Agribusiness may be killing Brazil’s ‘birthplace of waters’

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  • The eighth World Water Forum takes place in Brasilia this week, and World Water Day is this Thursday, 22 March. So Mongabay here takes a close look at the Cerrado as Brazil’s “birthplace of waters.”
  • The Cerrado savannah, despite its annual dry season, has in the past had water to spare. Eight out of 12 of Brazil’s major river basins and three aquifers — the Guarani, Bambuí and Urucuia — all rely on the Cerrado as a source for much of their water.
  • Traditional communities are also reliant on the Cerrado’s aquifers and streams. But as agribusiness has moved into the region, putting large-scale irrigation into operation, those communities have complained of a diminishing water supply. A major water conflict arose recently between the town of Correntina and large-scale farms, in Bahia state.
  • The diminishing Cerrado water supply has complex causes, including deforestation due to land conversion to agriculture; large-scale irrigation to grow water-intensive crops like soy, cotton and corn; and climate change. However, scientists say that addressing the problem proactively is critically important to local communities and all of Brazil.
Small streams like this one are going dry even in the wet season. Correntina’s people have long relied on these streams to irrigate and grow their food. Photo by Alicia Prager

This is the third of six stories in a series by journalists Alicia Prager and Flávia Milhorance who travelled to the Cerrado in February for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.

“It used to be right there,” says Marcos Rogério Beltrão pointing to a rocky red sand depression under a small wooden bridge.

It’s the wet season in Correntina, a town in western Bahia state, and that depression should be filled with running water. But it’s bone dry. Another dozen or so nearby streams are either heavily silted, sluggish, or gone to dust in the 40 degree Celsius (104 degree Fahrenheit) heat of late February in Brazil.

Beltrão, a former small-scale farmer and now an environmentalist, was born in Correntina, so he has many years of seasonal memories to measure by. He guides us along a rural valley where small tributaries should be amply supplying the Arrojado River. “It is flowing with 40,000 liters [10,570 gallons] per second during the wet season,” he says, standing on the riverbank. “This [weak flow] should be the amount in the dry season.”

Sixty percent of the 31,000 people living in Correntina rely on traditional water supplies, such as that coming from artesian wells, to grow their food on small farms and in garden plots. But with that water disappearing, the rural town leaped into the national spotlight late last year when one-fifth of the population came out in protest against the excessive use of water for irrigation by large-scale farms in the region.

Juscelino Santos and his family produce nearly everything they consume on their small farm, and they have a very deep connection with the land. Juscelino has lived in Correntina all his life and has witnessed dramatic changes in the water supply which locals say is connected with the arrival of large-scale agribusiness. Photo by Alicia Prager

The locals believe that intensive irrigation for extensive commercial soy, corn and cotton crops is why springs and small streams are no longer flowing, and why river levels are dropping.

Correntina has watched the available water diminish over the years, while simultaneously industrial agribusiness moved deeper into the Cerrado savannah and set up large-scale irrigation there. The municipality is now an important soy producer and harvested 357,000 tons of the crop last year.

There may be a second contributing cause for the vanishing water. The town is a big deforester: it cleared 165 square kilometers (64 square miles) of vegetation between 2013 and 2015, a trend seen across the Cerrado. There’s also a likelihood that an ongoing and future decline in Cerrado rainfall due to worsening drought could be adding to the problem.

All these causes are related: scientists have found that the conversion of forests and native vegetation to croplands and pasture in the region diminishes evapotranspiration on those lands by an average of 60 percent during the dry season, which can reduce regional rainfall, according to Brown University researchers. That precipitation failure then causes agribusiness to pump more water for crops, which leads to a self-amplifying cycle.

Many little streams in the region flow into the Arrojado River. Those tributaries are important for keeping the soil moist and are used for small-scale irrigation. However, many of them have dried up in recent years. The Arrojado River seen here is well below the level it should be at in the wet season. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Intensifying water wars

Correntina, being a hotspot of Brazil’s industrial agribusiness expansion, has increasingly also become ground zero for conflicts over water.

“The town is emblematic of the people’s growing dissatisfaction with agribusiness and its impacts on water in the region,” says Samuel Britto, from the NGO Comissão Pastoral da Terra, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), that tracks territorial conflicts in western Bahia.

The NGO has counted 41 major municipal conflicts since 1985, most of them related to water. By 2017, at least 17 streams had been observed to have gone dry, according to local reports, Britto says. There are no exact counts today, but, according to the CPT, an organ of the Catholic Church, the situation hasn’t improved. “On the contrary, things are getting worse as [large scale farming] enterprises take more land,” he says.

A major water-related protest hit the streets of Correntina on November 11, 2017. A week earlier, hundreds of angry local people had destroyed the facilities of the Rio Claro farm, owned by the Igarashi company. They did so out of anger concerning the firm’s perceived high water usage. Police were called in, but no one was hurt. The case is currently being investigated by the authorities who are conducting hearings.

