Brazil: Misery and Hope Unite Twin Cities

Brazil: Misery and Hope Unite Twin Cities

    Guaribas in Piauí became known when it was transformed into the
    showcase town where the
    Zero Hunger program was inaugurated
    a few months ago. Guaribas in Pernambuco, is a Quilombo,
    settlement originally populated by runaway slaves. Their descendants
    heard that the Zero
    Hunger program will assist them too.

    Xico Sá


    The town of Guaribas, in the state of Piauí, always has been the twin sister of the town of Guaribas, in the state of
    Pernambuco. They have much in common: their names, their needs and the fact that they have been forgotten out in Brazil’s harsh,
    semi-arid backlands.

    To get to Guaribas in Piauí, the final 60 kilometers of the road cross a sandy desert punctuated by craters (not
    potholes, craters). You need gasoline to make the trip, but the most important fuel for making the journey of 653 kilometers from
    the capital, Teresina, is patience. Without a lot of patience, it is very possible to give up in the middle of the trip. The ideal
    vehicles for making the difficult, nine-hour journey, according to local residents: motocycles, good at navigating the craters, or
    donkeys, good because they do not complain.

    Guaribas in Pernambuco would seem to be another story. After all, it is near the capital, Recife, a mere 108
    kilometers away down the BR-232, recently baptized the Luiz Gonzaga highway (Gonzaga was a popular folk singer from the
    region). But the town, so near, is really very far away, in another universe. First of all, no one in the region seems to know of it,
    or exactly where it is. "Guari – what?" people reply when asked for directions to Guaribas, Pernambuco.

    No one at the gas station has ever heard of it. Taxis don’t go there. Delivery trucks don’t know where it is. And the
    police have never had problems there, so for them it doesn’t exist. And that is in Bezerros, the county seat, which is supposed
    to be just 40 kilometers away; "supposed to be," because although maps show Bezerros, none show Guaribas.

    That last 40 kilometers is dramatic. The only person on the road who claims to have heard of Guaribas is a drunk
    who points the way with great conviction. But the fact is that the road ends before Guaribas, and the last 100 meters or so,
    downhill, has to be made on foot. Finally, the town of Guaribas, Pernambuco, has been reached.

    Guaribas in Piauí became a township
    (vila) at the beginning of the last century. But according to the local folk, it
    became known only recently when it was transformed into the showcase town where the Zero Hunger program was inaugurated
    just a few months ago. Now everything in town smells new. There is the smell of construction, including a school where
    adults are learning to scratch out their own names for the first time in their lives. There is the smell of potable water, available
    in town, also for the first time. The smell of perfumed love letters arriving at the town’s first post office. The smell of new
    sheets at a brand new pension. And, finally, the smell of nail polish and shampoo at the town’s very first beauty parlor.

    Guaribas in Pernambuco, is a Quilombo, that is, a settlement founded and originally populated by runaway slaves in
    the 19th century. It is now inhabited by their descendants who have heard that the Zero Hunger program will assist
    Quilombos. And they have also heard about their sister city in Piauí and what the program is doing there. So there is hope that better
    days are in the offing. They do not want a lot. Maybe just get themselves on the map, at last.

    The Zero Hunger Pilot City

    "On the air, Radio Hope, broadcasting directly from Guaribas, Piauí, Brazil, the Zero Hunger pilot city."

    A lot of the local residents were incredulous when they heard that voice on their radios, mixed with the sounds of
    firecrackers celebrating annual winter festivities (Festas Juninas). The community radio station is just one of a series of
    new endeavors by the state government. And the radio is heard, they say, even out in the Serra das Confusões (Confusion
    Hills) beyond the city limits.

    It is all a little frightening. So many new things. "Now the only old things are us and our necessity." says Tereza
    Rocha, 88, one of the oldest inhabitants. "We are so far out in the boondocks that even bad news does not reach us. We are so
    isolated that politicians don’t come here looking for votes," she explained. That is pretty isolated.

