Josué de Castro: the hunger fighter

Image: Maria Bonomi,


Commentary on the recently published book by Marina Gusmão de Mendonça

Brazil is experiencing a very common moment in its history: a period of serious national hunger crisis. This crisis is not homogeneous and, as always, affects more women, black populations, rural areas, with less education and with lower income. The broad national social inequalities are part of what, as a whole, make up the problem of Hunger in Brazil.

In this context, only aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the guidelines of the federal government, there is a lot of effort, from various parties, to understand and face the scourge of hunger. There is also the search for references. In this sense, the book by Marina Gusmão de Mendonça, professor of the International Relations course at Unifesp, becomes opportune and necessary, in a broad but also specific sense: it is a work that can open up, to students of International Relations, the necessary connections between the humanitarian disaster we witness in the squares of small and large cities and global geopolitics.

Organized into six chapters that advance in chronological order, the book is an intellectual and political biography of Josué de Castro (1930-1973), one of the main militant thinkers in the fight against hunger in Brazil. The narrative starts from the beginning of his career as a doctor who deals with nutrition, advances to the writing periods of his masterpieces, Geografia da Fome and Geopolitica da Fome, to then discuss in more detail his action as a professional politician.

The research and quality of the text by the Pernambuco physician and geographer made him known in Brazil and worldwide. Internationally, he has received numerous awards and has been nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize, having held the position of chairman of the Board of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, in English) and other diplomatic posts. He also helped to found and lead international non-governmental organizations. Due to his ideas and practices, he was exiled during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1988), having died in France, in 1973, a topic addressed in the sixth chapter. Sadness, due to the distance from his homeland, would have been fulminating for him.

Castro's exile reflects the counter-hegemonic character of his ideas and practices. Indeed, he himself was not a socialist, Marxist or revolutionary in the sense of armed subversion. But he was, yes, a staunch critic of capitalism, colonialism/imperialism and racism and, in that spirit, he praised revolutions and regimes that he understood as nationalist and capable of structurally attacking the social ills imposed by foreign interests, such as the Cuban revolutions and the chinese.

Castro understood that the inequalities imposed by the global power structures, as well as by the governing elites, imprisoned the Brazilian people in a condition of chronic hunger. The ever-present deficiency of minimal nutrients – if not something to eat – was responsible for the low productivity, creativity and lack of health of a huge part of the population and, at the same time, a fundamental element for the dominant social model in Brazil. A model whose objective was and is – since Portuguese colonization – the extraction and export of commodities to international markets at the expense of pernicious exploitation of natural resources and people. For Castro, in fact, this was a condition that cut across the peripheral world.

Overcoming the most elementary nutritional problems, however, did not find a solution in automatically joining the industrialization project. As Mendonça stresses, Castro saw the dilemma between 'bread and steel' as inappropriate for Brazil, since the policies of industrialization through import substitution, placed first during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945), imposed very high costs to the poorest populations. Both protectionism increased the cost of living and the concentration of investment in the industrialization project (mainly located in the southeast of the country) relegated the development of agricultural production for domestic supply to a secondary level.

Castro therefore proposed a reconciliation between the two objectives, but with a common axis: agrarian reform with land redistribution and environmental preservation. This point – the question of land, the challenge to predatory latifundia – is fundamental to understanding his exile and the counter-hegemonic power of his ideas.

Although Professor Mendonça argues that Castro did not dedicate himself to the development of a theory of International Relations or the Political Economy of hunger, since his objective would be, above all, the denunciation of the conditions that resulted in the global picture of malnutrition – a denunciation that would be , inclusive, pamphleteer, tireless - reading the book makes me question this point. Although Castro did not enunciate a theory, his body of work, as we read in his intellectual biography, denotes a well-articulated thought in terms of causes, consequences, conditions, assumptions, dynamics and intervention perspectives.

His practical action also reveals this thought. For example, when he was a federal deputy, Castro gave the following speech: “The real way to build a lasting peace, and not a fictitious peace, today synonymous with the cold war, is the creation of a World Federation that, limiting national sovereignty in the field of international disagreements, without compromising the other rights and freedoms of nations, avoid armed conflicts. The instrument or authority capable of realizing this vital goal of our times is the World Government, made up of all the nations of the world in the form of a “Federation of Peoples” (Mendonça, 2021: 2013).

That is to say, Castro diagnosed that both North-South domination and the international rivalry typical of an anarchic system were elements that prevented true peace – a peace where, among other things, hunger could be overcome. A peace where disarmament could release resources for food. Deglobalization with international cooperation, as well as food sovereignty, hot topics in critical studies on international agrifood relations today, were intervention proposals already raised by him to overcome the human disaster that was hunger – centuries ago, but not due to bad weather of nature, but by the domestic and international practices of States. Being optimistic about science, political will was the missing ingredient for technical solutions to be found.

Now, this proposal clearly refers to an idealist perspective, despite the fact that the diagnosis is very well rooted in material power relations. That's because Castro was, above all, a reformist. Violence, as a way of overcoming other violence, does not appear as desirable during most of his work (something that would be relativized at the end of his life, already in exile). Awareness, through denunciation and clarification, would be the preferred paths for social transformation.

However, their practical experience with international organizations was disappointing. At the end of his career, disbelief in relation to international organizations increased and gave more space to the dissemination of ideas among peoples as more credible vectors – or resigned ones? – of national and international transformation. However, one thing seems unshakable along the way: the belief in the self-determination of peoples (emphasis on decolonization) and, consequently, on the public policies of the State, as an indispensable principle and tool for overcoming hunger.

In fact, Josué de Castro's work is extensive and the reading and rereading of Hunger Geography (1946) and of Geopolitics of Hunger (1951) – among other writings – are fundamental for the critical evaluation of his thought. Marina Mendonça's book helps us in facing this task, as it is careful to contextualize Josué's production and political action, as well as to expose the authors with whom, and against whom, Josué dialogued. Marina's reading, frankly favorable to the body of work of the biographed, is critical. That is, she does not shy away from exposing the vulnerabilities, misconceptions, ambiguities and, in a way, the optimistic naivety that Josué de Castro carried during most of his work.

This characteristic of his book is of the utmost relevance, because, in catastrophic moments like the one we are experiencing, the search for heroes and saviors can become dangerous or misleading. Josué de Castro himself pondered that Hunger, in Brazil, opened the doors to messianism. the reading of The hunger fighter – Josué de Castro: 1930-1973, however, keeps our feet on the ground and makes us hopeful. It does not lead to idolatry, but to a critical and humanized platform on which we can think, theorize and propose solutions to the problem of hunger based on International Relations.

*Thiago Lima He is a professor at the Department of International Relations at UFPB.


Marina Gusmao de Mendonca. The hunger fighter: Josué de Castro (1930-1973). Bauru, Ed. Channel 6, 2021. 320 pages.

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