Yanomami Genocide and Famines in Brazil

Image: Kendall Hoopes


What are the causes and why has the Yanomami tragedy been taking place in an unknown way, despite its scope and gravity?

“There has never been a large occurrence of collective famine (famine) in a democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of expression and a relatively free press”, stated Amartya Sen in his book the idea of ​​justice (2009). I use the expression collective hunger because we don't have our own word like famine in English. In the book A home in the world: memories (2021), Amartya Sen takes up the same statement as part of an interesting contrast between India's relations with the British Empire and with Great Britain.

Enquanto or Raj it was marked by a gigantic famine in 1769/70, regular famines throughout its duration and another terrible famine that occurred in Bengal in 1943. It so happens that for the end of these occurrences contributed, according to him, the functioning in India independent of institutions – democracy and free press – coming directly from Great Britain. Famines are easy to prevent and it would be in governments' interest to avoid them in a democracy with a free press and regular elections, argues Amartya Sen.

January 2023. Brazil “wakes up” surprised and outraged by the humanitarian crisis that has befallen the Yanomami people. After several years with scattered news here and there, now it is reported that thousands of people from that people suffer, for some time, from acute hunger, become sick, live in subhuman conditions and die as a result of hunger and other causes associated with it. . This is undoubtedly an occurrence of collective hunger already classified as genocide because government officials ignored the many requests for help made to them by the Yanomami themselves and the entities that supported them.

The cover-up of the tragedy was interrupted when the newly sworn-in President Lula and Minister Sonia Guajajara were in Roraima in the first days of the government to testify and announce measures, thus contributing to give visibility to it. A very wide social mobilization started to help overcome this unacceptable situation.

Almost nothing is comparable between both situations, the so-called “great famine” in Bengal and the famine that afflicts an entire indigenous people in the Amazon. From the outset, it is necessary to differentiate hunger epidemics due to critical episodes with wide repercussions in population terms corresponding to the collective famines referred to by Amartya Sen, from endemic hunger or “the hidden hunger that kills little by little” of which Josué de Castro spoke. which, although limited in this case to the Yanomami people, is nonetheless collective. It was not with the perspective of comparing both circumstances that the formulation stated and reaffirmed in the two books by Amartya Sen made me think of the Brazilian case.

My intention is to explore the author's proposition about the connection between the presence of the institutions referred to by him – democracy, regular elections, freedom of expression and free press – and the prevention of collective famines or, at least, their visibility and confrontation when they occur. manifest. Knowing the long gestation of the Yanomami tragedy, it is worth asking since when it had been taking place, what were its causes and why its amplitude and gravity were unknown to the majority of the Brazilian population.

Not only that, one can go beyond the Yanomami tragedy and transpose these questions to the more general level of the various manifestations of hunger in Brazil, some ignored due to misinformation, but almost always known and admitted or tolerated, and a few generating indignation capable of to compromise governments. I believe that Amartya Sen's argument, if contextualized and added with a missing component, sheds light on these questions and, consequently, on characteristics of Brazilian society.

Since last January, a wealth of material has circulated that allows us to recover the history of the Yanomami tragedy, showing how the old and recurrent attacks on indigenous peoples in the country were present in order to appropriate their lands and the material wealth contained therein, a movement integrated by the so-called agribusiness, by loggers and more recently by illegal mining.

In the opposite direction, it is worth mentioning the homologation, in 2005, of the demarcation of the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Land, home of the Yanomami in the State of Roraima, a milestone due to the size of the demarcated area and the conflicting eviction of rice farmers and others who had settled there. or invaded. It is also worth mentioning the large infrastructure and mining projects supported by governments that, alongside important socio-environmental repercussions, have affected indigenous populations and other social groups that inhabit rural areas in various regions of the country.

Many of these facts made the news, including the so-called mainstream press, which would not be possible if it were not for the prevalence in the country of the minimum requirements of a democratic regime. In contrast to the covering up of social ills, land conflicts and violence in the countryside under the civil-military dictatorship of 1964. It can be said, therefore, that since the redemocratization of the country started in 1985 we have had a press or more properly means of communication free from the constraints of a dictatorial regime, however, under the constraints of the corporate regime that controls high-impact media (newspapers and television networks).

