A Slow-Motion Climate Disaster: The Spread of Barren Land

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CARNAÚBA DOS DANTAS, Brazil — The onshore has sustained the Dantas household for much than 150 years, bearing fields of cotton, beanstalks up to a grown man’s hep and, erstwhile it rained enough, a stream that led to a waterfall.

But connected a caller day, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees, the stream had tally dry, the crops would not turn and the family’s 30 remaining cattle were rapidly consuming the past excavation of water.

“Fifty years from now, determination won’t beryllium a psyche surviving here,” said Inácio Batista Dantas, 80, balanced successful a frayed hammock. “I archer my grandchildren that things are going to get precise difficult.”

His granddaughter, Hellena, 16, listened successful — and pushed back. She grew up here. “I program to enactment this land,” she said.

Scientists hold with her grandfather. Much of Brazil’s immense northeast is, successful effect, turning into a godforsaken — a process called desertification that is worsening crossed the planet.

Climate alteration is 1 culprit. But section residents, faced with harsh economical realities, person besides made short-term decisions to get by — similar clearing trees for livestock and extracting clay for the region’s tile manufacture — that person carried semipermanent consequences.


Inácio Batista Dantas, 80, and his 16-year-old granddaughter, Hellena. During a hard  adust  play   successful  2010, Mr. Dantas said his household  decided to merchantability   the mud successful  an aged  reservoir to a institution  making clay tiles truthful  they could provender  themselves and their cattle.

Desertification is simply a earthy catastrophe playing retired successful dilatory question successful areas that are location to fractional a cardinal people, from northern China and North Africa to remote Russia and the American Southwest.

The process does not mostly pb to rolling soil dunes that evoke the Sahara. Instead, higher temperatures and little rainfall harvester with deforestation and overfarming to permission the ungraded parched, lifeless and astir devoid of nutrients, incapable to enactment crops oregon adjacent writer to provender livestock.

That has made it one of the large threats to civilization’s quality to provender itself.

​​“There is simply a immense assemblage of grounds that desertification already affects nutrient accumulation and lowers harvest yields,” said Alisher Mirzabaev, an cultivation economist astatine the University of Bonn successful Germany, who helped constitute a 2019 United Nations study connected the topic. “And with clime change, it’s going to get adjacent worse.”


Brazil’s northeast, the world’s most densely populated drylands, with astir 53 cardinal people, is among the astir astatine risk. The portion is known for droughts and poverty, inspiring novels astir destitute tract workers forced to wantonness the land, arsenic good arsenic a genre of music, Baião, successful which accordion-backed lyrics archer of the hard beingness here.

But things are becoming worse. The portion had its longest drought connected grounds from 2012 done 2017, and this year, another drought desiccated overmuch of Brazil.

In August, the United Nations’ latest large study connected clime change said Brazil’s northeast faces rising temperatures, a crisp diminution successful groundwater, and much predominant and aggravated droughts. Satellite images and tract tests amusement that 13 percent of the onshore has already mislaid its fertility, portion astir the remainder of the portion is astatine risk.


“It’s reaching a tipping point,” said Humberto Barbosa, a apical adept connected desertification who has studied the Brazilian northeast for years. “A constituent of nary return.”

President Jair Bolsonaro has taken nary important measures to reverse the process. Instead, helium has pulled backmost biology regulations, portion empowering miners and ranchers, and overseen a crisp emergence successful deforestation successful the country. That helps provender the cycles of utmost weather. Government information released past period showed Amazon deforestation is astatine its worst successful 15 years.

Increasing deforestation successful Brazil has alarmed officials astir the satellite due to the fact that it threatens the Amazon rainfall forest’s quality to propulsion c from the atmosphere. But it is besides a superior origin of desertification, robbing the aerial of moisture and the ungraded of shade.

In the Seridó region, a postulation of dusty towns, household farms and concern factories, the residents’ ain interaction connected the onshore is astir intelligibly illustrated by the emergence of the ceramics industry.

Atlantic Ocean

Amazon R.






Rio de Janeiro


500 miles




50 miles

In the aboriginal 1980s, section businessmen saw an accidental successful the predominant droughts. When reservoirs and rivers evaporated, they exposed the nutrient-rich clay astatine the bottom, cleanable for manufacturing the reddish extortion tiles fashionable successful overmuch of the country.

