Semiarid Regions of Latin America Cooperate to Adapt to Climate

A rural settlement in the state of Pernambuco, in Brazil's semiarid ecoregion. Tanks that collect rainwater from rooftops for drinking water and household usage have changed life in this parched land, where 1.1 million 16,000-litre tanks have been installed so far. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

A rural settlement in the state of Pernambuco, in Brazil’s
semiarid ecoregion. Tanks that collect rainwater from rooftops for
drinking water and household usage have changed life in this
parched land, where 1.1 million 16,000-litre tanks have been
installed so far. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 27 2020 (IPS)

After centuries of poverty, marginalisation from national
development policies and a lack of support for positive local
practices and projects, the semiarid regions of Latin America are
preparing to forge their own agricultural paths by sharing
knowledge, in a new and unprecedented initiative.

In Brazil’s semiarid Northeast, the Gran Chaco Americano,
which is shared by Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, and the Central
American Dry Corridor (CADC), successful local practices will be
identified, evaluated and documented to support the design of
policies that promote climate change-resilient agriculture in the
three ecoregions.

This is the objective of DAKI-Semiárido Vivo, an initiative
financed by the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural
Development
(IFAD) and implemented by the Brazilian
Semiarid Articulation
(ASA), the Argentinean Foundation for Development in
Justice and Peace
(Fundapaz) and the National Development Foundation (Funde)
of El Salvador.

DAKI stands for Dryland Adaptation Knowledge Initiative.

The project, launched on Aug. 18 in a special webinar where some
of its creators were speakers, will last four years and involve
2,000 people, including public officials, rural extension agents,
researchers and small farmers. Indirectly, 6,000 people will
benefit from the training.

“The aim is to incorporate public officials from this field
with the intention to influence the government’s actions,” said
Antonio Barbosa, coordinator of DAKI-Semiárido Vivo and one of the
leaders of the Brazilian organisation ASA.

The idea is to promote programmes that could benefit the three
semiarid regions, which are home to at least 37 million people –
more than the total populations of Chile, Ecuador and Peru
combined.

The residents of semiarid regions, especially those who live in
rural areas, face water scarcity aggravated by climate change,
which affects their food security and quality of life.

Zulema Burneo, International Land Coalition
coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean and moderator of
the webinar that launched the project, stressed that the initiative
was aimed at “amplifying and strengthening” isolated efforts
and a few longstanding collectives working on practices to improve
life in semiarid areas.

Abel Manto, an inventor of technologies that he uses on his small farm in the state of Bahia, in Brazil's semiarid ecoregion, holds up a watermelon while standing among the bean crop he is growing on top of an underground dam. The soil is on a waterproof plastic tarp that keeps near the surface the water that is retained by an underground dam. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

Abel Manto, an inventor of technologies that he uses on his
small farm in the state of Bahia, in Brazil’s semiarid ecoregion,
holds up a watermelon while standing among the bean crop he is
growing on top of an underground dam. The soil is on a waterproof
plastic tarp that keeps near the surface the water that is retained
by an underground dam. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS

The practices that represent the best knowledge of living in the
drylands will be selected not so much for their technical aspects,
but for the results achieved in terms of economic, ecological and
social development, Barbosa explained to IPS in a telephone
interview from the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, where the
headquarters of ASA are located.

After the process of systematisation of the best practices in
each region is completed, harnessing traditional knowledge through
exchanges between technicians and farmers, the next step will be
“to build a methodology and the pedagogical content to be used in
the training,” he said.

One result will be a platform for distance learning. The Federal
Rural University of Pernambuco, also in Recife, will help with
this.

Decentralised family or community water supply infrastructure,
developed and disseminated by ASA, a network of 3,000 social
organisations scattered throughout the Brazilian Northeast, is a
key experience in this process.

In the 1.03 million square kilometres of drylands where 22
million Brazilians live, 38 percent in rural areas according to the
2010 census, 1.1 million rainwater harvesting tanks have been built
so far for human consumption.

An estimated 350,000 more are needed to bring water to the
entire rural population in the semiarid Northeast, said
Barbosa.

But the most important aspect for agricultural development
involves eight “technologies” for obtaining and storing water
for crops and livestock. ASA, created in 1999, has helped install
this infrastructure on 205,000 farms for this purpose and estimates
that another 800 peasant families still need it.

There are farms that are too small to install the
infrastructure, or that have other limitations, said Barbosa, who
coordinates ASA’s One Land and Two Waters and native seed
programmes.

The “calçadão” technique, where water runs down a sloping
concrete terrace or even a road into a tank that has a capacity to
hold 52,000 litres, is the most widely used system for irrigating
vegetables.

