#16 food & farming
Oswaldo Samuel Costa Santos / Filipe Russo Maciel

Creating a Water Shortage

Why is water running out in Brazil’s cities? Does the Landless Workers' Movement provide a solution to it?

Water is growing scarce in the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte. Private households have long been subject to rationing measures similar to those recently enacted in California. But this is not a real solution to the problem, given that households are responsible for at most 10% of all water consumed. Agriculture, industry and mining use the remaining 90%. A new agricultural model is needed to solve the water crisis. While politics continues to stick its head in the sand, cooperatives from the landless workers’ movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, MST) are developing agro-ecological alternatives for sustainable agriculture.

We are living in a time of multiple crises. In our country, the economic crisis and the political crisis of pervasive corruption are directly affecting the working class and poorer segments of Brazilian society. Under the leadership of President Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian government is kicking off its second term with cuts to social rights that will have consequences for the unemployed and retirees in particular. Yet these crises are overshadowed by the largest crisis in the south-east, Brazil’s financial and industrial centre. It is a crisis of water and energy, since 90% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydropower plants. For more than four years now, water capacity in the northern region has been falling steadily. By now there is not enough water left for human consumption, which has resulted in rationing. But what is at the root of the problem?

In addition to contaminating the water and groundwater reserves with environmental pollutants, this monoculture production model also consumes an excessive amount of water.

Studies have shown that there are two primary driving forces behind the crisis. One is the significant deforestation in the north, the Amazon region, which has a powerful effect on thermal and climatic conditions in the south-east. The other is how water is used. It is consumed almost exclusively by agribusiness, the primary producer of exports products and responsible for the massive monoculture cultivation of soy, maize and sugar cane, the ever expanding pastures needed for meat production, and the planting of large eucalyptus plantations used to produce charcoal. In addition to contaminating the water and groundwater reserves with environmental pollutants, this monoculture production model also consumes an excessive amount of water. It is worth emphasising here that Bayer and BASF, two giant manufacturers of environmental pollutants, support this model.

Of Brazil’s diverse vegetation zones, the sweeping savanna at its heart, the Cerrado, has earned the nickname “Brazil’s water tank” for its ability to store water reserves. This area is now under threat from soy and eucalyptus plantations. In addition to increasing soil erosion and the siltification of rivers, many with their source in the Cerrado, eucalyptus farming is causing an enormous jump in water consumption and evaporation.

In addition to agriculture, the mining industry consumes and pollutes considerably more water than private citizens.

In the Triângulo Mineiro, the mining triangle, the Cerrado is primarily encroached on by soy and maize. In the northern and eastern parts of Minas Gerais and throughout the state of Espírito Santo, it is hemmed in by eucalyptus, while monoculture farming of sugar cane and land used for pastures in threatening the savanna in São Paulo. These economic activities have been identified as the primary drivers of the excessive water consumption in the south-east. Yet Brazilian media continue to ignore these facts and blame the water shortage on private households, though they only account for 8% of overall water consumption.

In addition to agriculture, the mining industry consumes and pollutes considerably more water than private citizens. The combination of contamination by environmental pollutants, monoculture farming, dams and mining are causing the water reserves to collapse.

…social movements, non-governmental organisations and environmental activists are fighting the dominant agribusiness model and pointing out possible solutions.

In this age of primarily agroindustrial production, smallholder farmers are particularly hard hit by water shortages and pollution. Driven by the pressing need to develop new, sustainable production methods, social movements, non-governmental organisations and environmental activists are fighting the dominant agribusiness model and pointing out possible solutions. This article will focus on the MST in particular, Brazil’s landless worker’s movement fighting the multinational makers of genetically modified seeds and environmental pollutants, like Bayer, BASF, Syngenta, Fibria, Valourec, Manesma, Bunge, Monsanto and many more, and soy and eucalyptus growers. Their objective is to strengthen cooperation with initiatives such as Bionatur, a native seed bank controlled by the landless workers that helps secure food independence for rural populations, and with learning centres for agroecology, such as IALA (Latin American Institute for Agroecology) in Paraná, Pará and Venezuela.

This is hardly a fair fight…

Of the possible models of capital production, agribusiness, a complex construct of agriculture, industry, trade and financial capital that strengthens multinational corporations and is solely focused on market demand, stands in opposition to agroecology, which seeks to promote sustainable and ecologically friendly agriculture. This is hardly a fair fight, and one of the current challenges facing Brazil. Agribusiness has close ties to the communication sector, which has the second best representation in the National Congress following the private sector, and dominates the judiciary in a sense, which rules in favour of the dominant model in almost every case.

Agricultural cooperatives are an alternative for driving forward the development of the legalised MST settlements.

The last resort for the rural population lies in modes of resistance, mobilization and unification in the fight against this capitalist way of doing business, agro-ecological production methods, gathering experience, and the implementation of sustainable production methods. One of the major challenges is achieving quality and quantity.
This necessitates agricultural-economic and cooperative organisation on the part of
the workers.

Agricultural cooperatives are an alternative for driving forward the development of the legalised MST settlements. It allows for a focus on income in dialogue with society. The MST’s agricultural cooperation is not just limited to forming cooperatives; the first communal actions families experience is the occupation of the giant farms (latifundias )to create settlements. In the north of Minas Gerais, the Cooperative Camponese Veredas da Terra has been active the semi-arid Cerrado since 2008. The idea for this cooperative arose from a collective of cooperatives in the southern reaches of the country and the reality of life in the back country of Minas Gerais. It is a local cooperation developing technological alternatives for co-existing in this special vegetation zone. These are based on the principles of agri-ecology and the cultural traditions of rural production. Through the creation of new opportunities for cooperatives, like those of the Cooperative Veredas, and new perspectives for the relationship of human beings and nature in food production, known to European activists as “post-growth”, the landless MST movement is strengthening concrete measures such as Bionatur, ENFF, IALA and learning centres in 24 of the 27 Brazilian states in which the MST has been consolidated as a social movement.

The article was first published in German in the magazine ila in the issue 385 on land rights in Brazil.

Please find further information on the topic on the homepage of the project on human rights in Brazil by Allerweltshaus e.V., Cologne:

Photo: “Strong drought“” by Hudsön
2009 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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