grazing, deforesting still preserved portions, burning the soil, sucking up watercourses… and everything starts again, in the course of a few years, at point 1.
In short, deforesting and killing Indigenous people, reducing those who remain to semi-slaves with few rights and no land, subjecting huge herds of animals to industrial treatment, installing immense plant monocultures, consuming rivers, and exhausting soils: this has been the recipe for a colossal socio-environmental disaster. It is no wonder that the oldest remaining accounts of drought episodes in the chronicles of the colony tell of assaults carried out by native peoples on farms and well-established villages: it is the material and semiotic creation of scarcity, as listed above, that triggers collapse; and collapse, in turn, is a situation very conducive to the emergence of domination schemes — see Mad Max or any other post-apocalyptic cinematic dystopia.
This relationship between an exo-terrestrial production system and environmental collapse has a certain connection to the systemic understanding of the causes of the climate changes that now affect us globally. More than just anthropogenic, these causes can be mapped, on a large scale, in the history of the system of energy extraction and transformation that pervades the planet. The successive cycles of “primitive accumulation of capital,” whose frontier is always advancing everywhere on Earth, include the events that have befallen a forgotten corner in the middle of the Brazilian semi-arid region. Thus, the advancing desertification in the Seridó is like an objective, close-up portrait of the hyperobjectual planetary result of the empire of political economy, of the development of productive forces — that is, of the constitution of societies through the exo-terrestrial detachment of their means of sustenance. In this sense (i.e., in the sense that the inequality inherent in the modern system of production, which tapers the available resources to the benefit of the small owner class and to the detriment of all other communities of humans and non-humans, allows the identification of the segments that exercise this domination), would it be possible to distinguish, by name or species, the entities that benefited from the desertification process of the Seridó? Who profited from the successive collapses of the Seridó, of the semi-arid biome, of the sertões, positioning themselves, for their own benefit, as the structural cause of degradation?
This relationship between an exo-terrestrial production system and environmental collapse has a certain connection to the systemic understanding of the causes of the climate changes that now affect us globally.
The touching embrace of pioneer species in the thorny soil of the Seridó is a demonstration of the perseverance of a forest so continuously attacked. Perseverance that is becoming increasingly arduous due to the perceptible speed with which harmful phenomena of different scales are fed back: the recurrent predatory onslaughts of irrational economic activities by investments in hydroagribusiness and mining, the desertification process at an alarming stage, and climate change in progress. The somber synchrony of these factors puts at immediate risk the ability to revitalize (this piece) of the biome and, within that, the survival of the peoples who coexist with the Caatinga.
Summarized above in engraved lines, the descriptions of the ever-restarted process of reducing the land of the Seridó (and almost all of the Brazilian semi-arid region) to an object of voracious exploitation, including the consequent desertification, bear a close and disturbing resemblance to the more recent processes of general deflagration of the Amazon and the Pantanal (and also to the longer-lasting attack on the Cerrado). It is the same monstrous machine that produces and is produced by the sad “commodity people,” as the Yanomami thinker Davi Kopenawa accurately describes it. In the case of the drylands of the center-north of the country (Cerrado and Caatinga), the appropriation of almost immeasurable extensions of land by entities of almost incomprehensible size, such as Casa da Torre, served for centuries as a form of public-private partnership between the government of the Metropolis, its colonial representatives and the investors of the Garcia d’Ávila family, to establish in a violent way the domination over the interior territory in the service of the commodities exported by the mills on the coast and the mines to the southern areas of Brazil.
Doesn’t this resemble, in general terms, the public-private (and armed) partnership that since the military dictatorship criminally stimulates the advance of the agricultural and mining frontier in Cerrado, Pantanal, Amazon? Are we not really dealing with successive cycles of primitive accumulation, with very similar phenomena, in which, nowadays, commodity market conglomerates take the place of the Casa da Torre, with impunity assured either by the legal guard — for the Marco Temporal is nothing less than a re-edition of the Iberian Requerimiento for the expulsion of Indians from their lands — or by the armed guard that has infected even the entire government apparatus related to the Amazon, environmental protection and agrarian issues? If the comparison is worthwhile: what kind of desertification will naturally occur as a result of this cycle of destruction, just as the desertification of the semi-arid is the result of the cycle of multi-secular destruction of the Caatinga? Which entities can be held responsible for profiting from the current devastation and the desert that will follow? And even more: unlike the plausible ignorance of the to-come during previous cycles of destruction, the conjunction between this current cycle and the change, for the worse, in the planet’s climatic regime foreshadows an acceleration of the desertic consequences of the destruction — at a galloping speed.
(Read part 2)