February 1984 - VOLUME 5 - NUMBER 2
Where the Name of the Game Is Survival
by Carolyn Mulford
In a picturesque fish market along the Amazon, desperate children plead to be the one chosen to provide a plastic bag for a woman's purchase.
Under bridges near famous beaches, families set up housekeeping and trim their budgets to one item food.
On a mud street in a marketing center, sleepy little boys hurry from an early morning class taught by volunteers to the brick factory where they will work all day.
Getting enough to eat and adequate shelter has become a serious problem for much of Brazil's population. The so-called "economic miracle" of the 1970s that brought prosperity to a growing middle class in the southern states did little for those living at the subsistence level in such places as the dry northeast, the crumbling river towns of Amazonia, and even the shanty towns at the edge of Sao Paulo.
By any measure, the statistics are appalling: two-thirds of the Brazilian population is receiving an inadequate daily diet; 20 million children have been abandoned; two-thirds of the workers earn less than $120 a month; and infant mortality is as high as 400 out of 1,000 in some parts of the country.
Compared to the enormous need for assistance, the existing relief efforts are miniscule. Yet, governmental and private organizations have launched programs in a number of remote areas that are trying to address some of the many problems. A look at two impoverished communities shows some of the contrasts and similarities between governmental and private approaches to poverty in rural Brazil.
The mother's meeting
Several women walk down a sandy street in a neighborhood of Santarem, which with a population of 225,000 is the third largest city on the Amazon. They push open the gate to their neighbor's yard and pass by the two-room unpainted wooden house to the back yard where the monthly Mothers' Meeting will take place.
In boxes on crude tables grows a vegetable garden, teeming with carrots, cabbage, lettuce, and tomatoes. The women find seats on the tree stumps, stools, and benches that have been placed in the shade of the house and the lone tree.
Some are new to the area and few stay long. They come from farms that failed, dreams that went sour in the goldfields, or places with no work. When times get tough, they try somewhere else.
The owner of the house opens the meeting. Who wants to go with the government-provided truck next Thursday to gather manure to use in building a garden, she asks, displaying the fine vegetables. Some sigh that it's so far and that they can bring back so little. Others look at the vegetables and say they'll go.
Someone asks if they will play bingo today to raise money for their group. Another grouses that it's a few cruzeiros for the men's groups and a few cruzeiros for the priest and now a few cruzeiros for bingo. After a few minutes of debate, the group votes to play bingo and forget the priest.
The leader then introduces guests, a dozen college students who have come all the way from the Federal University of Santa Catarina - 2,000 miles south-to work in the neighborhood for a month. The students are part of Project Rondon, an economic development program operated by the Ministry of Interior in cooperation with universities.
The students-who are mostly of European origin and from privileged backgrounds-are there because the neighborhood of mostly Indian inhabitants has been identified as one of the city's poorest. Four out of 10 families have an income of less than one salary at minimum wage. Less than two out of 10 earn more than two times the minimum salary. Families who often consist of three generations, including five to 10 children, subsist in tiny houses.
The problems are multiple, but the overriding, urgent one is hunger. Students learn from the mothers of the unbalanced diet of their families: beans and fish are the mainstays of their daily meals, while only 25 percent eat meat and less than 15 percent eat bread, vegetables, or fruit on a daily basis.
Clearly vitamin is lacking in the diet, as is iron. Anemia, diarrhea, headaches, and gastroenteritis are very common complaints and infant mortality is high.
Project Rondon has worked in many communities with similar problems, so it knows how to approach them. The local Project Rondon administrator works with other government agencies to get resources for the targeted community. The students, all seniors or graduate students with outstanding academic records and experience in community service, provide much of the labor, energy, and community contact to put the program into operation.
Among the students at the Mothers' Meeting are agricultural majors helping to promote vegetable and medicinal herb gardens, student nurses working in a tiny clinic specializing in diagnosis and in recommending natural remedies (medicine is prohibitively expensive), sociology students doing community outreach to identify problems and develop community leaders, an agricultural student gathering data on fish so that fish farms can be initiated to insure a steady supply all year, and a beekeeper ready to bring in swarms for the hives being constructed in a government workshop.
The idea of Project Rondon is to put idealistic students disturbed about severe economic inequality into impoverished communities to teach the poor how to help themselves. Emphasis is on developing grassroots leaders who will teach others.
Since the 1960s, more than 800,000 students from the universities of the prosperous, developed south have gone into the jungles of the northwest, often by boat, to provide a variety of services. But because they remain for only one month, continuity is difficult.
Students complain bitterly of how little they can do in the 30 days they spend at a village. They must carry on the program structured by the coordinator in cooperation with local and national government officials. A student cannot implement a new program - or persuade the community to do so - in such a short time. Instead they strive to help the community members take care of their immediate needs.
