BRAZIL: The Dry Whip

"We had nothing to eat but cactus, and after five days my mother said she could not go on," recalled Ernesto da Silva, 17, sitting in a rocky field in the drought-burned eastern state of Pernambuco. "She was a widow but not old. She lay down by the road and told me to go. A man gave me 40¢ for a day's work. I bought food and hurried back to my mother, but when I got there she was dead."

Through rolling backlands in the five states that form Brazil's eastern bulge, crops of beans, corn and sugar cane were...

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