For Poorer and Poorer

    For Poorer
and Poorer

    In the root of Brazil’s extreme poverty is the abject gap between
    the haves and the have-nots. Thanks to a sociologist known as Betinho, the whole country
    organized itself around committees to guarantee that nobody went hungry. But after the
    initial enthusiasm stoked by the media, the interest fizzled. From close to 5,000
    neighborhood committees the number has dwindled to a little more than 1,000. Far from TV,
    far from the conscience, as if one season’s truckloads of food had solved for good the
    country’s chronic hunger.

    The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched on October 19 of
    last year a worldwide campaign to collect funds to combat hunger. The principal strategy
    of promotion of the initiative was TeleFood, a televised program produced in Italy where
    the headquarters of FAO is located, and broadcast in 60 countries including Argentina,
    Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay. In Brazil, the only network to exhibit part of the program was
    TV Cultura of Tocantins, a state that holds only 0.65% of the country’s population.

    Later, the campaign was also launched in other states, a fact that does not make less
    significant the country’s omission, especially in the same year of Betinho’s death. The
    hemophiliac sociologist ,who died of AIDS due to a blood transfusion, was nominated in
    1994 to the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in a movement of great repercussion, the
    Ação da Cidadania Contra a Fome, a Miséria e pela Vida (Action Pro Citizenry Against
    Misery and Pro Life).

    The question remains inevitable: If Betinho were alive, would Brazilians be more
    involved in the fight against hunger and consequently in FAO’s campaign? Maybe.
    Nevertheless, even before the sociologist’s death, the involvement of the population in
    his movement had considerably decreased. In 1994, there were almost five thousand
    committees of Ação da Cidadania spread over all the 26 country’s states. At the end of
    1997 only one and a half thousand remained active.

    There are various possible explanations for this retraction. One of them is related
    with the overexposure of the subject in the media during the first year of the campaign in
    1994. In the daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo alone, Betinho’s name appeared in
    478 articles. After having exhaustingly explored the uncommon participation of the society
    in the campaign, the media needed to obey one of the basic rules in the business: to
    change the subject.

    Without the media’s support, the level of commitment decreased. If the hungry in Brazil
    became a non-issue on television, they also stopped disturbing the portion of the public
    that had been moved by the media’s influence, as if the mountains of bags of rice , beans
    and flour collected in the shows for the campaign and epically televised on the news had
    definitely satisfied all the necessities of the nation.

    Another reason to explain the drop in the public’s interest for the cause of hunger is
    more positive: today Brazilians are eating more than in 1993. The new currency plan (Plano
    Real) drastically reduced inflation that used to corrode the acquisitive power of the
    population, causing a considerable increase in the consumption of food, including among
    the lower classes. Many people began to purchase foods that were not part of their regular
    menu before, like yogurt for example. According to government data, yogurt consumption
    increased by 87.2% from 1994 to 1996. During the same period, was also observed an
    increase in the consumption of other foods like cheese by 51.4%, pork by 31(check)% ,
    chicken by 27.8%, beef by 19.4% and fish by 12.3%.

    At the same time, chronic problems in the country like malnutrition and infant
    mortality are declining. A research conducted in the capital of São Paulo by the Núcleo
    de Pesquisa Epidemiológica em Nutrição e Saúde Pública da Universidade de São Paulo
    (Nucleus of Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Public Health of the São Paulo
    University) revealed that, from 1985 to 1996, the percentage of children younger than five
    years with growth inferior to their genetic potential—one of the main indicators of
    malnutrition in children—decreased from 30.6% to 13.7%. In the federal arena, the
    most recent National Research of Demography and Health (PNDS) concluded that, from 1974 to
    1996 there was a reduction of 69% in the number of malnourished children of the same age.

    Too Much,
    Too Little

    Looking at it in this way it may seem as if a miracle were taking place in the country.
    But in reality, the PNDS numbers themselves don’t allow much optimism. In the first place,
    the biggest recoiling of malnutrition happened from 1974 to 1989, a period in which the
    index fell 61 percent. After that, it continued to decrease, but in a much slower pace.

    Secondly, regional differences are still very acute. Even though the Northeast has
    improved its indicators, the disproportion in relation to the Southeast, which was already
    significant, increased. The percentage of malnourished Northeastern children in 1974
    didn’t quite reach three times the one verified in the Southeast. In 1996 it was more than
    four times bigger than that of the richest region of the country. According to the same
    research, form 1989 to 1996, despite the considerable decrease in infant mortality, the
    record of children born underweight was not altered—a factor that can bring health
    problems to children and reveal malnutrition during pregnancy.

