Hungry Brazil Asks: Is Stealing Food OK?

Drought leaves 10 million in want. Judges and officials condone looting. President pledges $123 million in aid.

In Brazil's northeast, wracked by the worst drought in 15 years, peasants drive skinny cattle across the cracked mud of bone-dry rivers littered with fish bones. Residents are eating about 500 calories a day, fewer than the 900 calories consumed by inmates of Nazi concentration camps.

Hungry peasants are marching increasingly on dozens of northeast towns, wielding scythes and machetes, invading city halls and looting food from school lunch programs, supermarkets, and outdoor stalls in an effort to feed their families. Some are even blocking highways to sack trucks hauling food.

Afogados da Ingazeira, deep in the arid backlands of Pernambuco State, is typical of towns afflicted by the drought.

Its nearby reservoir is dry, just like 60 percent of those in the state. Thirty percent of the municipality's 32,000 inhabitants are subsistence farmers, earning less than the minimum wage of $115 a month, according to the town's mayor.

In good times, most barely eke out a living growing corn, beans, and manioc root. Last month, looters made off with 17 tons of food destined for school lunch programs.

"The looters were honest, hardworking people, who want to work," Mayor Maria Giselda Simes says. "If the political will existed, we could avoid these calamities."

"Nothing justifies an appeal to looting," President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has countered. "It's immoral and irresponsible.... It incites violence and disrespect for the law." Police have indicted 17 people so far for inciting violence. But while he has harsh words for the looters, others condemn the policies that have caused such desperation.

The Brazilian Judges' Association points out that it is not a crime for a hungry person to steal food, but a "state of necessity." "If I had to try Jean Valjean 300 times," says Pernambuco Judge Etereo Galv-o, referring to the hero of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" who was sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread, "I would find him innocent 300 times."

Judge Galv-o is not alone. In recent weeks, scores of editorials in the nation's leading newspapers have defended starving northeasteners who resort to looting and have appealed to authorities to end the cyclical famines. The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) is supporting looting as a tactic to pressure the government for emergency aid and long-term programs. On Wednesday, the press reported that MST members looted nine trucks in Pernambuco, carrying off 120 tons of food.

The drought is affecting nearly 10 million people in 1,236 rural towns and cities in eight northeast states, according to a recent government report. More than 57 percent of the region's crops have already been lost, and in some areas, hunger is just beginning.

In response, President Cardoso has promised to create jobs and distribute emergency food to 5 million people by the end of this month. "The suffering population here wants jobs, dignity, and not handouts," Cardoso told residents of Tejuuoca in Cear State during a visit last week. "We are taking steps."

Meteorologists say the drought is worsened by El Nio, a periodic warming of waters off the coast of Peru that affects weather patterns around the world. In neighboring Argentina, El Nio has recently touched off the worst flooding in decades, killing at least 18 people and causing more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes.

The 'other Brazil'

The northeast - twice the size of Texas and home to 45 million - is the nation's poorest region and often referred to as "the other Brazil."

According to a United Nations study, 46 percent of the northeast population is poor compared with 20 percent in the more industrialized south. Malnutrition affects 40 percent of the area's children. In past years, droughts have traditionally caused massive migrations of flagelados, or "scourged ones" to urban slums. According to recent figures by the S-o Paulo central bus station, 5,000 northeasteners arrive each day in Brazil's largest city.

Long dry spells have also forced starving peasants to eat lizards, rodents, centipedes, and cactuses, and scavenge in town garbage bins.

'Drought industry'

Like many here, Mayor Simes says the drought is largely a political problem. Average annual rainfall in the northeast is greater than in Texas, but governments have failed to invest in reservoirs, dams, and irrigation projects. The reason is what Brazilians call the "drought industry."

For decades, wealthy landowners/politicians have ruled these lands as if they were personal fiefdoms. Their power is especially evident during droughts, when they siphon off emergency aid and exploit the political potential.

Often, these political bosses channel federal aid not based on necessity but on their own enrichment, such as water projects for their ranches. And if a drought occurs in an election year, they dole out jobs, food, and water to potential voters.

Cardoso has vowed that no politician will use federal funds to sway the voters in October elections, and that aid will be distributed by local vigilance committees. On Friday, he pledged to spend $123 million on relief projects through which drought victims can earn money building dams, roads, and bridges. He has also promised to release $439 million in credit for small farmers affected by the drought.

But Cardoso has come under fire by religious leaders for announcing emergency measures only after the drought reached a crisis level. In a recent document, the Catholic Church's National Council of Bishops (CNBB) appealed to the president to end the drought industry. "It's not our place to say how we can beat Mother Nature," CNBB head, Bishop Lucas Moreira Neves, told reporters. "But we can say how to beat such human causes as corruption ... [and] exploitation of the drought."

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