Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at


The writers wish to express their sincere gratitude to SUDENE, IBGE, and CNPq. We would like to also thank Prof. Em. Hilgard O'Reilly Sternberg, University of California, Berkeley, and Dr Keith Muller, Kent State University, for their academic discussions and fruitful suggestions.


Local and scientific names of caatinga trees

1 Angico Anadenanthera rnacrocarpa Brenth.
2 Arapiraca Pithecollobirum foliorosum Benth.
3 Aroeira Astronium urundeuva Engl.
4 Bolusu (unknown)
5 Braúna Schinopsis brasiliensis Engl.
6 Burra-leiteira Sapium cicatricosum Pax et K. Hoffm.
7 Cabelo-de-negro (unknown)
8 Calumbi Mimosa malacocentra Mart.
9 Carqueijo Calliandra depauperatu Benth.
10 Canafistula Cassia excelsa Schrad.
11 Catingueira Caesalpinia pyramidalis Tul.
12 Espinheiro Piptadenia viridiflora Benth.
13 Faveleira Cnidoscolumphyllacanthus Muell. Arg. Pax et Hoff.
14 Imburana (Umburana) Bursera leptophloeos Mart.
15 Joao-mole (unknown)
16 Juazeiro Ziziphus joazeiro Mart.
17 Jucá Caesalpinia ferrlea Mart. ex Tul.
18 Jurema-branca Piptadenia stipulacea Ducke
19 Jurema-preta Mimosa hostilis Benth.
20 Mandacaru Cereus jamacaru DC.
21 Malva Gaya aurea St. Hill.
22 Marmeleiro-branco Croton argirophylloides Muell. Arg.
23 Maria-dura (unknown)
24 Mofumbo Combretum leprosum Mart. et Eichi.
25 Mororo Bauhinia cheilantha Steud.
26 Pau-branco Fraunhofera multiflora Mart.
27 Pau-de-casca Tabebuia spongiosa Rizzini
28 Pereiro Aspidosperma pyrifolium Mart.
29 Pinhao Jatropha mutabilis Baill.
30 Quebra-facao Phisocalymma scaberrimum Pohl
31 Quipa Opuntia palmadora Br. et Rose
32 Rompejibao Erythroxylum sp.
33 Saojoao Cassia excelsa Schrad.
34 Sobia Mimosa caesalpiniifolia benth.
35 Uricuri Cocos coronata mart.
36 Xiquexique Pilosocereus gounellei Byl. et Rowl.


Barros, S. 1985. Cercas sertanejas - tracos ecologicos do serfflo pernambucano. Secre taria de Educacao, Departamento de Cultura, Fundac,ao Joaquim Nabuco, Recife.

Golfairi, L., and R.L. Caser. 1977. Zoneamento ecologico da região nordeste para experimentação florestal. Centro de Pesquisa Florestal de Região do Cerrado,
Série Técnica, 10.

Hardesty, L.H., T.W. Box, and J.C. Malechek. 1988. "Season of cutting affects bio mass production by coppicing browse species of the Brazilian caatinga." Journal of Range Management, 41 (6): 447-80.
Hayashi, I. 1981. "Plant communities and their environments in the caatinga of Northeast Brazil." Latin American Studies 2: 65-79.

. 1988. "Changing aspect of caatinga vegetation in semi-arid region, Northeast Brazil." Latin American Studies 10: 61-71.

IBGE [Fundação Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística]. 1991. Anuário Estatistico do Brasil, 1991, 528-9.

Masuda, F., T. Nishizawa, and Y. Sakamoto. 1989. "Element partition among tree, soil, and basement rock in thorny shrub in Northeast Brazil: A preliminary note." Ann. Rep. Inst Geosci (University of Tsukuba) 15: 88-91.

Nishizawa, T., and M.M.V. Pinto. 1988. "Recent changes in firewood and charcoal production and their effects on deforestation." Latin American Studies 10: 121-31.

Pfeister, J.A., and J.C. Malechek. 1986. "Dietary selection by goats and sheep in a deciduous woodland of Northeastern Brazil." Journal of Range Management 39 (1): 24-8.

Pfeister, J.A., J.C. Malechek, and D.F. Balph. 1988. "Foraging behavior of goats and sheep in the caatinga of Brazil." Journal of Applied Ecology 25, 379-88.

