The Campaign Against Hunger has swept Brazil with thousands of committees cutting across
barriers of money, race and class. Alex Shankland visits one of them in a São Paulo favela.
SARAH ERRINGTON /
‘Sharing doesn’t mean giving what’s left over; sharing means giving what others need.’ The sentence glares admonishingly down from the porch wall of Caxingui parish church. Caxingui, a leafy suburb, is one of the last outposts of middle-class São Paulo before the formless mass of the outlying slums – the periferia.
Its church is a dreary concrete building, but it provides a welcome haven from the traffic grinding past it towards the megalopolis. The church is also the original meeting place of one of the first local committees to be formed in Brazil’s extraordinary Campaign Against Hunger.
My wait here is for Nádia, one of the committee’s founder-members.
Nádia, when she arrives, proves to be stout, friendly and businesslike. We set off through the maze of back streets that lead to the favela of Jardim Jacqueline (Jacqueline’s Garden). It’s clear when we arrive that the slum settlement is no garden, but the fact that it sits within the largest and wealthiest metropolitan region in South America is reflected in the presence of a few urban facilities: a tangle of wires overhead indicates electricity, the winding alleys are paved and washing-tanks suggest access to running water. Nonetheless, Jardim Jacqueline has one thing in common with the far more squalid favelas of the Brazilian Northeast and Amazon – the pervasive presence of hunger.
The nine members of the committee to whom Nádia introduces me are a mixture of slum-dwellers and suburbanites. Brazil is riddled with distinctions of social rank, yet here everyone – teacher, tannerywoman, sociologist, cleaner or headmistress – treats everyone else with easy familiarity and genuine warmth.
This is the result of hard work over the course of the 18 months since the committee began. It formed in response to the call to arms issued by Herbert ‘Betinho’ de Souza, founder of ‘Citizens’ Action Against Hunger and Poverty and for Life’ – commonly known as the Campaign Against Hunger or ‘Betinho’s Campaign’.
The committee’s original members were active in the Workers’ Party (PT), Brazil’s main left-wing political movement. Frustrated with the limitations of party politics as a means to bring about social change, they were searching for more practical methods to fight injustice when the appeal swept the country in mid-1993.
‘We’d been looking for a way to work fast,’ adds Nádia. ‘Everyone was fed up with bureaucracy.’ The Campaign’s formula of flexible, local actions based on volunteer committees working directly with the poor offered a way forward.
Cheerful and energetic Marlene, who works in the church-run crèche of Jardim Jacqueline, set about rallying her many friends in the favela to take part. After planning meetings which established the extent of hunger in Jardim Jacqueline and neighbouring Vale de Esperança (Hope Valley) and located the families most in need, the committee decided to start collecting ‘basic baskets’ of food. Nádia remembers slogging round the local supermarkets to beg for the extra kilos of rice which were needed to complete the first set of baskets. The creativity of the committee in organizing events (including a rock show where tickets were exchanged for kilos of food) and building alliances (including an association with the local Jewish business community), together with the groundswell of support for the Campaign, meant that the food flowed more freely thereafter. As many as 190 families a month began to receive the ‘basic baskets’. Nevertheless, during the course of 1994, ‘compassion fatigue’ began to set in among the usual donors; it became increasingly hard to meet targets.
By this time the Campaign itself had moved on. Emergency food provision had given way as a priority to the much more complex challenge of job creation. For Jardim Jacqueline, the committee came up with a scheme to create an industrial-scale community kitchen which would fund itself by selling ready-made meals to building-site workers. But raising money for it proved beyond their capacity and they decided instead to complete the building of a daycare centre begun and abandoned by the Church. This will employ 18 people and provide care for 240 children who are left on the streets while their parents are out working. Many of these kids are already being drawn into local drug gangs. There are plenty of 12-year-old cocaine addicts in the favela,’ says Marilda, who has watched Jardim Jacqueline grow and change over 20 years.
She describes how the favela grew up in an area of scrub and forest around the two local sources of employment: a brickworks and the municipal rubbish-tip on which her father worked as a bulldozer driver. It expanded as São Paulo drew in a stream of migrants attracted by the increasingly elusive dream of a steady job and a school for their children. On average, the journey has brought the committee members over 1000 miles from their family homes to the favela.
Almost all of them come from peasant farming families, and several say they would like to return to the land – Nina in particular talks nostalgically about ‘that free life’. This would seem to confirm the correctness of Betinho’s choice of agrarian reform as the Campaign’s key theme for 1995. But in practice creating a mass return to the land is likely to prove an even more intractable challenge than job creation.
The diversification of the Campaign stretches the committee’s resources. ‘There are a lot of projects and there’s only so much energy available to carry them out,’ says Nádia. There is also a host of other difficulties. Inter-community tensions stirred up by rival drug gangs have tested their diplomatic skills. Although the level of involvement is great among women, the men are notoriously absent. ‘A woman is more likely to take a day off work to be present at a meeting than a man is to turn up, even if he’s unemployed,’ is a typical comment. Emergencies have eaten into the funds set aside for job-creation projects: the committee is currently trying to build a house for Marlene after her wooden shack collapsed.
However, no-one is short on determin-ation. ‘When the Campaign came to us we seized it, hugged it to ourselves and joined the fight,’ says Marilda. She is young, bright and articulate. But the only work São Paulo has to offer her is cleaning the houses of the rich people down the road, for the Brazilian minimum wage of $20 a week.
Now, thanks to the committee, she plays her part helping her community organize for a better future. ‘I’ve learned that there’s a reward, however little it is that we give; when I see the gratitude in people’s eyes it makes me so happy I feel like crying.’
Alex Shankland, a regular contributor to the NI, lives and works in São Paulo.
Brazil comes second among countries with the greatest disparities in income (Botswana is first). The richest tenth of the population absorbs half the national income, the poorest tenth claims less than one per cent; 32 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition and in the rural Northeast entire populations have been stunted by hunger.
The wealthy are obscenely wealthy. Just 18 large landowners control an area six times the size of Belgium. Huge industrial farms churn out tons of produce for international markets – Brazil leads the world in coffee and orange-juice exports and comes second, third and fourth in the world for soya, cocoa and poultry respectively.
Canada, on the other hand, is assessed by the United Nations Development Programme as having the highest ‘human development’ in the world. Strange, then, that 16 per cent of its population lives below the poverty line and foodbanks are serving increasing numbers of people.
There may be little comparison between the poor of the two countries, but the fact that Canada’s poor are forced to depend on handouts is as much an indictment of social and political organization as are Brazil’s swelling slums.
Working for change
Movements such as the Campaign Against Hunger or FoodShare also demolish the myth of the ‘useless poor’. It is opportunity that poor people lack, not a spirit of enterprise. After all, they are people first, even if others choose to define them by their poverty.
The Campaign in Brazil, with about three million volunteers and over 3,500 committees throughout the country, has managed to get dramatic food donations but is less successful with the structural aims of job creation and land reform. Challenging the status quo is more difficult than appealing for charity.
Ultimately the issue is one of equity – and conscience.
The Campaign Against Hunger can be contacted at:
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995