Brazil is being severely struck by Covid-19. The soaring number of deaths, rising unemployment, and food insecurity, together with baffling negligence by the federal government, paint a bleak picture. Yet, there are uplifting stories of solidarity and innovation in food provisioning propping up across the country, which illustrate the strength and resilience of Brazil’s social fabric and a deeply engrained sense of collective responsibility.
A grim scenario from above
Brazil currently has the second highest Covid-19 death rate in the world and has more than one million recorded cases of infection. Despite the federal government’s mishandling of the crisis, measures such as social distancing, banning crowded public events, and closing stores and non-essential services, have been implemented to varying degrees by state and municipal authorities. Social distancing led to the closure of schools, restrictions on fresh food markets, food stalls, and informal services and businesses more broadly. Without adequate national contingency plans in place, concerns emerged about access to food by low-income and other vulnerable groups, including 41 million children and young people entitled to free school meals.
Inequality had already been aggravated by economic crisis and political instability: between 2014 and mid-2019, the income of the poorest half of the population fell by 17 per cent, whereas that of the richest 1 per cent grew by 10 per cent. And since 2018, extreme poverty started rising, following almost two decades of sustained improvements. Fiscal austerity has deeply shaken the social security system built on the back of rights enshrined in the 1988 Constitution. A Constitutional Amendment approved in 2016 blocked increases in public spending above inflation for 20 years, making the national health system lose about US$ 2.6 billion, despite upwards trends in infant mortality, high incidence of dengue and measles, and now Covid-19.
Brazil’s policy framework for food security and nutrition has also been seriously undermined, as illustrated by the dismantling of the National Council for Food and Nutrition Security – a multi-stakeholder platform for debating and monitoring agrifood policies – and by severe cuts in the federal budget for the Food Acquisition Programme, a flagship initiative supported by government and non-government actors that buys food from family farmers and distributes it to people facing food and nutritional insecurity.
Covid-19 is set to exacerbate inequalities and vulnerability. The pandemic started off in wealthy metropolitan neighbourhoods but spread into deprived suburban settings and gradually into the rural hinterland and poverty-stricken territories of the country, such as the Amazon and the Northeast. Indigenous communities are at particularly at risk. And in many small municipalities of the Semiarid region, the cancellation of the traditional São João festivities (that happen in June) have caused major losses to local farmers.
Uplifting stories of solidarity and innovation from below
Despite the scale of the crisis and the absence of support mechanisms from above, there are some encouraging signs of vitality and solidarity from below.
The proliferation of short food chains
Home delivered food baskets and digital platforms connecting farmers to consumers via social media have received a boost during the pandemic and are now extending beyond affluent neighbourhoods. The solidary network of the Baixada Santista is one of many of these initiatives. These short food chains are not just about food commercialisation, they are also channels for mutual help and for exchanging knowledge about food (nutritional properties, seasonality, recipes). Further, they channel knowledge about the lives of those who grow the food – no longer anonymous faraway producers but real people whose struggles consumers come closer to understand. In some of these initiatives, people who lost their jobs or suffered salary cuts during lockdown have been recruited – in Rio de Janeiro, a partnership emerged between the Movement of Small Farmers and a taxi drivers’ cooperative for the delivery of food baskets.
Adaptation of farmers’ markets
Farmers involved in the direct sale of organic, agroecological or family farming products have suffered restrictions due to social distancing rules, but many adapted rapidly by introducing measures such as: prior preparation of orders for distribution to consumers, greater distancing between stalls, provision of hygiene products and locally crafted face masks, and drive-thru schemes. There are also stories of horizontal solidarity, as in the Family Farming and Solidarity Economy Fair of Portal do Sertão, in Feira de Santana, Bahia, where farmers who were entitled to food baskets as part of social protection programmes redirected their entitlements to people with greater need, as soon as they re-established their sales.
Fresh food donations
There have been multiple campaigns to donate food grown by small-scale family farms and land reform settlements to food insecure households. Food is either donated by farmers and farmers’ organisations or purchased through crowdfunding or with support of philanthropic organisations. In Baixo Sul da Bahia, a network of women from the land reform settlements of Dandara dos Palmares and Zumbi dos Palmares donated fruits and vegetables, many of them organic, to food insecure urban communities. A network comprising 260 smallholders, 39 urban associations and community groups working with recycled materials and indigenous people, was able to reach 1,300 food insecure households in northern municipalities of Rio Grande do Sul, with support from a partnership between the Centre for Alternative Popular Technologies and the Bank of Brazil Foundation.
For whom should we clap?
These localised emergency responses have been activated by networks of civil society organisations, rural social movements, urban solidarity networks and engaged academics and practitioners, who have promptly come together to connect farmers to consumers and reach out to those in need. The Landless Peoples’ Movement has launched its own Emergency Plan in response to the pandemic. Public and private foundations and NGOs have contributed, in different ways, to promoting these local food aid and trade networks. AgroEcos, an action-research initiative involving Brazilian, Bolivian and UK researchers and activists, is organising webinars bringing together some of the protagonists to share experiences and draw out lessons.
Regaining the public space through localised collective responsibility
Besides reducing food insecurity and vulnerability in the short term, these initiatives are helping to raise awareness of policymakers about the need to localise responses to the crisis. Crucially, they are also re-energising spaces for policy debate between state and non-state actors on matters of food security and justice. And while the federal government continues oblivious of the national crisis and is reluctant to engage in discussions about food equality and justice, the subnational level (state and municipal authorities) is, across many parts of Brazil, gearing up to the challenge and engaging constructively with social movements and networks. Covid-19 is showing that collective responsibility is alive in the streets and neighbourhoods. In matters of food entitlements and justice, Brazil’s social fabric remains robust and responsive.
In the next blog, we explore the factors that have enabled these rapid responses from below and how these experiences can help in re-imagining food systems.
Lídia Cabral is a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. Claudia Schmitt is Assistant Professor at the Social Sciences Postgraduate Programme in Development, Agriculture and Society, at the Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and member of the Observatory of Public Policies for Agriculture.