Ribaski, J. 1986. "Avaliaçao do uso dos recursos florestais em imoveis rurais na regiao de Ouricuri, PK." Boletin de Pesquisa 31, EMBRAPA.

Saito, I., and H. Marnyama. 1988. "Some types of livestock ranching in São João do Cariri on the upper Paraíba, Valley, Northeast Brazil." Latin American Studies 10: 103-20.

Tsuchiya, A. 1990. "Hypertrophic growth of trees of the caatinga plant community and water balance." Latin American Studies 11: 51-70.

Drought, irrigation, and changes in the sertão of north-east Brazil

1 Introduction
2 Reservoir irrigation in Paraíba
3 Middle São Francisco valley
4 Consequences of irrigation agriculture


Isao Saito and Noritaka Yagasaki

1 Introduction

In Brazil's North-East, the semi-arid interior known as sertão (backcountry) is in marked contrast ecologically with the coastal zone (zona da mata) and the transitional zone (agreste). While the coastal zone is humid, receiving more than 1,600 mm of rain per annum, precipitation decreases toward the interior, less than 800 mm falling in the sertão. The humid coast was originally covered with dense forest, though little of this remains today. In the sertão, on the other hand, the caatinga the drought-resistant thorn scrub and xerophytic vegetation, predominates.

Such ecological regions have been the basis for different types of human land use, settlement, and economy. On the coast, sugar cane cultivation and sugar production have been important from the early stage of colonization and settlement up to the present. In the transitional zone, intensive farming of livestock and food crops has supported a dense population of peasants. The sertão, on the other hand, has been characterized by extensive cattle grazing and largescale properties held by absentee owners. Thus, the three regions of zone da mate, agreste, and sertão, differ in terms of environment, type of economy, and process of development (Andrade, 1968; Saito and Yagasaki, 1987).

While the fragility of the humid tropical environment of Amazonia is attracting worldwide attention, the sertão, whose ecological conditions and history of human use and occupancy differs substantially from those of Amazonia, is also considered susceptible to the process of desertification. The sertão, suffers from chronic scarcity of water and recurrent drought. Severe droughts have often caused hunger, poverty, mass migration, and even the deaths of many people as well as of animals.

While the first drought since the Portuguese colonization and settlement was officially recorded in the late sixteenth century in Pernambuco, six droughts occurred in the seventeenth century, fourteen in the eighteenth century, twelve in the nineteenth century, and twelve so far in this century, according to the Superintendency for Development of the North-East (Superintendência do Desenvolvimento do Nordeste) (SUDENE, 1981). Such droughts have become nationally recognized, especially since the late nineteenth century. An influx of people into the interior accelerated with the development of commercial cultivation of arboreal cotton, and the increased population, consequently, further exacerbated the region's susceptibility to drought. Despite attempts by various public organizations and projects to relieve drought problems, the region remains today one of the most underdeveloped sections of Brazil.

For the people in the semi-arid sertão, maximum use of limited water resources has been their major concern. Traditionally, people took advantage of the brejos, or the humid mountain environment with orographic rainfalls. Farming was practised during the lowwater season in the riverbeds, as the flow ceased, in the moist soil known as vezante. More recently, small reservoirs (açudes) were constructed for storing and supplying water. Such reservoirs now constitute an important landscape element of the sertão, (Saito et al., 1986). These efforts were traditional adaptations of the people to the semiarid environment.

In recent years, the sertão, is changing, as federal and state governments endeavour to promote regional development by establishing irrigation projects, which attempt to utilize scarce water resources by constructing dams, reservoirs, and irrigation canals and by introducing electric pumps and other irrigation facilities. The land covered with caatinga is being transformed into farmland. Irrigation farming, regardless of the scale and type, gradually - and sometimes drastically - changes agriculture, land use, and rural communities of the sertão,

Although the contemporary sertão, in transition can hardly be understood without considering irrigation farming, there is still limited knowledge concerning the process of irrigation development, land-use systems, and agricultural management on the farm and local scales. We also do not know if contemporary development policy will be able to remedy the sertão's chronic problems. In order to assess the government's irrigation approach for development, the socio-economic and ecological consequences of contemporary irrigation farming need to be scrutinized. Such examinations have to be made on a local scale, based on careful field investigation. Geographers concerned with people, land use, and environment have much to contribute here. An accumulation of case-studies will offer the basis for considering ecologically sound land-use systems and the social well-being of residents, and for reconsidering the regional development policies.

