Food Insecurity In Brazil: Policy Considerations for the US
By Lark Escobar
Food insecurity disproportionately affects millions of women and children living in extreme poverty in northern Brazil. This phenomenon impacts women working on industrial farms, resulting in malnutrition and high infant mortality rates. The population is estimated to be 213.4 million. It is an industrial economy experiencing increasing deforestation and high-income inequality. Its key agricultural products are sugar cane, soybeans, maize, milk, cassava, oranges, chicken, rice, beef, and cotton, and total exports are 239 billion. The government is a federal presidential republic and women hold 27 % of government seats. The country’s inflation rate is 7.7%, with only 48% of adult females in the workforce. The per capita GDP is $16,170 and is the ninth-largest GDP globally as of 2020.
In the 1990s, the government of Brazil implemented the National Program to Strengthen Family Farming (PRONAF) to stimulate agricultural production by providing financial services to “family farmers” in northern Brazil. The Program offered low-income loans of $2,000 with clear repayment and reinvesting schemes along with the opportunity to reapply for funding every two months. Today, Brazil invests about $8 billion into agriculture, with $2 billion reserved for family farming. However, despite making up 38% of the gross value of agriculture in the country, the farmers still struggle to feed their families. In fact, before the pandemic in Brazil, 135 million people experienced food insecurity, out of which 50% were family farmers.
There are a number of factors that put family farmers in a vulnerable position. For instance, although all produce exports are regulated by price matching, calculations involved assume the prices of industrial farmers as the standard for small-scale farmers. Compared to industrial scale farms, smaller producers have less income and lose money on this scheme. It is estimated that they profit only $30 from selling their harvest, which further pushes them into debt. Furthermore, the effects of climate change have led to low-quality crops or crop failures, adding to their burden.
Brazil is home to the famous Amazon rainforest. The rainforest covers nearly two million square miles and serves the vital function of absorbing high levels of carbon dioxide. However, rampant deforestation due to agriculture and ranching has transformed the forest from being one of the wettest places on earth to becoming warmer and dryer with regular cycles of drought. Considering that the Amazon makes up half of the world’s tropical forests, these changes will be detrimental to local biodiversity. Periods of drought also impact the Brazilian economy, particularly the agricultural sector, and disproportionately affect the impoverished classes of society. In this regard, indigenous women from places like Caru have emerged as “Forest Guardians”. Unfortunately, they are regularly threatened, attacked, and murdered for their activism.
In Northeast Brazil, life expectancy in the city of Alto is only forty years due to infant and child mortality rates. One million children under the age of five die annually. These rates are higher for children born in the rural shanty towns of the Northeast region, where single mothers live on the fringe of the economy. They generally work on plantations, earning one dollar a day for their labor. These single mothers wash their clothing in a parasite-infested river, which causes illness in the children. Infants are often locked inside their straw huts as their mothers go to work, leading to more fatalities. The condition of these women and their children is historically rooted in feudalism, exploitation, and institutionalized dependency. Often the women practice “lifeboat ethics,” a phenomenon in which children are identified as either being “survivors” or “too weak to live.” The children who fall under the latter category are intentionally neglected leading to passive infanticide. The average woman in Alto has experienced “9.5 pregnancies, 3.5 child deaths, and 1.5 stillbirths.” There is a superstition in the community that children with acute malnutrition who foam at the mouth are infected with rabies and are both “feared and highly stigmatized.”
The COVID-19 Pandemic
Brazil ranks second globally in total deaths due to COVID-19 in 2021. As a result of the magnitude of the pandemic and its related restrictions on the Brazilian economy, GDP has declined by 4.1% in 2020. In response, Brazil expanded the number of people receiving financial support in the Bolsa Familia Cash Transfer Program (CCT) to 66 million people.
The local mayor in Alto issues vouchers for coffins to mothers of dead babies, knowing that the women cannot afford even a basic burial. There is a spike in demand for these infant coffins during the drought season of the year. The local clinic is said to offer free vitamins or sleeping pills to quiet the babies crying out of hunger, and have improper record-keeping practices to track their health.
The Catholic Church in Brazil is partly responsible for encouraging the exceptionally high infant mortality rate as it has blocked women from seeking abortions or exercising family planning for generations. Ironically enough, they have been alleged to refuse to baptize sickly babies, encouraging mothers to let them die by suggesting that baptism is not an anointing of the dying. Consequently, the Church is so overwhelmed by the volume of deaths that they fail to conduct proper funerals for the babies.
Identified Human Security Concerns
There is a clear pattern of state exploitation and marginalization of women in Northeast Brazil. Women – local indigenous or migrant workers – engaging in industrial and agricultural projects suffer from extreme food insecurity, resulting in high infant mortality rates. Government incentives for industrial farming eclipse any potential benefit small-scale farmers should receive from this program, and poverty continues to increase alongside high inflation post-pandemic. It can be said that poverty is a slow genocide, but in the case of Alto, there is nothing slow about it. The systemic marginalization by the state and private corporations is clearly responsible for the devastation of indigenous women and their children.
To address the food insecurity of women and children in northern Brazil, the U.S. must employ a layered strategic approach, including immediate food relief, medical care, and structural changes to the policies that contribute to it. All policies must be monitored periodically for efficacy.
- Revise PRONAF & Introduce Farming Incentives– The U.S. should urge Brazil to renegotiate the provisions and implementations of PRONAF, such as imposing a moratorium on industrial farmers benefiting from subsidy programs. Large industrial farms should instead be required to pay taxes that can be used to fund NGO support services for family farmers or set off repayments. 50% of subsidy awards and farming grants should be awarded to women farmers. The U.S. facilitation of reform discussion must be coupled with financial inducements to overcome resistance within the Brazilian government.
- Catholic Relief Services– Since the Catholic Church plays an active role in influencing the social reality of women and children, it would be appropriate for USAID to partner with CRS to address family planning and infant mortality in the shantytowns. CRS should also provide nutritional support in the form of food relief to alleviate immediate needs.
- MSF Brazil– USAID can partner with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which currently operates in Northern Brazil, to provide immediate and long-term services to mitigate malnutrition and infant mortality.