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Farming Crisis: Filling An Empty Plate

Cilantro Spices Up Coexistence with Drought in Brazil

JEREMOABO, Brazil, Jun 16 2012 (IPS) - Many grow lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets and other vegetables. But cilantro is ever-present in the gardens that are helping rural families weather the lengthy drought that is once again wracking Brazil’s impoverished Northeast.

Cilantro is the favourite “because of the flavour it adds to beans, meat, pasta – everything,” said Silvia Santana Santos, a beneficiary of the Projeto Gente de Valor (PGV), a project that has helped families create “productive backyards” in 34 municipalities in the state of Bahia, where poverty is aggravated by water scarcity.

A small farmer in Macururé, in the semi-arid Northeast, in his new garden. Credit: Regional Institute for Appropriate Small Farming and Animal Husbandry

The taste for cilantro has drawn families to get involved in initiatives that are enabling people to deal better with the semi-arid climate in the state and improving living conditions in the 282 poorest rural communities in Bahia, as identified by the Regional Action and Development Agency (CAR), the government body that is carrying out the project.

The PGV’s three main goals are to install small-scale water tanks for harvesting and storage of rainwater, boost production, and provide training. The total investment is 60 million dollars, half of which is financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the other half by the Bahia state government.

“No one buys beans, but they do buy cilantro,” said Julio Santos, who lives with Silvia Santana and their seven children in the community of Sitio Taperinha of just over 100 families, in Jeremoabo, one of the municipalities included in the project, which IPS visited.

The drought destroyed the maize and bean crops, but “we sell our vegetables every 15 days” without interruption, said Santos, who agreed to abandon his traditional grain crop, which is vulnerable to the risks posed by the semi-arid climate of the Northeast, a region that is home to 22 million of the country’s 198 million people.

Vegetable gardens could become the main activity of families in the future, he said. A profit margin is ensured by irrigation using water from two 5,000-litre half-buried rainwater tanks built with support from the project, which capture water that runs along the ground.

During drought conditions, the water harvested by the tanks is used up in two months. But the Santos family also has a pump to draw water from a nearby spring, which has allowed them to continue growing fresh produce. In addition, with assistance from the project, they have begun to produce honey.

As of February, the project had created 5,644 gardens, which have “changed people’s eating habits,” said Gilberto de Alcántara from Curralinho, a community in the municipality of Itapicurú, 175 km south of Jeremoabo, a town of 35,000 people that is the seat of the municipality.

The project has also “helped people understand what a valuable role women play,” because it is women who care for the terraces where the vegetables are grown around their houses, said Cleonice Castro, a young community activist from Jeremoabo who works with the Pastoral da Criança, a Catholic organisation working on behalf of children that has helped reduce child mortality in Brazil.

And everyone is eating better, she added: “without poisons, because we don’t use toxic agricultural chemicals.”

“The excellent focus on the poorest communities” and the active participation of women and young people are aspects that make the PGV “one of the best of the experiences we have carried out in a number of countries,” said Ivan Cossio, IFAD country programme manager for Brazil.

The beneficiaries of the programme have also received training to administer the funds and assistance they have received “in an efficient, transparent manner,” he added.

The project has helped increase incomes by expanding traditional local activities like sheep and goat farming, beekeeping, production and gathering of cashews and native fruits, the production of yucca-based products, and craft-making.

Techniques have also been introduced to increase productivity in the vegetable gardens. For example, plastic sheeting has been placed underneath the traditional terraces to keep water from seeping into the ground, and shade screens are stretched over the crops to protect them from sun damage and curb evaporation, said Carlos Henrique Ramos, an agronomist with the CAR and assistant coordinator of the PGV.

Increasing food security and incomes are the production-related targets, Cossio said.

The “productive backyards”, with the double rainwater harvesting tanks and larger underground tanks used to provide drinking water, training in water use and management, and agricultural technical assistance are the mainstays of the project, which has benefited 36,500 people directly and 55,000 indirectly.

Eight local NGOs under guidance from the PGV have been involved in implementation of the project, with the goal of reaching “the poorest of the poor,” said Cesar Maynart, the coordinator of the project.

These social organisations form part of a broad movement involved in the development and expansion of low-cost technologies aimed at helping people “coexist” better with the semi-arid environment. One of the main actions of this movement was the installation throughout the Northeast of 400,000 16,000-litre tanks used to harvest rainwater from the roofs of houses.

Another of the PGV’s activities is harvesting and storing drought-resistant local plant species of the semi-arid “caatinga” region for forage, to guarantee animal feed during the most severe, lengthy dry seasons.

“I learned a lot, I didn’t know the moringa could be used as forage,” said Gilberto Alcántara, from the community of Curralinho.

The moringa tree (Moringa oleifera), also known as the drumstick or horseradish tree, is originally from India, grows in dry terrain, and adapted well to the climate conditions in the Northeast.

“I didn’t know the guandú (a perennial woody shrub), which I have been familiar with since I was a boy, also serves as forage,” added 26-year-old João dos Santos, a “subterritorial development agent” or ADS from Curralinho.

The ADS’s are promoters of the PGV who are generally young people chosen in the subterritorial divisions, as the groups of participating communities are known.

Forage from local species of plants is essential, especially in the municipality of Macururé, in the north of Bahia, where goats are raised because of their greater resistance to dry climate conditions. The local ADS, Adriano Souza, is heading an “agroecological experiment” there, growing 17 species as forage.

Miguel José dos Santos, 67, said he was getting ready “to sell everything I have left” for fear that the drought will linger. He said he has nine cows, “which are worth a lot” – around 450 dollars each. He explained that it had become too expensive to feed them “because the price of maize has doubled,” and added that he would now dedicate himself to raising goats.

Small farmers in the area continue to raise cattle because they see cows as “savings, or a reserve” for times of trouble, Ramos said. But they lose them to the drought, or are forced to sell them off for a song.

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