My friend Zangado phoned from the South of France the other night, (he is from Fortaleza the capital of Ceará,) wanting to know how we were coping with the flooding. Fortunately as we live on the coast and our village is constructed on sand, the heavy rain has either been absorbed, formed huge lagoons in areas where people traditionally don’t build, or run off into the sea. The majority of the houses remain relatively dry. I say relatively as we still have water pouring in through our kitchen roof, and all the rooms have a very definite dampness about them. Zangado and I talked of the response by the Brazilian media, and how it differed in comparison to their reaction to the flooding in Santa Caterina at the end of last year. At that time, a massive aid campaign was mobilised very quickly, every five minutes there was something on the TV about donating clothes, food, medicine and money to the relief fund. Celebrities got behind the campaign and you were left in no doubt about how to donate items or give money, the bank account details for the fund were on the TV constantly, along with details of how and where to pay into it.
There were about 100 more deaths in the South, but we are still talking about hundreds of thousands of people (now estimates are nearing a million) who have been seriously affected by the flooding in the North and North East. Many of these people are amongst the poorest in the whole country, and have lost absolutely everything, not just possessions but their homes and crops too. The flooding has been extensive and in many areas the flood water is so deep that only the tiles of the roofs show where the houses are. The impoverished population often use clay as the main building material in their homes, the constant rain and high water level has eroded and softened the clay until it has simply fallen away, leaving just the frame work of sticks, that is if the house hasn’t collapsed completely. For people thus affected, there will be no home for them to go back to once the flooding subsides.
Farmers have had to move their cattle to higher ground, this means loading them onto boats (something the cattle are far from happy about) and travelling, in some instances for nine hours in order to reach safer, higher areas. It’s a stressful experience for the cattle and a costly one for the farmer,
R$2000 (£645.00) for the boat and R$26.(£8.40) a head per month to the land owner, obviously only the wealthier farmers can manage these costs, for others the only option is to build a floating platform, where the cattle will have to stay for the next three months. For the farmers resorting to the last option, the problem is finding feed for the cattle, many of whom look close to starvation.
One farmer interviewed by a TV crew, said he had lived on his farm for over forty years and had never experienced anything like this. He looked close to tears as he fondled the ears of a painfully skinny calf, who’s mother had stopped producing milk due to lack of food, he never once complained about how difficult things were for him, only that it was terrible he couldn’t provide proper feed for his cows. At the end of the report, we watched as the man said thank you to the news crew and then paddled his canoe back to what was left of his home.
At this time of year the farmers are usually producing manioc, its leaves provide nourishing food for the cattle and its tubers are used to make farinha, a staple food and a mainstay of the diet for people in the North and North East. During this period of the year, many people in these regions live off fish and farinha, but with the high level of flood water the fish have disappeared, it is increasingly difficult to catch anything in the rivers or the sea and the manioc plants are rotting in the fields. The farmers are saying this is a lost year for them, by the time the land dries out it will be too late to plant manioc, the shortage of this food will have an impact that will go way beyond the period of flooding.
The bulk of the population where I live earn their money from fishing, but the small scale fishermen (already facing a serious crisis within their industry, as a result of the massive over exploitation of lobster stocks by the industrial fishing fleet, and pirate crews using illegal fishing gear.) now face a shortage of fish caused by the amount of fresh water entering the sea. The only plus side for the men, has been the unexpected boom in the stocks of prawns, as prawn farms up river have been flooded and the young prawns washed into the sea. With the increase in catch rate, the price paid for king size sea caught prawns has fallen dramatically.
The men are usually able to catch enough fish, if not to sell, then at least to eat. In other areas of the flooded regions, food shortage is a very real and serious problem. A Red Cross spokesperson said on TV, that they had several tons of emergency rations and medical supplies ready to go, the problem was a lack of speedy transport. By road, the containers would take a minimum of three days to reach their destination, but there are many areas were the people have been cut off for weeks, with no supplies what so ever, their need is desperate. The Red Cross put in a request to the Civil Defence for air transport, but 3 days later had still not had a response.
There was equal TV coverage of the flooding in the North and of the drought that was being suffered in Santa Caterina at the same time (thankfully the rains have now arrived there), but there was an undeniably slow reaction to the plight of the flood victims. To be fair there has been a step up in the publicity lately, but it still hardly amounts to a blazing campaign. Perhaps as the major TV companies are based in the South, in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the distance from the North creates a degree of detachment, the flooding in the south was right on their doorstep, but many people I have spoken to feel that the lack of a fast response was shameful.
Zangado said that there has always been prejudice against the North from the South of Brazil, he was saddened though not surprised to hear it still existed.
Ceará has not had this much rain in 24 years, and in the South, Iguaçu falls is drying up (there is still water going over it, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as usual with large areas of rock face showing). The flooding and drought are being blamed on a combination of the El Nino and Global Warming. Here in the NE it’s still raining and the forecast is for more to come.
© C.Pattison Valente.
If you don’t speak Portuguese, it’s still worth watching the video for the images. The people who speak are basically saying they have never known it to be like this before, the flooding happened so quickly they had little time to react, they have lost everything and stay simply because they have no where to go.
©Claire Pattison Valente 2009