In this paper we intend to examine, on a small scale, the contemporary changes due to irrigation. Presented are two examples of smallscale, spontaneous irrigation farming around reservoirs in Boqueirão and Teixeira municípios in the state of Paraíba. and a large-scale irrigation development in the middle São Francisco Valley, around the twin cities of Petrolina and Juàzeiro (fig. 14.1). These areas emerged as important centres of irrigation farming during the past decade or so. We pay special attention to the development process of irrigation, farming types, and land use rotation systems. Details of each case are elaborated in our previous reports (Saito and Yagasaki, 1989,1991; Saito et al., 1991; Yagasaki et al., 1989).

2 Reservoir irrigation in Paraíba

Reservoirs in Paraíba.

Reservoirs in Paraíba. including those constructed by federal, state, and local governments, may be classified into three categories by size and type of use (table 14.1). A large reservoir has water storage capacity of over 200 million m³, a medium-size reservoir ranges from 10 to 50 million m³, and a smallscale reservoir holds less than 1 million m³. Large reservoirs are constructed by damming up major rivers, while those of small to medium size are found around urban settlements. In addition, numerous small reservoirs of less than 1 million m³ of water are found in cattle fazendas.

The National Department of Works Against the Drought (Departamento Nacional de Obras Contra as Secas, DNOCS) is a federal organization for regional development of the North-East, which was established as early as the first decade of this century. DNOCS has constructed reservoirs intended as a development strategy against aridity and rural poverty. The intention is to augment agricultural production and to promote commercial agriculture in order to alleviate rural poverty and to stabilize the population in the semi-arid regions, which are characterized traditionally by extensive livestock grazing and subsistence farming (Hall, 1978).

Figure 14.1 Study area in Nortb-East Brazil. A: Boqueirão area; B. Teixeira area; C: Petrolina-Juàzeiro area.

Up to the end of 1981, DNOCS had built 261 public dams and reservoirs in the North-East, with a total water storage capacity of 12.3 billion m³. Among them, 38 are found in the state of Paraíba, with a capacity of 2.5 billion m³. In addition, 596 dams were constructed by DNOCS in the NorthEast for private water storage; their reservoir capacity amounted to 1.3 billion m³. Paraíba. has 59 such reservoirs (Araújo, 1982). However, it has often been pointed out that these reservoirs are not necessarily utilized efficiently for local farming activities, despite the vast amount of water stored in them.

Boqueirão reservoir and its vicinity

Boqueirão município is situated on the eastern edge of the Paraiban sertão, in the middle Paraíba valley. Here the caatinga vegetation predominates with jurema-preta (Mimosa hostilis Benth.), catingueira (Caesalpinia pyramidalis Tul.), and pereiro (Aspidosperma pyrifolium Mart.), as well as such xerophytic plants as facheiro (Cereus squamosus Guerke) and mandacaru (Cereus jamacaru DC). Although annual precipitation fluctuates substantially, the region receives 400 to 600 mm in an average year. The rainy season is from March through August.

The Paraíba River was dammed up by DNOCS in 1956. Boqueirão reservoir, with a water capacity of over 500 million m³, belongs to the largescale category. It is variously utilized for urban consumption, electric power generation, irrigation, fishery, recreation, and flood control.

Boqueirão's economy has depended traditionally on livestock grazing and rainfed cultivation of maize, beans, cotton, and palma, a cactaceous plant used for cattle feed. Cattle are the most important animals, grazed in the caatinga as well as in the stubble of crops. Beans, maize, and cotton are cropped together for three to four years after the scrub is cleared. Palma and xerophytic plants become increasingly important as fodder for cattle during the dry season. Absentee landlords are not numerous. The landholding pattern of Boqueirão shows the transitional characteristics from the agreste to the sertão,.

Although irrigation farming was primarily undertaken on the floodplain to grow elephant grass, a type of sorghum used for cattle feed, it gradually expanded to the interfluvial areas using water pumped from the reservoir and the Paraíba River. Irrigated acreage increased substantially in the late 1970s, when tomatoes, bell peppers, and bananas became particularly important. In 1980, the area under irrigation amounted to around 400 hectares. Boqueirão reservoir, blessed with an ample quantity of water, is able to provide water for farming all the year round, and the area under irrigation is expanding.

