The Sertao

ProHope’s initial project proposes to foster hope in an oft-ignored region of Brazil called the Sertão. Its semi-arid climate, notorious inequality of land ownership, and onerous poverty define the region. While it extends across eight states of Brazil’s Northeast, a sizable proportion of the Sertão population live in large cities in coastal areas unaffected by the drought-like conditions prevalent in the interior. Still, at least 32 million people live in the semi-arid caatinga regions, where annual rainfall is minimal and the vegetation is brush-land, marginally arable.

According to ASA, (Articulação Semiárido Brasileiro), a network of organizations that focus on Sertão communities, more than half of the Brazilian poor (59.1%) live in the Semiárido, a term referring to roughly the same area as the Sertão. Just over half of the poor (52.5%) live in rural areas. Four of ten of the extremely poor are between 0 and 14 years of age. According to UNICEF, some of the worst social indicators of the country are concentrated in the semiarid region, where approximately 13 million boys and girls are under the age of 15 (n.d.).

Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) reports that the infant mortality rate in 1999, was 52.8 per thousand for the Northeast, almost twice the rate for any other region in the country. For all children under the age of 5, it was 96.4 per thousand, also double that of any other area of Brazil. While we do not have recent figures, there are also no projections of significant improvement in those rates. Similarly, while Brazilians age 10 or older have an equivalent to 5.7 years of schooling, in the Northeast they only have 4.3 years of education. Just over a quarter of all people in the Northeast (26.6 %) are illiterate (IBGE).

Health, understandably, is a major challenge in the Northeast, particularly in the Sertão where access to fruits and vegetables is more limited than elsewhere in the country. According to IBGE (2014), only 28.2 percent of residents in the entire Northeast eat the daily recommended diet of fruit and vegetables. This suggests that an even lower percentage of people in rural areas eat a healthy diet.

No one better than Darcy Ribeiro, one of Brazil’s most prominent anthropologists, can help us understand the character and culture of the folk who live in the Sertão region of Brazil’s Northeast. He is unequivocal that this region is inhabited by a “specific population with their own subculture,” a way of life with identifiable characteristics, power structure, and a worldview and religiosity with a messianic inclination (1995). His main point is that residents of the Sertão are identifiably different from Brazilians who live elsewhere.

The Sertanejo: The inhabitants of the Semi-arid Sertão

Thus, Sertanejos have developed a relationship of deference and respect toward authority. They strive to demonstrate servanthood, personal and political loyalty for fear that any sign of resistance may be interpreted as rebellion resulting in the loss of employment, their place on the land, and, especially, the loss of a boss or master to protect them from arbitrary action by police officers, judges, tax collectors or military recruitment agents (Ribeiro 1995: 350).

The modern day Sertanejo cannot be understood apart from the history of exploitation and domination by the landlords of the “sesmarias” (colonial land grants) throughout the Sertão. Despite political and social changes that have come about as a result of Independence and the development of a modern State, most all of the arable land, and any land with access to water, is still owned and controlled by the heirs to these Colonial lords of the Sertão.

Ribeiro notes that Sertanejos from the “rural hinterlands” have developed "fatalistic" and "conservative" mentalities in contrast to “coastal populations who enjoy intense social interaction and keep in communication with the world.” Their perspective on the world, then, reflects the conviction that things are as they are because of destiny; changing them, or even attempting to change what is known, may be understood as opposition to “God’s will.”

Because of their isolation, Ribeiro believes the “archaic Sertanejo” may be characterized by a simple religiosity tending to messianic fanaticism, inflexibility of habits, curtness and rustic speech, and a predisposition to sacrifice and violence. They also share the moral qualities characteristic of pastoral peoples world over, such as “the cult of personal honor, brio, and fidelity to his bosses", says Ribeiro, author of “The Brazilian people” (1995).

The “poverty trap,” described by Robert Chambers, seems an apt definition of Sertanejo reality. Per this perspective, “The household is poor in terms of assets and is physically weak, isolated, vulnerable, and powerless” (in Myers 2011). To these four dimensions: material poverty, physical weakness, isolation and vulnerability, Myers adds a fifth dimension, spiritual poverty. He explains,


The household suffers from broken and dysfunctional relationships with God, each other, the community, and creation. Its members may suffer from spiritual oppression in the form of fear of spirits, demons, and angry ancestors. They may lack hope and be unable to believe that change is possible (2011: 115).

Ribeiro’s description of the religious fanaticism of the Sertanejo, evidenced, in part, by their participation in the processions of saints and religious holidays, making vows and paying for miraculous favors or cures from various saints, but otherwise, finding no profound spiritual meaning or support, or cultivating a relationship with God certainly supports this understanding of the poverty trap.

It is into this world of need that we wish to respond holistically to address the poverty entanglement with a message of hope, change, and a new direction. While we propose to bring resources and challenge destructive worldviews that maintain Sertão communities in this trap, we also intend to develop local leadership capable of responding with hope and new direction that will set a new course for their communities.