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Brazzil - Poverty - August 2003

Landscapes of Hunger in Brazil

Maria Cicera is not assisted by any government program because
officially she does not exist. She has no documents. Nor do the
children. The father ("that bubonic plague") disappeared and the
documents are incomplete. Were the children ever registered?
Are there birth certificates? Maria Cicera does not know.

Xico Sá


After receiving an invitation from the Banco do Nordeste, reporters Xico Sá and U. Dettmar (photographer), began a long voyage through the semi-arid region of Brazil—backlands in English, sertão or caatinga in Portuguese—to observe the "new geography of hunger."

The reference is to the classic study of poverty, misery and hunger in Brazil by Josué de Castro (1908-73), The Geography of Hunger, published in 1946. Sá and Dettmar have been observing what has changed over time and what is changing now with new private sector and governmental initiatives to combat misery.

In this report, Sá and Dettmar move into the sertão of the state of Ceará, a paradoxical mix of empty bellies and parabolic antennas. It is a part of the caatinga where some swoon in prayer for food and others swoon because of soap opera melodramas.

In the backland municipalities of Irauçuba and Caridade, the local folk spend most of their time waiting for rain that rarely comes. As they wait they can now cheer the arrival of blessed victuals—rice, beans, sugar, flour and coffee—brought by the winds of the Zero Hunger program. And so, where before the problems of urban Brazil came only by television, now the arm of the state has arrived. All this works out to a lot of attention for the semi-arid nation where not even the hardwood aroeira tree, whose bark is a natural antibiotic, has an easy time in the harsh climate.

Fifty-seven-year-old Benedito Severino da Silva, resident of Várzea Redonda, a hamlet in the municipality of Caridade, Ceará state, received his first emergency benefit from the Zero Hunger program. He and his wife, Osmarina Ferreira da Silva, 48, brought home a market basket of products they are not used to acquiring.

"Ten kilos of sugar, nine of rice, two of crackers, three of cornmeal, a can of vegetable oil, two packages of spaghetti, two packages of crackers, black pepper, garlic, three kilos of manioc meal, coffee ...," Osmarina recites almost in a single breath. "There are some other little things," she adds.

The couple had 14 children. Four of them died in their first year. There is no precise diagnosis. "It started with a little diarrhea ...," the mother recalls, a memorial to malnutrition. "I'm not trying to put on airs, but nowadays it's easier to live." Benedito cuts her off: "To get by, honey, no?"

The winter, as the potentially rainy season is known in the Northeast, was no big deal. "But it did wet the ground, so let's not be ungrateful," says Benedito, returning to the conversation. The family planted beans and corn. They gathered little, just subsistence quantities. A child with the receipt for the purchases listed above emerges from inside the house, from which can be heard the noise of a TV and the bark of a good hunting dog.

The family takes seriously the assistance it receives from the Mesa (Special Ministry of Food Security and Hunger Alleviation). "I want to see someone catch me deceiving another human being in this lifetime." It's Benedito again. "He's full of conversation today," his wife exclaims, astonished. "He's so sulky."

It's the end of the day, and Caridade's sky is blood-red at sunset. Parabolic antennas—in the backlands, even in the crowns of the ubiquitous jujube trees, there are parabolics, many of them gifts from children who have migrated to São Paulo—capture the misfortunes of life in the big city. Crime and more crime. "People like to watch this patrol," says Maria Zenaide, 45, commenting the penchant for police shows. "But here we can still go to bed with the door open."

An odor of corn meal and beans suffuses the air. A little while later, the smell is of manioc meal and pounded jerky. "Pull up a chair, come have something to eat," the residents beckon. The older ones prefer to converse on their front stoops; they dismiss the life that reaches them on the TV. The young girls run to watch what their parents say is the "perdition" of TV soap operas.

A truck goes by, in the distance, carrying singing pilgrims on their way to Canindé. By the highway, starving children throw sand into the potholes in the asphalt, to please the drivers. They want change, a "prata (silver coin)," as they call all change, for their services. Hands extended, they receive nothing. Step on it. Caridade is just a sign seen in the dust through the rear-view mirror.

Hunger Ages You Fast

There is a sadness all about. The predominant color is a greenish-gray that plays tricks on one's eyes. The people laugh, drink the local firewater (cachaça) and dance to the local rhythm (known as the forró) of the region's number one hit. On a loudspeaker, the music is turned up as loud as it will go, and something called "Amor de Rapariga" (Hussy's Love,) blasts away. It tells the tale of the libertine girls who add charm to the world of small dead-end saloons in the semi-arid backlands of Brazil.

It rained this year. Once in a while it even looks like there is a chance of some sort of abundance down by the reservoir where a few fish (mullet and other local varieties) have been seen in the muddy waters. A naked boy swims to the other side. It is a world that changes little, moving dumbly, slowly. A world of young faces that a few years and a lot of hope have wrinkled prematurely.

