We could call it a lunar landscape, but as the earth cracked with craters is red, it seems rather out of all right of the planet Mars. Welcome to the region of Gilbués, a municipality in the northeast of Brazil where desertification is advancing at a rapid pace. big steps.
Only a few small shrubs with yellowed leaves remain in the middle of these hilly lands as far as the eye can see which now extend over an area larger than the city of New York, swallowing up farms and homes.
According to experts, the erosion of the already naturally fragile soil in this area of the state of Piaui has been greatly accelerated by deforestation and other human activities.
But a few hundred farming families continue to fight to preserve a few oases in the middle of the “Gilbués desert”.
Ubiratan Lemos Abade, 65-year-old breeder who tries to keep his fifteen cattle alive despite the extreme drought, in Gilbués, October 1, 2023 © AFP – Nelson ALMEIDA
“Everything is out of control. It no longer rains like before,” laments Ubiratan Lemos Abade, a 65-year-old breeder who is trying to keep his fifteen cattle alive despite the extreme drought.
“Here, it we have to irrigate to get by, otherwise (…) all our land would have died of thirst,” he explains, pointing to a pasture of lush grass that stands out in the middle of the red desert.
He installed a makeshift watering system himself, digging a well connected to a network of pipes.
“Here, you need technology to do agriculture. But when you are poor, it’s complicated,” he sighs.
– “Land fragile” –
Seen from the air, the landscape looks like a gigantic, crumpled sheet of bright red sandpaper.
The erosion problem is not new. One of the hypotheses of the origin of the name “Gilbués” is an indigenous term which means “fragile earth”, explains Dalton Macambira, environmental historian from the Federal University of Piaui.
But human activities have greatly aggravated the situation, by razing or burning native vegetation whose roots helped give more consistency to the soil.
With urban expansion, Gilbués has become a city of 11,000 inhabitants, photographed on October 1, 2023 © AFP – Nelson ALMEIDA
Not counting the urban expansion of Gilbués, which has become a city of 11,000 inhabitants .
This town experienced a diamond rush in the middle of the last century, before the sugar cane boom in the 1980s.
Today, it is one of the largest soy producers in Piaui .
“These activities accelerate the problem, with unsustainable natural resource requirements for this type of environment,” warns Mr. Macambira.
In January, he published a study showing that the area affected by desertification more than doubled from 1976 to 2019, from 387 to 805 km2.
Around Gilbués, 14 other municipalities in the region are affected and some 500 farming families are affected.
Climate specialists believe that further studies are needed to determine with certainty whether the warming of the planet is also a factor in accelerating this desertification.
Local farmers report that the dry season is getting longer and longer.
During short periods of rain, the precipitation is more intense, which makes the situation even worse: the ground is so fragile that the deluge creates huge craters, known as “voçorocas”, which engulf fields and homes. .
“Wherever the environment is degraded, climate change tends to have more perverse effects”, summarizes Dalton Macambira.
– Potential –
Isaltino Andrade Silva, resident of Gilbués, in northern Brazil, October 1, 2023 © AFP – Nelson ALMEIDA
Qualified as a “silent crisis” by the United Nations, desertification affects 500 million people in the whole world.
But Fabriciano Corado, president of the SOS Gilbués association, still sees strong potential in his region.
If we can preserve it from erosion, clay soil rich in phosphorus is every farmer's dream: to cultivate it, no need for fertilizer.
According to him, small producers like Mr. Abade managed to make their farms survive by protecting native vegetation, implementing drip irrigation systems or traditional terrace cultivation techniques to better resist erosion.
“We did not invent gunpowder, the Aztecs, the Incas and the Mayans were already doing the same thing,” recalls Mr. Corado, who strongly criticizes the closure six years ago of a public research center which helped farmers implement these techniques.
Local authorities say they intend to reopen it, but without giving a precise date.
The region also has strong potential for solar energy production: a huge park with 2.2 million panels was recently inaugurated and another is on track.
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