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Brazil drought turns peasants into looters

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."

Here in the country's vast northeastern outback _ which has been without rain for six months _ there isn't much else to eat. 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, 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.

Local authorities are reluctant to prosecute.

"There may have been one or two agitators among them, but most of the looters were honest, hard-working people who had nothing to eat," said warehouse manager Carlos Alberto Jose Brasil.

The Landless Rural Workers Movement has endorsed looting as a tactic to pressure the government for aid, and the Catholic Church was quick to defend the action.

"It is not a crime to resort to this kind of action when in extreme need," Mesquita told a meeting of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops in Campinas.

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso called the remarks immoral, but the bishop's words had an effect: The government announced it will distribute 1-million food baskets in 1,236 cities and towns hardest hit by the drought.

The estimated $123-million relief program also will finance projects to dig wells and build roads, dams and bridges.

The food handouts have calmed things down for now, said Mayor Maria Giselda Simoes. But with no end to the drought in sight, the situation could get ugly.

"Handing out food is a palliative," she said. "The government must have the political will to solve the problem. And this, unfortunately, it doesn't."

Many people are giving up and moving away.

A bus station salesclerk said she used to sell 20 tickets a week to Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city and industrial center. In the past six months, that has jumped to an average of 100 per day.

Severino Leite hangs on, relying on credit from a local store to feed his wife and six children. He already owes $440 and dreads the day when his credit is cut.

"We each have one plate of beans a day and a glass of water at night," he said. "Then me and my family will be in God's hands. I don't like the idea, but who knows if I'll be forced to loot?"

Drought in Brazil

The northeastern region of Brazil is suffering from the worst drought in 15 years, brought on by the El Nino weather phenomenon. Looting has occurred in this area, which is populated by nearly 10-million people.