Our study tour team is back in the United States now, and I am enjoying my last few days of being tan before the utter lack of sun here in New England turns me pale again.
I feel like I have been in conversations about water for weeks now. Here in New England in late March, we are talking a lot about water. We have too much, the soil is saturated and our rivers are flooding. My own basement is flooding even as I write this.
In Brazil we heard over and over "Água é vida", water is life. The farmers we met with talked about their plans in terms of water: "When the rains come, this is what I will plant." and "it is only because we have this irrigation, this river, this cistern, that we are able to survive and to have enough to grow to sell at the market."
Photo of Macajera, a kind of yam growing with irrigation. You can see Dorina's feet too!
We heard about life before there was irrigation, but also about life in the past when the rains came in March, or in February. "In the past, we were able to have two harvests per year, but now it is only one." We were not able to get hard numbers on the economic impact of reducing the number of harvests from 2 to 1, but I have to assume it is significant.
Meanwhile, here in New
England, the farmers will also not be able to plant their fields in March, as they normally would. For small scale vegetable farmers the land is simply too wet and would drown the seedlings. For row crop and commodity farmers the danger of planing in wet fields includes the risk that the heavy machinery used to plant and fertilize the fields will compact the soil. This can lead to less porous soil which later in the year will not be able to hold moisture. Ironically, planting in wet weather will lead to a much greater susceptibility to drought later.
Here's a picture of our soaked campus sidewalk here at MIT. To the right of center you can see the storm drain, utterly unable to keep up.
I got curious about irrigation and looked up some stats on Brazil vs. the US in terms of irrigated arable land. It took a little figuring based on data from the CIA World Factbook but what I came up with is that although the US and Brazil are very similar in terms of total land area (Brazil is 92% of the land size of the US), the US has about 2.8 times the arable land that Brazil has. The US also has 2.7 times the irrigated land that Brazil has. In the US, 13.6% of the arable land is irrigated, and in Brazil it's just 3.5% of the arable land under irrigation. Maybe not as much of Brazil needs irrigation, but the part we were in certainly does. I wonder if this percentage will change over time? I think it should, for the same of farmers' resiliency, but then I also hope that irrigation is done in a smart way with a long term vision in mind. Messing around with holding, diverting, capturing, and storing water can get tricky.
The sharp contrast in my own setting over the past week reminds me of one of my first and favorite lessons from Biology, which was my undergraduate major. All reactions in a living organism strive toward equilibrium; osmosis allows cells to exchange their electrolytes and absorb sugars from the bloodstream. Photosynthesis allows plants to convert water, nutrients, and carbon dioxide into cellulose and tasty carbohydrates like bananas and papayas.
All reactions strive toward equilibrium, but the only time equilibrium is ever reached throughout an organism is when it dies. I think there is a metaphor for people there; we are all dealing with excesses in some areas and deficiencies in others. Here in New England we have water that we would LOVE to give to the sertão in Brazil, but we can't. We will have to invest in drainage and new carpets. In Brazil, investments are underway to capture rainwater on small and large scales, like this clever system we saw in Afogados.
The rain captured in the gutter falls onto a shingle supported by what I think might be an old mop. The bricks are surrounding a sort of cistern which contains water for the household.
We live in a world that is out of balance, and I think it's important to work toward balance and equity and good rich moist soil that is neither to wet or too dry, too clay or too sand. But I also think that life is made a little more comfortable by living with the paradox that although all living creatures strive for balance, life itself includes constant and continual re-balance.
I think the key then is resilience, like we saw in the farm field with its organic material left intentionally on the ground - keeping the soil a little cooler in hot weather and a little warmer in cool weather.
I'd like to believe that I gained some personal resiliency, by embarking on this adventure that included long bumpy bus rides, a lot of packing and repacking, multiple (fabulous) roommates, and a wide variety of new tastes and new sights. Traveling is indeed good for building character and gathering stories to tell!