The damage done was so severe that the Rio Claro farm was inoperable, and is still recovering, months later. The firm says that it suffered 50 million reais ($15 million) in losses due to the attack. The farm was established 14 years ago as a producer of grains and vegetables. The Bahia state environmental agency INEMA approved the extraction of 176 million liters (46.5 million gallons) of water per day from the Arrojado River for the operation. This daily consumption by the farm could supply the whole town for more than a month, according to a calculation by CPT, based on data from the local water provider.

Josei Ramos Santana (53 years old) and Josué Santos de Maria (26) on the way to their small farm. They’ve witnessed the reduction of available water in their region with concern. Photo by Alicia Prager

Britto didn’t take part in the water-related protests last year, but he is overseeing the case. He says the demonstrations happened after local people saw sharp decreases in the Arrojado River’s flow, and were informed by the media that the farm was planning to further expand its operations; a verified causal link between the farm’s heavy water usage and the river level drop has not been made.

Iragashi’s lawyer, Marco Aurélio Naste, says that the farm had been utilizing water at below its permitted limit, and at the time of the protests, was going to increase capacity to the full water allowance. Naste says the company was at all times operating within its environmental license, so was taken by surprise by the protests.

“The company didn’t have any history of conflict with the community. It operates totally regularly,“ says Naste. He adds that the accusations that the firm was making excessive water removals are “unfounded.” Igarashi’s press office didn’t say precisely how much water the company was withdrawing from the river at the time of the demonstrations.

Britto says that the public anger leading to the protests was also linked to the farm being licensed at all by Bahia state’s INEMA. The agency did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

The Igarashi controversy is just one of several major ongoing water conflicts in Correntina. Another involves Sudotex, a textile company that has a large-scale farm that grows cotton – an extremely water-intensive crop.

Sudotex has been licensed by Bahia state to build up to 15 artesian wells on its land, and under its permit was to be allowed to withdraw nearly 2 billion liters (528 million gallons) of water from the Corrente River to irrigate cotton during the Cerrado dry season.

The company’s water extraction infrastructure was under construction when, in 2015, local people took to the streets to protest the use of so much water by a single farm. Later, environmental groups took the case to court, which ordered the company to halt construction. Sudotex appealed and the case is currently in review. The firm declined to comment to Mongabay on the water conflict.

A Correntina farm family: Left to right, Josivaldo, Francelina, three-year-old Lara de Oliveira Silva, and Glauciene Moura. Water resources are diminishing, they say. They lost their crops for the last three years due to harsh seasonal drought. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Remembering the days of plentiful water

As countryside water resources around Correntina dry up, local people are being forced to pay close attention to rain cycles and river levels. Everyone we talked to said the available water was clearly diminishing year after year, and no one had a positive image of the large-scale farms and their irrigation operations.

“It’s because of them that we are facing water problems, and they are getting worse,” says Glauciene Moura, who lives in a rural part of the Arrojado Valley. “These companies cannot take our river. We only use a little. If they need water, we also do.”

“They say they bring jobs, but [they] destroy our river,” Moura adds. “Look at my daughter, Lara. She is 3 years old. In 20 years, maybe she will have to leave this place.”

Moura told us that her family has relied for five generations on the regos, a river-fed system of natural artesian aquifers, (where groundwater rises to the surface under pressure), combined with canals, to supply neighboring families and small farms. With river levels decreasing, and aquifer water pressure dropping, most of the regos are now dry. Less water from the streams and dried regos, force local people to rely instead on the municipal water supply. That means they must now pay for a resource that was once freely available, and that they can’t afford as much water as they need for small-scale farming.

Veredas are clearings commonly possessing wet soil, swamps or small lakes, and they are framed by Buriti trees – an iconic Cerrado plant. Traditional communities value these undisturbed natural areas highly. But these wetlands are threatened by increasingly intense drought. Photo by Alicia Prager

Glauciene Moura’s mother, Francelina says the rains have been diminishing too. The family lost their small food crop for the last three years due to harsh seasonal droughts. The last time it rained, she says, was two weeks before our wet season visit.

“The rain was so good,” Francelina remembers. “It brings so much wealth.”

Edite Silva, another small-scale farmer, lost her last five crops. Her family also had to reduce its cattle herd because of the need to rent pasture. Green grazing land, which is also disappearing due to lack of rainfall, is now disputed between multiple families.

“We used to have plenty of water here,” recalls Silva, who has lived in the region for 35 years.

Mongabay contacted the Association of Farmers and Irrigators of Bahia (AIBA), which represents 1,300 agricultural associates, but the organization didn’t reply to our questions concerning the water crisis.

Edite Silva Santana works in her small village shop in Correntina. She immediately invited us in for coffee – with lots of sugar, of course, as it is always served in western Bahia. She lost her last five crops due to lack of water, and now relies more heavily on the shop to sustain her family. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Birthplace of waters

Before the arrival of large-scale agribusiness, Correntina was mostly covered in native Cerrado vegetation. Deep-rooted, it protects the soil well. For as long as traditional people can remember, the region has been characterized by a good water supply, despite seasonal droughts.

