Still in his father’s garden, Rondinelly Medeiros discusses the politics of water and the effects of the Transfer of the São Francisco River on the drylands of the Caatinga. Part 2 of 3.

(Read part 1)


In the little garden, dad reaches the banks of a barreiro, a small artificial pond with rather muddy water, unsuitable for human use. The piece of land is merely leased, and the lease is compensated only by gratitude in the form of a small part of the harvest. Besides the intermittent barreiro, there is an artesian well whose slightly brackish water is used sparingly, for fear that it might run out and salt the soil. On the edges of the garden, the happiness of a native forest in full recovery (more juremas and marmeleiros, more bustling maritacas, some catingueiras, wary mammals, one or two jucá, a solitary quixabeira) and the reed beds in the lake: they all contribute, at least in winter, to distracting birds, insects, and small mammals from the seductive fruits of the garden. On the bank’s highest point, dad grows corn, beans, watermelon and pumpkin, flanked by fruit trees and a vegetable patch. He keeps no animals – he can’t, he doesn’t know how to, he doesn’t want to – and he doesn’t hunt – he no longer sees the need for it. With luck, the barreiro is filled in the first half of the year; as the water level drops, dad plants potatoes in the damp area that was once flooded. Everything needs daily tending.

If during winter there is not enough rainfall in the surrounding area, the garden is at risk. In this case, you encounter the secular drama of landless peasant families and communities in the Brazilian semi-arid region, namely, that of being deprived of the most elementary technique of living with the climate: the lifelong implementation, around the house and in the garden, in partnership with neighbors, of simple rainwater catchment and storage systems. The micro-region of the Seridó has one of the lowest rainfall rates in Brazil, but it shares with the whole semi-arid region the trait of receiving, compared with similar regions in the world, a considerable average of rain. Thus, as long as it is materially and semiotically liberated from predatory production systems, peasant life potentially has enough room to maneuver calmly through periods of drought. Diversified rainwater storage techniques materialize this potentiality.

On one hand, the age-old concentration of property and, on the other, widespread propaganda of predatory land use, have long hindered the capacity of traditional peasant communities to re-create simple adaptations for coexistence with a vicissitudinous ecosystem, that is, adaptations that are not primarily aimed at large-scale production, export, or profit. Preventing the creative technosocialities of the semi-arid populations has been one of the domination mechanisms of the great predatory system. If, in the past, the construction of gigantic reservoirs – with long surface areas that lose water to evaporation – promised the “salvation of the Northeast,” in our days this role is realized by the pharaonic implementations linked to hydro-business, mining, and energy production. The transfer of the São Francisco River is the epitome of this obsessive relationship of violent domination over ecosystemic vulnerabilities. 

The detour of the waters of the São Francisco River is an apex of the colonial-imperial-developmental actions that have been degrading the semi-arid region. But this is so to the same extent that the big dams in the region had already been doing. The eco-social tragedies that followed the implementation of the dams did not halt this process. And the fact that the transfer of the São Francisco is a synthetic event does not mean that it will be the last.

The transfer of the São Francisco River is the epitome of this obsessive relationship of violent domination over ecosystemic vulnerabilities.

This is not a pure or isolated synthesis either, but a negative one, so to speak: with water waste as a false sign of abundance, the transfer hides desertification as its other face. Making millions of cubic meters of water run in the open air, the transfer loses a lot of liquid to evaporation. Unsurprisingly, the stretches in the grip of the most advanced stages of desertification are those that have been historically assaulted by robust development policies of the peripheral agro-exporting capitalism: the former cotton plantations of Seridó, the margins of the São Francisco River, devastated by monocultures and dams, the northwest of Bahia and the southeast of Piauí, both asphyxiated by the emergence of a relatively new agribusiness frontier. Desertification is the real product of this process, ideologically covered up by the pharaonic images of the inaugurations of the transfer.

If we admit that human populations are engaged in a process of co-evolution with the ecosystems in which they live, then a landscape is constituted by the processes of dynamic equilibrium of a certain ecosystem in addition to the perspective of the human populations that live in and with it. Changing the landscape represents both drastic interferences in the dynamic balance of the ecosystems and manipulation of the vital expectations of human peoples; that is, manipulation of desires, horizons, ways of life, work, and economy. The drought industry and its ideological arm are not only objectively observable political-economic structures with measurable effects on the ecosystems and societies of the semi-arid; they are also structures of subjectivation. They affect the expectations of the people of the semi-arid, jinxing the horizons of the possible. 

To give an example: the last censuses show a decline of rural populations in the small and medium-sized municipalities of the semi-arid region. Between the 1990s and 2000s, civil society groups undertook efforts to make life in the countryside viable for peasant families and traditional communities in the semi-arid region. However, the same period witnessed the consolidation of the economic asphyxiation of this population, not only by gradual exhaustion of the ecological niches, but also by the offer of wage labor (albeit seasonal) and the increasing centralization of food supply routes for the also growing urban populations (the breakdown of street markets into supply centers, on the one hand, and supermarket chains, on the other). Now, also in the small and medium municipalities of the semi-arid region, the number of cheap housing projects has grown in the last 40 years or so – they are, in most cases, the electoral bait by which local mayors tempt voters. Thus, over time, by accumulating certain economic amenities (precarious housing, temporary employment, assistance programs) in peri-urban environments, a structure of transfer of ways of life is built, removing the possibilities of a happy life in the sylvan peasant community.