A group of peasant farmers from El Salvador stand in front of one of the two rainwater tanks built in their village, La Colmena, in the municipality of Candelaria de la Frontera. The pond is part of a climate change adaptation project in the Central American Dry Corridor. Central American farmers like these and others from Brazil's semiarid Northeast have exchanged experiences on solutions for living with lengthy droughts. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

A group of peasant farmers from El Salvador stand in front of
one of the two rainwater tanks built in their village, La Colmena,
in the municipality of Candelaria de la Frontera. The pond is part
of a climate change adaptation project in the Central American Dry
Corridor. Central American farmers like these and others from
Brazil’s semiarid Northeast have exchanged experiences on
solutions for living with lengthy droughts. CREDIT: Edgardo
Ayala/IPS

And in Argentina’s Chaco region, 16,000-litre drinking water
tanks are mushrooming.

But tanks for intensive and small farming irrigation are not
suitable for the dry Chaco, where livestock is raised on large
estates of hundreds of hectares, said Gabriel Seghezzo, executive
director of Fundapaz, in an interview by phone with IPS from the
city of Salta, capital of the province of the same name, one of
those that make up Argentina’s Gran Chaco region.

“Here we need dams in the natural shallows and very deep
wells; we have a serious water problem,” he said. “The
groundwater is generally of poor quality, very salty or very
deep.”

First, peasants and indigenous people face the problem of
formalising ownership of their land, due to the lack of land
titles. Then comes the challenge of access to water, both for
household consumption and agricultural production.

“In some cases there is the possibility of diverting rivers.
The Bermejo River overflows up to 60 km from its bed,” he
said.

Currently there is an intense local drought, which seems to
indicate a deterioration of the climate, urgently requiring
adaptation and mitigation responses.

Reforestation and silvopastoral systems are good alternatives,
in an area where deforestation is “the main conflict, due to the
pressure of the advance of soy and corn monoculture and corporate
cattle farming,” he said.

Mariano Barraza of the Wichí indigenous community (L) and Enzo Romero, a technician from the Fundapaz organisation, stand next to the tank built to store rainwater in an indigenous community in the province of Salta, in the Chaco ecoregion of northern Argentina, where there are six months of drought every year. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman/IPS

Mariano Barraza of the Wichí indigenous community (L) and Enzo
Romero, a technician from the Fundapaz organisation, stand next to
the tank built to store rainwater in an indigenous community in the
province of Salta, in the Chaco ecoregion of northern Argentina,
where there are six months of drought every year. CREDIT: Daniel
Gutman/IPS

More forests would be beneficial for the water, reducing
evaporation that is intense due to the heat and hot wind, he
added.

Of the “technologies” developed in Brazil, one of the most
useful for other semiarid regions is the “underground dam,”
Claus Reiner, manager of IFAD programmes in Brazil, told IPS by
phone from Brasilia.

The underground dam keeps the surrounding soil moist. It
requires a certain amount of work to dig a long, deep trench along
the drainage route of rainwater, where a plastic tarp is placed
vertically, causing the water to pool during rainy periods. A
location is chosen where the natural layer makes the dam
impermeable from below.

This principle is important for the Central American Dry
Corridor, where “the great challenge is how to infiltrate
rainwater into the soil, in addition to collecting it for
irrigation and human consumption,” said Ismael Merlos of El
Salvador, founder of Funde and director of its Territorial
Development Area.

The CADC, which cuts north to south through Guatemala, Honduras
and El Salvador, is defined not as semiarid, but as a sub-humid
region, because it rains slightly more there, although in an
increasingly irregular manner.

Some solutions are not viable because “75 percent of the
farming areas in the Corridor are sloping land, unprotected by
organic material, which makes the water run off more quickly into
the rivers,” Merlos told IPS by phone from San Salvador.

“In addition, the large irrigation systems that we’re
familiar with are not accessible for the poor because of their high
cost and the expensive energy for the extraction and pumping of
water, from declining sources,” he said.

The most viable alternative, he added, is making better use of
rainwater, by building tanks, or through techniques to retain
moisture in the soil, such as reforestation and leaving straw and
other harvest waste on the ground rather than burning it as peasant
farmers continue to do.

“Harmful weather events, which four decades ago occurred one
to three times a year, now happen 10 or more times a year, and
their effects are more severe in the Dry Zone,” Merlos pointed
out.

Funde is a Salvadoran centre for development research and policy
formulation that together with Fundapaz, four Brazilian
organisations forming part of the ASA network and seven other Latin
American groups had been cooperating since 2013, when they created
the Latin American
Semiarid Platform
.

The Platform paved the way for the DAKI-Semiárido Vivo which,
using 78 percent of its two million dollar budget, opened up new
horizons for synergy among Latin America’s semiarid ecoregions.
To this end, said Burneo, it should create a virtuous alliance of
“good practices and public policies.”

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Semiarid Regions of Latin America Cooperate to Adapt to Climate

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Semiarid Regions of Latin America Cooperate to Adapt to
Climate