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Brazil: The Hungry Land

7 minute read

Brazil’s enormous northeast bulge has more people—25 million—than Argentina, more land—597,353 sq. mi.—than all of Central America. If the Northeast was a separate nation, it would rank second in population, third in area, in South America. Last week a governor of one of the nine states that make up the Northeast—Aluizio Alves of Rio Grande do Norte—described another feature of the region. “It is,” said he, “the biggest blight on the Western Hemisphere, with dangers enough to be six Cubas.”

Nature branded a curse on the Northeast. Except in a narrow coastal belt, rain is so scant that 87% of the area consists of parched, brown sertāo, a rolling hinterland matted with cactus-tough scrub where peasants hack at the hard soil with primitive hoes. Two months ago, the first rains in eight months brought a green fuzz to the sertāo. But drought had already ruined this year’s crop of beans, corn and manioc-root flour, mainstays of the peasant diet. Famine swept the sertāo, sending thousands of camponeses to the towns in search of food.

In Limoeiro (pop. 30,000) last week, reported TIME Correspondent John Blashill, a mob of 1,000 men, women and children—some armed with shotguns and hoes—shouted angrily for “Food! Food!” Only by collecting donations from alarmed merchants did the local sheriff avert a battle. In five other towns, stores were sacked; in a sixth, a gun battle left one dead and two wounded. Officials of Pernambuco state belatedly impounded what food was left (speculators had bought up most of the crop, were selling it at markups of 500% to 1,000%). The federal government declared an emergency throughout the Northeast, and the U.S. Food for Peace program prepared to dispatch 6,000 tons of beans.

All Prohibited. Over the years, droves of peasants have fled from the dry hinterland to the region’s fertile seacoast. But no bounty is to be found there either. A few feudal landlords own virtually all the land, and the best the peasant can expect is a life as a sharecropper or tenant farmer. As a sharecropper, he gives the landlord one-third to one-half of everything he grows, usually must sell his share to his patrāo for 30% to 50% below market price. At the plantation store where he buys supplies, interest on credit runs 20%. A tenant farmer is charged 4,000 to 6,000 cruzeiros per hectare per year to work land, often hoes the landlord’s fields at a daily wage averaging 100 cruzeiros (30¢) to pay his rent.

The landlord generally disapproves of livestock (animals eat too much) and is anxious to hold down food crops because such industrial crops as sugar and cotton bring him a higher profit. A state such as Rio Grande do Norte therefore imports 70% of its food from southern Brazil at inflationary prices that the peasant (average annual income: $23) cannot afford.

On a 12,000-acre cotton plantation in Rio Grande do Norte owned by a rich and powerful Northeast politician, a poster sets the rules: “All residents of this property are prohibited from 1) carrying arms of any type, 2) drinking aguardente or any other alcoholic beverage, 3) playing cards or any other game, 4) spending their free time anywhere except on the property, 5) hunting or allowing strangers to hunt, 6) fighting with their neighbors or anyone else, 7) attending sick friends, 8) holding a dance without permission of the owner, 9) spreading gossip, 10) feigning illness to avoid work. Any who do not comply have 24 hours to get off.”

Soup of Life. The underfed peasants succumb easily to TB, gastroenteritis and chistosoma, a debilitating liver parasite that infects one-fifth of the rural population. Average life expectancy in Brazil’s Northeast is 30 years, and in Rio Grande do Norte, 463 of every 1,000 babies die in their first year. Most infants are fed a diet of manioc flour mixed with molasses, never taste milk and sometimes do not even get enough water. In Cruz de Armas, a village in Paraiba, the government operates an infant “rehydration station,” which dispenses a watery soup to hundreds of children carried in by their parents. In one Rio Grande do Norte town, the local priest reports that his church bells, which toll for the death of every child, toll all day long.

“With good will,” says a weary priest, “everything could be solved.” But if anything, the landlords of the Northeast, who fear a peasant revolt, are growing tougher. To Caio Lins Cavalcanti, president of the “Recuperation Center of Agricultural Landlords” formed as a sort of mutual protection society, the hungry peasants demonstrating in the towns last week were “packs of thieves and Communists.” Adds Landlord Joacil Pereira of Paraiba state: “We are generous men. If a peasant dies, or his wife dies, or his child dies, who pays for the funeral? The landlord.”

Communists & Catholics. Many Brazilians fear that it is only a matter of time before simmering discontent boils over into outright revolution. In 1955 Francisco Juliāo, a youthful, self-styled Marxist messiah, founded the Northeast’s first peasant league. Today there are 98 peasant leagues in six states, some Marxist, others not; they have 40,000 members and uncounted sympathizers, have taken over 12,350 acres of rich coastal land, have fought pitched battles with the landlords’ hired gunmen, and brought Brazilian infantry troops double-timing to the Northeast in regimental strength. What holds back the revolution is lack of arms and the Communists’ own blunders. As in Castro’s Cuba, the old-line party members regard Juliāo as “an opportunist” and seek to undercut his popularity with the peasants.

To compete with the Reds, a small band of anti-Communist revolutionaries—chiefly crusading Roman Catholic priests and a few exceptional politicians—are organizing “rural syndicates” to seek rapid reform instead of violent revolution. In Rio Grande do Norte, tall, dynamic Bishop Eugenio Salles, 42, has organized rural syndicates in 23 townships, signed up 22,000 members. At his headquarters in an old office building in Natal, Salles receives eight to ten complaints a day against landlords, carries them to court. One damage suit is against Landlord Antònio Moreira (2,470 inherited acres of sugarland), a 28-year-old tough who recently burned the house and all the crops of Sharecropper Antònio Avelindo Acea because he had planted an unauthorized banana tree. The sharecropper wants $30 damages and Moreira refuses to pay.

What may be in store for him was described in a recent fiery sermon by Father Emerson Negreiros, a rotund padre who runs the busiest rural syndicate in the cotton town of Santa Cruz, and preaches a do-it-yourself justice to his peasant flock: “You should raise a goat to give milk to your children. If the landlord comes to kill your goat, he is threatening the lives of your children. Do not let him kill your goat! Kill him first!”

Green for Hope. Working with the priests are a few politicians such as Rio Grande do Norte’s Governor Aluizio Alves, 39, himself a rehabilitated tubercular who has embarked on a self-help program to develop his state’s unexploited resources. Brazil’s Congress has still not passed a modern land-reform law, but in the certainty that any such agrarian reform will be useless without other development, Alves has constructed scores of rain-catching water reservoirs, is starting a state seed bank, is bringing in cheap power by tapping into a federal hydroelectric plant. On huts across the state, many peasants display Alves’ campaign symbol, a green flag signifying hope.

Self-help can carry the Northeast only so far, and aid from the outside is needed on a massive scale. Six weeks ago, the U.S. made its first major Alliance for Progress loan of $131 million for the Northeast. Out in the hungry land, the peasants view the alliance with wary cynicism. Governor Alves does not. Says he: “If the alliance does not work in the Northeast, there will be no alliance.”

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