Project November 19, 2021

Deep Water Brazil



A wooded grassland three times the size of Texas, the Cerrado is the world’s most diverse savanna. It’s blessed with abundant groundwater, the source of some of South America’s most important rivers.

For decades, the Cerrado’s dry mesas have been deforested and converted into pool-table-flat fields of cotton and soy, mostly for export. Now, the water, too, is going. The land is mostly too dry for rain-fed commodity crops. So corporate farmers have tapped into the aquifers.

Within living memory the Cerrado was inhabited only by geraizeiros, peasants, some of whose ancestors escaped slavery. They practiced subsistence agriculture in gallery forests lining valleys incised in mesa rims. Their farming systems are rare examples of how to live in an ecosystem without destroying it.

Geraizeiros still live in the swampy valleys that nobody else wants. And yet, they, and the flora and fauna they live with in harmony, are at risk. The streams and springs that sustainably water gardens are petering out.

Geraizeiros accuse the agribusiness of disrupting the region’s natural plumbing. Big growers respond that traditional communities are overharvesting swamps. Industrial farmers and their associations also blame climate change, which they say is reducing precipitation. However, recent scientific research proves that the traditional farmers, not the corporate ones, have it right.

We’ll document the plight of the geraizeiros and their endangered habitat. We’ll visit corporate farms and their communities. We’ll sort through new research on the aquifer and write a scientifically-grounded story about the battle over the ongoing conflict known locally as “the water wars.”


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change