Those entrepreneurs began paying landowners for their mud, and successful a fewer years, dozens of ceramics plants employed hundreds of people. Parelhas, colonisation 21,000, built a metallic arch implicit the main roadworthy into town, announcing it arsenic the “Tile Capital.”


Adelson Olivera da Costa was a pioneer of the industry, starting arsenic a manager of 1 of Parelhas’s archetypal factories successful 1980 and buying it a decennary later. At his tiny works recently, a fewer twelve laborers laid retired thousands of tiles to adust successful the midday sun.

“For us, the drought is bully news,” Mr. da Costa said successful his cramped office. He said helium had 30 employees, and neighboring plants tally by a lad and a girl employed dozens more.

For an country agelong babelike connected crops and livestock, ceramics were an economical leap start. But successful time, the consequences became clear. Factories marque the tiles by mixing h2o with clay, and past firing the effect successful a wood-burning oven. All those ingredients — water, wood and clay — are successful abbreviated proviso here.

Mr. da Costa’s factory, 1 of the smaller operations successful the area, uses much than 2,500 gallons of h2o a week, pulled from a adjacent well. “People aren’t sure,” helium said of the water, “but we deliberation it volition ne'er tally out.”

Recent studies estimate, though, that the region’s groundwater is dwindling.

The factory’s oven runs each night, Monday to Friday. Just earlier 5 a.m. 1 weekday, 2 men pulled branches and trunks from ample piles and stuffed them into six fireplaces that heated an oven the size of a house. The cognition consumes 60 to 75 cubic meters of wood a week, oregon capable to capable 5 ample dump trucks.


Then determination is the tiles’ main ingredient, clay. Years ago, Mr. da Costa said helium bought clay from the dried-up water beds wrong a fewer miles of his operation. With those present depleted, helium is hauling successful mud from hours away.

Aldrin Perez, a Brazilian authorities idiosyncratic who tracks desertification, said it takes 300 years to deposit 1 centimeter of soil, portion ceramics companies instrumentality 3 to 5 feet of ungraded each clip they extract clay. “In seconds, they destruct meters of extent that were formed implicit millions of years,” helium said.


That tin person a devastating effect. The ungraded and clay they extract is important for retaining a due equilibrium of nutrients and moisture successful the surrounding land.

“It kills the area,” said Damião Santos Ferreira, the manager of Mr. da Costa’s factory, explaining wherefore immoderate radical were hesitant to merchantability their clay. “It’s ne'er the same.”

The mill pays landowners astir $10 for 30 tons of clay, helium said.

By now, astir landowners cognize the consequences. Yet plentifulness inactive get hopeless capable to sell. One of them was Mr. Dantas.

In 2010, during different hard adust season, Mr. Dantas said his household astir ran retired of money. To provender themselves and their cattle, they decided to currency successful connected their mud.

“Everyone agreed,” Mr. Dantas said. “It was necessary,” his son, Paulo, said.


The clay came from a reservoir Mr. Dantas’s great-grandfather built successful the 19th period to proviso h2o for their 506-acre land. When it evaporated each adust season, the household had planted beans, maize and fabric successful the fertile furniture near behind. It was 1 of their astir productive plots of land.

But successful 2010, alternatively of planting, the household watched 4 men with shovels excavate and haul distant the soil. It took them 3 months. They paid astir $3,500 for the clay.

The wealth helped the household past done the yearslong drought that followed. But the onshore astir the reservoir was near astir barren. Paulo Dantas planted corn, beans and watermelon respective years later, but the nutrient was truthful pitiful, they fed it to the cattle.

Then, past year, it rained overmuch much than usual. The reservoir filled to astir six feet. Hellena, Mr. Dantas’s granddaughter, swam successful it. When it dried up, the household planted seeds. Grass for the cattle grew, but the beans and maize wilted.

“I truly regret it,” Mr. Dantas said of selling the clay. “I saw it wasn’t good. But the children needed it.”

Standing connected the reservoir’s embankment, helium looked implicit the parched onshore arsenic the prima set. “I had nary choice,” helium said.


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