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To Tackle Hunger, Brazil Needs To Tackle Racism First

The fight against hunger should be a top priority in Brazil — provided it's addressed as a whole. And to do that, the country needs to face its structural racism issues, an issue newly-reelected President Lula da Silva vowed to tackle.

Photo of a man carrying food packages as residents of a favela in Santa Cruz, Brazil, receive aid.

Residents of a favela in Santa Cruz, Brazil, receive food packages.

Jones Manoel and Tiago Paraíba

It’s 2023, and over half of Brazil’s population is impacted by a hunger crisis. That is the shocking news from the Brazilian Research Network on Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security (PENSSAN).

After making strides in the first part of the 21st century, by 2020, hunger in Brazil had returned to 2004 levels. But now the problem is even worse. According to PENSSAN, 125 million Brazilians, or 58% of the country, face food insecurity, defined in various stages of severity by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, with technical “hunger” being the most severe. The number of Brazilians facing hunger has jumped from 9% to 15%, a return to 1994 levels, which corresponds to 33 million Brazilians.

This stunning step backwards has occurred in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic , but the pandemic is not solely to blame. An economic crisis, lack of agrarian reform, inflationary effects on the cost of food, and a systematic dismantling of public policy to assist poor families have combined to make a bad situation worse. In Brazil, already one of the most unequal countries in the world, that has meant that in the past two years an additional 14 million people have found themselves dealing with hunger on a daily basis.

In the 1940s, the doctor and anti-hunger activist Josué de Castro called Brazil “a country of the geography of hunger.” In Brazilian history — from the colonial period to the development of capitalism and the formation of the Republic — high prices, deprivation, a lack of access to basic rights, and hunger have been present in the daily lives of working people. Concentration of land-ownership and wealth in the hands of a few have marked Brazil’s history.

As the last country on earth to abolish slavery, the historical weight of the exploitation of Brazil’s black and indigenous population is not just Brazil’s past — it’s Brazil’s present.

Deep roots

From the 1950 Land Law, which placed all “unclaimed” land in the hands of the state, to the present day, black people in particular have remained without access to land, evidenced in their continued overrepresentation in favelas.

Where there is food insecurity, there is also general insecurity.

Understanding the modern problem of hunger involves not only looking closely at the dismantling and destruction of rights applied since 2015, but also at Brazil’s long history..

Hunger in Brazil has a color. The face of a hungry person is most likely to be that of a black woman.

Color and gender

In September, 2022, a São Paulo mother was arrested for stealing $4.16 worth of food for her five children.

According to data collected in the survey by the researchers from PENSSAN, hunger disproportionately affects women, black people, inhabitants of rural areas, and residents of the northern and northeast regions.

While 53% of households where the reference person is white live in food security, only 35% of households headed by a black or mixed individual do. That means that six out of ten households whose heads identify themselves as black or mixed live with some degree of food insecurity, whether mild, moderate or severe.

In 2021, a study carried out by Integration Consulting found that 76% of those who suffered from food insecurity in Brazil were black, and the vast majority lived in favelas.

Comparing 2022 to 2020, in the last two years households headed by women, hunger increased from 11% to 19%; in households headed by mean, hunger levels jumped from 7% to 11% over the same period. Women are at the head of 48% of Brazilian households, according to the Continuous National Household Sample Survey (Continuous PNAD), and the overwhelming majority are single mothers.

Hunger has social spillover effects: where there is food insecurity, there is also general insecurity, and it is often women who are placed under pressure to mediate the conflicts that arise from empty plates and empty bowls. Black women especially are the intersection of sexism, racism, inequality, hunger, and violence.

Photo of harvesters in a field in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Archive photo of harvesters in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Roberto Pera/DPA/ZUMA

Structural racism

Silvio de Almeida, professor of law and author of the book What is Structural Racism? , writes that “all racism is structural because racism is not an act, it is a process in which the conditions of society’s organization reproduce the subalternity of certain groups that are racially identified.” This dynamic has been clearly at work in Brazil’s history, and remains so in its current social situation.

As Bruno Rocha, researcher at Anti-Racist Semiotics, wites, we are confronted not only with the statistics linking race, class, and hunger, but also with a brutal process of dehumanization of Brazil’s black population, and as a result, reduced empathy for their suffering. “Structural racism…is the ethics on which the unequal relations between white people and black or indigenous people are based,” writes Rocha.

The face of hunger is the face of a black woman and a single mother — but is this face moving?

Hunger, police violence, precarious housing, lack of access to basic rights — all phenomena that affect the black population — do not provoke commotion and general indignation. On the contrary, in a country that experienced more than 300 years of slavery, it is still common to question whether racism exists today or, in some sectors of the left, to say that the racial issue is a mere “identity issue.”

Public policy as a whole must be approached in an anti-racist way.

If it is common on the Brazilian left to talk about hunger as a drama that needs answers, it is rarer to understand the racial dimension of the phenomenon of hunger and draw the resulting political conclusions. That is, that race is no niche issue, or even restricted to an identity issue, but is rather a fundamental component in understanding Brazilian society and Brazil’s historic and ongoing class struggle. Racism must be placed at the center of any leftist, socialist, communist, or anarchist project.

Public policy as a whole must be approached in an anti-racist way. This includes agrarian reform, food security and sovereignty and the fight against hunger, and passes through the democratization of the media and the recovery of public investment in culture, the defense of state-owned companies (in particular, Petrobras), and encompasses the recovery of labor rights, the end of austerity policies, and a more expansive social state.

What do Brazilians stand for?

The fight against hunger is a top priority in our situation. But this priority needs to be placed into a broader context: hunger is not just the lack of enough income to buy food, it is directly linked to the concentration of land ownership in too-few hands, the use of land to produce export-oriented commodities rather than food, the dominance of capitalist monopolies in debates over social spending, attempts to expropriate, oppress, and wipe-out indigenous farmer and quilombola populations, the capture of research organizations by business interests, environmental destruction, and the lack of incentives to reorganize agriculture around agroecology.

In short, hunger has two interconnected dimensions: the lack of jobs and income for millions of Brazilians — the majority of whom are black — and the structure of the country’s agricultural industry.

What do Brazilians stand for? A radical program to fight hunger that is anti-racist, based on a profound agrarian reform inspired by agroecology and a development model that places the preservation of nature as one of its central concerns—far removed from the capitalist logic of profit at any cost.

Do Brazilians have the political strength to set this program in motion in the country? Not yet. But they are building that political force. And in this work, taking a political side is part of the process. Getting involved in public politics and supporting initiatives that are radically committed to the anti-racist struggle and knowing that Brazil has no future as long as race–and revolutionary anti-racism–is not the center of public debate.

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