In the case of the transfer of the São Francisco River, a jinxed desire implanted by the mechanisms of the drought industry is composed of several lies grouped into one false truth. There is a lack of rain in the Brazilian semi-arid region (lie), this land is unproductive (lie), there is no means to live in this inhospitable place (lie), therefore, we need to capture the water from the São Francisco River to quench the thirst of the sertão’s people. This reasoning covers up a stark truth: the populations directly affected by the transfer have been suffering from a wide array of impacts. Families and traditional communities have been displaced, intersected, dismembered by construction works; large numbers of workers were suddenly lodged in small and medium-sized cities, which led to increases in prices, prostitution, violence, amongst other issues. The works also bring ecological degradation to the niches where peasant families and communities live, along with the degradation of the São Francisco River itself.

Danilo Amaral. Illustration over a frame of the film Vidas Secas (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963).

The ingrained imagery that justifies the corporate control of water (and, therefore, of the local ways of life) prevents the semi-arid region’s people from devising drought mitigation strategies through extended networks from the local to the regional level (the only approaches that have worked so far). Consequently, it also prevents our preparations for the drastic scenarios announced by climate change – which are already underway.

The idealization of the transfer also covers up the avid interests of the real beneficiaries of such construction, the neo-industry of drought. It is no secret that the Brazilian branch of commodity capitalism is in a campaign to empty the rural areas of the country. Its objective is to turn primary production into a mechanized, monocultural, and multinational activity. The transfer of the São Francisco River serves the “new productive vocations” of the Brazilian semi-arid region, which are in reality impositions of production chains (the word “chain” is very suggestive): the irrigated monocultures on the banks of waterways, the large-scale aquaculture enterprises (fish and shrimp farming), mining, and the renewable energy business (which comes at a good time, but in a bad shape, as the popular and community energy management is counterposed to an industrial model of production and distribution).

All these chains require the complete deregulation of environmental and labor legislation. And their effects are easily predictable: soil degradation, depletion of springs, devastation of the Caatinga, exploitation of labor, and rural depopulation. In sum, desertification. For each of these chains, the ways of life resistant to the spell of commodities are obstacles, and must be eliminated. There are various forms of elimination, the first of which is co-optation.

The potential of the transfer to generate jobs and distribute wealth in the region, an economical claim often stated to justify the works, is problematic from the start. It is based on two pillars. The first is the political centralization of water distribution. This is one of the key elements in the historical denunciation of the drought industry – after all, given that water is such a valuable currency in the drylands, the movement for coexistence with the semi-arid region relies exclusively on the local materialization of access to water and on the communal network of its management.

The second pillar is the model of large, open reservoirs, which was already problematic due to the ratio between precipitation and evapotranspiration in the region, but is becoming dramatically unfeasible with the climate changes underway. I believe that ongoing research will reveal the patent impossibility of replenishing reservoirs by way of current rainy season precipitation, and this phenomenon’s relationship to the longevity and intensity of recent droughts, with the rates of insolation and evapotranspiration, and with soil quality. Why, in this situation, should we spend a world of resources to capture an irrational amount of water from an already severely damaged river, conduct it through open air for hundreds of kilometers, and pour it into open reservoirs?

“(…) and the São Francisco River hits the middle of the sea.” Luiz Gonzaga

A document published in 2006 by the National Water Agency presented solutions to the water supply of urban areas that are way more effective, more responsible, and much less expensive than the transfer of the São Francisco River. Endorsed by technicians, specialists, and social organizations, it advocated for integration of existing springs through micro-regional water pipelines (such as the Coremas-Mãe d’Água system that, since 2001, has integrated the reservoirs of the plains in the central sertão of Paraíba, thereby relieving water stress in urban areas), without massive construction works, without exposing waters to evaporation, without privileging private enterprises. But the option chosen by the governmental-productivist joint venture was for the most expensive, most destructive, and most inefficient project, because it is more profitable for those who are already profiting.

The Seridó is located in the Northern Depression of the sertão, hundreds of kilometers north of the São Francisco River. Between them, the Borborema mountain range rises steep and high. Descending along its southern side, one arm of the transferred river runs through the Cariris, evaporating all the way across the plateau to the East. What remains of it falls into the reservoir that supplies the state’s second-largest city, Campina Grande, with a population of more than 300,000 inhabitants. The other branch of the transfer travels hundreds of kilometers farther West, cutting across the border between Paraíba, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, and dumps a trickle of water into the Apodi river, after leaving half a drop in the Peixe and Piranhas rivers (where there are many hydro and agribusiness companies), before finally splashing on the northwestern side of the Seridó, far away from São Mamede.

In the garden, under the splendid yellow sky of a late afternoon, dad has just dug up some potatoes, checked if the corn is growing, and opened the well’s tap. Now he waters coriander and spring onions while listening to the news on the portable radio, which is read between one forró song and another. The voice on the radio says that analysis of the severe droughts of the past 35 years revealed that the São Francisco river has “lost more than 30 thousand hectares of water surface, which corresponds to about 4% of its total volume.” Dad shakes his head in resigned disapproval, his white cap glistening. He shakes the hose to water the delicate green pepper. He also shakes his foot in the dust. On the radio, Luiz Gonzaga sings: “riacho do Navio / corre pro Pajeú, / o rio Pajeú vai despejar no São Francisco / e o rio São Francisco vai bater no meio do mar…” [“the Navio stream / runs to the Pajeú / the Pajeú River spills into the São Francisco / and the São Francisco River hits the middle of the sea.”]

(Read part 3)