Islands in Reverse, Thirsty for Rain

The days start early here in the Sertão. Mornings come quickly, eager to bake the multi-colored soil that gives Pintadas its namesake (painted); the brilliant sunsets take their time, filling the sky with their best works, as if afraid to be outdone by the painted soils. Like the endless silhouettes of cactus, capoeira, and caatinga that dot the hilly horizon, a lot happens between these sunrises and sunsets in the Outback of Bahia, Brazil. – the Sertão. There are lots of stories to be told. For many of them, I will have to let the pictures do the talking.

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Every morning I wake up between 5-6am to a two-person band: the first, my posada’s roosters calling for the morning sun; the second, the local bread maker biking past, calling the community to come get their fresh “pão, pão…pão, pão(bread). He always says it in this rhythm, like Morse code, just to make sure my pleasant dreams can’t interfere with his morning work. (Sometimes I feel like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day, except we are all speaking Portuguese) Then I leave the posada… Much of the community in “downtown” Pintadas starts the day early. When I wake up, I often feel like me, the roosters, and the bread maker are the only ones awake in town. You know the feeling, right? But then take to the streets for a morning stroll or to catch a 6am bus to Salvador (like the one I am on now) only to find the hustle and bustle of humanity in motion – our collective kinetic energy just starting to pick up speed with the turning of a new day. Whether you are in NYC or Pintadas, waking up early always provides this sensation (albeit on a different scale).

Over the past several weeks, my research on increasing community resilience against climate shocks explored how povoados (small villages) prepare for and experience droughts, which vary in severity. I am lucky to be working with an expert on climatology and economic development, Jen Burney, who is graciously guiding me through this research process. She is a guru, with years of experience in Africa and was recently named a National Geographic Explorer of the Week.

Here, in this semi-arid landscape, minor droughts happen nearly every year and last 3-4 months; extreme droughts, like the one now, occur every 20-30 years, lasting between 1-4 years. Drought, like its equally scary twin, famine, is complex, making accurate predictions and concrete solutions elusive. These phenomena attack our most marginalized populations, often in rural environs, with structural and institutional deficits. Perplexingly, they can rear their ugly heads even when rain and/or food stocks exist (green droughts). Moreover, vulnerability among rural communities is only enhanced by the fact that the small, family farmer relies on the land and heavens – for crops and livestock – to literally put food on the table. Most people reading this blog, like the one writing it, have lost that wonderful proximity to Mother Nature that we once bore out of necessity. There is good in this: increased security, convenience, productivity, and fewer mosquitoes (if I could un-create one species, it would probably be that one; alas, I know we probably need if for something though any possible reason escapes me at the moment). I digress. I guess the question is: what’s been lost due to the decline of humanity’s proximity to nature? I’ll leave that open ended…

One component of our research, the semi-structured group interview, gave me face time with four povoados. In total, I probably meet with 70+ people during these group interviews. The way they categorize drought was pretty much as I expected. I was caught off guard, however, while hearing how farmers experience drought: when the small, earthen dam has been dry since 2011; or when feedstock prices rise sharply; or when purchasing a delivery from a carro pipa (water truck) is your saving grace for family and farm; or when a portion of your animals (essentially farmer income and savings) die; or when staple crops haven’t grown for 10 years; or when the knowledge of your ancestors that once accurately predicted the weather using plants, animals, the wind, the halo of the moon ceases to function. It got real. One kind old lady told me, “I am scared my farm wont make it”; a wise man in his 70’s told me “the community here is thirsty”. Yet, in spite of all of this adversity, the groups displayed dignity, humor, compassion, hope and pragmatism, some walking long distances to come chat with me. At first they didn’t know what to make of the situations: this smiley Gringo, this alemão (most blond, light-skinned people are referred to as alemão – German – in the Northeast of Brazil) asking all sorts of strange questions. However, after a few jokes and sincere concern, they saw that I was a friend. At the close of a couple of the meetings they actually sang songs for me with verses like, foi bom conhecer você (it was nice to meet you). I clapped with them and can still see each of their beautiful, sun-carved faces illuminated by their smiles. We all hugged, they wished me good luck with my research, volta sempre (always return / come back anytime), and then, amidst dim streetlights and cobblestone, they walked back to their uncertain futures with heads held high.

