In Brazil, hunger, poverty and unemployment have spiked alongside COVID-19. But one major organization of small farmers is doing its best to help tackle the problem.
A farmer in white shorts and a camouflage garden hat pulls a huge stalk of cassava from the dry hillside.
“This is a good one,” he said, holding the long potato-like plant.
Courtesy of Solidarity Hands/Instagram
Farmers break off the roots and place them into large plastic bags. Then they slide them into the back of a white pick-up truck for their trip to the city.
This could be any small farm in northeastern Brazil, sending their produce to the market. But these are not just any farmers. They’re members of Brazil’s Landless Workers' Movement — the largest social movement in the Americas. Their cassava transforms into dinner for hundreds of homeless and poor families in Recife, the state capital.
The farmers cook it with chicken in huge pots in an industrial kitchen and scoop it into plastic foam containers. Then, they load up the truck again and drive the meals across town to families waiting in lines.
The volunteers wear surgical face masks and red shirts featuring the movement’s logo. They spray sanitizer onto people’s hands before handing out the meals.
“God bless you,” said one man with a goatee, wearing an orange and blue polo shirt, as he received two plastic foam containers.
This scene is played out night after night in Recife, and cities across Brazil.
'Food insecurity was getting worse'
There are many groups donating food in Brazil.
But few are like this.
The 37-year-old organization has roughly 1.5 million members living on thousands of land settlements and occupations around the country.
“From the very beginning of the pandemic, the economic crisis here got worse, and we saw that people were quickly beginning to end up without work,” said Ceres Hadich, a leader of the movement in the southern state of Paraná.
“Food insecurity was getting worse and donating food was a way we could help.”
“Food insecurity was getting worse and donating food was a way we could help,” she said.
The movement also donates milk, vegetables and produce. A lot of it.
Last Saturday, on May Day, the group carried 50 tons of food for poor families into another major city in southern Brazil.
In a video posted on Twitter, the caravan of eight huge trucks rolled into downtown streets, amid cheering crowds. A huge banner read, “Landless solidarity.” Another demanded, “Vaccines Now!”
According to the Landless Workers’ Movement, it has donated 4,300 metric tons of food and 860,000 meals over the last year.
The World spoke with Paulo Mansan, a movement leader in the state of Pernambuco, over the phone one evening in late April. They were delivering 30 tons of produce to a poor community.
“We organize [food baskets], bring people from the community, or bring the baskets up to them, and then people divide things up among those who need them — watermelon, melon, cassava.”
Courtesy of Paulo Mansan
“Right now, we still have 100 baskets,” he said. “We organize them, bring people from the community, or bring the baskets up to them, and then people divide things up among those who need them — watermelon, melon, cassava.”
Movement leader Hadich explained that this type of solidarity is in the DNA of the organization.
“When you treat land well, it’s generous."
“When you treat land well, it’s generous,” she said. “The part of your crop that you are going to eat is generally small. You need to sell some, to make ends meet… But you always have a lot, so we can allocate a portion of our food production to be donated.”
Despite threats, the movement continues
The landless movement has long occupied unused land in order to force the federal government to implement land reform. But that has created direct conflict with powerful landowners, corporations — and President Jair Bolsonaro.
“We have to classify the Landless Workers' Movement actions as terrorism,” Bolsonaro told a reporter ahead of his 2018 presidential election.
His government hasn’t gone that far, but the movement has faced harsh evictions.
Last August, security forces violently removed 450 families living in the Quilombo Campo Grande occupation in the state of Minas Gerais. The eviction, which amounted to a three-day standoff, drew international attention for occurring in the middle of the pandemic, and for the severe tactics used by military police.
According to reports, police set fire to part of the land in order to force residents from the road they had been occupying in defense of their encampment.
The movement has also faced paramilitary violence.
“Over the last month we’ve suffered at least three attacks in points around the state [of Paraná] connected to paramilitaries,” said Hadich. “They are connected to local powers, large landowners, with this Bolsonaro tendency to attack our encampment, using violence against our families.”
Movement members are undeterred.
They’ve delivered more than 120 tons of food, 250 liters of milk and 1,000 bags of nonperishable goods, just since the start of the month.
They promise that much more is on the way.