Serrita, Brazil – Djalma Sedrim worked his entire life to build up his cattle ranch and livelihood, only to see the worst drought in a half century dry it all up in a matter of months.
The 75-year-old rancher had about 1,000 cattle and a plot of land where he and his wife grew corn.
But then the weather changed everything.
Significant rainfall hasn’t been seen here for 19 months, and Sedrim’s pasture went dry and morphed into a barren dustbowl. His animals had nowhere to graze, and now the dusty pasture has been transformed into a surreal scene, with dozens of rotting carcasses of cattle that starved to death. Vultures circle overhead, and a thick stench of decomposing flesh hangs in the air.
“We could not stand to keep watching them all die in front of us. Some of these cattle we had names for.“
– Adriana de Oliveira, rancher
“These animals used to be really productive,” Sedrim said nostalgically, looking at his dead animals.
Sedrim has lost about 600 of his herd to starvation in the past 18 months. Twenty-five died last week alone. The majority of those still alive have been sent to a neighbouring farm.
“We could not stand to keep watching them all die in front of us,” his wife, Adriana de Oliveira, said, wiping away tears. “Some of these cattle we had names for.”
The couple took out a loan to buy corn feed, but many of the cattle rejected it, unaccustomed to eating processed material. They’re now out of money to buy anything else, so he and his wife sit and pray for rain, as they watch their frail livestock die off.
The northeast of Brazil is going through the worst drought in nearly 50 years, and no town has been hit harder than Serrita in the interior of Pernambuco state, 550 kilometres inland from the state capital of Recife.
The largest reservoir in town was built in 2002 and was the water supply for 3,000 families. It is now completely dry.
Unlike other cities in Brazil that are home to the large-scale, industrial cattle ranches that make Brazil the world’s second-leading producer of beef, here in Serrita, the 19,000 residents survive entirely off of family agriculture and small-scale ranching.
It’s part of a proud culture here. A sign welcoming visitors to the town reads: “Welcome to the Cowboy Capital.”
Before the drought took hold this year, there was an estimated 27,000 head of cattle, but today only 14,000 have survived, according to Claudivan Araujo, the town’s secretary of agriculture.
“We are worried because if this drought continues for another year or two, probably this place will be a ghost town,” Araujo told Al Jazeera. “In the short term I am concerned because the economy of the city is based on cattle ranching, and I think with three more months of drought, 100 per cent of the cattle in the city will be wiped out.”
Drought wipes out Brazil cattle ranches
With no rain, watering holes for cattle throughout the area have also run dry. One of the few that still has water is at less than ten per cent capacity. It contains little oxygen, is filled with moss and mud, and the cattle can barely drink it.
Residuals effects are making for desperate times. Milk production in the state has dropped 60 per cent, from 2.3 million litres last year to 900,000 litres in 2012.
The price of vegetables and fruit have increased anywhere from 100-200 per cent.
For those ranchers who still have cattle, they are faced with selling them at below market value.
Maria da Sa sold 50 cattle, all frail from lack of food, for the equivalent of about $150 each. They normally would sell for between $500-600, she said.
“We sold them to be able to maintain some other cattle alive,” she said. “We were able to use that money to buy some animal feed and they ate it, so we don’t have to see them die right now – at least not yet.”
Other ranchers are taking more desperate measures. A local cactus called mandacarú is one of the few plants still growing here. Ranchers are now cutting them down, burning off the thorns, and feeding them to the cattle.
It’s a last ditch measure. Once the cacti are gone, there will be nothing else to eat.
“All the pasture for my cattle dried up in September,” Severino da Silva – a rancher who herds his cattle 15 kilometres where they can eat a small amount of cactus – told Al Jazeera.
“When the cactus finishes, what are we going to do? The cattle will die and we will have to leave this place. The only thing we have here is our crops and our cows, which provide us some milk for our kids and grandkids.”
The drought in the northeast of Brazil has been building for months, and the federal government has released almost $800 million in lines of credit to affected areas.
About 300 water trucks transport water each day to rural areas, where people fill up plastic tanks for cooking and drinking.
But it’s all an emergency response and a long-term solution seems far away.
“To recover all this that we have lost, it’s hard to say how long that will take, maybe with the help of God, five or ten years – at least.“
– Djalma Sedrim, rancher
A few years ago, construction began on an ambitious $3bn federal government project to divert parts of the Sao Francisco River into a series of canals, hundreds of kilometres long. One of the major connecting lines for the water was the town of Salgueiro, 20 kilometres from Serrita.
But construction on the yet-to-be finished project has been stalled by exploding costs and bureaucratic setbacks. Money for the effort has also been diverted for the emergency drought response.
Back on Sedrim’s dusty ranch, two more cattle collapse and die from a lack of food.
He ties a rope around their horns, attaches the rope to the back of a tractor, and hauls them out to the field.
Even if it starts to rain long and hard tomorrow, Sedrim knows that overcoming the drought damage done will take time.
“To recover all this that we have lost, it’s hard to say how long that will take,” he said. “Maybe with the help of God, five or 10 years – at least.”
He looks away, choking back tears, before adding: “Maybe never.”
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel
With additional reporting from Maria Elena Romero – @MarBrazil