Every year since 1994, Joao Vianes has seen his corn harvest grow slimmer. Five years ago, the 52-year-old farmer took in 74 sacks of corn; a year later, less than half that. In 1996, 26 sacks. Then, in 1997, nothing. Last year, nothing. This year, nothing.

Vianes lives in the part of northeast Brazil known as the Sertao, where drought has pounded residents for more than a century. A drought that began in late 1997 has wrecked crops, killed livestock and left families desperate for food. It is also partly responsible for fires that have destroyed thousands of acres in the northeast and central portions of Latin America's largest nation.

The recent years of thin harvests have not come as a surprise to the Sertao's 26 million inhabitants. What does surprise and disappoint farmers such as Vianes is that the Brazilian government has not developed a long-term plan to prevent these periodic waves of misery from sweeping across the region.

"I don't know where the government is," said Vianes, who also grows sugar cane and beans. As he spoke, he stood in a section of limp, yellowing sugar cane. Piles of dried-out husks of failed bean plants blanketed huge swaths of the land.

"The poor people are always forgotten," he added. "Only God helps. I grew up here, and I've never seen a drought like this one."

The federal government is active, as it is during every drought season in the area. Last year it spent $250 million to aid the three most drought-affected states.

Severino Cavalcanti, a member of Congress from Pernambuco state, where Afogados da Ingazeira is located, said some state and local politicians misspend the money. But Cavalcanti, whose party belongs to Congress's four-party ruling coalition, said the greater problem is a "lack of political will on the part of the federal government."

"The people who run this country are from the south and the southeast, and they're just not sensitive to the northeast," he said. "They don't care if the people in the northeast die."

Most subsistence farmers in the region don't have systems for catching rainwater. A cistern can cost $250 to $350 to build, a couple of months' salary for a typical resident of the Sertao. Elected officials rarely volunteer to help with such projects. They may pledge to build new dams, but those commitments often are not kept.

Relief workers charge that the drought has become another tool to manipulate voters. The poverty-strapped northeast has long been known as a region where politicians often extract votes with promises of basic necessities such as food.

"When the politicians give out these food baskets, they can say to their constituents, 'Here's what I've organized for you,' " said Stephen Vaughan, who coordinates the Oxfam international relief agency's drought emergency program for the region. "It's all high visibility. It's also politically motivated and dependency creating."

Although the Sertao is semi-arid, the problem isn't lack of precipitation. Farmers usually get three to five months of good rains each year. Sometimes, such as this year, it rains enough to keep vegetation green--there are healthy bushes and trees on Vianes's land--but not enough for staple crops such as beans and corn.

Droughts have affected the area as long as people have lived here--believed to be about 150 years--and analysts say the recovery time for farmers between dry spells is shortening. During the 1800s, the region suffered five major droughts. Since 1900 it has seen nine.

Some of the droughts have killed thousands. One of the worst, in 1877, took an estimated half-million lives. Reliable statistics for the most recent drought are difficult to come by, but some farmers have grown so desperate for nourishment they are looting government food trucks. Others have taken to eating a kind of cactus porridge.

"One of my colleagues went to a market recently and they were selling coffins for children, right next to the vegetables," said Joao Helder, director of World Vision's office in Pernambuco.

The fires that dot northeast and central Brazil were started mostly by large landowners clearing their fields for planting. These landowners are typically not affected by droughts because they can afford sophisticated irrigation systems.

Small farmers such as Vianes have no such luxury. He used to flee to Brasilia, Brazil's capital, for a few months' work when drought came, but the recent recession eliminated that option.

Vianes, who has a wife and five children in his care, spends his days breaking up stones and helping another farmer. He earns $15 for every thousand rocks he smashes. His work with the farmer earns him a couple of dollars a day.

He has two wells on his property, but both are almost dry. A stream that winds through his land has shrunk to a puddle of muddy green water. His family is down to one meal a day.

"I would call friends and ask for help," Vianes said, "but they say: 'We're in the same situation as you. We don't have any money.' "