hunger geography

Johann Wilhelm Preyer (1803-1889), Tropical Fruit with a Calla-Like Shell in the Shape of a Shell, Oil on canvas, 1846.


Currently, in the midst of the most serious pandemic in a hundred years, hunger reached about 19 million Brazilians in 2020

“No calamity is capable of disintegrating so profoundly and in such a harmful sense to the human personality as hunger when it reaches the limits of true starvation” (Josué de Castro, hunger geography).

In 1946, when Josué de Castro published Hunger Geography, Brazil had 41 million inhabitants and suffered from serious problems: life expectancy was 45 years, the infant mortality rate was 147 deaths per thousand live births, 56% of the population over 10 years of age was illiterate and 69% lived in the countryside. The book can be considered the most relevant socio-spatial study on the subject of hunger ever carried out in Brazil to date, firstly because of its pioneering spirit, secondly because it stands out for its scientific rigor in a qualitative approach, carried out on a broad and complex scale of analysis, with solid theoretical basis and interpretative geographical method, and thirdly for the strength and courage of the denunciation of a theme almost forbidden at the time, as the author himself mentions in the preface of the first edition.

The work presents an overview of vitamin, protein and mineral deficiencies in Brazil. Josué de Castro draws a map of food areas in the country, dividing it into three typologies, namely: 1. Area of ​​endemic hunger (Amazon and the entire northeastern coast, described as the “sugar northeast”); 2. Hunger epidemic area (Northeastern Sertão); and 3. Undernourishment Area (territories equivalent to the current Midwest, Southeast and South regions, calling them “Midwest” and “Extreme South”). The final part of the book is dedicated to the “Study of the Brazilian Ensemble”.

It was in the territory of the “Sertão do Nordeste” that Josué de Castro most concentrated his analysis efforts, not by chance, the region was punished by episodes of severe hunger, due to the cyclical drought, causing deaths and forcing the sertanejo to migrate to other places , reality portrayed by Cândido Portinari, in 1944, in his famous canvas “Retirantes”, which shows a family in a situation of serious malnutrition. The work presents funereal colors, earthy tones and elements that symbolize death and misery, with skeletal bodies, an older child, fatigued and malnourished, hanging on the mother's hips and another with a “water belly”. All family members appear barefoot on dry land, with frightened and sad eyes, a situation that two years later would be analyzed by Josué de Castro in his greatest work.

Having as a theoretical and methodological basis, French geographers such as Pierre Deffontaines and Vidal de La Blache, discussing the theme of hunger with naturalist authors such as Euclides da Cunha and Rodolfo Teófilo, using the semantic, poetic and narrative richness of novelists such as Rachel de Queiroz and José Américo de Almeida, engaging in tough debates with Gilberto Freyre and citing the important studies on food by the physician and fellow countryman Orlando Parahim, Josué de Castro elaborates a fruitful analysis of underdevelopment and episodes of acute hunger in the sertão, aggravated in periods of critical drought, however, his assessment of the problem goes far beyond the environmental, climatic and irregular rainfall causes, something impregnated in the imagination and national conscience at the time. Since the publication, in 1937, of Northeast Documentary, that the author had already stated that poverty and hunger in the region was a hindrance, explained by historical, land, political and social dimensions.

When analyzing Brazil, the intellectual from Recife harshly criticized the dominant thinking of the time, the one that placed industrialization as the only way for the country's development. He called attention to the government also investing in the agricultural economy, hence the “Brazilian dilemma” described in the subtitle of the work: “bread or steel”, food or industrialization. The resolution, according to him, would be to make bread and steel compatible according to the imposition of social circumstances and existing economic availability. The main path would be the establishment of a broad agrarian reform, being necessary to overcome the legal obstacle of private property through “fair value” to be paid by the State.

In the course of these 75 years since the first edition of Geografia da Fome, Brazil has undergone substantial transformations, solved its food supply problem, increased and diversified its agricultural production, and in general resolved more specific problems of food shortages, common in the 1940s. Although the social scourge of hunger has never been resolved in the country, even with the real advances achieved by PT administrations, culminating in Brazil's departure from the UN hunger map in 2014. But since the beginning of Dilma's second term Roussef, moment of deepening a neoliberal agenda, fiscal adjustment and the coup in 2016, there was a greater expansion of social inequalities in the country, as a result of low economic growth, the drastic reduction of public investments, the flexibility in the labor market, the political turbulence and the retraction of spending on social policies.

Currently, in the midst of the most serious pandemic in a hundred years, hunger reached about 19 million Brazilians in 2020 according to the National Survey on Food Insecurity, produced by the Brazilian Network for Research in Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security (PENSSAN), a 66-page document that attests that 116,8 million people in the country live with some type of food insecurity in their daily lives.

What is most revolting is to see that, despite the income transfers in 2020 and 2021, destined for vulnerable families, the federal government does not show concern about the calamity of hunger in national territory, since there is no political agenda to stimulate the implementation social programs to address the problem. The omission and ineffectiveness of the federal public power are premeditated, they are part of an explicit necropolitical project, observed in the country's disastrous management in relation to the pandemic, which took Brazil to the 2nd place in deaths in the world in absolute terms and the 7th place in deaths per million inhabitants. At the same time, such a project contributes to the success of specific groups in their accumulation objectives, namely the increase in deforestation, land grabbing and illegal mining in the Amazon, in addition to encouraging agribusiness, large estates and monocultures, causing serious threats to traditional communities, susceptible to the destruction of their territories and their ways of life by the rage of mining, agricultural and industrial mega-projects.

In view of the above, it is imperative that the legacy of Josué de Castro be rescued and put into practice. Your Hunger Geography shows us even today that the mercantile interests of accumulation – in what José Luís Fiori called a “conservative pact” – materialized by the alliance between the national elite and the great financial capital, continue to be the main responsible for the robust concentration of wealth, expansion of racism environment, the expropriation of peasants, the oppression of indigenous and quilombola communities, the extermination of black populations in cities and the annihilation of biomes and ecosystems in the country. The consequences of this process are the widespread spread of unemployment, misery and hunger, confirming our persistent underdevelopment, something that will only begin to be overcome, as Josué himself advocated decades ago, with the definitive emancipation and food sovereignty of the Brazilian people.

* Luiz Eduardo Neves dos Santos, geographer, is a professor of the Degree in Human Sciences at the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA).


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