Catastrophic Brazil
Drought Spurs
Child Prostitution
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Children in Brazil's drought-ravaged northeast are turning to prostitution to put food on the family table, a United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) official said Tuesday.
Halim Girade, a Unicef health director, said parched northeastern cities have seen a dramatic rise in child labor abuses, including child prostitution, as families turn to desperate measures to fend off hunger. ``The situation is getting worse,'' Girade told Reuters in a telephone interview. ``Child prostitution, infant mortality rates, they are definitely rising,'' said Girade, who is preparing a report on the effects of the eight-month-old drought, Brazil's worst in more than 15 years. Although Girade's report will not be released until late July, he said initial studies showed that schools were closing because of a lack of students and potable water. He pointed to the typical northeastern city of Soledade, in the state of Paraiba, where roughly 13 percent of school houses have shut down since late last year.
``The rivers and ponds have dried up, and cattle are dying,'' Girade said. ``Children are being hired to collect water, which is now 60 kilometers (35 miles) away, and girls are turning to prostitution.'' Federal officials say 10 million people in Brazil's vast northeast are threatened with going hungry. Basic crops such as rice and beans have been decimated, sending government grain reserves tumbling to their lowest levels in 10 years. The states of Paraiba and Ceara have seen infant mortality rates jump by 10 percent since the drought began, Girade said. Farmers, after watching their cattle starve and their crops wither, complain they have run out of legal options. They have raided emergency grain reserves and looted grocery stores.
Meteorologists attribute the severity of the drought to the El Nino weather phenomenon, which was also blamed for the March fires that ripped through an area of Amazon grasslands and virgin rain forest more than twice the size of Luxembourg. Emergency relief plans are under way with the government's regional agency Sudene making 70 million reais ($61 million) available to drill and install wells and to recover existing wells through desalination. Sudene also expects to send food baskets to 965,000 families and extend credit to farmers for projects aimed at returning their lands to productivity.
But in the past many of these projects have failed, either because funding dried up or simply disappeared. Government officials have often been accused of playing ''drought-politics,'' or letting infrastructure projects falter so they can rush in with emergency aid and shore up rural votes. The latest dry spell is the worst since 1983, when El Nino last wreaked havoc on Latin American weather patterns. Girade said Brazilians will endure more hardship before relief arrives. ``Now we are looking at November or December for rain,'' he said. ^REUTERS@

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