Drought Could Drain More Than Brazil's Coffee Crop Brazilian cities are rationing water; farmers are facing dying crops. Scientists say the situation will only worsen — and that the government is ignoring warnings and failing to help those in need.

Drought Could Drain More Than Brazil's Coffee Crop

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

We've been bringing you a lot of news lately about the weather. There've been extreme weather events all over the globe lately from floods to ice storms. Brazil, a country we associate with its rainforest, is suffering its own strange weather, a severe drought in its breadbasket region. The lack of rain has left people in the cities without water and farmers in the countryside with dying crops.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has our report.


LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: So I'm in the middle of a cornfield and I'm walking down it with corn farmer Juliano Jose Polidor. And he's showing me what's happened because of the drought here in this part of Brazil.

JULIANO JOSE POLIDOR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he's showing me the root of the corn stalks and there basically aren't any, he's saying. And, indeed, you can see that.

POLIDOR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's says what's happened to this crop is a total loss. And he's not alone. Drought has hit Southeastern Brazil hard this season and it's worrying because this is where much of Brazil's food is produced. Polidor has been a farmer since he was a teenager. His father is a farmer and so are his cousins and extended family. Last year, the river in this area flooded. This year, it's completely dried up. Extreme weather, he says shaking his head.

POLIDOR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All of us have never seen a drought that's been so prolonged and so aggressive as this one. In 49 days, we got maybe 11 millimeters of rain, he says.

POLIDOR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Every day that goes by its getting harder, and I think that will only accelerate, says Polidor. What one farmer feels far into the Brazilian countryside is pretty much exactly what scientists in Brazil's cities are saying too.

HILTON SILVEIRA PINTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We reached by phone Hilton Silveira Pinton, an agro-climatologist, who has worked on a number of studies for IMBRAPA, Brazil's government agency for agriculture.

PINTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The regions where we plant coffee today, especially the ones on lower elevations, will be getting hotter. And many of the coffee plantations in these areas will probably have to be abandoned, he says. He says that will mean that Brazil could lose some 10 percent of its coffee crop by the year 2020.

Brazil is the world's biggest producer of coffee. This recent drought has already sent coffee prices surging. And there's more.

PINTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By 2020, we will lose 20 to 22 percent of our soybean crop, he predicts. It will also affect corn, cassava, many of our Brazilian crops. All of them will suffer significant losses, he says. This will happen unless something changes.

TERCIO AMBRIZ: My name is Tercio Ambriz. I am a full professor here at Department of Atmospheric Science at University of Sao Paulo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ambriz heads Brazil's climate change council, too, and has also worked on government studies. And he says what is happening requires urgent attention.

AMBRIZ: Look, we are going towards extremes and that we can have some periods with lots of rain and other periods with droughts. So we have to manage our dams in a way that we can save some more water. And we have to change a little bit our energy strategy in Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now Brazil relies some 75 percent on hydroelectric power. Ambriz says we have to invest in wind farms, solar energy. Most of the farmers in Brazil, he says, are small scale, they need access to more hearty seeds, advice on what is happening and how to confront it, he says. And that's where the government comes in. But he says not enough is being done.

AMBRIZ: We produce lot of information - analysis, data analysis and projections - and that we don't see all this information being used by the government. Unfortunately in Brazil, the politics comes first.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Agro-climatologist Hilton Silveira Pinton agrees.

PINTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The government is not giving any attention to global climate change and much less here in Brazil. They don't talk about it at all. All the presentations we do to senators and deputies, they don't have the desired effect, he says. He says for example the projections put out by Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture for 2020 do not take into account climate change, despite the studies they presented. We've given them the studies, he says, but they don't take heed, he says.

Pinton says what is happening is unequivocally due climate change. Some have raised the issue of the effects of El Nino or La Nina, but Hilton says there is no such cyclical weather phenomenon happening now and the drought in Southeastern Brazil has been severe.

But some of the people who are in the best position to help farmers at risk say they don't believe what their own government scientists are telling them.

SENATOR JOSE AGRIPINO MAIO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We spoke to Brazilian Senator Jose Agripino Maia, who is part of the so-called Rural Bloc in Parliament.

MAIO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We don't know yet the causes of the melting of Antarctica, the long droughts in some countries, floods, tsunamis, he tells me.

When I ask him if he'd seen the scientific studies by Brazilian government scientists that show that climate change will fundamentally alter Brazil agricultural production in the next decade, he says no.

MAIO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he acknowledges there had been no discussion in congress over the issue.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in the Brazilian countryside, I ask the corn farmer, Juliano Jose Polidor, about what he thinks is happening. He tells me he doesn't have strong political views and he doesn't know much about the debate about climate change. He says he just knows what he sees.

POLIDOR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think we are getting to the hour where it's not just me who needs to be worried, he says, but the whole world. We have to decide what to do about what's happening, says Polidor.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro NPR News.

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