SÃO PAULO, Brazil – An extended drought in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul already caused agricultural losses estimated in up to $1.7 billion in January, leading 81 cities to declare a state of emergency.

The impact on the lives of thousands of local families and a possible crisis of food supply in other areas of the country have been largely ignored by the authorities, claimed Franciscan friar and peasant leader Father Sérgio Görgen.

Since the beginning of November, several areas of the state – which is a major milk, corn and horticulture producer in Brazil – have had low precipitation, with a serious impact particularly on the production of corn. A local agriculture agency estimated that 35 percent of the silage corn production and 25 percent of the grain corn production have been lost.

“To make things worse, corn is a basic element in poultry, pig and dairy farming. The state of Rio Grande do Sul is the third biggest milk producer in the country,” Görgen told Crux. Until mid-January, milk production had declined about 265,000 gallons in the state.

Fruits, vegetables, and beans – a staple food in Brazil – have also been severely impacted by the lack of rain, and their absence is already felt in local markets. The decrease in rural production has been so intense that even self consumption by the farmers and their families is threatened.

According to Görgen, climate problem is intensified by the lack of public policies to assist the small farmers.

“Since 2012, there was a regression in federal and state policies for the rural poor. Fiscal restrictions and unavailable farm credit left the small farms without anything,” he said.

Leandro Freitas, a small farmer in the city of Encruzilhada do Sul, explained that the absence of governmental financial policies led many farmers to to go into debt, a situation that left them with their hands tied in the face of the current drought.

“Many people are facing difficulties in paying their bills,” Freitas told Crux.

Görgen calculates that the crisis is currently impacting 150,000 rural families in the state of Rio Grande do Sul alone.

Urban populations throughout the country will also feel the impact of such problems.

“There will be a related food supply crisis in Brazil. Production is falling and the government tries to deal with it by importing food. With the high value of the U.S. dollar against the Brazilian real, food will be more and more expensive in the cities,” Görgen claimed.

The Franciscan friar is a member of the Pastoral Land Commission and of the Small Farmers’ Movement (MPA, in Portuguese) and has worked with peasants for 50 years. The organization is demanding several emergency actions from the state government, including the donation of corn to feed cattle, the release of relief funds for peasant families, and partial debt relief.

“In the long term, we advocate the adoption of a peasant platform, which must include measures to stimulate agroecology in Brazil,” Görgen said.

Agroecology is the process of applying ecological principles to the field of agriculture.

The demands from the small farmers include a governmental investment plan in irrigation infrastructure, the creation of permanent lines of credit, and the establishment of services for technical assistance to peasants for organic food production.

Since the rural crisis started, only a few voices of the Catholic Church have been heard on the issue, according to Görgen.

“Most of the hierarchy and of the clergy live in the cities, where this problem is not visible. There hasn’t been an official statement from the Church until now,” he said.

The friar is also part of a fraternity called Father Josimo, which works with rural social movements and makes an effort to assist small farmers in times of crisis.

“That’s why the local people feel that the Catholic Church is somehow present. But we need a word from the bishops,” he insisted.

According to Freitas, most of the farmers in Rio Grande do Sul are Catholic.

“The Catholic Church can give us an enormous collaboration in the struggle for an agroecological model of production,” he said.

“We’re the ones who produce food without poison, who preserve the rivers and the forests. Defending agroecology, the Church will defend life,” Freitas said. “If the Church advocates for our platform, the small farmers will certainly develop a greater identification with it and become more participative.”

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