After around 30 thousand kilometers, counting flights, highways, dirt roads, and trails, which we took to arrive on
foot, the photographer U. Dettmar, and I finally completed the first stage of the "New Geography of Hunger," a project
sponsored by the Bank of the Northeast. The name comes from a classic work written by a scientist from Pernambuco, Josué de
Castro, who, in the 1940's, was the first person to give substance to the growls of hungry stomachs in the Northeast backlands
and other forgotten places. We visited ten statesthe whole of the Northeast and the poor valleys of Minas Gerais. The
deserts of the arid backlands became a sea of stories.
Besides the starvation that really exists, despite occasional doubts cast by big-city journalists, what we regarded as
most important during this first phase was to register the accounts of local survivors, who represent a museum in which the
imagination and necessities of older generations are displayed. Their discourse is marked by cuts, recalling the marks of
knives and sighs.
One example is the narrative of Pedro dos Santos, a cattle-hand from Barcelona, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte,
which we visited two weeks ago. His incessant lament doesn't deserve to perish in the wind, like handfuls of manioc meal that
don't make it to the mouth.
He is the child of a semi-arid nation. Hunger was never very far away. "In 1931, my great-uncle Patrolino collapsed,
while he was working on the construction of a dam in Batateiras, in the municipality of Crato, in the interior of Ceará. I grew
up listening to this story, told by my grandfather, João, who was rescued at the last moment by a woman known as
Godmother Zefinha do Ipiranga: `Miraculously, I was saved, but I was never able to forget the moment when my brother doubled
over, expiring in a wheel-barrow loaded with earth.' His intention in recounting this story was to provide motivation to his
During my trip to the interior, 71 years later, I heard many similar stories. To say nothing of the uncountable cases
of "little angels," infants who die before their first birthday. It's a rarity to meet a mother who hasn't lost at least one. "It's
God who gives and God who takes away," is the way they reconcile themselves to infant mortality.
After almost four months of reporting (our first stories only began to be published some time after we hit the road),
we also became acquainted with the sands of hope. It wasn't easy to arrive in Guaribas, in Piauí. The way was full of
potholes and a sandy desert. Nevertheless, according to local residents, since January this trial area for the implantation of the
federal government's Zero Hunger program has become part of the map of Brazil. The changes are impressive: Potable water,
adult literacy training, low-income housing, a public market, a community radio station, and studies and strategic planning
carried out by a state government team.
As the Minister of Food Security and Hunger Alleviation, José Graziano, has commented on previous occasions, the
changes are visible in the facial expressions of local women. With some spare time and an economy that factors in the element of
self-esteem, they were responsible for the opening of the town's first beauty parlor, in May. The time they gained was the
result of having water closer to home and the R$ 50 (US$ 17) that makes it possible to begin the day with a calmer mind.
Being obliged to earn money to buy food day-by-day destroys any human being, as well as leaving a backlog of regrets, since
it is not always possible to arrive home with money to buy food," according to the oldest female resident of the
municipality, Tereza Rocha, 88.
The federal government program, which is not contaminated by the easy handouts associated with previous social
welfare programs, emanates signs of enthusiasm. For the same reasons mentioned by Tereza. In some municipalities complaints
have arisen against the Zero Hunger program's excessive democracy. Local decisions are made by a supervisory committee
composed of nine representatives of society.
To receive benefits, people are required to participate in projects such as adult literacy instruction and community
activities. "You have no idea what it means for a man who is nearly fifty years old to leave here smiling after the first time
he has signed his own name," observed Maria Tereza de Souza, a merchant who represents the Catholic Church on the
committee of Acauã, another Zero Hunger experimental ground, in which over 500 adults have already received literacy
Still, on the negative side, it might be worthwhile to recall an old dilemma that Euclides da Cunha posed in his book,
Rebellion in the Backlands, in which he observed that the country faces a struggle between Ouvidor Street and remote rural areas.
At that time, in 1902, Ouvidor Street in Rio de Janeiro was the site of Brazil's largest newspapers and publishing firms,
which, a few years earlier, had gone all out to hasten the victory of federal government troops against the population of
Canudos (a rebellious backlands community in the north of Bahia). No holds were barred to cover up the facts of the massacre.
Nowadays, Ouvidor Street is an outmoded metaphor, but, unfortunately, the backlands remain forgotten, both in
terms of real hunger and hopeful futures. Our willingness to put up with the dust involved in navigating all these miles
represents our gesture to overcome this historical ignorance.
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
This article was distributed by Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government.