    Furthermore, there are more numbers that show a nutritional situation even further from
    the level of acceptance. An example is a study conducted by the Sociedade Brasileira de
    Alimentação Enteral e Parenteral (Brazilian Society of Enteral and Parenteral Feeding)
    that noted some level of malnutrition in half of the patients admitted to the hospitals of
    the SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde—Health Unified System). And among the malnourished,
    continued the research, there is a 38 percent greater occurrence of hospital deaths.

    Another research, conducted in the cities of Campinas (São Paulo state), Ouro Preto
    (Minas Gerais), Goiânia (capital of Goiás and Rio de Janeiro by the now extinct INAN
    (Instituto Nacional de Alimentação—National Food Institute), detected in the
    population of all these cities deficits in fundamental elements like calories and iron,
    which predispose people to various kinds of illnesses.

    War of

    Regarding the official statistics on the number of starving Brazilians there are two
    hypotheses. Either they do not exist, or they are conflicting. The program
    "Comunidade Solidária" (Solidary Community) of the federal government, is based
    up to this day on the number of poor indicated by the "hunger map" of the IPEA
    (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada—Institute of Applied Economic Research),
    which uses data from the beginning of the ’90s.

    This is what says the executive administrator of the program, Anna Peliano, who worked
    at the institute during the time that the so-called hunger map was made. The publication
    stated that there were 32 million people living below the level of absolute poverty in the
    country. In other words, this would account for the number of Brazilians whose income did
    not allow the minimum food consumption necessary to sustain good health.

    But according to Vilmar Faria, coordination secretary of another official agency, the
    Câmara de Políticas Sociais (Chamber of Social Politics), these 32 million are
    "certainly not government data". Judging by last year’s presidential speech in
    the occasion of the third anniversary of Plano Real, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso
    prefers Sônia Rocha’s—she also worked for Ipea in the past—most recent
    estimation. According to her, from 1993 to 1995—period of the implementation of Plano
    Real—13 million people had surpassed the poverty line. But the fact that it was used
    in the president’s speech does not mean, according to Faria, that this number is endorsed
    by the government.

    "What is an official data?," asks the secretary. The answer is difficult. Two
    figures are generated by the same research agency, both official. One is used to implement
    a government program, another in the speech of the main responsible for the same
    government. Nevertheless, they cannot even be compared, not only because they refer to
    different periods, but mainly because each places the poverty line at a different point.

    But, arguments aside, even by the most optimistic perspective, there are still 16
    million starving people left. A very large contingent, which tends to increase if the high
    level of unemployment continues both in the city and in the countryside. "The problem
    of hunger is still very serious and the permanent solution will depend on employment and
    income," says Peliano.

    In declarations like this, Comunidade Solidária shows what it has in common with
    Ação da Cidadania, the movement created by Betinho. For both of them, it is no use
    attacking hunger separately. Therefore the name Action Pro Citizenry Against Misery and
    Pro Life and its insistence in the trilogy food, jobs and land—themes of the
    campaigns of ’94, ’95 and ’96.

    It also derives from this fact the articulating character of Comunidade Solidária,
    which since its launching has integrated social action from different state departments
    like Agriculture and Education, among others.

    This vision of the combat against hunger as an all encompassing mission does not mean
    that there is prejudice against pure donation of food, which both programs consider
    justifiable in emergencies. A famous phrase by Betinho, when responding to the ones who
    accused him of being part of the vicious cycle of food-based welfare was: "I’d rather
    be a welfare advocate, so people can survive and fight."

    But the most important characteristics they share may be the decentralization and the
    emphasis in active community participation. These strategies were—and still
    are—very successful in the committees of Ação da Cidadania and serve as a model to
    the formulation of directives to Comunidade Solidária.


    Ação da Cidadania was born from a campaign of the same name, in April of 1993. It was
    founded by a group of intellectuals—including Betinho—who had articulated the
    movement according to a politicized view in protest against the irregularities occurred in
    the government of Fernando Collor de Mello. "With Collor’s impeachment, we thought
    that that energy should be directed towards diminishing the injustices in Brazil,"
    tells sociologist Maurício Andrade, who participated in the founding of the movement and
    coordinates the committee Rio da Ação, the first in Brazil and a sort of mother-cell to
    the 27 state committees and four thousand municipal ones (less than half in activity

    Ação da Cidadania works as an informal entity from the judicial point of view. The
    committees appear spontaneously, by the initiative of people who are sensitive to the
    cause. The committees do not report to any central office, but receive logistic support
    for the execution of the campaigns. Each municipal or neighborhood committee has the right
    to use the movement’s logo and declare itself part of it. The adherence of corporations
    and national institutions—Banco do Brasil, for example, in 1994 encouraged its
    association of employees to engage in the campaign—was decisive to amplify the scope
    of Ação.

    The campaign of Action Pro Citizenry Against Misery and Pro Life consisted in divulging
    by the vehicles of information and culture, figures about hunger and misery in Brazil and
    move the society to give donations that were gathered especially during cultural and
    artistic events that brought together a great number of people.