I am not in a position to develop an appropriate analysis of the editorial and other criteria that govern the news and condition the proper coverage of this type of episode, in terms of it being able not only to report even if episodically, but also to define the public agenda . Be that as it may, a free press does not pose an impediment to the functioning of the pressure mechanism implicit in Amartya Sen's argument.

Basic freedom of expression prevails among us since the end of the civil-military dictatorship of 1964, even if it suffers from the many limitations that mark the public debate in the country in terms of the spaces available and its dissemination by the conventional means of communication under control of a few private groups. Notwithstanding such limitations, it can be said that hunger and food are themes present in these debates, to which the significant expansion of information from academic research on the subject also contributed.

The almost non-programmatic nature of party formations in Brazil, as well as the poor quality of the political-electoral debate, do not prevent the alternation of power in which the judgment of what the government has done or failed to do. Since the country's re-democratization in 1985, we have witnessed comings and goings in the ways of dealing with hunger, food insecurity and the underlying poverty, by successive democratically elected governments.

The occurrence of famine was not an important cause in the judgment of governments in the period 1985-2002, while the success in facing it is recognized as a decisive factor for the social legitimacy of the governments led by the PT from 2003 onwards. Since the parliamentary coup of 2016 and, above all, the tragic disgrace of Bolsonaires in the last four years, the extent of the hungry population in the country was among the components of its evaluation and electoral defeat in 2022.

In summary, following Amartya Sen's argument, we have had a relatively free press, basic freedom of expression, opposition parties (with the peculiarities of the Brazilian party system) and regular elections. Despite the presence of all the institutions invoked by Amartya Sen, we are faced with an episode of collective hunger in a significant dimension whose relevance for what I intend to emphasize cannot be doubted due to the fact that it took place in a “distant” state. without the same centrality, for example, as Bengal in India. Even less so for affecting a people who, like other indigenous people, live in a permanent struggle to have their identity recognized and respected in Brazil.

Known characteristics of Brazilian society make it not surprising that a fact of the seriousness of the Yanomami tragedy was covered up or at least tolerated for such a long time, while the ethical-moral degeneracy of recent years allows us to conclude that in addition to tolerating the tragedy was promoted. The indications that the government's neglect was intentional point to the objective of making the existence of the Yanomamis unfeasible as a people through the dismantling of the instruments that protect them and the permissiveness with illegal mining and loggers, calling into question, consequently, the existence of a reserve whose area would be handed over to the economic interests that aim to occupy it. It would be possible, therefore, to limit oneself to the conclusion that despite all its gravity, this famine episode was not enough pressure to put governments in check or trigger prevention and confrontation actions, since it involves the secular conflict around the cause indigenous.

However, it is possible and desirable to go further towards a more general assessment of the relationship of Brazilian society and its institutions with occurrences of hunger. The fact that Brazilian society makes invisible ills with the size and severity of the Yanomami genocide is not dissociated from the years of coexistence, without major upheavals, with a contingent of hungry people that reached 15,2% of the population (33,1 million people) in 2022 , according to a well-known survey by the PENSSAN Network.

A slightly different approach, but not entirely inconsistent with Sen's argument, interprets circumstances such as the "normalization of hunger" in highly unequal societies in which the persistence and invisibility of this malady results from the absence of political commitment, insufficiency of the actions taken and inadequacy of indicators of hunger and food insecurity (S. Devereux, G. Haysom and R. Maluf, Challenging the normalization of hunger in highly unequal societies.

It goes without saying that the persistence of hunger in Brazil takes place in a country where abundance should reign because it is repeatedly highlighted as one of the world's largest food producers and exporters capable of guaranteeing food security, a deceitful condition trumpeted by those who profit from it. . Before productivists and other “agro” activists trample the discussion, I remember that Amartya Sen was the main person responsible for undoing the mistake of attributing hunger to the lack of food available when analyzing, precisely, the great famine in Bengal. More importantly, not long ago Brazil reduced the occurrence of hunger to very low percentages, which from an epidemic became an endemic one located in more vulnerable social groups such as, among others, indigenous peoples, a success reverted “in plain sight” to from 2016.

