Life and Survival in Brazil’s Cactus Drylands
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
LOOK at that dark patch on the map, an area of some 1,500,000 square kilometers (579,150 square miles). It is Brazil’s northeast, notorious for scorching heat, periodic droughts and an unusual way of life. Why, mere survival there in the dry season takes on a note of drama!
But come closer. Bathed by the Atlantic Ocean in the north and east, this region’s beautiful, palm-fringed beaches, under a deep-blue sky and burning sun almost all the year around, suggest the descriptive name Costa do Sol (Sunny Coast). It is also on the coast that most of the population lives. The general features of these people betray indigenous origins, a cross between white man and Indian. They are hospitable, skillful and imaginative. But leaving the coast behind, let us explore the hinterland.
“Caatingas”—Drought-plagued Cactus Drylands
As we travel inland, there is a gradual change in vegetation. Trees become sparser and look more stunted. Suddenly, we enter a caatinga (meaning “white forest,” that is, thin forest). This is the name that the indigenous people have given to the typical terrain, where the dry season hits hardest and lasts longest. These caatingas are not a continuous dryland region, but are smaller or larger upland areas scattered over the northeast. It is here that droughts endanger life.
At first, you would not think so as you identify the flora, especially in the rainy season when the land is green and luxuriant. The mandacaru cactus (Cereus jamacaru), with several thorny stems joined at the ground, dominates the skyline. It reaches a height of three meters (9 feet). Xique-xique cactus (Pilocereus gounellei) is similar, only smaller, and is sometimes candelabra-like in appearance. There is the spiny mesquite, a tree with tiny leaves that form an impenetrable parasol, allowing vegetation to grow in its humid shade. The jujube tree spreads a large evergreen crown at a height of 10 to 15 meters (33 to 49 feet). The most common is the drumstick tree (Cassia fistula), named for the shape of its seedpods. In the spring, large yellow flowers add a riot of color and perfume to its dense foliage. Then there are flowering mimosa and brauna trees. The pau-branco (Auxemma glazioviana, order of Polemoniales) seems like a huge bride’s veil with its perfumed white flowers that attract swarms of wild bees.
The oil-fruit-bearing oiticica tree stands firm with a roundish crown some 15 meters (49 feet) in circumference. The tropical roble, or umbu-rana, with pink flowers, and the ever-present carnauba palm, are dotted about in a mesh of shrubs and thorny bushes. There are also croton, quince and pepper trees, bromeliads with spiny leaves and flowers in dense spikes. All these plants have one thing in common: They are hardy, colorful in the rainy season, and they can withstand any drought for months on end. They may lose all their leaves and appear dead, but as soon as the rainy season starts, they spring to life with an outburst of tropical colors.
Trees and shrubs are by no means the only living things. An assortment of wild animals adds life and variety. The sly fox and the stealthy jaguar are here. A two-meter-long (6.5-foot-long) lizard, the teju, as well as armadillos, opossums and the rock cavy can be seen. High above circles the much-feared caracara hawk, and near the earth wild pigeons abound.
But what means of living could exist in such a seasonally inhospitable land? Cattle raising. Yes, large cattle ranches make the most of the seasonal pasture grounds. However, the rains that fall from January to March are not sufficient to develop good grasslands. They merely encourage the growth of cactuses and brushy vegetation, which is soon eaten up, partly by the hungry cattle and partly by the merciless sun.
Surviving the Dry Season
As early as May or June, the pasture in the caatinga already is scarce. The cattle raiser is beginning to face difficulties. Unruffled by the age-old problem, and unable to feed his animals, he is forced to “close the gate on them.” What does this mean? It means that the corral is closed, the cattle being sent off to fend for themselves.
Virtually abandoned, the animals take a beating in their fight for survival. To begin with, they chew on the lower branches. Then they attack the bark of small trees and, finally, there is almost nothing to relieve their hunger. Slowly, under a flaming sun, at once beautiful and terrible, the leaves disappear, the birds migrate, barely subsist or else die. The small seasonal rivers and rivulets dry up. All vegetation turns an ugly gray. Bared to sight is a wilderness of thorny branches. These shrubs and trees, like roots turned up, averaging three meters (9 feet) in height, present an almost impenetrable tangled mass. As far as the eye can see, there is the same disheartening picture. The animals lose weight rapidly. Searching for water, they find it only in tiny, shallow pools remaining from the last rainfall and shielded by the thicket.
The Vaqueiro—Ready Helper in Need
The vaqueiro (the herdsman or cowboy) is placid, taciturn, of slight build and a little bent. His eyes have a languid expression, seemingly reflecting no ambition. With the oncoming drought, he prepares himself for the toughest part of his assignment. From now on he will wear his strange-looking clothes. A leather jacket hangs on his bony shoulders. A breast protection, often made of jaguar skin, reaches from neck to belt. Tough leather leggings protect his legs. Rough, sandallike footwear covers his feet. Thick leather mittens and a conical leather hat with turned-up rim, complete his outfit.