    "Man, let me tell you that Brazil was discovered in 1500, but Guaribas was found only this year. We were the
    doorman at the end of the world," says Orlando Rocha, 62, who admits to being overwhelmed by the changes in town. "Now
    people are coming here to see how things are. I guess you could say that everything has its time and our time has finally
    arrived. Our name is now on the map," he concluded. Rocha (known affectionately as "Seu Orlando"), is the father of ten
    children and an unknown number of grandchildren ("have to count them to find out how many"). He says the town was visited
    only by people who had gotten lost, or the wind, "which makes a curve here," he explained using local slang to designate the
    Brazilian equivalent of Timbuktu.

    Guaribas, Piauí, did get in the news for another reason. The mayor, Reginaldo Correia da Silva (PL) has been
    accused by state prosecutors of leasing out city hall to his friends and removed from office on two occasions. The case is in court
    right now.

    Good News

    Out of a total of 5,507 municipalities in Brazil, Guaribas, Piauí, is the third worst as measured by the Human
    Development Index. That explains why it was "discovered" and turned into a Zero Hunger program laboratory. The federal
    government program began in March by providing 500 residents with R$50 per month for food purchases. Since then the local
    government has come up with a counterpart consisting of a series of action plans that have transformed the landscape and the
    lives of the town’s inhabitants.

    One of the most serious and persistent problems in the semi-arid region of Brazil is the lack of potable water
    (semi-arid Brazil stretches throughout the interior of the Northeast region and the northern part of the state of Minas Gerais).
    Among the action plans, one has put potable water right in the center of Guaribas, making life a little easier for the womenfolk
    who have to carry cans of water on their heads (because in a sexist society a man would never do that). "Before we had to
    walk a long way, climb up steep hillsides. It was very hard work," says Nalva Alves Rocha, 23.

    A small water treatment plant with a reservoir in now located in the center of town. It is being run by state
    technicians as part of the Zero Thirst program. The local women still carry water cans on their heads, but the distance is much,
    much less. Instead of four kilometers, the women balance their water cans on their heads for just a few meters now.

    Early in the morning, a line of women forms at the reservoir. "Let me tell you, this is living in luxury. You cannot
    imagine what it was like before," exclaims Valda Alves da Silva, who is the manager of the Hotel Ferreira, the only one in town.
    It is known as "the shelter for authorities." There are hammocks in the entrance hall and beds in the rooms. Capacity is
    "some 30 heads." There still isn’t running water in the bath; you bathe Indian-style, by tossing water on yourself from a trough
    (you toss the water using a hollow, dried out, fruit pod, known as a
    cuia). Silva says a shower has been ordered and is on the
    way. The hotel is part of the 1 percent of homes in Guaribas, Piauí, that have bathrooms.

    All these problems, an economy that operates at a misery level, the lack of clean water and the rampant malnutrition
    have made life expectancy in Guaribas an average 56.1 years, while the national average in Brazil is 68.1. The infant
    mortality rate in Guaribas, at 59.9 per one thousand births, was running at double the national rate, which is 29.6.

    Although there are no official statistics yet, it is reported that in the three months Zero Hunger has been in Guaribas,
    no infants have died.

    In Hammocks

    Most babies die because of malnutrition. "There isn’t a house in town that has not sent "little angels" to the lap of
    Our Lord, and the reason is there has never been any way to avoid having little children die in this place," explains farmer
    João Bertold, 76. He should know; no less than 8 of his 15 children died while infants. "Here we carry the ill in hammocks. I
    have seen many hammocks carried out of town to a place where a vehicle could pick them up and take the sick person to
    another town," says Orlando Rocha. Guaribas never had a doctor, let alone a hospital. It still does not have a hospital, but now a
    doctor makes visits. That is more good news.

    So, discovered in 2003, Guaribas celebrated this year’s Festas Juninas in a new spirit. After all, there was the new
    radio station, the beauty parlor and even a new place for eating out. And because of the new post office, retirees and
    government social program beneficiaries did not have to travel up to 200 kilometers to receive their payments.

    There is also a construction boom in town. A municipal market and 66 low-cost homes are going up as part of a
    development program.

    With its newly acquired fame, some legends about Guaribas and its inhabitants have sprung up. One tells the story of
    a young fellow from Guaribas, arrested in faraway São Paulo, who was immediately released when the police discovered
    he was from what is now one of the most famous cities in the country.

