Driven from their farms by hunger, the men trudge to the county seat to plead for food and jobs. When the mayor replies that he is powerless to help, the peasants in desperation sack a state-owened warehouse, defying an armed squadron of military police.

Out in the arid countryside, their wives and children subsist on a diet of lizards and cactus pulp. Carcasses of cattle and burros that have perished from thirst and hunger litter the sides of dust-choked roads as vultures circle.

Drought has struck the Brazilian northeast, killing off crops and livestock and bringing famine. Faced with the possibility of widespread starvation among millions of peasants, the government in April declared a "state of calamity" in a five-state area where rain had not fallen for 10 months.

Even in the best of years, life is not easy in the Brazilian Northeast -- a nine-state region of 600,000 square miles and 36 million people. Despite the 15-year economic boom that has transformed Brazil into the world's 10th largest economic power, the Northeast remains one of the poorest and most backward areas on earth.

Poorest of all are the millions of peasant sharecroppers who eke out a meager living in the Sertao -- a vast interior scrubland more than twice the size of Texas. According to recent World "bank and Brazilian government studies, 3 million Sertao farmworkers and their families survive on a per capita income of $40 to $50 a year, including the value of the food grown and consumed by the producer and his dependents.

"One percent of the population of the Bortheast is rich, and another 4 percent live in comfortable circumstances," said Dom Helder Camara, bishop of Olinda and Recife, during a recent interview. "The rest live not in poverty, but in absolute misery."

With the coming of this year's drought, the situation in the Sertao has worsened and tensions among the normally fatalistic peasant population have risen. "There is a major social hve risen, "There is a major social crisis brewing in the Northeast," warned a U.S. official in Brasilia in March -- well before the extent of the current calamity was known.

On the main road just south of here, in one of the areas most seriously affected by the drought, bands of peasants wielding sickles and machetes have stopped buses, trucks and cars to demand food, money or free passage to town. At the local train station in April, trains carrying food and supplies to and from the state capital were equipped with an armed guard.

Thus for, local officials, sympathetic to the peasants' susuffering but unable to relive it due to lack of funds, have been understanding. "a man who is himself dying of hunger and is watching his family starve is not afraid of bullets," said Francisco Holanda, and alderman in this marketing and cotton-milling center of 10,000 in central Ceara state.

The twin plagues of drought and famine are by no means new to the Northeast. Droughts have occurred periodically since colonial days, and the figure of the "flagelado" -- the "castigated on," the hapless peasant who has historically borne the brunt of the suffering -- is a familiar one in the folklore and literature of Brazil.

Exactly 100 years ago, a drought followed by an epidemic killed half the population of the Northeast. Serious droughts in 1898, 1915, 1931, 1943, 1958 and 1970 preceded this year's.

The government's belated solution to the current crisis has been to establish "emergency work fronts" throughout the famine zone. The government says $35 million for payment to idle sharecroppers in the Sertao has forestalled the mass flight and widespread stravation the accompanied past droughts.

But in the parched countryside around here, peasants too poor to spend 75 cents for photographs for identity papers or unable to produce a "certificate of poverty" have been uable to join the work fronts. And landowners, who administer the program on behalf of the government, gave in many cases decided to hire only a few of the hands on their etates.

What is happening to those who have not been hired? "They're starving," was the unanimous reply of a dozen peasants at the Ouro Preto ranch north of here.

Among the fortunate 500,000 who were able to join a work front before the government closed registrations late in May is Francisco Ramalho de Souza, 87. Along with his youngest daughter, her husband and six grandchildren whose ages range from 11 years to 18 months, de Souza lives in a simple one room mud-and-wattle hut.

Six days a week, de Souza and his son-in-law join other tenants from the Mata Fresca ranch in making repairs and improvements on their landlord's holdings. For their efforts, the two men each earn $1.56 a day -- the sole source of sustenance for the family of nine.

"We've already lost our beans and corn to the drought, and we haven't had a piece of meat to eat in months," said de Souza. "All we have to eat is rice and milk twice a day, at 11 o'clock in the morning and then again at six in the evening. The children complain, but there is nothing we can do."

For de Spuza, however, the hard cash in hand represents an improvement over his normal situation. Until the drought came along, De Souza and his son-in-law were required to work three days a week without pay in the landowner's fields -- a service provided in lieu of rent for the small patches of land each tenant is permitted to farm on the estate.

"It used to be that we had to put in five days a week for the boss and had only one day for our own patch," de Souza said.

"That changed about four or five years ago, but we still have to give the boss half of everything we grow ourselves."

Thousands of sharecroppers excluded from the work fronts have preferred to sell their few possessions, gather up their families, and try luck in the cities of the south. "We usually have only five or six passengers on each bus going south at this time of year," said a ticket agent at the bus depot in nearby Quixada, "but now we're running full every day.

"One guy came in here the other day and offered me his radio in return for a ticket to Sao Paula. And an old man reserved 40 seats for him and his friends because his son told him there were jobs for them at a steel mill near Rio."

As government officials admit, the work forces are merely a stopgap measure designed to keep the peasant population occupied until the next planting season. In the words of Quixada Mayor Renato Carneiro, their ultimate aim is to "reduce the level of misery, raising the farm worker from misery to proverty if at all possible."

But like other official programs adopted over the years, the work fronts do not address the issue the most Brazilian and foreign analtsts believe is the central problem of the Northeast; land reform. According to a 1977 World Bank study, 4 percent of the farming population controls more than 50 per cent of the arable land.

Brazilian economic commentator Joelmir Betting has said that the average yield per acre in the Northeast is the lowest in the world "lower even than the Dan, which has the disadvantage of being in the Sahara." The World Bank report suggested that if all farmworkers has access to land, agricultural production in the area would quadruple.

"Thanks to this feudal system, the Northeast lacks even basic items such as tractors," said an economist. "The peasants are too poor to buy them, and the landowner sees no reason to spend $10,000 on a tractor when he gets three days a week of free labor from his peons."

The result is a cycle of misery and explitation from which millions will never find a way out. Clearly, it will take more than a few days of rain to solve the problens of the Northeast.

"The suffering is great, my son, but the poor man has no way to escape," said de Souza. "He only escapes by dying." CAPTION: With a bridge spanning the dry bed of the Sao Romao River in the Background, peasants try to draw water from a deep temporary well dug in the riverbed. Loren McIntyre for The Washington Post