During our field study in this area in October 1988, we identified 31 irrigation fields operated by 26 farmers (fig. 14.2). These fields are situated within two kilometres' distance from either the reservoir or the Paraíba, River. The total area under irrigation, crop production, and the type of irrigation were investigated. We also interviewed fourteen farm households regarding land tenure, family structure, residence, previous occupation, and crop marketing methods. Landuse surveys were also conducted. Figure 14.3 shows an example of an irrigation farm on the left bank of the Paraíba. River. In this farm, operated by a tenant farmer, tomatoes were first cultivated after clearing of the caatinga. Watermelons followed tomatoes. Then the field appears to have been rotated to either cotton or maize and beans (feijão), and eventually returned to caatinga. The details of the study are elaborated elsewhere (Saito and Yagasaki, 1989).

Table 14.1 Classification of reservoirs in Paraíba, North-East Brazil

Size Name of reservoir Construction Storage
('000 m³)
Year Agency
Large Coremas 1942 DNOCS 720,000
Mae D'Agua 1956 DNOCS 638,000
Boqueirão 1956 DNOCS 536,000
Engenheiro Avidos 1936 DNOCS 255,000
Medium São Gonçalo 1936 DNOCS 44,600
Sume 1962 DNOCS 36,800
Eng. Arco Verde 1936 DNOCS 35,000
Soledade 1933 DNOCS 27,058
Jatoba I 1954 DNOCS 17,520
Santa Luzia 1933 DNOCS 11,960
Taperoa 198? Canaã ?
Small Lagoa de Meio 1955 DNOCS 6,648
Riacho de S. Antonio 1956 DNOCS 6,834
Serra Branca 1966 DNOCS 2,117
Poços 1923/53 DNOCS 2,000
Bodocongo 1915 DNOCS 1,020
São Francisco 1984 Canaãa 9,000
Communal açudes 1930~ Community  
Açudes in Fazendas 1950~ Individual
Roadside açudes 1970~ Community

Source: Based on Araújo (1982): Darns in the northeast of Brazil, DNOCS, and field observa tion.
a.Governmental project of Paraíba.

While the produce is sold locally at the periodic market known as the feira, most crops are shipped to the public wholesale produce markets (CEASA) of large cities in Paraíba. and Pernambuco. Boqueirao's tomatoes and bell peppers are particularly important at the wholesale market of Recife,
where they represented 12.3 per cent and 13.2 per cent respectively of the total receipt in 1987.

Table. Use of reservoirs

Use of reservoirs

Hydroelectric Irrigation Urban Individual Animal Fishing Recreation Flood


Gravity Pump
O O   O   O O O O
O   O O   O     O
O O O O   O O O O
O O   O   O O O  
      O   O O    
  O       O      
          O O    
  O   O   O O   O
    O O          
      O     O   O
      O   O O    
      O   O O    
    O O   O      
    O     O      
      O O O      
        O O      
        O O O    

Irrigation farms are mobile and transient, easily shifting from one location to another. The repeated use of land causes plant diseases and declining productivity. Simple irrigation equipment and the acquisition of land by tenancy facilitate such mobility. In the fields, crops are typically rotated. After the land is rented, the caatinga cover is cleared and burned, the field is prepared, the irrigation ditch is dug, and water is secured by installing electric pumps and water pipes.

Tomatoes are generally grown for the first one to two years. The field is then planted in bell peppers, and afterwards rotated to cotton. Cotton fields eventually turn to banana fields before being abandoned and returning to caatinga. The crop rotation systems are summarized in table 14.2.

Although the production and marketing of irrigated crops have so far been successful, it is rather doubtful whether spontaneous irrigation farming has expanded employment opportunities in Boqueirão.

Figure 14.2 Irrigation farms around Boqueirão Reservoir, Paraíba. (Based on interviews.)

Teixeira plateau

The Teixeira plateau is located in the heart of the Paraiban sertão, some 270 km inland from João Pessoa and overlooking the Patos basin. Due to its high elevation, ranging from 750 to 900 m above sea level, the region has relatively mild climatic conditions with rather stable precipitation. February through April is the main rainy season, when 80 per cent of the annual precipitation is received. The environment, resembling that of the brejos typically found in eastern Paraíba is rather favourable for farming activities.

