Social workers channel Indiana Jones to deliver welfare checks to Brazil's Amazon

Many Brazilians are still in dire need of state assistance, and teams of social workers – equipped with chainsaws, but no maps – are traveling to remote corners to find the poorest of the poor.

Stephen Kurczy
Busca Ativa social worker Darcicleia Rego Cantuaria explains government entitlements to a couple who lives off the grid far down a tributary of the Amazon. Raimunda Pereira is nearing retirement age, and Antonio Fernando da Costa is in need of medical attention, but neither knows how to access government benefits.

The orange boat racing up the Amazon River tributary is loaded with the essentials for fighting poverty in the jungle: a chainsaw and a dozen social workers. 

The river has swollen some 60 feet with the rainy season, and the captain looks out for logs and branches that might rip into the hull. He's also looking for signs of human life in this dense jungle, one of the poorest regions in Brazil's vast territory. 

The boat turns down an inlet nearly invisible through the dense green overgrowth, and the team spots an elderly man casting a fishing net. It’s apparent he’s blind as he feels his way to shore, his right thumb missing from a past piranha attack. 

“How good is God?” the man calls out, his skin rough and wrinkled like worn leather. “I’ve been praying for you to come, and suddenly you’re here,” he tells the social workers.

This expedition is part of Busca Ativa, or “active search,” a federal program to extend social welfare entitlements to the hardest-to-reach areas of Brazil. It marks the final frontier for Bolsa Família, a taxpayer-funded monthly stipend given to families in exchange for sending kids to school and getting them vaccinated – called a conditional cash transfer program. Over the past decade, it has helped raise 36 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty.

Success came with a price: Bolsa Família cost taxpayers nearly $11 billion in 2013, with billions more going to other social programs. That's made it a political flashpoint ahead of Oct. 5 elections. President Dilma Rousseff's Worker's Party has expanded benefits to her base of low-income voters, while challenger Aecio Neves has been put on the defensive with charges that he aims to trim government spending amid a cooling economy by reining in such efforts. 

Bolsa Família has put so many Brazilians on a path toward the middle class, however, that it's earned acceptance from most voters and leaders. Mr. Neves himself has praised the program, although he is unlikely to expand it through aggressive efforts such as Busca Ativa. Indeed, a study last year found that nearly three-fourths of voters want Bolsa Família to continue, though Brazilians are split on whether the program should be expanded.

This has created an opening for Neves to attack President Rousseff for misusing government funds amid slowing economic growth and rising inflation here. In fact, poverty alleviation doesn't rank among Brazilian voters' top three concerns: unemployment, healthcare, and crime.

This means the orange boats racing up the Amazon today may be contacting the last wave of Brazilians to be added to the welfare rolls for the near future. It also means that regardless of who takes office this fall, what was once seen as a radical social experiment to fight poverty in Brazil is positioned to at least remain a part of the nation's social safety net, even if it doesn't continue to grow in reach.  

“No one will dare touch Bolsa Família, it’d be political suicide,” says Thiago de Aragão of Brasília-based political advisory firm Arko Advice, who notes the amount of money spent on Bolsa Família is small compared to Brazil’s $2.2 trillion GDP. 

'Give them power'

About 16 million Brazilians (8.5 percent of the population) live in extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than 70 real ($31) per month, and a quarter of the population lives in dwellings lacking access to sewage treatment. 

"We have the equivalent of Africa and Europe inside the same country," says Aragão, explaining why welfare programs are so important in Brazil even though it is the world's seventh-largest economy. 

Bolsa Família supports 14 million households – about 50 million Brazilians – many in impoverished northern states such as Amazonas, where one-tenth of the 3.5 million residents receive welfare checks. Busca Ativa aims reach the poor before they ask for help. The federal government kicks in 4,500 real ($1,971) per month to each participating municipality to help pay for staff, plus 7,000 real ($3,065) for upkeep of the boats.

“We are trying to guarantee services to people who need [it],” says Graça Prola, the state’s top official on social-welfare programs. “If we can bring them services, electricity or telephones, we can give them power.”

On the hunt

During a recent expedition up the tea-colored Rio Negro, the largest tributary of the Amazon River, one of the boats travels some 20 miles to the village of Novo Sobrato. Stray dogs wander on the sun-scorched riverbank village, and vultures hover overhead. A diesel generator growls over the sounds of birds singing and provides power to color televisions rigged up in every stilted house.

Beneath the shade of an open-air school house, the social workers conduct interviews with about 30 villagers. They’re trying to update the federal government’s poverty data, which tracks changes in household income and size, and also answer hundreds of questions from people like young mother Josiete Olemente Dos Santos.

Ms. Santos was qualified to receive Bolsa Família eight years ago when she had her first of four children at the age of 14. But, she didn’t sign up until recently because she didn’t know how. She now receives 182 real per month ($80), which helps pay for basic items such as clothing and river transport to the nearest school an hour away from her home.

“The money has changed my life,” says Santos. “Now I know if I don’t sell enough farofa [a local food] I still have some income.”

Several hundred miles to the east on another Busca Ativa expedition, Francisco Anderson de Brito leads a team upriver in the municipality of Rio Preto da Eva, where he serves as local secretary of social welfare. He finds an island home where a family is standing in six inches of rising river water, and another dirt-floored home where an elderly couple is in need of medical attention.

“These people don’t want to give up their lives, they don’t want to move to the populous cities,” says Mr. Brito. “It’s the state’s obligation to bring these services…. It’s a way to give the people freedom.” 

During the interviews in Novo Sobrato, someone mentions Verissimo Bizerra Mesquita, the elderly blind man living an hour upriver. When the team finds him, he welcomes the social workers up to his three-walled hut and explains how his vision and health have worsened. He never sought entitlements because he thought they were only for women.

The team promises Mr. Mesquita a medical visit and a regular welfare check, which he says will allow him to finish the fourth wall of his house. Determined to live out his days alone, deep in the rainforest, he heads back to his boat to draw up his net before a river dolphin steals his fish. 

“Every trip is very different,” says psychologist Clisjane Finicelli as the team's boat pulls away. “This situation ... shows that you don’t need to patronize people, just assist them to get their rights.”

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