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Brazilian Dialogue

Rains have returned to the Sertao

The Northeast of Brazil is a vast area, equal in size to western Europe though having only one-tenth of Europe's population. When people see pictures of "teeming slums" instead of waxing indignant about the locals' habit of making babies, they should remember that the great interior of this vast region is relatively empty.

The fault, therefore, is not that they have excessive birthrates (in fact, the current child-bearing generation does not have many more births than their Canadian counterparts). The problem lies with ownership of the land. If only one family out of 100 can own land, what are the rest to do but go to city slums when tractors or cattle displace them.

Nonetheless there are 80,000 small-holders in the state of Alagoas. Of these, 20,000 have organized themselves in 170 communities under the state-wide umbrella organization CEAPA.

Elaine Zimmer, National Farmers' Union activist from Muenster, Sask., accompanied us on our January visit to Alagoas.

She writes: "Visiting CEAPA and some of its communities in the interior of the state reminded me of the NFU trying to organize farmers in Canada. The two organizations have similar goals, to conscientize women and men to the owners of family farms, motivating them to organize and thus collectively to pressure governments and the marketplace to respond in a just manner.

"CEAPA works more intensively than our organizing work in Canada in 1969. That's probably because their situation is much more desperate than in Canada.

"It was heartening to see the progress in their communities: cisterns to collect rain water, small gardens of medicinal plants, seed banks, even an occasional new house and solar panels for home-grown electricity.

"The seedling nurseries, the herbal gardens, the community flour mills and seed banks and wells -- all are so necessary. The small-holders are attempting to restore forests that the large-holders destroyed.

"The CEAPA communities farm in a holistic way and are trying to become self-sufficient. It's a hard life, but a lot healthier and happier than in a city slum."

For Elaine Zimmer's sake, and that of her farmer husband Henry and all our Canadian visitors, the Sert–o had robed itself once more in green.

The decade of the '90s, like our '30s in the great cultural plains of North America, was a time of severe drought for the Sertao. In fact, Sertao is short for desert, meaning "big desert," even though it is desert-like only from time to time.

But now, at the beginning of the new millennium, it was wonderfully green and the animals were once more healthy.

God bless the Sertao where most of Alagoas' small-holders live, some on "farms" as small as five acres.

Al Gerwing