Teixeira município is dominated by small landholdings. Cattle and goats are the main animals, but the role of livestock in the economy of Teixeira is limited (Saito and Maroyama, 1988). Maize and beans are important food crops, while sisal and cashew nuts constitute the major cash crops.

Figure 14.3 Land use of an irrigation farm on the Paraíba River. 1: tomatoes; 2: tomatoes harvested; 3; watermelons; 4: bell peppers; S: cotton; 6: maize and beans; 7: wasteland; 8: caatinga; 9: uncultivated land; 10: corral; 11: irrigation pipes; 12: fences; 13: avelós hedgerow; 14: simple hut; 15: residence; 16: road. (Based on field observation.)

Although the local residents attempted to construct a small reservoir in the late nineteenth century by damming up a small stream of the Poços River, the present Poços Reservoir was completed by DNOCS (then called IFOCS) in 1923. Reconstructed thirty years later, the reservoir now holds 2 million m³ of water. However, the reservoir alone did not promote the development of irrigation farming. The real growth took place after 1984, when the São Francisco reservoir was built on the Poços River upstream of the Poços reservoir as part of the state-sponsored Cana project. This reservoir, with a capacity of 9 million m³, effectively promoted irrigated farming. In 1987, a third reservoir, named Sítio, was constructed downstream on the same river. Although these three reservoirs belong to the smallscale group in our overall classification of Paraíba's reservoirs, they have played important roles in intensifying Teixeira's farming.

Table 14.2 Land use cycles in the sertão, North-East Brazil

Irrigation method Location


Land use cycle (yrs) Use of caatinga Reference
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
No irrigation (rain) Caatinga/sertão D Caatinga(r) 30 Charcoal/ fire- wood/fence Johnson (1971)
Caatinga/Boa D Caatinga(r) DCaatinga(r) 10
Ventura MF MF Caatinga(r) DMF 15
Field/sertao MF MFA A A Caatinga(r) DMF 15 Fence/char- coal Andrade (1968)
Field/Boqueirão MF MFP P P P Caatinga(r) DMF 15
River Flood Várzea (flood- plain) MF(r) 1 - Andrade (1968)
B(r) 1 _
R(r) 1 -
Açude and river Pump Boqueirão TT TT A A Banana(r) ? - Field Observation
Pump Boqueirão PP PP PP PP MF MF Orange(r) ? -
Pump Teixeira TT TT TT CC CC CC CC CC Caatinga(r) ? Ash
Pump Petrolina F F Grapes(r) ? -
Canal Petrolina TT TT TT F F F Tree crops ? -
Canal Petrolina TT TT F F F MF MF MF TT TT F F F MF MF 8 -
Canal Petrolina N N F F F MF MF MF N N F F F MF MF 8 -
Ground water (pumpwell)   Mossoró (Rio Grande doNorte) N Capoeira(r) DNCapoeira(r) DN Capoeira(r) 5 Ash Interview

D: clearing of caatinga; Capoeira: second growth; A: cotton; P: palma; M: maize; F: beans; B: sweet potatoes; R: rice; N: melons; T: tomatoes; P: bell peppers; C: carrots;
continuous land use.

Figure 14.4 Distribution of irrigation farms in Teixeira, Paraíba. (Based on interviews and data from the Bank of Brazil.)

In our field research, 88 farms utilizing irrigation were identified in the Texeira município, based on our interviews and the data supplied at the branch office of Bank of Brazil (for details see Yagasaki et al., 1989). The total irrigated area amounted to 261 ha. This figure is nearly six times larger than that enumerated in the 1980 Census of Agriculture. Most irrigated fields are found around the Poços and São Francisco reservoirs, while others are dispersed, utilizing water from smaller reservoirs or rivers (fig. 14.4).

Carrots, tomatoes, and table beets are the major irrigated crops, accounting for 74 per cent, 16 per cent, and 5 per cent, respectively, of the total irrigated areas. Carrots are the most important, and are grown twice a year on wide mounds called canteiros with plenty of water and care. Figure 14.5 shows the land use of an irrigation farm on the São Francisco reservoir, with carrots and tomatoes being the major crops. The owner plans to continue planting carrots for the next fifteen years. After tomato is harvested, the field will be planted with bell pepper and onions.

