Chapter 9

Advancing a sustainable and just future for the Brazilian Semiarid

Ana Paula Dutra Aguiar, Taís Sonetti-González, Minella Martins, Francisco Gilney Bezerra and Aldrin Perez-Marin 

The Brazilian semiarid region has more than nine million inhabitants and occupies an area of over 1 million km², including the entire Caatinga biome and portions of the Cerrado biome (Figure 1.a). Running through biomes, the São Francisco River basin is of crucial economic, ecological, and cultural importance to the region. The river is also fundamental for the supply of water, food, and energy to the region and to the world through the production of irrigated agricultural commodities (Bezerra et. al. 2019). The region, in particular the Caatinga biome, also has enormous potential for the expansion of renewable energies, in particular wind and solar plants (Neri et. al. 2019).  The expansion of large-scale projects for food and energy production has reshaped the region, presenting both opportunities and risks.  

Particularly in the Cerrado part of the region, aggressive deforestation, loss of biodiversity and depletion of water resources due to irrigation projects are some of the environmental consequences of this process (Strassburg et. al. 2017; Silva et. al. 2021; De Espindola et. al. 2021). For example, official information shows that 72% of the water is withdrawn for irrigation (ANA, 2021), leading to conflicts related to water use (CPT, 2021, Peixoto et. al. 2022; Martins et al., in prep) (Figure 1.b). On the other hand, the overexploitation of water resources also brings distal impacts. For example, the Cerrado and the Amazon, though seemingly distinct, constitute a dynamic unit due to the water cycle interactions (Costa and Pires 2010). These connections establish the Cerrado as a vital balancing system for the regional climate. Furthermore, the Cerrado plays a pivotal role because it contains the headwaters and the largest portion of South American watersheds (Latrubesse et. al. 2019).

The semiarid is also an area of great socioeconomic contrasts – which largely reproduces the multiple inequalities that still characterize Brazilian society (Figure 1.c). All municipalities in the semiarid region have a Human Development Index (HDI) lower than that of Brazil, an index that takes into account indicators of longevity, education and income (IPEA, 2023). However, although historically stigmatized as an impoverished region ravaged by drought (Alvalá et. al. 2019), the semiarid population through a strong network of social movements have outlined new perspectives for the future, notably through the paradigm of “coexistence with the semiarid” (Pérez-Marin et. al. 2017). The new paradigm is based on access to water and land, as well as the adoption of practices of traditional agroecological production. This new paradigm coexists – not without conflicts – with the expansion of mega-enterprises for food and renewable energy production, as the growing prominence of commodities in the country’s economy allied to the deindustrialization process in the last decades (Nassif, Bresser-Pereira, and Feijo 2018; Fonseca, Arend, and Guerrero 2020) reinforced the political power of the primary production sectors (Ioris, 2016, Rochedo et al. 2018).

Figure 1. (A) Location of the semiarid and São Francisco River Basin in Brazil and their location in relation to the Cerrado and Caatinga biomes (prepared by the authors); (B)  Map illustrating how the municipalities in irrigation poles (the four black rectangles) consume most of the water in the region (Source: adapted from Martins et al. (in prep) using ANA (2021)); (C) Graph illustrating the land concentration in the Sao Francisco River. Note how the large farmers represent only 0,9% of the number of farms, but occupy 33,4% of the land, while the small farmers are 97% of the number of farms, but occupy only 43,5% of the land (Source: adapted from Martins et al. (in prep) using IBGE (2017). 

In this complex situation, the challenges to achieving a sustainable and fair future are enormous. Historical conflicts and inequalities have led to huge power imbalances and hindered any meaningful dialogues regarding a sustainable future, in which multiple voices and perspectives could be taken into consideration. To address this situation, the XPaths project (www.xpaths.org) undertook an extensive two-year participatory process, with the participation of more than a hundred stakeholders from several sectors and acting at different spatial scales. The process combined state-of-the-art multiscale participatory and system thinking approaches (Collste et. al. 2023; Nguyen and Bosch 2013; Aguiar et. al., 2023; Aguiar et. al., in prep). The culmination of this effort was the identification of four primary challenges and the formulation of four interconnected strategic actions aimed at their resolution (XPaths, 2023), which we summarize below.  

Strategic Actions: Challenges and Solutions  

Strategic Action 1

The first challenge prioritized by the stakeholders is the impact of large agricultural, energy and mining projects on the quality and quantity of water in the rivers of the São Francisco River Basin, including unequal access to the resources and resulting divided conflicts. The proposed solution was the implementation of a broad Environmental Education, Communication, and Social Mobilization Program for the São Francisco River Basin, to create consciousness about the multiple uses of the water. Participants named the program: “ÁGUA VIVA – Building a biodiverse environmental awareness”. 

Strategic Action 2

The second challenge is the historical land concentration which causes unequal access to land and, consequently, to water. The proposed solution is the implementation of an agrarian reform compatible with the traditional practices of the biomes and the demarcation of territories of traditional peoples and communities. Agrarian reform is the necessary basis for Strategic Action 4.

Strategic Action 3

The third critical problem identified by the participants is the concentration of political power in the hands of the dominant economic sectors such as agribusiness and mining sectors, a historical problem reinforced by the current cycle of expansion of commodities in the region. Derived from this is the discontinuity of public policies aiming at the public good, hindering the region’s sustainable development. The proposed solution is a broad political training program to increase social awareness and social responsibility, promoting participation, leadership and political change.

Strategic Action 4

Finally, the Brazilian economy’s dependency on commodities and deindustrialization were pointed out as a critical structural problem influencing the region. Strategic Action 4 is therefore broader in scope, but complementary to others. The participants proposed a series of actions at the national and international levels to foster a new development model. The aim would be to help diversify the economy and improve social well-being. Examples of proposed actions at the national level are investments in agroecological food production aiming at increasing food sovereignty, support to small-scale farmers, investments in reindustrialization, capacitation and training, policies for inequalities reduction and strengthening of legal frameworks; at the international level: monitoring of the socio-environmental impacts of commodities production (beyond deforestation), including water availability/pollution, conflicts, land as a financial asset and dispossession; communicate the multiple socio-environmental impacts of the commodity chains for investors and international markets; review international frameworks and agreements (e.g., ILO Convention 169, Mercosur-EU Agreements, etc.). 

These strategic actions encompass multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aligning with the integrative and universal spirit of the 2030 Agenda. Our approach identifies actions that attempt to address the systemic structures and deep roots of unsustainability (Aguiar et al., in prep). These actions, however, can only be implemented through the collective commitment and engagement of diverse stakeholders across various levels. Understanding is needed across national and international platforms, engaging a wide array of actors. The successful execution of these actions stands as a vital safeguard for the semiarid region, preserving the water source not only for Brazil but for a significant portion of South America. 

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