The other day my head was swimming with these thoughts and, as I do when I am a little stressed and far from the ocean, I went for a long run on the dirt roads of this faraway place to escape the buildings, WIFI, the distractions, and reflect on these meetings. Dawn and dusk in the Sertão is a magic time and place for a runner. Family farms are as idyllic as you could imagine: clothes drying on the line in the sun; cows, goats, horses, and pot-bellied pigs grazing the nearby fields; farmers fixing barb-wired fences, mending broken terraces, tending to palma forrajiera (a highly resilient variety of cactus, from Mexico I think, used for animal feed and one of the primary reasons farmers are enduring this current drought); occasional passersby on motorcycles wearing tank tops, salt-of-the-earth grandpas driving donkey-drawn carriages with their grandchildren onboard, school buses with faces of curious kids pressed against the windows; all greeting the running gringo with a honk, a wave, or a smile; I return the favor. Acknowledging one another is the spark that creates a bonfire of respect between new friends.

During this particular run, on my favorite dirt road leading out of town, I come across two young boys, no older than 14, walking behind a cow and her calf. I ask if the animals got lost… They said they sold them and I started to regret asking my question, thinking that the drought forced them to sell. Farmer losses can be high in the case of a forced livestock sale during a drought, but maintaining them can be even more costly, even futile. I didn’t ask why because part of me didn’t want to know the answer. I was already overwhelmed by the group interviews and needed to rest my brain. The image stayed with me the entire run.

Luckily, the landscape provided new distractions. Like winners in Las Vegas, earthen reservoirs that still have water are few and far between in this land, but they attract a lot of attention. They are whimsical because they are so rare and starkly contrast everything around them. If you think about it, these reservoirs in a semi-arid land are like the inverse of islands. More prevalent are the unfortunate losers, those reservoirs that – due to climate change or microclimate or high demand or deforestation or small size or bad luck or a combination of everything – have long been dry. There is a strange paradox here. While dryness overtakes these watery places, islands like Tuvalu and Maldives slowly being overtaken by the sea. Again, I need to find a more uplifting distraction. I tell myself, “keep running; think less.”

At this point I’ve probably run about 8 kilometers, the farthest thus far on this specific road, when I arrive to a fork. To the left is Mandacaru – 16 km and to the right is Coração de Jesus – 6km. Mandacaru is a flower that is culturally significant because when it blooms, ancestral knowledge says rain is on the way. Group interviewees unanimously said that they stopped trusting the bloom of the Mandacaru about 10-15 years ago. It now blooms, but rain doesn’t come. Before it was a reliable indicator. Climate change? Most likely. This is just one example of such natural rain indicators among dozens that have stopped working over the past 10-15 years. Now to the right, Coração de Jesus (God’s Heart), caught my interest because, though I don’t go to church, I am religiously curious. You can’t understand Brazil without understanding the role of the Catholic Church. Also, Jesus’s Heart was closer, so I went right. As I run, I think about Velsey, the lovely, knowledgeable woman that runs my pousada. She happens to be one of the primary religious leaders in town. She knows I don’t read the Bible or attend church, but that makes our conversations richer. Talking about climate change and human hubris, she tells me the story of the Tower of Babel. She tells me that when man comes to believe that he dominates the Earth, God changes all the rules to mix everything up. Good scripture regardless of one’s creed.

Well, the sunset at this point is incredible! In every direction, clouds that tease of rain now take on every possible color, competing with the painted soils that dirty my shoes with a multi-colored pallet of dust. I then realize that I better turn back, or I will be finishing my run in pitch black. I begin my return home. About halfway, I round a corner and there are the same boys that I saw earlier, still walking the cow and calf to destination-unknown. I decide I have to chat with them. I say hi, they ask if I am from Germany, I say no, USA. They introduced themselves as Mateus and Gil. I introduced myself as Jyro since my name is hard for Brazilians to pronounce. I ask if they sold the animals because of the drought, Mateus says, “No. No. My dad is buying new cows and wanted to sell these.” Phew! I sighed with relief. Sometimes we worry too much I guess.

I smiled, we gave each other a thumbs-up (very Brazilian), and carried on in our separate directions. Now I was alone again, except for a few dozen cows in the fields. As I started to run, their gaze followed me like sunflowers in a field tracking the sun.

“There’s a general culture in this country to cut all the trees. It makes me so angry because everyone is cutting and no one is planting.” — Wangari Maathai

Thanks for reading! Once all my meetings are finished in Salvador and Brasilia this week, I’ll tell you what the Sertão, the Great Barrier Reef, and New York City have in common.

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