There are three types of irrigation farms, operated by ownergrowers (proprietários), renters (arrendatários), and share-croppers (meieros). Since it is difficult to purchase farmland within easy access to the reservoirs, renters and share-croppers are becoming increasingly dominant. They constitute one-half both in terms of acreage and the number of farms. Most of these farms have taken advantage of agricultural loans from the Bank of Brazil. Such agricultural credit can cover from 70 per cent to nearly 100 per cent of the necessary investments.

Figure 14.5 Land use of an irrigation farm in Teixeira, Paraíba. 1: farm shed; 2: irrigation pipes; 3: carrots; 4: caatinga; 5: tomatoes; 6: other land use; 7: wasteland; 8: São Francisco reservoir, 9: road. (Based on field observation.)

Carrots and tomatoes are marketed to the CEASAs in the major cities of the North-East. Carrots are particularly important in Fortaleza, Recife, and Salvador. In 1987, Fortaleza received some 2,000 tons of carrots from Teixeira, amounting to 34 per cent of the total receipt. In Recife, Teixeira's carrots accounted for 11 per cent. Teixeira is considered one of the major carrot-producing areas in the North-East. This development took place in a relatively short period of time.

3 Middle São Francisco valley

Sobradinho dam, CODEVASF, and irrigation projects

The São Francisco River, originating in the state of Minas Gerais, is the largest permanent river of North-East Brazil. Enjoying semi-arid tropical conditions and an abundant supply of water all year round, the river's environs have great potential for agricultural development.

The middle São Francisco Valley, particularly the area around the twin cities of Petrolina and Juàzeiro, attracted national attention during the 1980s, when the region began to change rapidly from traditional sertão covered with caatinga into a productive farming area. The nature of the transformation process, as well as the type of irrigation farming, differs substantially from the spontaneous development exemplified by Boqueirão and Teixeira.

The construction of the Sobradinho dam in 1978, some 30 km upstream from the urban settlements of Petrolina and Juàzeiro, was one of the most important factors in transforming the region's economy, society, and landscape (fig. 14.6). There is a hydroelectric power plant with a capacity of 1 million kW. The Sobradinho lake has over 4,000Km² of surface areas and a water storage capacity of 34 billion m³. The water area is comparable to the Japanese inland sea of Setonaikai. The dam has contributed not only to stabilizing the volume of water flowing downstream but also to providing water for large irrigation projects.

The construction of the Sobradinho dam and the subsequent development of irrigation agriculture brought about a substantial influx of people. In 1940, the municípios of Petrolina and Juàzeiro had a combined population of some 30,000. This increased to 124,000 in 1970 and to 222,000 in 1980, reaching 332,000 in 1989. The din and bustle of the urbanized sections of Petrolina and Juàzeiro remind us of the boom towns of the frontier.

Figure 14.6 Irrigation projects in the middle São Francisco Valley. 1 to 7 correspond to projects in Table 3. (Based on the project plans of CODEVASF, aerial photographs, and field observation.)

The São Francisco Valley is presently administered by the Development Company of the São Francisco Valley (Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Vale do São Francisco, CODEVASF), while the rest of the North-East falls under the jurisdiction of the aforementioned DNOCS. CODEVASF, a public corporation established in 1974 on the basis of SUVALE (Superintendency of the São Francisco Valley), has five districts with headquarters in Brasilia. The Petrolina-Juàzeiro area belongs to the third district, whose regional office is situated in Petrolina (CODEVASF, 1989).

CODEVASF has promoted regional development by organizing large irrigation projects (table 14.3). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, SUDENE and SUVALE launched the pilot project of Bebedouro in the Petrolina município, and another pilot project, Mandacaru, in the Juàzeiro municipío, for the settlement of small farmers. When CODEVASF took over the implementation of such colonization projects, it established the Tourão project in 1976, the Bebedouro II and Maniçoba projects in 1981, the Curaçá project in 1982, and the Senador Nilo Coelho project in 1984. These projects offer small parcelas (plots) for small farmers, as well as medium to large parcelas to corporate farms. The emphasis is increasingly on corporate farming, as can be seen particularly in the Tourão project. While Bebedouro and Mandacaru have limited areas under irrigation, CODEVASF's new developments have vast amounts of land under irrigation, including 10,000 ha in Tourão and over 4,000 ha each in Manigoba and Curaçá. In the Senador Nilo Coelho project, the largest development in the area, 20,000 ha would be irrigated upon its completion.

