e-mail us


Church backs poor in drought; Brazil’s leaders slow to respond

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Paraba, Brazil

PARABA, Brazil -- In this nation, the world’s 10th largest economy and a net exporter of agricultural products and food, 9.5 million people are on the verge of starvation in the Northeast region because of what is perhaps the worst drought of the century.

Unlike the international attention devoted to the famines in North Korea and Sudan, news of this tragedy has only occasionally extended beyond the borders of Brazil. In the state of Paraíba, hungry farmers have sought refuge in the capital city of João Pessôa.

A stopping point for some, including Doña Benedita da Silva and her family, has been the city garbage dump. A month ago, Doña Benedita and her eight children left their home in Tenora, Juazerinho, 200 miles west of João Pessôa. In a cardboard, mud and wood scrap dwelling, she described how she ended up in the dump.

Subsistence farmers, Doña Benedita’s family owned a house and a tiny plot of land until her husband’s lung disease forced them to sell their house and land to buy medicine. When the drought destroyed their crops, they couldn’t pay their rent.

“After all that work, everything died,” da Silva said. “We couldn’t pay the 50 cents to buy water, so we drank the muddy stuff from a makeshift well in the backyard. But soon that dried up. ... You can’t make it without water, so we left.”

The city garbage dump was the best choice for the da Silva family because an uncle promised to help them collect scraps to build a shack. “We eat from the leftover food found in the dump. My husband, Jonas, and the older boys go out every day at 5 a.m. and don’t come home until 8 p.m. They sift through garbage all day in hopes of finding treasures for the house, edible food and scraps of metal, glass and plastic to sell to the recycling plants. But it’s hard. There are too many people in the dump to make it.”

Since last August, various climatic research institutes, including the Brazilian National Meteorological Institute, had predicted extremely low rainfall for 1998. By April, a federal report warned the country to expect what could be the worst drought of the century. The administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was slow to take preventive steps such as drilling thousands of artesian water wells or completing abandoned irrigation projects.

When drought set in, so did the desperation of the poor. Hungry people raided schools and grocery stores for food. Throughout the Northeast, 110 incidents were reported through the end of May. The Movement of Landless Workers, an independent organization supported by Catholic lay leaders, religious and some bishops, lobbies for agrarian reform by occupying idle lands. The organization has played a leading role in organizing the occupations to pressure the government to take action to aid the poor.

The right to food

The Catholic church has responded forcefully to the plight of those suffering in the drought. Speaking at the 36th Assembly of the National Conference of Bishops in April, Archbishop Marcelo Pinto Carvalheira of the João Pessôa archdiocese said that a starving and destitute person has the right to steal food.

“Those who take something that does not belong to them in order to survive do not sin,” Pinto said. “Catholic social doctrine emphasizes the universal destination of the resources of creation.”

President Cardoso harshly criticized the statement, but it seems to have had a strong impact: Within days of the announcement, the government dispatched emergency food supplies three weeks ahead of schedule and stepped up emergency public works projects. When the government defaulted on paying the newly contracted workers their $50 monthly salary, however, more riots ensued.

Despite some relief efforts, the threat of starvation remains. The monthly government ration of flour, dried beans, rice, cooking oil and spaghetti is barely enough for two weeks. Many have resorted to eating scant supplies of cactus normally grown as cattle feed. Forecasters predict that subsistence farmers will be unable to harvest crops for at least a year.

Distribution of emergency food baskets has been erratic with many communities yet to receive assistance. For example, two of Doña Benedita’s cousins arrived at the dump last week because food baskets have not arrived in their small village. There is fear that politicians will use food aid to make campaign points during the upcoming election year.

Equally serious is the lack of drinking water. Eighty percent of reservoir supplies in the interior regions of the state are dry, so water must be trucked in from coastal areas. According to the government’s Superintendency for Development of the Northeast, 70 percent of the municipalities in the region are in critical need of water.

Like most famines, the roots of this crisis go much deeper than the drought. The Northeast, a nine-state region with 45 million people, is semiarid. The region remains trapped in poverty: Forty-seven percent of the people of the state of Paraíba live in misery. Over one-third of the state’s 3.3 million residents have no income.

The impact of this periodic drought, made worse by the effects of El Niño, has exacerbated the misery caused by the already unjust distribution of resources. A mere 1 percent of the Brazilian population holds 47 percent of the arable land with large tracts left idle for speculation. Large landowners have close ties to the political elite who often block land reform, which was guaranteed in the constitution.

With more than 4.5 million landless families in Brazil, only 300,000 families have been settled on expropriated land over the last 10 years. Subsistence farmers who have tiny plots of land and seasonal cane workers are at risk of starving during the region’s notorious droughts. Many migrate to urban areas.

Solutions to the inevitable low rainfall, including irrigation and wells -- underground water sources are extensive -- have been ignored by successive governments, including the current Cardoso administration. According to a recent report in The New York Times, the Cardoso government in four years has spent only $682 million of the $4 billion earmarked for 52 drought relief projects. Government officials recently admitted that some $45 million budgeted for emergency relief was diverted to help pay off the country’s galloping public debt, the largest total debt in the developing world.

Incomplete projects

In 1995, the Brazilian Environmental and Natural Resources Department cited 50 incomplete drought relief projects that have consumed $408 million since 1979. Many of the projects have been on hold for more than five years, including one in the city of Ibimirim in Paraíba. This irrigation project of 8,000 hectares should have been concluded in less than six years, experts say. After almost 20 years, there is still no termination date in sight. According to Environment Minister Gustavo Krause, “The numbers point to corruption, special interest politics, waste and incompetence. ... We are throwing away money while people are dying of thirst.”

Historically, much of the drought relief money from the federal government and foreign aid has been diverted for private gain. This phenomenon has been coined the “industry of drought.”

An example occurred during the 1989 drought, when a state politician from Pernambuco held up the distribution of 30 tons of donated black beans sent to his district to feed the hungry in a move calculated to embarrass political opponents. This same deputy was accused of using state money to have 3,000 wells dug on the properties of friends, including two fellow politicians. Accusations flooded the Pernambuco press but no legal action followed. Political graft in the Northeast continues unchecked.

Meanwhile for da Silva and other rural farmers fleeing this drought, the most difficult situation in the city is the lack of jobs. Many of the newcomers will beg or sift through garbage until the rains come again. With what little they earn, they will return to the countryside to plant corn, manioc and sweet potatoes.

Millions will stay on their farms waiting for the rains. “I received word from the countryside in March that children were dying because they had no food to eat,” said Archbishop Pinto in an interview in early June. “People are eating roasted grasshoppers and competing with the cattle for cactus.”

Pinto continued, “Some Brazilians have everything, including the trip to France for the World Cup. I’m not angry with them. I’m angry with the system that allows this and forgets the misery of the poor. The rich raid the resources of the government and no one says anything. When the poor raid to eat, everyone screams.”

Bond is a Maryknoll lay missioner working with women’s and human rights issues in João Pessôa, Paraíba, Brazil.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998