I return, then, to Amartya Sen's argument, inquiring about the effective possibility of the institutions highlighted by him to act in preventing or, at least, in facing the occurrence of episodes of collective hunger with greater or lesser amplitude in population terms. Deciphering the functioning of these institutions in Brazil and revealing more general characteristics of Brazilian society contextualize and, in this way, qualify an assertion formulated with an air of having universal application.

The issues pointed out here based on Amartya Sen's argument allow us to conclude that it is not enough to recognize the validity of democracy, but that it is necessary to appreciate the "quality of democracy" in Brazil, used here as a summary expression of the circumstances that condition the effectiveness of the action of the factors highlighted by the author in the face of episodes of collective hunger, whether covering up or denouncing a tragedy that befalls a certain people, or as an instrument of tolerance and coexistence with hunger spread by the population as a whole throughout the country.

The missing component I referred to above concerns the pressure mechanism implicit in Amartya Sen's argument, which, however, needs to be made explicit and integrated into the argument itself since there are no automatisms in the passage of recognition and registration of occurrences (collective famines) and its repercussions at the political-institutional level. Thus, the functioning of such a pressure mechanism depends not only on the effectiveness of the institutions highlighted by Amartya Sen – which I suggested evaluating in terms of the quality of democracy – but also on social inequalities such as hunger being able to generate such pressures.

That is to say, it depends on the place occupied by social inequalities and inequities in the public agenda of one of the most unequal societies in the world, which is Brazil, perhaps more prone to incorporating mechanisms that “normalize hunger”. So, more than freedom of expression, this place depends on the social density expressed in the movements and social organizations active in this issue. There is a political field mobilized around the references of sovereignty and food and nutritional security and the human right to adequate and healthy food in Brazil, a product of the country's redemocratization, with an important contribution in this direction (R. Maluf, Food policy and social participation in Brazil: scope of a counter-hegemonic field.

The current context in Brazil and in the world places inequalities, iniquities and discrimination at the center of increasingly heated debates, but with ambiguous consequences. Albert Hirschman said, still in the 1960s, that facing social inequalities involved antagonistic tasks, at the time, with an essentially distributive nature, and that the choice of the most urgent problems or not to be faced involved processes of social learning that were not exempt from conflicts and pressures (A. Hirschman, Journeys toward progress: studies of economic policy-making in Latin America.

Tensions and conflicts generated by development, in particular, the conflicts inherent in the dynamics of social change, are at the heart of his approach (R. Maluf, Hirschman and the desecration of the development epic by a developmentalist, 2015). The possibility of establishing virtuous processes would depend on social inequalities acquiring the status of a source of so-called “Hirschmannian” pressures, an expression derived from the author's perception that ideal situations would be those in which good people are surrounded by good pressures. Would episodes of collective hunger or acute social inequalities be enough of a trigger to generate “Hirschmannian pressures” in societies with inequalities as crystallized as Brazil's? How to think about the possibility of the coincidence of pressures for good reasons with the presence of rulers with good intentions?

Without space to develop this final proposition, I indicate that the materialization of the factors pointed out by Amartya Sen and the emergence of “Hirschmannian pressures” is crossed by food policy (food politics). That is, it is mediated by politics that comprise the practices and institutions that organize coexistence in a context of conflict (C. Mouffe, On the politics, 2005). Coexistence of social actors whose convictions, interests, actions and political practices generate tensions and conflicts in the private and public spheres around food and nutrition, especially (but not only) in the State and public policies. How food policy interacts with or reflects the respective political regimes in which it is inserted (R. Paarlberg, Food politics – what everyone needs to know, 2010), we return to the point about the conditions of the democratic regime as a background of what we are discussing about the existence of freedoms, the confrontation of famines and the genocide of a people.

* Renato S. Maluf is a retired full professor of the Graduate Program of Social Sciences in Development, Agriculture and Society at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ).

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