Bases geográficas dos problemas do Nordeste


  • Mário Lacerda de Melo


Brasil;, Nordeste;, Geografia;, Secas;, Geologia;


The author begins by defining the Brazilian Northeast physiographically and biogeographically as. the group of lands situated in the northeastern part of the country, having a hot, semiarid climate and scrub forest (“caatinga") vegetation, edged with coastal strips enjoying a damp tropical climate and covered with primitive forest vegetation. In accordance with this point of view, the Northeast stretches from the western border of Ceará to approximately the parallel of Salvador (Bahia).

            Certain government agencies restrict the Northeast to the region with a semiarid climate known as the "drought polygon", as is done by the Departamento Nacional de Obras contra as Secas (National Department of Anti-Drought Works) and, more recently, the Banco do Nordeste do Brasil (Bank of the Northeast of Brazil).

           The National Geography Council used to extend the Northeast to cover all of the states from Maranhão down to Alagoas, inclusively; more recently, however, it has detached Maranhão and Piauí to form a separate region called the Middle North. This regional division excludes all of the state of Sergipe and the northernmost two-thirds of the state of Bahia.

            The Superintendência do Desenvolvimento do Nordeste (Superintendency of Development of the Northeast) considers Piauí and Maranhão as the Northeast but shifts the limits of the region as far south as the southern state line of Bahia. This delimitation corresponds more closely to the extent of the characteristically northeastern area which reaches about as far south as Teófilo Otoni, in Minas Gerais.

            This paper, however, is not concerned with the Middle North, the south of Bahia and the north of Minas Gerais.

            The Northeast is readily distinguishable from the Northern and West Central regions, by its higher demographic density. No less simple is its main sub-division, for the 65 inhabitants per sq. mile limit separates the semi-arid backlands (sertão) from the eastern humid and semi-humid. belt.

            The humid fringe, known as the Zona da Mata (or Woodland Zone) may be said to be bounded by the 39.4-inch isohyet and follows the coast with a width varying from 30 to 75 miles. from the lower valley of the Ceará-Mirim to the embayment of Todos os Santos. The sugar farming industry is the major element in the land-use pattern, as a result of a number of favorable natural factors: a warm, rainy climate with little variation in temperature and a clearly defined dry season, in spring and summer; a tropical forest vegetation, supplying firewood; a plentiful hydrographic network; and proximity to the sea.

            The most widespread soils in this region are the "red clays", derived from crystalline rocks, argillaceous and silico-argillaceous, that mantle the rounded hills and level surfaces called "chás" (flats), the latter being rather more sandy. The soils of the "tabuleiros", the flood-plains and the coastal plain originated from sedimentary rocks.

            The tabuleiros are low plateaus or mesas prolonging the surface of the "flats" seawards, but with soils that are even more sandy, especially when covered with the type of vegetation called cerrado, a savanna fairly densely scattered with trees. As this occurs most frequently in Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte, there is less sugar grown in these parts.

            The soils o f the várzeas or flood -plains lining the streams consist o f a reddish clay known as massapé. They were the first to be planted with sugarcane and in crystalline are as they now amount to 20-25% of the land under sugarcane.

            On the coastal plain, the sandy soils of the spits and marine terraces are used for growing coconut palms, which, together with fishing, represent the chief economic activities of this strip of land. The soil of the mangrove swamps is as yet not put to any good use. In the Northeast the sugar is grown on plantations. The technological progress that led to the substitution of the old-style sugar-mills or engenhos by the more modern refineries (usinas) has accentuated the capitalistic nature of these undertakings and transformed the former sugar barons, who milled their own sugar, in to suppliers of cane to the refineries.

            By now, the Northeast has lost the lead in the sugar economy of Brazil as a whole. Among the causes of this decline, the author only indicates those of geographical origin, viz: 1. When Brazilian sugar was dependent on shipments to foreign markets, the Northeast was favorably placed in relation to the other producing areas throughout the country; when this dependence shifted to the domestic market, the producing areas in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, acquired a major advantage. 2. The lay of the land is such that only about 30% of the area under sugarcane in the Northeast can be tilled by tractor. 3. As a consequence of soil exhaustion, the initial superiority of the massapé soils has been wiped out, and their yield is now dependent on fertilizer.

            The sugar-farming industry in the Northeast benefits, however, from a plentiful supply of cheap labour. This is responsible for a low working output and extremely low standards of living, as well as extreme mobility of the rural population. On the other hand, more than half the land under sugarcane in Pernambuco belongs to less than fifty landowners.