    The committee articulated the action and donors knew where and to whom their donations
    would be directed. "This aspect of Ação continues even though it has less
    visibility in the media. The best example is the "Natal sem Fome" (Christmas
    Without Hunger), says Andrade.

    Three other aspects are prominent as fundamental in the work of Ação. The movement
    managed to revive the discussion and the reflection about solidarity in Brazil.
    Consequently, the leadership of Ação believes it has stimulated a certain inquietude
    before the issue of hunger. Finally, according to Andrade, there was never any record of
    charges of any deviation of donations of resources.


    One cannot say the same of Comunidade Solidária. Since its creation, the hotline
    number designed to record charges of irregularities in the governmental program—(800)
    61-1995)— has registered 94 accusations from which 24 were considered proceeding,
    informed Peliano. In 1996, more than half of the cities from the state of Minas Gerais
    that were helped by the program were the subject of investigations, the reasons varying
    from insufficient documentation to suspicions of electoral use of the program’s resources.

    Comunidade Solidária today helps 2.9 million families in 1.368 municipalities, all
    chosen for having especially high figures on misery, among other criteria. Assistance is
    made possible by means of local committees that have, among other things, the job of
    registering the families to be benefited.

    The direct work against hunger—one of the many attributions of the program—is
    possible in two ways, explained economist Peliano. The administration of school lunches
    and the distribution of cestas básicas (literally meaning "basic basket"
    that contains basic food supplies such as rice, beans and flour) in the poorest towns of
    the countryside through the Prodea (Programa de Distribuição Emergencial de
    Alimentos—Program of Emergency Food Distribution).

    In regards to the distribution of school lunches, Peliano celebrates the increase in
    the annual frequency of school assistance, which she attributes in great part to the
    decentralization that had already been implemented in the government of President Itamar
    Franco. Even before that, according to her, the federal government administered all the
    resources, "or it bought and distributed the food to schools itself."

    One can imagine the problems that this meant in terms of provisions to the most distant
    regions of the country. During the best years of the distribution of school lunches, told
    Peliano, the government passed sufficient resources for 100 school days through the
    Department of Education. Nevertheless the average was of 60 days of provisions and in 1992
    there was a worse figure of 32 days. In 1994, Comunidade Solidária assumed the
    responsibility for the distribution of school lunches, which today reach students 160 days
    a year, according to their executive secretary .

    In regards to the distribution of cestas básicas, ultimately linked to the
    Department of Agriculture, an old claim of public opinion was finally satisfied: The
    utilization of the government’s strategic stocking, which used to be completely
    neglected—as it was frequently showed on TV—becoming a banquet for fungi and
    bacteria, not to mention some less nicer beings.

    In 1995, according to Peliano, three million cestas básicas were delivered and
    in 1996 seven million. Last year the distribution exceeded 10 million, benefiting one and
    a half million families in the poorest towns, settlement areas of landless people and in
    Indian reservations.


    Meanwhile, apart from the actions of the government, fortunately there are still some
    praiseworthy initiatives here and there that have shown good results. Case in point is the
    Projeto Cesta Alimentar para Geração de Emprego e Renda (Project Food Basket for the
    Generation of Jobs and Income), promoted since 1994 by NGO (Non Governmental Organization)
    Ágora. Flávio Schuch, coordinator of the initiative, tells that it was elaborated from a
    frequent discussion at the peak of the movement of Ação da Cidadania. On one hand, all
    those that defended the emergency distribution of food, and on the other those who
    preferred to search for alternatives for the long term. "We reached the conclusion
    that we should do both," said Schuch. Therefore, the basic idea of the program is to
    utilize food not as an end but as a mean to stimulate community organization and the
    search for alternatives.

    The practical application of all this is a mutual exchange. In the poorest communities
    chosen by Ágora, food baskets are offered at subsidized prices but only to families
    connected to the association of community residents. In adittion, someone in the family
    must be engaged in community work and the children need to be in school. The baskets are
    paid by the NGO and are not donated. Initially they are sold at 40 percent of the cost
    price. During the course of four years of duration of the program, the subsidized price is
    constantly being reduced.

    The money collected from the selling of the baskets is deposited in a fund used to
    finance, also with subsidized interests, initiatives of the residents themselves to
    increase their income. People who are interested in the loans must form groups of five
    people who become surety for each other. If one of the borrowers do not honor they
    commitments, the other four must assume the debt.


    Schuch admits that the project’s mechanism is complex and it is not easy to make people
    understand how it works. "It is a task that requires a lot of patience," he
    said. But after some effort the ideas are assimilated. The program already attended 2.6
    thousand families in 45 poor communities of Feira de Santana, is the state of Bahia, and
    federal capital Brasília.

