Brazil 'dust bowl' 5 times size of Italy

They used to call it good weather. But the brilliant sun and azure skies that have lured scores of tourists to Brazil's northeast now are enemies to some 24 million people -- more than one-fifth the nation's population.

Five years of relentless drought have turned an area five times the size of Italy into a dust bowl. It has ruined crops, dried wells, and sent millions of peasants streaming into the region's already overtaxed cities. Last week, the situation reached breakpoint as thousands of these refugee flagelados ''invaded'' a number of northeastern towns.

Groups of up to a thousand hungry northeasterners poured into the town of Crato in Ceara State on three different days demanding food, water, and jobs. Merchants, fearing another in a rash of sackings, pooled resources and voluntarily distributed rations of beans, sugar, and flour.

In another town, merchants lost some 60 tons of food to looters, and the mayor of Camocim, Ceara's second-largest port, telexed Gov. Gonzaga Mota warning that ''the city awoke in a state of war.''

''There used to be one or two invasions a month,'' said Mauricio Xerez, director of the northeastern daily Diario do Nordeste. ''Now it's twice a day.''

Brazilian newspapers this week published vivid accounts of how the famished drought victims just a hundred miles from Fortaleza, the capital of Ceara State and the northeast's largest city, hunt lizards and rats. In Piaui State, wells in 29 counties will go dry within a month if it doesn't rain. But the forecast calls for more punishing sun.

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