Located in the center of Brazil and composed of many plateaus, the Cerrado biome is a vital source of water not just for the region, but also for surrounding areas. Eight of 12 of Brazil’s major river basins and three aquifers – the Guarani, Bambuí and Urucuia – all rely on the Cerrado as a source for much of their water.

The Cerrado, the second-biggest biome in Brazil after the Amazon, is for that reason known as the “birthplace of water.”

But agribusiness expansion – with its rapid deforestation and wholesale irrigation – has greatly diminished this natural capacity. The Cerrado’s native vegetation once covered 2 million square kilometers (772,200 square miles), more than 20 percent of Brazil – an area bigger than Great Britain, France and Germany combined. Today, less than half of it remains.

Even as the biome’s ability to store water diminishes, Brazil’s water use is rising. The country’s water demand rose by 80 percent in the last two decades, and it may increase another 30 percent by 2030. Today, agricultural irrigation accounts for 67.2 percent of the nation’s water consumption, according to national water agency ANA.

The picturesque countryside around the town of Correntina. Traditional communities and large-scale agribusiness are increasingly in conflict over the region’s water resources. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Meanwhile, a paper published in the journal Global Change Biology confirms the observations and suspicions of Correntina’s traditional people: large scale agriculture is impacting the Cerrado’s water cycles.

The study suggests that increasing cropland has decreased the amount of water recycled to the atmosphere each year. Additional research by scientists from the University of Göttingen, in Germany, and the Federal University of Mato Grosso have found that the capacity of the Cerrado to deliver and store water depends heavily on the biome’s native vegetation; the conversion of that vegetation to pasture deteriorates the soil, reducing evapotranspiration, the researchers said.

But even as science confirms the growing threat of Brazilian water scarcity, national laws to protect the water supply are growing weaker. For example, intermittent springs like those that feed the tributaries and rivers in Correntina, are not currently protected under Brazil’s New Forest Code, according to a study that analyzed the code’s effectiveness. Only springs that hold water year round receive state protection. However, 40 percent of the Cerrado’s springs are seasonal, but are nonetheless indispensable for the biome’s wellbeing. The removal of vegetation from around these springs could dry them up forever, says the author of the paper examining the Forest Code, Rafael Loyola of the Federal University of Goias.

The Santos family has lived in the Cerrado for generations. Now they are resisting against the changes to their lives and livelihoods that have come with the rapid expansion of large-scale agribusiness that is growing soy, cotton and corn for global markets. Photo by Flávia Milhorance
Small-scale farmers whose free water supply dries up must rely on municipal water, which must be paid for, and can be too costly to fully irrigate crops. Photo by Alicia Prager

Traditional people vs. agribusiness

Jorge Enoch, a researcher at the government institution Embrapa Cerrados, argues in a recent article that even the much deforested and degraded Cerrado still has the capacity to meet heightened agribusiness water demands. However, he says that poor land management and the concentration of large irrigated farm operations in just a few areas, including western Bahia, have sparked water shortages and fierce conflicts with local people.

There are real solutions available to address the worsening water problem: the scientists involved in the Brown University study, for example, suggested that double cropping could mitigate the overall decrease in water recycling now seen on much Cerrado agribusiness land. Double cropping is the planting of two crops in the same field in a single growing season, and it imitates the effect of year-round vegetation, holding water in the soil during the dry season and preventing high rates of evapotranspiration. Drip irrigation systems, and not watering at the hottest part of the day during the dry season could save more water.

However, such innovations may only be able to go just so far: Matopiba (an acronym for the Cerrado states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) is seeing a dramatic surge in agribusiness, which means a far greater use of diminishing water supplies. And that means more water conflicts.

CPT’s data points to a 150 percent increase (totalling 172 major water conflicts) in Brazil over the five year period from 2011 to 2016, affecting 44,000 families. Most of these conflicts were in the southeast, a more populated region. But the north saw 16,000 families impacted, while the northeast had 17 major conflicts resulting from the private appropriation of water supplies by agribusiness.

The Matopiba region was historically occupied by indigenous groups and traditional communities that typically operated small farms and put little demand on the region’s once plentiful water. But since the 1980s, a variety of factors have attracted large-scale farmers, along with transnational commodities companies like Cargill and Bunge. The result is a clash of cultures – of local sustainable lifestyles conflicting with international agribusiness, national and transnational commodities companies, and investors.

Juscelino Santos, a representative of a traditional community, Fundo de Feixo de Pasto, has lived in Correntina all his life. He says that his neighbors have long relied on Arrojado Valley water, and on the natural climactic rhythms of the Cerrado, for their livelihoods. Now everyone is desperate to save their vanishing springs. Up on the plateau above the valley, the community has put up fences around the springs to protect them. But Santos knows it likely won’t be enough.

“My grandparents were born and lived here,” he says. “Now, I’m resisting here.”

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In order to mark their territory against large-scale agribusiness and to protect a spring, a traditional community put up this fence. Photo by Alicia Prager
Small-scale farms in Correntina commonly raise cattle. But increasingly, farmers need to reduce their herds because of the need to rent pasture. Green grazing land is becoming harder to find, as rainfall decreases. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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