The Race to Feed the Planet Why We Need a New Green Revolution to Stop Hunger
Part 2: How Lula Helped Brazil's Poor
Hunger affected tens of thousands in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s. Many of those people are now strikingly small as a result. Amaro da Silva, who used to harvest sugarcane for a living, stands only 1.35 meters (4 feet and 5 inches) tall. From an early age, da Silva often had to go without a midday meal. Instead there was "coffee and a piece of sugarcane" to suck on. He earned 40 ($52) a month as a day laborer. On special occasions, his wife would buy leftover bits of bone and let the couple's 10 children suck out the marrow. The children also kept a lizard in a box, fattening it up for the next holiday.
Nineteen years later, da Silva now lives with his youngest son João, 23, in a neat little house south of the city of Recife. The son towers over his father, fully 40 centimeters (1 foot and 4 inches) taller. A television flickers in the living room, and a new refrigerator stands in the kitchen. Da Silva now weighs 56 kilograms (123 pounds), and there's meat and beans for lunch. "Things have never been as good for me as they are today," the 65-year-old says. He receives a state retirement pension equivalent to the minimum wage, about 230. "We have Lula to thank for that," he adds.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, knows what it's like to go to bed with an empty stomach. The son of a laborer, he took office in 2003, at a point when one-third of Brazil's 178 million inhabitants were considered poor and nearly 11 million of them suffered from hunger. Now the government runs communal soup kitchens and subsidized "people's restaurants," finances irrigation projects and provides farmers with affordable loans. Lula's government also increased the minimum wage and introduced retirement funds for the poor.
At the heart of the "Fome Zero" ("Zero Hunger") project is "Bolsa Família" ("Family Allowance"), an income redistribution program for the benefit of the poor. More than 12 million households receive these benefits, using a card to withdraw the money from special ATMs at lottery kiosks and banks.
The project has been hugely successful. Around 20 million Brazils have left poverty behind, with 12 million of them making it into the middle class. Child mortality has dropped drastically. "Bolsa Família stimulated the economic cycle of entire cities and villages," says Márcia Lopes, the country's minister for social development and hunger alleviation, who oversees a budget of 18 billion.
The project is financed in part through tax revenues from the booming agricultural industry in western Brazil. Here, silos stand like fortresses at the entrance to every town. Large-scale farmers raise cattle, pigs and poultry or cultivate genetically modified soy.
Still, the government's double strategy -- assistance for the poor and unchecked growth in the agricultural industry -- may not pan out in the long term. Small farmers supply 70 percent of Brazil's domestic demand, but they are being crowded out by the country's growing large-scale farms for export products such as soy, oranges and sugar cane. "The big land owners are strong in parliament and they support Lula, but they're also blocking overdue land reform," says Flávio Valente, head of the aid organization Fian and a former adviser to Lula.
"The expansion of huge farms poses a danger to family-run agriculture," Minister Lopes admits.
Agricultural researchers are therefore looking for other ways to fight hunger. "Small farmers need to be focused of the next Green Revolution," declares Olivier de Schutter, the UN's so-called special rapporteur on the right to food.
"The next Green Revolution will be a knowledge revolution," says Carlos Seré, the agricultural researcher. "Small farmers need to learn how to work with limited land areas in a productive and environmentally friendly way."
The world's millions of small farmers need not only better plant species, but also up-to-date guidance on growing them. They don't need high-tech tractors controlled by satellites, but they do need access to regional databases that provide information on soil quality. They need access to capital, without becoming dependent on big corporations or running up debt.
Farmers need to learn how they can increase their use of organic methods and keep their soil fertile. They need better infrastructure, so their crops don't end up rotting before they reach the market. And they need fair conditions once they do reach the market.
"We need to empower small farmers to increase their productivity in an ecologically sustainable way," says David Nabarro, coordinator of the UN's High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis. "That's the key."
M. S. Swaminathan, a pioneer of India's first Green Revolution, now speaks of an "evergreen revolution." He wants to combine the best of both environmentally sound and high-tech agricultural practices.
"Small farmers who cooperate well and are well informed can increase their productivity just as fast as large companies," says Joachim von Braun, the agricultural economist, based on his observations in East Asia and Latin America.
- Part 1: Why We Need a New Green Revolution to Stop Hunger
- Part 2: How Lula Helped Brazil's Poor
- Part 3: Empowering Small Farmers in India
- Part 4: Land-Grabbing in Africa