Small farms and corporate farms

Provided that a sufficient amount of water is supplied, the semi-arid tropical environment with ample sunshine promotes rapid plant growth. Agricultural production increased substantially in the 1980s, when tomatoes, melons, cotton, grapes, mangoes, and sugar cane became major crops. In the Juàzeiro município, the area planted with tomato increased sharply from less than 900 ha in 1984 and 3,800 ha a year later to 4,700 ha in 1988, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistíca, IBGE). Melons were important throughout the decade, occupying 770 ha in 1988. The area under grapes also increased substantially in the mid-1980s, reaching over 200 ha in 1988. Mangoes, the most recent addition to the list of commercial crops, increased from 20 ha in 1986 to 240 ha in 1987. Although the area under sugar cane was only 1 ha in 1980, over 6,000 ha were recorded in 1988. As these statistics show, development of agriculture in this region took place only during the last decade. Small farms, medium- to large-scale corporate farms, and agroindustries have played their respective roles in this rapid development.

Table 14.3 Irrigation projects of CODEVASF in the middle São Francisco Valley

Project Establishment Total area (ha) Irrigable area (ha) Pumping capacity (m3/s)

Colono area

Colono area

Lot Area (ha) Average Lot Area (ha) Major firm
1 Bebedouro I 1968 7,797 2,418 3.7 104 1,090 10.5 6 1,328  
2 Mandacaru 1973 823 382 0.72 331 331 6.5 1 51 EMBRAPA
3 Tourão 1976 10,713 10,454 11.06 32 182 5.7 M:17 2,034
L: 2 8,238 Agrovale/Frutivale


4 Bebedouro II 1981 2,064 667 1 2,064
5 Maniçoba 1981 12,236 4,317 5.43 232 1,890 8.1 S/M:50 1,321
L: 1 500 Maniçoba Agricola


6 Curaçá 1982 15,059 4,436 5.66 267 1,964 7.3 16 2,280
7 Senador Nilo Coelho 1984 56,286 20,018 23.2 1,432 8,592 6.0 S/M:105 12~59/lot
L: 8 60~320/lot

S: Small; M: Medium; L: Large.
Sources: CODEVASF (1989): Informação gerais dos perimetros irrigados da 3 directoria regional da CODEVASF. CODEVASF (1982): Inventário dos projetos de irrigaçáo.

Small farmers in irrigation projects are called colonos. They own five to ten hectares of farmland, and cultivate such cash crops as melons, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and cotton. Colono farming is typically observed in the Bebedouro and Mandacaru projects, where agricultural cooperatives are effectively organized for cooperative purchase and marketing. The Agricultural Cooperative of Bebedouro (CAMPIB) has 130 members, and that of Mandacaru (CAMPIM) has 50 members.

Japanese farmers, widely known in Brazil as skilled producers of vegetables and fruits, are actively engaged in farming in this area. Although a small number of Japanese farmers started to produce melons in the 1970s, the real development took place in the mid1980s, when the Agricultural Cooperative of Cotia (Cooperative Agrícola de Cotia), the largest agricultural cooperative in Brazil, founded by Japanese immigrants in the 1920s, started a colonization project. Obtaining some 1,000 ha from CODEVASF in the Curaçá. project, thirty plots for settlers were prepared. Twenty-nine Japanese families with ample experience and capital from the states of São Paulo and Paraná took advantage of this opportunity. After clearing caatinga and preparing fields in 1983, they initially planted tomatoes and melons for immediate returns. As grape vines grew, the colony developed as a centre of grape cultivation. Grapes are shipped to the domestic market as well as to Europe. Beside Cotia's colonization project, many Japanese are independently engaged in farming.

