Olinda, Brazil - the fierce energy, strength and cunning of capoeira, the hot new dance/martial arts craze, is second nature in Brazil's underclass, and helps explain some of the twists and turns of Brazil's Workers party as it prepares to lead the world in a major anti-hunger initiative. In contrast to the United Nations, which is having trouble persuading governments to meet their stated millennial goal of cutting hunger in half by 2015, the Brazilian administration is out to eliminate hunger - Fome Zero - within four years.
Weirdly, Toronto has quite a deep connection to this startling enterprise, a fact that explains why three other locals and I are among a handful of international delegates invited to observe a 1,300-strong food security convention that's setting out goals.
I'm reminded at every turn of the brutality and brilliance behind the moves of capoeira, a form invented centuries ago by the African slaves who worked Brazil's sugar plantations. Right under the eyes of their masters, the slaves turned training for a lethal kick to the head into what looked like an innocent and graceful folk dance. The relationship between form and content is never what it seems in a culture of resistance developed by people with little independence or power.
Shall we dance? After a year of setting up food and nutrition programs, the Brazilian government decided to can the Ministry of Food Security and Agrarian Reform and transfer food programs to the Ministery of Social Affairs.
This transfer was a major event at the conference, perhaps indicating a seismic shift in plans and priorities. Or was it just a curtsey to the proper form demanded by the world banking establishment, a key player in Brazil's economy?
Bankers don't look at the hunger issue the same way human rights or public health advocates do. Health reports note that close to half of urban school kids in Brazil suffer iron deficiency anemia, one in 10 suffer from iodine deficiency that could cause them to become deaf or mute, and one in seven kids may go blind from lack of vitamin A. This in a country with soil and climate to grow almost anything, but which exports most of its chickens to China and sells 85 per cent of its grain and beans for livestock feed in Europe, Asia and North America.
The bankers, represented by such groups as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank, won't fund anti-hunger initiatives linked to agrarian or economic reforms that encourage production for the domestic market. That might upset the prospects of earning foreign currency to pay off debt. Bankers will only look at initiatives linked to poverty reduction. Translation: if supplying food cuts health care costs of the poor and raises productivity, that's OK, but no challenges to trade and exports are allowed.
The Brazilian government's shifting of food programs to a social affairs ministry seems an accommodation to this reality of world power politics.
But there's a lot of capoeira kick left in Brazil's anti-hunger movement. That heft comes in part from a profound intellectual tradition that makes this country unique. Brazil has long been a centre of Catholic liberation theology, and priests and bishops who believe that hunger assaults the sacredness of life are prominent leaders of the food movement.
Brazil produced the likes of Paulo Freire, author of the classic Pedagogy Of The Oppressed and one of the world's gurus of empowerment from below. Among Brazil's intellectual giants was Herbert de Souza, a community organizer exiled by dictators in Brazil and then Chile who lived in Toronto during the 70s and 80s.
De Souza inspired Toronto groups such as the Development Education Centre and FoodShare, and took ideas from Toronto about the role of non-governmental organizations when he returned to a free Brazil in the 90s. He set up Ibase, an NGO to promote community control, democracy and food security. His "Hunger Cannot Wait" slogan was adopted by the movement, and his successor as leader of Ibase (de Souza died of AIDS contracted during a blood transfusion) has just been named head of the food council advising Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on food matters.
Cecilia Rocha, a Brazilian-born economist at Ryerson, together with Debbie Field of Toronto's FoodShare, have shone an international spotlight on municipal programs from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and championed adoption of similar programs in Canada. That international acclaim helped raise the programs' profile in Brazil. A former mayor of Belo Horizonte and the chief of staff responsible for its nutrion programs are now in charge of the national food and hunger file over at the ministry of social affairs.
That's how Torontonians got a front-row seat at Brazil's hunger conference, held in a convention hall named in honour of Herbert de Souza. The United Steel Workers Humanity Fund has worked to maintain the Brazil-Canuck tie and helped fund the T.O. delegation.
For starters, the government will provide emergency supplements to some 40 million undernourished Brazilians. These will be composed of a nutrient-rich but low-cost mixture of cassava leaves, eggshell and rice bran. Public school meals, paid for by the government and supplied by local family farmers, provide daily staples for all children from low-income families.
Food banks are being established in every city to rescue what's estimated to be 30 per cent of the fresh food now wasted. Government agents help restaurants in low-income areas to convert to "popular restaurants," where nutritious meals are sold at a subsidized rate. Open-air markets in low-income areas sell locally produced staples at cost. All programs are designed to help poor urbanites by supporting poor farmers and small businesses.
Farm co-ops, such as a former sugar plantation we visited that had been taken over by workers in the desperately poor northeastern region of Brazil, are being helped to become self-reliant by government staff in charge of "community empowerment." The plantation we visited now includes ponds where workers grow carp to boost the protein content of their diet. "We used to say that you could give people fish and feed them for a day, but teach them how to catch fish and feed them forever," the government empowerment worker explained. "We've adapted that to teaching people to breed fish."