Hunger in the world’s breadbasket

Leonardo Sakamoto tracks the scandalous rise of hunger in Brazil.

The Brazilian president's pandemic policies ranged from discouraging social distancing to opposing the use of masks and promoting drugs like chloroquine which are useless in treating the disease.
Palácio do Planalto/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

‘The garbage truck gives me my daily bread,’ a woman explains, speaking to camera in Fortaleza, one of the most important cities in the Brazilian northeast.

‘Every day, my children and I go through the garbage to eat. When the truck arrives, we have to be very swift to pick it up.’ Desperate scenes like this one have gone viral on social media.

In the Brazilian capital Rio de Janeiro, several families were recorded trying to get into a truck carrying meat carcasses and bones. The driver told the newspaper Extra that people used to get the bones for their dogs, but now they seek them for their own nourishment. The images caused outrage when they circulated in early October.

They coincided with a government announcement that Brazil is on track for a record grain harvest – 289 million tonnes, a 14.2 per cent increase compared to the previous year. But the Brazilian economy is a platform for exporting commodities; it’s designed to supply the world, but not our own larders. Over 19 million people went hungry in 2020, a subset of the 116.8 million who did not have full and permanent access to food, according to the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security (Rede PENSSAN). The hungry made up to 9 per cent of the population, the highest rate since 2004. These numbers will already be out of date.

Hunger has increased since then due to President Jair Bolsonaro’s spectacular mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. His polices – to sabotage social isolation, oppose the use of masks and promote drugs like chloroquine which are useless in treating the disease – have prolonged the pandemic and magnified its impact. As a result, many more people have died (on 10 November, Brazil had registered 610,000 deaths from the disease), the re-start of economic activity has been delayed and unemployment rates are running high. To make matters worse, amid all this, Bolsonaro suspended emergency benefits, which were being paid to unemployed and economically vulnerable people during the pandemic. Payments only resumed after 96 days – and a great social outcry – but in the country’s big cities the new, reduced support package did not stretch far enough to purchase even 25 per cent of a basic food basket.

Meanwhile, the dollar skyrocketed against the Brazilian real after the president threatened a coup d’état, and failed to present a convincing economic recovery programme. The higher exchange rates impacted oil prices, pushing up the cost of gas and fuel and sparking food price inflation.

In some places, this would generate social upheaval. In Brazil, however, the system is designed for containment. When a mother of five was arrested in September in a supermarket in São Paulo – for stealing two packages of instant noodles, two soft drinks and one packet of powdered juice – her application for release was denied twice by the courts. Unemployed and living on the streets with her family, she said she stole out of hunger. But the judges did not want to release her since this was not her first crime. Only after a national campaign did the high court allow her release. Her theft amounted to R$21.69 – nearly $4.

It seems that Brazil can live with other people’s hunger, as long as it stays silent.

Leonardo Sakamoto is a political scientist and journalist based in São Paulo. He is a campaigner with the investigative NGO Repórter Brasil, which he established in 2001.