Japanese farmers function as agricultural innovators who experiment with new crops, technology, and marketing. They have contributed a great deal to producing and marketing melons for São Paulo. Double harvesting of grapes and year-round shipment of mangoes became successful due to their experiments. A winery with extensive vineyards is operated by a Japanese resettled from São Paulo. In support of their endeavours, the Agricultural Cooperative of Cotia, as well as the Agricultural Cooperative of South Brazil (Cooperative Agrícola Sul Brasil), another Japanese-founded cooperative, opened branch offices in Juàzeiro This region is thus becoming an outpost of Japanese colonization outside of the cultural and agricultural centres in São Paulo and northern Paraná.

Corporate farms, diverse in size, management, and origin, also play important roles in this region. The Bompreço company, operating a large supermarket chain in the North-East with headquarters in Recife, operates a 5,000 ha farm of Frutivale in Juàzeiro in and around the Tour o project. The DAN (Desenvolvimento Agrícola do Nordeste S.A.) company, financed by the American Express Company and Brazilian investors, is operated by an Israeli firm with advanced technology for arid-land agriculture. An attempt by non-farming investors to make profits in agriculture is well exemplified by the Frutinor company. With headquarters in Salvador, it owns 8,000 ha in three locations. Figure 14.7 shows the land use of a Frutinor farm in the Curaçá project. With four centre-pivot irrigation systems, 500 ha are under irrigation, and the fields are rotated for continuous harvest (for details, see Saito et al., 1991).

In addition, local cattle fazendas attempt to intensify parts of their land use by introducing irrigation farming. These corporate farms typically have gigantic centre-pivot irrigation facilities and expensive drip irrigation equipment.


The Petrolina-Juàzeiro area has also attracted agricultural processing industries, which, in turn, promote farming activities. There are processing plants for tomatoes, cotton, and bell peppers. Wine, sugar, and alcohol are also produced. Some of these agro-industries have headquarters in southeastern Brazil, while others are multinational corporations.

The first enterprise to start agricultural processing was the São Francisco Valley Winery (Vinicola do Vale do São Francisco, Fazenda Milano), which initiated wine production in 1974. A decade later the second winery, operated by a Japanese Brazilian, appeared. Both wineries are managed by people resettled from the state of São Paulo.

Probably most important was the establishment of tomato processing plants. The Cicanorte company, established in 1978 in Juàzeiro was the first to start processing tomatoes. It is a subsidiary of Cica headquartered in Jundiaí, São Paulo. Two other major tomato processors, Etti and Costa Pinto, established their factories in Petrolina's industrial district in 1984 and 1988 respectively. The Paulo Coelho group, headed by a local economic and political leader in Petrolina, also started the Frutos do Vale company in 1986. These four tomato processors collect tomatoes by contracting with small farmers as well as large corporate growers. The area under contract amounted to some 15,000 ha in 1989. Tomato cultivation starts in March and the processing continues from June through November. Contracts are well planned in order to secure a stable supply of tomatoes (Saito and Yagasaki, 1991).

Figure 14.7 Land use of the Frutinor company's industrial farm. 1: watermelons; 2: tomatoes; 3: maize; 4: beans; 5: crotaralia; 6: under preparation; 7: harvested; 8: fruits; 9: grapes; 10: mangoes; 11: lemons; 12: bananas; 13: administrative facilities; 14: agrovila; 15: road; 16: irrigation canals; 17: capoeira; 18: caatinga. (Based on field observation and aerial photographs.)

The establishment of a sugar and alcohol factory by the Agrovale company in 1980 was very striking. The company owns some 16,000 ha, of which over 7,000 ha are planted to sugar cane. The Usina Mandacaru, located in the centre of the vast cane fields, functions from May through November. Its calendar differs substantially from that of the traditional sugar cane regions of the coastal North-East. Sugar-cane yields amount to some 120 tons per hectare, more than twice than that on the coast, and even higher than that in the canegrowing regions of São Paula. The operation is financed mainly by a civil engineering and construction firm based in Maceio.

There are two multinational corporations operating in this area. One is the Algodeira São Miguel company, started in 1984, a subsidiary of one of the world's largest cotton manufacturers, Coats Viyella, headquartered in Great Britain. Not only does it manage directly 1,200 ha of cotton fields, but it also has 2,500 ha under contract with small farmers. The other is Nisshin Seifun do Brasil. This Japanese firm extracts red dyes from bell peppers to make poultry feed. The product is exported to Japan.


Contents - Previous - Next