One government planning official who works closely with Project Rondon became enraged at the central government's "colonial policies" toward the underdeveloped north. For example, the area exports raw materials and cash crops and then has to import desperately needed foodstuffs such as oranges - which could be produced locally. He hopes that changes in the south-dominated government's economic policies will result from the efforts of former project volunteers.
Students and community members both realize that keeping them away from active protests is one of the reasons the government has funded the project since the 1960s, but they also see the advantages. As one student nurse said, "I am not here because I support the government or Project Rondon but because it is an instrument that brings me here to help these people."
Fighting hunger in the Northeast
To the south and east of Santarem, in the northeast region of the country, drought and hunger are perennial visitors. Drought has been severe in some parts this year, with some inhabitants resorting to eating desert rats and chameleons, or to looting shops and supermarkets.
In the politically turbulent 1960s, about the time Project Rondon was born, a group of Catholic church workers started a rural development program called Movimento de Oraganizacoa Comunitaria - the Community Organization Movement (MOC). It is now independent of the church, though still closely allied with it, and receives funding from several international sources and both public and private Brazilian groups. While Project Rondon has tried to keep the lid on by helping the poor improve their economic lot, MOC has gone one step further by trying to change the system.
Commonly known as "mocky," the organization serves a rural area around Feira De Santana, near the Atlantic coast. Executive secretary Father Antonio Albertino Carneiro estimates that up to 80 percent of the million inhabitants in the area live in poverty. MOC works with approximately 20,000 of them, the majority of whom live on tiny (two- to six-acre) farms.
The soil in Feira De Santana is far better then in the sandy yards of Santarem, though it is overworked from more than 100 years of farming by the black inhabitants, descendants of former slaves. Few have titles to the land, and many live in fear of losing the large gardens they call farms.
Here and in other parts of the country that fear has grown in recent years. Sugar cane to be converted to alcohol and soybeans for export have become important cash crops. Wealthy landowners or businessmen are looking for land to take over. MOC staff members see a worsening of an already poor diet as less land is available for crops needed for local consumption.
Families are large and infant mortality is high. Houses are small, just as in Santarem. Everyone works in the fields, with young girls often assuming responsibility for watching over younger children.
This is a semi-arid area, so it rains only enough for one crop a year. Plows are foreign to farmers. A broad-bladed hoe is the tool used in planting their three crops: manioc, beans, and corn.
Even though it's not planting season, rains have wet the ground and two women come to contribute their time to the small community plot shared by local MOC members. They pull back the dirt and drop in pieces of manioc stalk about six inches long, this being more reliable than seeds. They also dig up some of the roots to take to the mill to be ground for flour.
At the mills, which are little more than sheds, the farmers give the millers a fourth of the flour for the processing that removes the poison from manioc. MOC provides some financial assistance, such as loans, or materials that association members use in constructing their own mills, thus freeing them from dependence on privately owned mills.
Down the road, another MOC local group is building its own brick mill. Still another group has built a pharmacy about the size of an outhouse from which one of the community members who took a special MOC course will dispense meager amounts of medication, advise on the use of natural remedies, and give basic first aid. The larger and better established MOC groups have managed to open small coop stores.
Ten years ago, MOC emphasized improved farming methods and cooperative economic efforts. While this is still a priority, much staff time now goes to helping farmers organize to change the basic structure that has contributed to their poverty. Local associations have been banding together to approach government officials about changing laws that are unfavorable to marketing farm products. Without backing specific political parties, the farmers' associations made it known they will vote for those candidates who support legislation favoring subsistence farmers.
MOC is more likely to go beyond meeting immediate needs - enough to eat, better nutrition, basic health care, education in the formal and informal sense - than Project Rondon for several reasons.
The students serve as tools of the national government, providing badly needed labor but having little, if any, input into policies. MOC staff members are there for the long haul, seasoned warriors in the battle with the bureaucracy as well as the endless war against deprivation. Little of their funding comes from the government; roughly 75 percent of it comes from outside the country.
Another important difference is that MOC concentrates on one region and plans to stay there. Project Rondon targets a neighborhood, launches a oneor two-year program, and then goes on to the next selected neighborhood.
Both groups concentrate on families as a development unit, but MOC pays more heed to long-term economic needs as a way of meeting short-term nutrition needs. Both develop local leadership, but MOC helps its constituents to seek changes in government as well as in daily diet.
Though they are small-scale efforts, MOC and Project Rondon contribute significantly to larger strategies to build a self-sufficient Brazilian economy.
Carolyn Mulford, a freelance journalist living in Silver Spring, Maryland, spent several months in Brazil last year.