    There has been a ripple effect, as well. In the past, residents of Guaribas went to the nearest big town, Caracol, for
    shopping. Now residents of Caracol are coming to Guaribas, bringing their merchandise and setting up street fairs. "Things are
    actually coming to us," says Tereza Rocha. "Some of the things I see happening make my head spin. Seems like it is finally our
    turn. May not be the discovery of heaven, but there’s no denying the people here are being treated like people for a change.
    That may not be very important for someone used to living the goody-goody life, but for us it is a pretty big thing." she declared.

    Meanwhile, Guaribas, Pernambuco, also wants to get on the map

    If it can be said that Guaribas, Piauí, got on the map because it is the Zero Hunger program pilot city, its twin city of
    the same name in Pernambuco has not had such luck yet. The Quilombo itself consists of 52 families, descendants of
    runaway slaves, who actually live in Lower Guaribas (which is below Upper Guaribas; a sort of downside of the downside).
    "That’s a dangerous place. Just the other day they killed two people down there," says a resident of Upper Gauribas, pointing
    "down there," to Lower Guaribas. A poster on a door, down there, recalls the II Conference of Quilombo Communities of
    Pernambuco, which took place earlier this year.

    Almost all the residents are descended from three families: the Silvas, the Souzas and the Santos. Almost all are
    related, says Maria Isabel da Conceição, 61. "We are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of much suffering. Now we are
    free, but we have little freedom. We still get lots of hard knocks from life," says this woman whose name is the same as the
    Brazilian princess who freed Brazilian slaves in 1888.

    The slum known as Lower Guaribas is a row of homes made of mud and some brick. Just ahead is a soccer field
    where kids can play for money. For the winner, sweets and cornbread. The players look like the lions of Cameroons, and play
    similarly, fast and gracefully.

    Sandro Lido de Souza, 28, is the president of Resident’s Association of the Quilombo of Guaribas. He represents the
    town in political meetings where the future of such locations is discussed. He is concerned with conserving the memory of
    the community’s ancestors. "Our struggle has historical origins. We must ensure that our young people know about that," he says.

    Differently from most years, this one was rainy. The semi-arid
    (agreste as it is called) looks almost serene. The
    landscape is green and there are so many frogs in the lake their croaking seems to drown out the conversation sometimes. But soil
    that has been abundantly watered does not translate into prosperity for the inhabitants of Guaribas. "We are not landholders.
    We are forced to plant our crops on small plots of land owned by others," explains Valdemar Lido de Souza, 55, the father
    of Sandro and 15 other children.

    Most of Lower Guaribas’ families "rent" themselves out to landowners in the region. A day’s work brings in, in the
    best of times, R$8 (less than US $3). At the moment there is a surplus of workers and the price for a day’s work has fallen to
    R$6, even R$5. "Taking care of something that belongs to somebody else is one real big waste of your time," says Lido de Souza.

    Obtaining property rights is a slow process. One such process began in 1996 and seems to have gotten lost in red
    tape. "Nothing for us is easy. It never has been," says Sandro. "Even though all we really want is to get back what used to
    belong to us."

    Zero Hunger Arrives

    On the food security map, Guaribas, Pernambuco, is in this month’s line-up. Along with other state Quilombos, it
    will become part of the program (the other Quilombos are: Imbé, in the municipality of Capoeiras; Negros de Jilu, in
    Itacurubá; Conceição das Crioulas, in Salgueiro; Serrote do Gado Brabo and Sítio Caldeirãozinho, both in São Bento do Una).

    Initially the program will assist 142 communities around the country, containing some 15,000 families, that have
    been certified to have originated as Quilombos founded by runaway slaves. The program is being run through a contract
    signed by the Extraordinary Ministry of Food Security and Hunger Combat, the Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial
    Equality and the Palmares Cultural Foundation.

    Community leaders in Guaribas are betting that the emergency food card, which will give the most needy families
    R$ 50 a month for food purchases, is going to reduce malnutrition which, although no official statistics exist, can be seen in
    the eyes of the children, it is so widespread. "I have lost count of the number of "dizzy" kids I see around here. Dizzy from
    hunger, that’s what they are," says Maria Isabel da Conceição. "And often they go hungry because they have absolutely nothing,
    not one little thing at all, to eat."


    Xico Sá writes for Agência Brasil (AB), Brazil’s government press service. You can reach him


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