"How old are you," the reporter reporting instinctively asks the woman before him. "Take a guess," she says. She is Maria Cícera de Souza and looks like a half century of need. When the reporter remains silent with his thoughts, she responds that she is "Something around 30," because, besides no science of numbers, she has no birth certificate, either.

Maria Cicera has three children and was abandoned by her husband. "Ran away with a hussy. May the devil run away with him as well," she says. She survives in Irauçuba, located in the storm center of the harsh caatinga, a mere 146 kilometers from the state capital, Fortaleza.

The climate is so harsh in Irauçuba that little of the native sertão vegetation manages to survive. Not even the mulungu [also called mulungus; a tree that displays a purple hue from its big vermilion-colored flowers that blossom without waiting for the tree's leaves to come out], whose bark makes a tea that can calm the most perturbed minds.

The experts say that Brazil's semi-arid desert is worse than the ones we see in the movies. Those faraway dunes are swept by more than sandstorms; caravans also crisscross them because there is life there. But the Brazilian semi-arid desert is a dead land, practically beyond recovery. It is a repudiation of Pero Vaz de Caminha's famous letter [in April 1500, when the Portuguese landed in Brazil, the squadron's scribe wrote to the king of Portugal describing what they found. Among other things, the author, Pero Vaz de Caminha, declared that "anywhere in the new land you can plant anything and it will grow."] Anywhere except the semi-arid where, today, some 145,000 square kilometers has turned to desert and more is doing so every day.

Maria Cicera says she is now barren like the land and won't have any more children. "As I was roughly used, I don't think anything else will come out of me. Husband was a good-for-nothing. He lost his sense in the heat, his precision ended and he became worthless," she explains, as she bathes Francisco Lucas, 3, and Maria Verônica, 2, behind the house. "I don't like anyone to see my children when they are dirty," she says as she readies them to have their picture taken.

No matter how poor they are, these mothers do not like people to see their children dirty or naked—the way they are shown in the press and Brazil's pious cinema. Maria Cicera has another child, Maria Célia, 10, who is old enough to have her own sense of vanity.

The families of Irauçuba, population 19,563, live in an area that is almost all desert. And almost everyday they get a taste of hunger. But those who have something will share it with the more needy and so everyone gets by. Including Maria Cicera. "I am not going to say anything about that. You can see for yourself what the situation is. No need to waste words," she says.

Maria Cicera is not assisted by any government program because officially she does not exist. She has no documents. Nor do the children. The father ("that bubonic plague") disappeared and the documents are incomplete. Were the children ever registered? Are there birth certificates? Maria Cicera does not know. Such a surreptitious existence can lead to disease. "After so many problems how I am supposed to be able to think straight?" asks Maria Cicera.

Irauçuba is a land where the people eat paçoca, a dry cake of pounded jerked beef and flour which keeps for a long time and is useful on long trips. Long trips to thank saints for blessings received, for example. The destination is Canindé, where São Francisco das Chagas reigns.

"Quem é rico anda em burrico/ quem é pobre anda a pé" (The rich ride donkeys / The poor go by foot), says a song by folksinger Luiz Gonzaga (1912-89), who knew the region well. Nowadays there are motorbikes for the trip along the potholed roads. The donkeys are still there; an archaism that has its usefulness.

The municipality of Caridade (Charity) is 94 kilometers from Fortaleza. It lies in the same general area as Canindé. Names in these places are heavy with meaning and sharply precise. Even nicknames are significant. Thus children will be called morta-fome (hunger-dead), barriga-intiriça (whole belly), bucho quebrado (broken belly), and so forth.

And, of course, there are also old stories that are not so old, found in local folk songs (cordéis), of children traded for food, a little pocket change, some sweets. Now in the backlands it is true that most people would jump at the chance to give a child away to be raised by someone with means ("gente com condição"). But not all. "I have heard these stories many times, but I would never give my children away not even if the police came," declares Maria Elisângela Gomes da Silva, 18, the mother of Maria Elaineda, 2. She adds that it is easier now with "These new helps (Zero Hunger program) that relieve us of greater pain."

Xico Sá, 40, has been a reporter for 20 years. He has worked on the Jornal do Commercio in Recife (Pernambuco state), O Estado de S. Paulo, the newsmagazine Veja, and the Folha de S. Paulo. In 1994, he won the Esso Journalism Award for an exposé of a contractor's scheme for dealing out public works in São Paulo. He is the author of Modos de Macho & Modinhas de Fêmea (Editora Record), and has a website at www.carapuceiro.com.br Messages can be sent to xico@uol.com.br

Ubirajara Dettmar, 65, has been a professional photographer for 43 years. He has covered three wars: Nicaragua, El Salvador and the American invasion of Grenada. He worked for O Cruzeiro, Jornal do Comércio, Correio da Manhã, Última Hora, Diário de Notícias, O Globo, Veja, Folha de S. Paulo, and Folha da Tarde.

This article was distributed by Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government.




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