Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
October 25, 1999
Development plan turns earth to salt
I'm looking at a new project to submit for federal funding. Our partners in Brazil have requested assistance to install pump stations on nine wells to take salt out of the water.
Ordinary filtration won't do, although it does a reasonable job taking out other impurities and minerals. What is needed are desalinators at a cost of about $10,000 apiece.
I haven't written up the project because I'm still studying the new CIDA guidelines. Quite frankly I'm having a hard time plowing through the dry language of the manual and wonder how I can apply it to the real life situation of repeated dry seasons in the Sertao.
I work for St. Joseph's Save the Children. For close to 25 years we've implemented development projects in northeast Brazil. Some people have called it one of the six poorest regions on earth.
The late Dom Helder Camara lived and worked in this part of the world and no doubt his sanctity was inspired by the lives of the poor peasants he met there.
Father Sylvester Vredegoor once honoured us by visiting the "mechanical cow" project, a machine to turn soya beans into milk and pulp for buns to feed the children.
Of the entire northeast, the most desolate region is perhaps the Sertao. The name derives from the word desert because of its frequent droughts.
The famed Carmelite Carlos Mesters once wrote a compelling book about his experiences there, entitled Six Days in the Cellars of Humanity. Translated into English by Al Gerwing, the book contrasts the extreme deprivation with the hardiness and ingenuity of the folk who scrape out an existence on this unforgiving land.
The proposed wells are to be installed in the Sertao and it made me wonder where the salt comes from.
East of the Sertao, towards the coast in the state of Alagoas, there is a region called Mate Grande, because it used to be a big forest. It is clearcut now to make room for monoculture cane production, the raw material for alcohol to fuel the lifestyle of the very rich.
A handful of families own most of the land and monopolize the industry. Mechanization has driven the peasants off the land to big city slums by the hundreds of thousands.
I suspect that deforestation and irrigation has driven the salty solution closer to the surface in the Sertao like it did in certain parts of Bangladesh after the "green revolution."
There is little or no fresh rain to replenish the earth for what has been taken out for the cane crops. Last year there was another serious drought.
Dona Maria Lourdes of Fundanor in Palmeira dos Indios sent us newspaper clippings showing photographs of cow carcasses the farmers had brought to the city to emphasize their plight.
Lourdes' vocational school for street children became a feeding station for the hungry migrants and she urgently requested $6,000 to cover the bill.
Because people are so poor, fathers often take to the road in the hope of finding work, leaving the mother and children to fend for themselves. Working single mothers sometimes have few options but to leave their children unattended.
A few years ago, a two-year-old child wandered into the Sertao looking for her mother. A frantic search was organized. Five hundred neighbours participated.
When little Wanderleia was found, she was 26 km from home, completely burnt by the sun, dead.
The death of Wanderleia is but one symptom of poverty. It is much more difficult for us to come to grips with the systemic causes of poverty which have sidelined millions of people.
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