    One of them is closely watched by Schuch. It is the community of Lixão (Big Trash) in
    the federal capital where there are 520 families from which one hundred are assisted by
    the initiative. Besides the fact that they live by the huge garbage deposit that renders
    the place its name, the community does not count with basic sanitary facilities. Even
    after years of visiting the place, Schuch said he is still disturbed by the stench. And
    that’s not all. Because there is no asphalt and no vegetation, on the extremely dry days
    of the Central Plateau, the area is covered by clouds of dust resulting in great incidence
    of respiratory problems.

    In 1994, the project was started as a pilot program in this community. "We said at
    the time that if it worked there, it would work anywhere," said Schuch. And according
    to him, the results are amazing and the association is strengthened. Today between 80 and
    90 people are involved in community activity. School attendance increased and there is not
    any record of malnutrition in children—eight severe cases registered in the beginning
    of the program were reversed—and the nutrition level of residents in general improved

    In regards to the generation of income, the fund formed by the money brought by the
    selling of food baskets has already financed 72 initiatives that vary from the set up of a
    body shop by an unemployed mechanic to the construction of a pamonharia—place
    that sells a Brazilian style corn curd—by a resident.

    Under the

    Another initiative with the goal of conciliating food and job alternatives is the
    restaurant Cascudas that is open under one of the most busy viaducts of São Paulo since
    1993. The name of the business comes from one of the basic words from the vocabulary of
    the homeless. "Cascuda" is an empty can or a plastic bottle cut in half, an
    indispensable artifact to the daily task of asking for food on the streets. At the
    restaurant Cascudas, however, they are not necessary. There the clients, its majority
    being the homeless, eat from plates sitting at a clean table, habit that is rare in their

    For $ 1, the average price of a hot dog in São Paulo, the restaurant serves homemade
    food. "We already know the tastes of people." says Clélia Maria dos Santos
    Cuer, one of the cooks at the restaurant. Like other employees of the restaurant, Cuer has
    already lived on the streets. "I was six months without a place to live and many days
    I didn’t have what to eat." Her first visit to the restaurant was to ask for a job.
    "I didn’t get a job but soon they offered me a blessed plate with food." A
    couple of days later there was a place and Cuer joined the team.

    Today there are 12 people who live at the top floor of the place and take turns in the
    tasks of cooking, serving the tables, working at the cash register, washing dishes and
    cleaning trays. Cleaning is a badge of honor, unimaginable to one who looks at it from the
    outside and sees a door under a viaduct. "When we got here we couldn’t even go in. It
    was filled with waste material and papers forgotten by some city agency," remembers
    sister Leni Albuquerque, coordinator of the project.

    Slowly, they gave it some life. "When it was getting better, we found the
    committees of the campaign against hunger. It was the push that we needed." During
    that time, they were given the stoves and a lot of support, and donations didn’t lack.
    Today the situation is a lot more precarious. "We survive thanks to the few people
    who continued to help us by buying food," said Albuquerque.

    Every morning, one person from the team goes to the Central Market to gather something
    that can be used among fruits and vegetables wasted. "Even so, we have to buy some of
    the products with our money, which results in each person working with us to receive only
    about $80 a month," told Albuquerque. Nevertheless, Cuer doesn’t think about looking
    for another job. "Here we are treated like real people." And she insists in
    treating customers in the same way. "They stay here only during lunch, but we sit and
    talk. I know of their sufferings and I suffer with them."


    The numbers are from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): In the
    entire world, the life of 840 million people is compromised by hunger and malnutrition and
    200 million of these are children under the age of five.

    In Brazil, the reality is no less dramatic. The statistics are conflicting, but today
    millions of Brazilians live below the level of poverty, which is an excessively soft way
    of explaining these people’s lack of regular meals and consequential contraction of
    diseases that drastically reduce their life expectancies.

    The reason for hunger, at least in Brazil, is recognizably the result of an extremely
    unequal distribution of income. It is a complex problem whose solution depends on gigantic
    structural reforms.

    There are a lot of initiatives that are trying to improve the situation of the hungry
    in Brazil, even if they sometimes result in a vicious cycle. The best example is the
    movement initiated by sociologist Herbert de Souza, better known as Betinho, who died last
    year leaving as legacy a great lesson of community activism.

    Together with other initiatives presented in this article Betinho’s campaign is still
    working. All of these projects, however, are not enough to eliminate hunger and
    malnutrition in the country.

    FAO itself recognizes its difficulties: In the campaign initiated last year which
    counts with the participation of leaders of the entire world, including Brazil, the goal
    for 2015 is to reduce by half the 840 million starving people living today.

    Until then, many will have succumbed to their own misery.

    This article was originally published in Portuguese by magazine Problemas
    Brasileiros, which you can read on line at 

    Translated from the Portuguese by Rosemary Gund, freelance translator
    and student of Italian culture and literature at San Francisco State University. You can
    get in touch with her at 

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