            The Agreste is an intermediate strip lining the humid zone to the west, from Rio Grande do Norte to Alagoas, and having a maximum width of about 110 miles. The farming there is highly diversified and the land use pattern involves a large number of different combinations covering a range of food produce such as cassava (manloc), corn (maize), beans and fruits, as well as cotton, coffee, livestock, sisal and sugarcane. The total annual rainfall varies from 25.6 to 39.4 inches, but there is never a run of years without a rainy season, and this enables agricultural activities to be carried on from year to year and makes for a higher demographic density.

            In Pernambuco, the eastern limit of the Agreste corresponds more or less to the escarpment of the Borborema plateau where the drop in the land varies from 1,000 to 1,300 feet, with spurs that are humid and well populated on the windward slopes and semiarid and deserted to leeward.

            One of these dry leeward zones lies to the north of the serra do Pirauá, close to the Pernambuco-Paraíba state line, dividing the Agreste into a northern and a southern part. The latter is made up of pediments resulting from the widing of the river valleys and covered with scrub forest. Their cattle is raised with the help of the so-called forage palm that is grown theire, and cotton and food crops are produced. On the humid patches, known as brejos, coffee and fruits are also cultivated. In the southern part of the Agreste, around Garanhuns, both altitudes and rainfall are higher, and better yields are obtained from farming, which includes livestock, coffee, cotton and food crops.

            In Rio Grande do Norte, the northern Agreste is merely a belt separating the humid coastal region from the semiarid interior. In Paraíba, however, there is a high part on the Borborema plateau and a lower part to the east of it. On the former the crops are extremely diversified: sisal, cotton, food produce (including potatoes) and livestock. On the low part, cattle-raising is more important and crop diversifications has not been carried so far.

            The Paraíba brejo is continuous and covers a single large area of hílly country with a high demographic density (more than 260 inhabitants p;;r sq. mile), producing in particular, brown sugar in cakes, rum and sisal.

            The Agreste has a much more varied pattern of land ownership than the zone3 of the Mata and the Sertão, and the holdings vary from the immense estate to the very small farm. The are as where the latter predominate are mostly under diversified food crops while the large or medium property owner is mostly concerned with stockraísing and sisal.

            Farming methods in the Agreste are hidebound and primitive, characterized mainly by: clearing by burning and land rotation, rudimentary farm implements, share-cropping and an absence of: fertilizer, irrigation, selection, plant protection and pest control.

            Other factors enter into the low index of productivity in the Northeast, e.g. the low cultural standards of the farm worker, the lack capital and short-term land tenancy.

            The social and economic problems of the Agreste would be easier to solve than those of the Sertão, with its semiarid climate, or the Zona da Mata, dominated by the plantations, but their solution is not to be found in the expansion of commercial crops sisal, as some people think, for this has only discouraged the growing of diversified food- crops, thereby aggravating the problem of supplying the northeastern centers of population. On the contrary, there are a number of factors in favor of intensifying the culture of food plants and regulating the flow of the rivers in the Agreste; such are the high demographic density, the proximity of the markets, the Jack of power for the urban industries in the region and the necessity of irrigating the fields of sugarcane in the Zona da Mata.

            In the semiarid Sertão. the scarcity and irregularity of the rainfall restricts agriculture to a few plants ecologically adapted, such as perennial cotton, with the result that extensive stockraising is the major activity. Certain small areas are an exception, e.g.: the river beaches, exposed at low water, where the rich alluvial soil is tilled (vazantes), or the mudbanks (baixios) that emerge as islands in the dry seasons; the pediments (pés-de-serra) that ring the inselberge and are regularly flooded; and finally the brejos, fertile patches in the humid part of the uplands (serras húmidas).

            The area of the Sertão, which extends from the northern seaboard to the center of the state of Bahia and includes the southeast of Piauí, is subdivided by the 25.6-inch isohyet in to two parts: the hyperxerophytic sertão with less than 40 inhabitants to the square miles, and the hypoxerophytic sertão, where the demographic densities are sometimes higher. The former subdivision comprises 3/4 of the sertão of Rio Grande do Norte, the Cariris Velhos, in Paraíba, and both banks of the lower middle San Francisco. Small areas form regional exceptions; such are the islands of the latter river, irrigated and planted with onions, the upper stretches of the river Pajeú, where perennial cotton is grown, and the low valleys of the Apodi and the Açu, which boast of extensive carnauba palm forests.

            In the hypoxerophytic sertão, the more humid areas, given over to farming, are and more frequent (serra de Baturité, valley of the Jaguaribe, etc.). Regional planning these humid areas should have aimed at more efficient development of their function of food supplier and store-house for the semiarid interior.