CARNABA DOS DANTAS, Brazil – The Earth has supported the Dantas family for over 150 years, growing cotton fields, legumes up to a grown man’s thigh and, when it rains enough, a river that led to a waterfall.
But on the last day, when the temperature approached 100 degrees, the river dried up, the crops did not grow, and the remaining 30 head of cattle quickly consumed the last puddle of water.
“In fifty years there won’t be a soul here,” said 80-year-old Inacio Batista Dantas, balancing in a battered hammock. “I tell my grandchildren that it will be very difficult.”
His granddaughter, 16-year-old Hellena, listened and pushed her away. She grew up here. “I plan to cultivate this land,” she said.
Scientists agree with her grandfather. Much of Brazil’s vast northeast is actually turning into a desert – a process called desertification that is worsening across the planet.
Climate change is one of the reasons. But locals, faced with harsh economic realities, also made short-term choices to survive – such as clearing trees for livestock and mining clay to make tiles in the region – that had long-term implications.
Desertification is a natural disaster that is gradually playing out in areas of half a billion people, from northern China and North Africa to distant Russia and the American southwest.
This process usually does not result in the formation of Sahara-like sand dunes. Instead, warmer temperatures and less rain combine with deforestation and over-farming, leaving the soil dry, lifeless and almost devoid of nutrients, unable to support crops or even grass to feed livestock.
This made it one of the main threats to the ability of civilization to feed itself.
“There is overwhelming evidence that desertification is already affecting food production and lowering yields,” said Alisher Mirzabaev, an agricultural economist at the University of Bonn in Germany, who helped write the 2019 United Nations report on the topic. “And it will get worse with climate change.”
Northeast Brazil, the world’s most densely populated arid regions with about 53 million people, is among the most at risk. The region is known for drought and poverty, inspiring novels about destitute field workers forced to leave the land, and the Baião music genre, in which accordion lyrics recount the difficult life here.
But things are getting worse. The region experienced the longest drought on record from 2012 to 2017, and another drought has dried up much of Brazil this year.
In August, the latest major United Nations report on climate change said northeastern Brazil was facing rising temperatures, a dramatic reduction in groundwater resources and more frequent and intense droughts. Satellite images and field tests show that 13 percent of the land has already lost fertility, and almost the rest of the region is under threat.
“It is approaching a tipping point,” said Umberto Barbosa, a leading desertification expert who has studied northeastern Brazil for years. “Point of no return”.
President Jair Bolsonaro has not taken any significant steps to reverse this process. Instead, he abolished environmental regulations, while simultaneously empowering miners and ranchers, and watched the country’s deforestation skyrocket. This helps maintain extreme weather cycles. Government figures released last month showed that deforestation in the Amazon is at its peak in 15 years.
Rising deforestation in Brazil has alarmed officials around the world because it threatens the Amazon rainforest’s ability to extract carbon from the atmosphere. But it is also a major cause of desertification, which takes away moisture from the air and shades from the soil.
In the Serido area, a collection of dusty cities, family farms and industrial enterprises, the influence of the inhabitants on the land is most pronounced in the growth of the ceramic industry.
In the early 1980s, local businessmen saw an opportunity in frequent droughts. When bodies of water and rivers evaporated, they exposed nutrient-rich clay at the bottom, ideal for making the red tiles popular in most of the country.
These entrepreneurs began paying landowners for their clay, and hundreds of people were employed in dozens of ceramic factories over the years. Parelhas, with a population of 21,000, built a metal arch over the main road to the city, proclaiming it the “Capital of Tiles”.
Adelson Oliver da Costa was a pioneer in the industry, starting as a manager of one of the first Parelhas factories in 1980 and buying it ten years later. In his small factory recently, several dozen workers laid out thousands of tiles to dry in the midday sun.
“The drought is good news for us,” said Mr da Costa in his cramped office. He said he has 30 employees and dozens more work in the neighboring factories, which are run by his son and daughter.
For an area that has long depended on crops and livestock, pottery was the start of an economic leap forward. But over time, the consequences became clear. Factories make tiles by mixing water with clay and then firing the result in a wood-burning stove. All these ingredients – water, wood and clay – are in short supply here.
Mr da Costa’s plant, one of the smaller businesses in the area, consumes over 2,500 gallons of water per week from a nearby well. “People are not sure,” he said of the water, “but we think it will never end.”
However, recent studies estimate that the region’s groundwater resources are being depleted.
The factory oven runs all night from Monday to Friday. Shortly before 5 a.m. on a weekday, two men pulled branches and trunks from large piles and stuffed them into six fireplaces that heated a house-sized stove. The enterprise consumes from 60 to 75 cubic meters of wood per week, which is enough to fill five large dump trucks.
Then there is the main ingredient of the tile – clay. Many years ago, Mr da Costa said that he had bought clay from a dried-up lake a few miles from his plant. Now that they are exhausted, he drags the dirt in a few hours.
Aldrin Perez, a Brazilian government scientist tracking desertification, said it takes 300 years to deposit one centimeter of soil, while ceramic companies take three to five feet of soil every time they mine clay. “In seconds, they destroy meters of depth that have formed over millions of years,” he said.
This can be devastating. The soil and clay they extract are critical to maintaining the proper balance of nutrients and moisture in the surrounding earth.
“It is killing the territory,” said Damian Santos Ferreira, manager of Mr. da Costa’s factory, explaining why some people are hesitant to sell their clay. “It will never be the same.”
According to him, the factory pays landowners about $ 10 for 30 tons of clay.
By now, most landowners are aware of the consequences. However, many are still desperate enough to sell. One of them was Mr. Dantas.
In 2010, during another tough dry season, Mr. Dantas said his family was almost out of money. To feed themselves and their livestock, they decided to cash in on their mud.
“Everyone agreed,” said Mr Dantas. “It was necessary,” said his son Paulo.
The clay came from a reservoir built by Mr. Dantas’s great-grandfather in the 19th century to supply water to their 506-acre land. As each dry season disappeared, the family planted beans, corn, and cotton on the remaining fertile bed. It was one of the most productive tracts of land.
But in 2010, instead of planting, the family watched four men with shovels dig and pull out the ground. It took them three months. They paid about $ 3,500 for the clay.
The money helped the family weather the long-term drought that followed. But the land around the reservoir remained almost barren. A few years later, Paulo Dantas planted corn, beans and watermelons, but the harvest was so miserable that they fed him to livestock.
Last year there was much more rain than usual. The reservoir is about six feet full. It bathed Hellena, the granddaughter of Mr. Dantas. When it dried up, the family planted seeds. The cattle grass grew, but the beans and corn withered.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Mr. Dantas said of the clay sale. “I saw that it was not good. But the children needed it. “
Standing on the embankment of the reservoir, he gazed at the parched land at sunset. “I had no choice,” he said.