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Drought Brings Misery To Brazil

The corn had withered long ago when Sebastiao da Silva's parched fields at last produced some food: a rodent.

Da Silva held up the fur-covered prea, an animal the size of a small rabbit, and a grin cracked his face, baked to leather by years of sun. "At least tonight, my family will have something to eat," he said.

Here in the country's vast northeastern outback, which has been without rain for six months, there isn't much else to consume. An estimated 10 million people are at risk of going hungry, and some have turned to looting government warehouses.

Droughts occur here every few years, but this year's has been exacerbated by El Nino, a phenomenon that affects weather patterns, creating dryness in some areas and heavier-than-normal rain in others.

The drought also has created friction between the federal government and peasant groups backed by the Catholic Church. As social unrest deepens, the misery takes on political tones.

Brazilians call it "the drought industry": When property values drop, landowners increase their holdings. Meanwhile, the government builds reservoirs and wells on large estates, which are worth more when the rains return.

Local politicians also welcome a drought in an election year. "It's easier to buy votes when the people are starving and will agree to anything for food," said Catholic Bishop Francisco de Mesquita Filho of Afogados da Ingazeira.

Cattle carcasses dot the dusty scrubland near Afogados Da Ingazeira, a town 1,200 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro. Officials say 60 percent of Pernambuco state, where the town is located, is without water.

Desperate families try to stave off starvation by eating cactus and by looting. Last month, 700 men, women and children raided a government warehouse, carrying off almost 13 tons of rice, beans, flour, manioc meal, corn and pasta.

"We lost our crops, and most of the time we can't afford to buy food because there are no jobs," said Ivani Teodoro Nascimento. "When my husband woke me up at 5 a.m. to join the looters, I didn't think twice."

The looting lasted 30 minutes, long enough for the couple to make off with 120 packages of pasta and 75 of corn meal, Mrs. Nascimento said. She kept half and gave the rest to neighbors who also needed food.

"I was scared, but if I have to I'll do it again," she said.

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