Rio Salitre, in Bahia, dries up and threatens rural communities – 03/19/2023 – Environment
In the village of Lagoa Branca, in the city of Campo Formoso (407 km from Salvador), the only restaurant offers only captive tilapia, coming from Sobradinho (BA). The region’s endemic fish, such as curimatá, mandi, dorado and true piau, no longer exist. The river Salitre, neighboring the locality, has dried up.
The desertification of Campo Formoso, a municipality with an estimated population of 71,000 inhabitants, covers an area of 80 kmtwo where hundreds of quilombola families, small farmers and traditional grassland communities live.
In addition to the silting up of stretches of the Salitre River, environmental degradation is marked by unproductive soils that have forced residents to migrate. And the tributary of the São Francisco is not the only example of this phenomenon.
Studies indicate that there are at least six rural communities in the so-called sertão of São Francisco whose water and food security is threatened by severe desertification.
“Some families went to Goiás, São Paulo and the south. The problem is very serious and we don’t see any initiative on the part of the government”, complains Denilson da Silva, a resident of Lagoa do Porco, a sisal-growing community in the municipality. Abandoned houses and fields can be seen along the side roads that cut through the countryside of Campo Formoso.
Among those who stayed, the feeling is one of nostalgia. “I already harvested a lot of plucking beans here. The oldest ones caught alligators… But, starting from the Ourolândia (BA) dam, the waters of the Salitre dried up”, recalls retired farmer Otávio da Silva, 87, in the quilombola community of the White Lagoon.
The construction of 35 dams in the Médio Salitre watershed is identified as one of the causes of extreme drought and erosion. Deforestation of the caatinga, overgrazing and irrigated agriculture that is incompatible with the natural limits of the biome are also at the root of the problem, say researchers.
“In Campo Formoso, karst desertification is a young but dangerous phenomenon”, explains Jémison Santos, a professor at Uefs (Feira de Santana State University).
The term comes from “karst”, a damage considered irreversible that occurs when ecosystems become species of rocky and desolate landscapes. One of the best known examples in the world are the deserts of Guangxi, China.
“It works like a downward spiral. One problem leads to another and you lose control of the process with the biota becoming increasingly vulnerable”, adds Santos, who studies karst in Bahia. In the state, there are 289 areas susceptible to desertification.
In addition to them, there are worrying situations spread across eight states in the Northeast and in the north of Minas Gerais. These areas, highlights Santos, can become new karsts.
According to data from Sima Caatinga (Monitoring and Alert System for the Vegetal Coverage of the Caatinga), from Ufal (Federal University of Alagoas), 13% of the Northeast region has already been transformed into desert.
“Studies speak of six classic desertification nuclei, but the problem has worsened in recent years and data from state-of-the-art satellites show that there are many more”, warns Humberto Barbosa, coordinator of Sima.
The PAN-Brasil (National Action Program to Combat Desertification and Mitigation of the Effects of Drought), the main initiative to face desertification that the country has had, has been paralyzed for 13 years.
Sought by the report, the MMA (Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change) says that a new plan will be launched this year. According to the folder, it will include actions related to climate-resilient agriculture, agroecology and coexistence with the semi-arid region.
The ministry also states that it will dialogue with federal entities, research institutions and civil society organizations to resume projects, in addition to reestablishing the CNCD (National Commission to Combat Desertification).
“The problem is regional, but the impact is national. If it doesn’t solve it, it will get much worse. The plan will need to be renegotiated”, warns researcher José Roberto de Lima, former coordinator of PAN-Brazil, at the MMA.
In addition to the dryness of the rivers, another feature that has become striking in the landscape of Campo Formoso are the gullies, which reach five meters deep.
“My mother bought the farm in the 1990s and it already had a gully, but the problem only got worse. Then came the mesquite. I dream of seeing Salitre run again, but, above all, I dream of putting an end to the mesquite”, says Joselina Pimentel, president of the local quilombola association.
The invasive tree competes for the little available water with native species such as the yellow ipe and the quixabeira. At the farmer’s site, the gullies are just 20 meters from the house, at the back of the property.
In the city, 734 erosion lines were mapped, including furrows, gullies and ravines.
In these places, the exposed soils became sterile, feeding a cycle of misery. Without being able to grow maize and cacti to feed the goats and sheep, families see their income diminish.
For Alisson Pereira, a professor at the IFB (Baiano Federal Institute) who surveyed the erosion lines in the city, residents are unaware of the risk they are taking.
“The rain, which has always been a source of joy in the sertão, has become a source of fear. When it comes, the floods drag tons of earth into the riverbed, dragging everything in its path. The communities are in danger”, he says.
He believes, however, that there are solutions. “The problem can be reversed with environmental education, especially for young people, and restoration techniques with the planting of native species such as wild passion fruit, licuri, umbu, ciriguela.”
The Planeta em Transe project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.