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BRAZIL: Hunger Beats a Steady Retreat

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - Brazil is winning its battle against hunger thanks to a comprehensive package of food security legislation, institutions and new concepts, in addition to programmes geared towards stimulating more balanced economic growth.

Chronic malnutrition in children under five years of age fell from 13 percent in 1996 to seven percent in 2006, according to a Health Ministry study released in July. And in the northeast, the country’s poorest region, the rate plunged from 22.1 to 5.9 percent.

As a result, the infant mortality rate also dropped in that same 10-year period, from 39 to 22 deaths per 1,000 live births in this country of more than 185 million people.

The downtrend was confirmed by the International Food Policy Research Institute in its 2008 Global Hunger Index (a tool that tracks the state of global hunger and malnutrition), which was published Tuesday Oct. 14, ahead of World Food Day (Oct. 16) and shows similar indicators for Brazil.

Efforts to reduce hunger in Brazil have been stepped up under the leftist administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who shortly after coming into office in 2003 implemented the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) Programme, a strategy that encompasses more than 50 different actions, ranging from measures to strengthen family farming and provide school meals, to the Family Grant mechanism, which aids 11 million poor households.

The principle guiding the strategy, that an adequate diet is a basic human right, was enshrined in the Food Security Charter approved two years ago, which created a nationwide system in which local and national authorities and civil society work in a coordinated manner on actions against hunger and established a mechanism to monitor the state of nutrition in the country.

But “we want to include that right in the constitution, adding it to the list of social rights guaranteed under Article 6, together with education, health, work and social security, to make it irreversible,” the president of the National Council for Food and Nutritional Security (CONSEA), Renato Maluf, told IPS.

CONSEA, a presidential advisory body made up of 19 ministers and 38 representatives of civil society, is playing a key role in the process. While originally created in 1993, it was later left inoperative until Lula reactivated it in 2003, and it is now being organised at the state and municipal levels as an instrument for enabling social participation and generating inter-sectoral policies.

One of the leading initiatives promoted by CONSEA is the Food Acquisition Programme (PAA), launched in 2003, which integrates different sectors by creating marketing mechanisms for family agriculture and supplying several government food programmes, Maluf said.

The programme is still in its early stages, but is growing fast. Since 2007, when it channelled 105 million dollars to assist over 92,000 small farmers, it has doubled that figure.

The process is slow “because we require that farmers be organised in associations or cooperatives,” Marco Antonio Pinto, superintendent for the Support of Family Agriculture at the National Supply Company (CONAB), a Ministry of Agriculture body, explained to IPS.

Consequently, the PAA made greater progress in the more developed states of the south and southeast than in the impoverished northeast. CONAB’s budgetary and structural limitations have also hindered expansion, Pinto acknowledged.

The fight against hunger exposed the urgent need to redirect and restructure the bodies that work in agriculture issues, like CONAB and the agricultural research centres, which had until recently put a priority on large-scale business and export-oriented production. “There were no policies that addressed family farming,” Pinto said.

The importance of small-scale agriculture, which produces the bulk of Brazil’s food and employs 70 percent of the rural labour force on just 30 percent of the country’s cultivated land, was bolstered in light of food security concerns. Statistics indicate that this form of agriculture accounts for 67 percent of the beans, 58 percent of the pork and 52 percent of the milk consumed in the country.

From 2003 to date, the National Programme for Strengthening Family Agriculture, a significant component of Zero Hunger, has increased fourfold the credit used to subsidise that sector, benefiting some eight million people – a figure that reveals the shift in agricultural policy.

In Pinto’s view, this process in favour of small farmers generates “a virtuous circle” in local economies, activating commerce and curbing the rural exodus. It enables many families to expand their incomes or return to agricultural production, ending their dependency on social programmes like the Family Grant.

The PAA respects local conditions, which determine the prices paid by CONAB. These prices differ from the minimum prices set by the national agriculture policy, because selling products in the Amazon jungle region is entirely different from selling them in Brasilia, for example, Pinto said.

Moreover, the PAA supports the diversity of local production, which offers a wide range of products: from the nutritious barú fruit of the Cerrado, Brazil’s central savannah region, and cashews from the Amazon jungle, to goat milk, whose production has recently expanded in the northeast.

The programme includes civil society oversight, through local councils and a managing team that sets the prices when market prices are very low. Pinto further explained that CONAB transacts directly with farmer groups, bypassing local government authorities with the aim of “avoiding politicisation” and preserving the credibility of the programme.

In spite of the progress made in this area, the prevailing model in Brazilian agriculture is still that of corporate, export-oriented production. The government “boasts about our huge exports that supply the world,” said Maluf, an advocate of agro-ecology and family farming as a means of enhancing food security.

Despite this criticism, Maluf celebrates the significant advances made, which he said have led to the “virtual eradication of acute malnutrition” in Brazil, which has achieved rates similar to those of the developed world.

But he admitted that there are still “urban pockets and other segments which are vulnerable to hunger.”

According to a study by the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE), 2.3 million Family Grant recipient families, or 20.7 percent of all grant beneficiaries, are still victims of food insecurity, with one member going without food for at least one out of three days.

Family Grants are small sums of money which are paid periodically to many households who have never had a regular income. The amount of the grant varies according to the number of children in the family, but it is “not enough” to guarantee that the beneficiaries eat regularly and have a balanced diet, according to Mariana Santarelli, a researcher at IBASE, a nongovernmental organisation that in the 1990s headed a nationwide mobilisation to end hunger.

The study revealed that rural families living in extreme poverty have no access to family farm credits and other related policies, such as technical assistance. The researcher recommends that the PAA be significantly expanded, that a national food supply policy be implemented, and that prices and stocks be regulated.

The National School Meal Programme is an important part of the process, as it constitutes the second main source of food for poor families, after supermarkets, Santarelli said.

The quality and operation of the school canteens will be regulated by a new law, currently pending congressional approval, which will require that 30 percent of their purchases be supplied by family farmers.

Once the law is passed, school meals will be extended to secondary education, bringing the number of beneficiary children and adolescents up to 42 million, Maluf said.

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