How a Report for the World newsroom is tracking desertification in Brazil

In 1999 Inácio França, then a reporter in Recife, traveled through the Northeast of Brazil documenting the advance of desertification in the region. The series of stories he wrote served as a curtain raiser for the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP,) a forum where experts discussed the dangers of desertification and called upon governments to take action. The conference was held in Recife because the region registered alarming signs of land degradation.

Twenty five years later França, now an editor for Report for the World’s partner newsroom Marco Zero, worked with our corps members Giovanna Carneiro and Arnaldo Sete, with the support of Journalismfund Europe, to follow his footsteps and look into the measures taken after the COP conference to see if desertification had slowed down or reversed in the region. It didn’t take them long to notice that the desert’s advance had continued unabated.

Gilbués’ desert area is one of the four territories officially considered by the Federal Government as a “desertification nucleus” in the Brazilian semi-arid region. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo)

“We came back to those regions and found that the fears had materialized. We found even more degraded lands, in even larger areas. Coincidentally, when we were organizing the trip to the north of Bahia, the National Institute for Space Research announced that exactly that region had become the first portion of land with an arid climate in Brazil,” said França.

Next Monday, the world marks the World Day to Combat Desertification and drought, and Carneiro, Sete and França’s reporting, condensed in this feature published last week by Inside Climate News, paints an alarming picture for Brazil, but it also offers some hope on how to push back and reclaim lands that are at the brink of turning into deserts.

A field of coconut trees clings to life as desertification advances around them in Icó-Mandantes. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo)

In Icó-Mandantes, in the state of Pernambuco, the Marco Zero team met Manoel Joaquim dos Santos,a farmer who was relocated by the government in the 1990’s to this agricultural village with the promise of infrastructure and support for his coconut farm. Over the years, Santos has seen the land deteriorate due to climate change, which has aggravated the droughts in this already dry region, and by a crumbling irrigation system built by the government that has depleted the soil, leaving the once verdant coconut trees as lifeless husks. “Before, I’d harvest 35,000 coconuts each season,” Santos told our reporters. “Today, my production is zero.”

The significance of this story goes beyond the local and even national levels. It puts the spotlight on an issue that affects more than 500 million people around the world, according to UN data, most of them farmers. It also provides a stage for local reporters to introduce international audiences to the reality of a large ecosystem in Brazil starkly different from the Amazonian rainforest and tropical beaches, but that requires equal attention and clear action.

Screenshot of the story titled, “In Brazil’s Semi-Arid Region, Small Farmers Work Exhausted Lands, Hoping a New Government Will Revive the War on Desertification” via Inside Climate News.

“The publication of our story in the United States by Inside Climate News is essential to put pressure on Brazilian authorities and draw the world’s attention to this further impact of global warming in the region in which we live, after all, international public opinion needs to understand that the damage does not is limited to the Amazon,” added França.

Rodrigues proudly displays the garlic bulbs harvested in his land. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo)

Some of the answers to combat desertification might already be on hand, if there’s political will. The story spotlights the case of farmers in Gilbués, a community in the state of Piauí known for their deeply red soil, deep gullies and scarce vegetation, that have been able to grow everything from corn and beans to onions and even sunflowers, thanks to a government initiative that in 2006 started teaching the local farmers advanced land management techniques. “We had training, received fertilizers for the soil, learned to take better care of the land, and that was very important for all the farmers in the region, but unfortunately, the project did not continue, and it is difficult for us to manage to recover the degraded lands on our own,” said Francisco Washington Rodrigues, a farmer that participated in the project, alluding to the discontinuation of the project after the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rouseff and the rise of her vice president, Michel Temer, to power.

Francisco Washington Rodrigues works on his onion field in Gilbués, Brazil. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo)

With Brazil hosting a climate change COP next year, desertification is back in the government’s agenda, with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government restarting the work of the Desertification Combat Department, but many challenges remain. The work of our corps members will be vital to keep this topic in the public eye, ensure there is accountability for the new initiatives and help spread the lessons learned to other parts of the world that are engaged in the same battle against desertification. Our corps members’ reporting not only sheds light on the issue through an engaging narrative, but is a good reminder that we have the tools to combat the effects of climate change, when governments and communities align and work together.

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