Only when dressed like this is the vaqueiro able to venture into the scrubby caatinga. He searches for the sick animals, the wounded or starving, those unable to walk. Like a shepherd, he brings them temporarily to the corral. As a last resort, the animals receive a ration of branches from a nearby mesquite. Or they may chew on some sour mandacaru or xique-xique, cactuses rich in water. The cowboy has to singe these first to burn away the thorns. In extreme cases of drought, he has been known to share in this frugal diet.
Bringing in the Cattle
From about December the rainy season returns and with it a welcome relief from the specter of drought. There is a marvelous reawakening of ground and trees. Now is the time for the older animals to be caught in the budding brushwood and to be brought to the ranch. Some will be ready for the slaughterhouse. Others will be left to roam wild for another year or so.
Dressed in his leather armor, which makes him look more like a medieval knight than a cowboy, the vaqueiro picks his way on horseback, alert and attentive. From previous experience he knows that most of the animals will have survived. No doubt this is partly due to the sturdy Indian crossbreed, locally called “roughbred.”
Catching an animal is really a spectacle. Look! There is a bull. Yes, the horse has spotted it too. The cowboy knows what his trained mount will do next and prepares himself by tucking his head into the horse’s mane. Then the mad race is on!
Accustomed to its wild state, the bull will not surrender easily. The horse follows right on its trail, going deeper into the bushland, indifferent to the rider, who presses himself tightly against his mount and tries to avoid the flood of branches whipping his leather armor. The horse has but one obsession: Catch that bull!
There appears a patch of open land—the chance to catch the fleeing animal! In a sudden burst of speed, the cowboy and his horse are side by side with the runaway. His right foot in the stirrup, with one hand holding his horse’s mane, the cowboy leans to the right and grabs the bull’s tail. A well-calculated and rapid jerk to the side and the bull stumbles, falling to the ground with a thud.
As the bull goes down, the cowboy jumps on top of it. Turning the bull’s head to the side, he digs its horns into the ground. Inexplicably, this move tells the bovine that the battle is lost. There is no further resistance. From his bag, the cowboy pulls out a leather mask to blindfold the animal, as well as fetters (a pair of small hollowed-out pieces of wood) into which to fit the animal’s forefeet. Thus blindfolded and bound, the bull will remain motionless until driven to the home corral.
Now the cowboy again reaches into his bag, takes out a piece of brown block sugar. Eating this, he satisfies his hunger and thirst, while keeping an eye on the caatinga. The vaqueiro will stay in the shrubland until he has brought together a herd of cattle. Only then will he return to his simple, thatched hut and to his family.
Rodeo and Folksingers
At the end of the rainy season, the typical northeastern rodeo takes place. Although of Spanish origin, it has acquired a local flavor. It is the festival that reproduces the vaqueiro’s work, but with merrymaking and the public’s applause.
From all parts of the region, many herdsmen arrive on their mounts. With polished saddles, clean harnesses and brushed leather jackets, they repeat the feats normally performed only in the wilderness.
With the cowboys come the “singers,” witty versemakers of the backwoods who accompany themselves on the guitar. They share the people’s gaiety and are a popular attraction at the fairs and rodeos. And there is also the feuilletonist, a novelist of the backwoods, praising his latest work, written in backwoods language and telling a score of impossible stories. For a while, all have forgotten the harshness of their land.
The Cowboy and Religion
Although the region’s prevailing form of worship is Roman Catholicism, in practice the popular religion is a mixture of mysticism and superstition. Do you see the strange figure on the road, the one dressed in penitent’s garb, a type of coarse religious habit? He is a common sight in these parts. Although he is dressed like a monk, his vows are only temporary. Often a man can be seen carrying a heavy cross on his way to a church several kilometers away. Or, he may walk as a pilgrim chanting religious hymns and prayers. Some simulate the act of “crucifying” by having themselves bound to a large wooden cross in front of a church or chapel.
Once a year, hundreds of cowboys meet to celebrate the “singing Mass of the cowboy,” in memory of a murdered colleague. In front of an improvised field altar, they listen first to a cowboy-priest. Then, on horseback, they file past the altar to deposit their offerings. For Communion, they all sit on the ground sharing their usual food: dried meat, block sugar and manioc flour.
Opening Up Wells of Spiritual Waters
Life has not been easy for the people in Brazil’s drought-stricken northeast. Slowly, however, the economic image of the backwoods is changing. In the towns, working conditions are on the upgrade. Hundreds of rainwater reservoirs have been built in recent years, the one at Oros having a capacity of over two billion cubic meters (2.6 billion cubic yards). A dam in the São Francisco River created a lake of 34 billion cubic meters (44.5 billion cubic yards).
More important still, the Word of God is making great strides in the region. Even in the areas most affected by the periodic droughts, abundant spiritual waters of divine truth are bubbling forth to quench the thirst for knowledge of God. Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been successful in reaching outlying townships and isolated farms with the comforting good news of God’s kingdom.—Matt. 24:14; Rev. 22:17.
In spite of illiteracy and superstition, many are those wanting to quench their spiritual thirst. Several Christian congregations are busily telling others that the time is near when literal “springs of water” will gush forth in the desert. (Isa. 35:6, 7) Then the fascinating but afflicted caatingas of Brazil’s northeast will become a beautiful part of an earth-wide paradise, without the struggle for survival.
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