Retrograde step in the land of Samba

The number of undernourished people in Brazil has increased by 73% over the past two years. This figure shows a step backwards from the land of Samba because the largest food producer in South America was once considered a bright spot in the fight against poverty.

Ana Maria Nogueira and her husband, Eraldo, in their house in Jardim Keralux, a poor neighborhood in the east of Sao Paulo. Rates of poverty and food insecurity have increased in Brazil in recent years, experts say. (Photo: Al Jazeera)
Ana Maria Nogueira and her husband, Eraldo, in their house in Jardim Keralux, a poor neighborhood in the east of Sao Paulo. Rates of poverty and food insecurity have increased in Brazil in recent years, experts say. (Photo: Al Jazeera)

The Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security released statistics showing that Brazil currently has about 33.1 million people living in poverty, an increase of more than 1.7 times compared to 2020, equivalent to 15.5% of the households in the 214-million-people country. This is an unexpected statistic in the South American country that has been recognised for making considerable progress in the fight against poverty.

According to experts, this setback is a consequence of the Brazilian government continuing to remove social security policies, the impact of the economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food insecurity is also recognised even among the beneficiaries of the Auxilio Brazil social security programme launched by President Jair Bolsonaro at the beginning of 2022. Experts say that the average subsidy of 500 Brazilian real (about 100 USD) from the Auxilio Brazil programme cannot help offset the effects of inflation, which has climbed up to 12.13%.

The reverse effects of some inappropriate policies and objective pressures have pushed more than 50% of families in rural areas and 27.4 million people living in urban areas of Brazil into food insecurity. The hunger rate has almost doubled, weighing on the shoulders of 18.1% of families with children under 10 years old. People of colour and mixed races are the hardest hit in their livelihoods, with 18.1% of families regularly experiencing a “breakdown of meals” compared with 10.6% for whites.

The situation of food insecurity in Brazil has not subsided but increased to an alarming level in recent times. The Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) under the Brazilian Institute of Economics (IBRE) released a survey showing that the Latin American country is facing a serious risk of food insecurity, when the proportion of the population are unable to meet food needs for themselves and their family at some point within 12 months, increased to a record high of 36% in 2021, exceeding the global average.

Director of the FGV’s Centre for Social Policy, economist Marcelo Neri said that food prices have skyrocketed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine and the drought in many regions throughout the world. These effects have increased the rate of food insecurity among 20% of the poorest people in Brazil from 53% in 2019 to 75% in 2021, roughly the same rate as Zimbabwe, a country with the highest food insecurity in the world at 80%. This is not a “proud” comparison for the country of Samba, the largest food producer in South America and the world’s leading food producer.

However, Brazil is not the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean experiencing food insecurity in the context that the region is still struggling to overcome the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Food Programme (WFP) released alarming information that the number of people living in severe food insecurity increased by more than half a million between December 2021 and March 2022. The Caribbean island nations, which have to import most of their food to meet their domestic needs, now have to shoulder the increasing cost of transportation by sea.

Food insecurity and rising transport costs have made humanitarian activities of international organisations, including WFP, face difficulties in Brazil and Latin America and the Caribbean. WFP’s regional director Lola Castro said that direct cash assistance to vulnerable groups is also affected in the context that the organisation’s financial resources are being exhausted due to the increasing need for humanitarian food assistance to the poor. Castro stressed that WFP urgently needs 315 million USD to cover humanitarian costs across the region over the next six months.

According to experts from international organisations, Brazil in particular and Latin America and the Caribbean, in general, should promote their internal efforts and they also need joint support from outside sources to deal with food insecurity.