The Meaning of Poverty


Material Information

The Meaning of Poverty
Series Title:
General Project Files
Physical Description:
Mixed Material
Wagley, Charles
Charles Wagley ( donor )
Physical Location:
Box: 1
Folder: The Meaning of Poverty


Subjects / Keywords:
Anthropology--United States--History
Galvao, Eduardo Eneas
Gurupa (Para, Brazil)--Photographs
Indians of South America--Brazil
Tapirape Indians
Tapirape Indians--Photographs


General Note:
Folder 4

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Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
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Full Text

The Meaning

Of Poverty

Josu6 de Castro. 206 pp. New
York: Random House. $4.95.

THE Northeast of Brazil is at
once the seat of Brazil's old-
est and most aristocratic settle-
ments and the scene of terrible
poverty. While southern Brazil
has developed a dynamic indus-
try, the Northeast retains what
is basically a semi-feudal agra-
rian economy. Its backward-
ness is even more striking to-
day in comparison with the
spectacular progress of the city
and the state of Sao Paulo.
In reality, there are two
Northeasts the semi-desert
called the sertao (backlands),
which is racked periodically
with droughts, and the well-
watered coastal area, where the
rich sugar industry began in
the 16th century. The sertao is
traditionally an area of cattle
raising and subsistence agricul-
ture, although some commercial
crops such as cotton, sisal and
carnauba wax are now relative-
ly important in its economy.
It is noted for producing re-
ligious fanatics, Robin Hood-
like bandit bands, and as a
source of manpower for the in-
dustry and building trade in the
South. The coastal area is
known for its colonial architec-
ture, green fields of sugar cane,
large sugar mills (now smaller
than those in SBo Paulo) and
the'aristocratic tradition of its
lite. Both Northeasts, however,
are also known for the human
misery and human exploitation
that were so well publicized
several years ago as a possible
source of revolutionary explo-
sion. In this book, Josud de
Castro, the author of "The Geog-
raphy of Hunger," probes-for
the environmental and histori-
cal factors which caused the ex-
treme poverty of the North-

H E describes the terrible
droughts of the arid sertao
which kill off the cattle, dry
up the crops and force men to
migrate. These droughts also
result in human death. The fa-
mous drought of 1877-79 is
said to have caused directly or
indirectly the death of over
500,000 people about 50 per
cent of the population affected.
Later droughts of 1932, 1942-43
and 1958, for example, have not
been so deadly. Modern trans-
portation has made it easier
for people to migrate, and the
Federal Government of Brazil
has organized relief programs
for the region. Even so, the
droughts of Northeast Brazil
are a catastrophe that bring
widespread suffering. I saw in
1943, for example, refugees
starving along the roads of
(Continued on Page 22)

MR. WAGLEY teaches anthropology
and is the director of the Institute
of Latin-American Studies at Co-
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__ ___ I_

"Sharecropper's Wile." by Candido Porttnarl. Private collection.

The Meaning of Poverty

(Continued from Page 20)

Ceara state and small children
dying of hunger and dysentery
in refugee camps in the coastal
Josud de Castro does not,
however, attribute famine pri-
marily to natural causes. Hun-
ger and misery are chronic;
they are only accentuated dur-
ing drought years. Rather, he
argues that the poverty of the
mass of people in the North-
east of Brazil derives from the
persisting feudal agrarian
structure inherited from Por-
tuguese colonialism. It is a sys-
tem of latifundia established to
favor the sugar planters and
the cattle ranchers of the back-
"In my view," he writes, "the
essential cause [of famine] ...
is the inadequate agrarian
structure of the region, the un-
desirable land tenure system,
the existence of great estates
side by side with tiny holdings
that we find all over North-
eastern Brazil." He points out
that 50 per cent of the land is
owned by 3 per cent of rural
land owners, that only 20 per
cent of rural inhabitants own
any land at all, and that 80
per cent are sharecroppers,
renters or squatters. The social
system resulting from this sit-
uation is still that of an
agrarian semi-feudal oligarchy
dominating an illiterate and al-,
most landless mass of people.

THIS is a passionate book
written by a man who is a
son of the Northeast. He is a
physician, a specialist in nu-
trition, a professor of human
geography and an amateur so-
ciologist and anthropologist. He
warns us that his is not "a
neutral interpretation, a cold
and rigorous analysis of the
realities of the Brazilian North-
east." Josu" de Castro has been
actively engaged in the battle
to improve the situation of the
Northeast as a Federal Deputy,
as President of the United Na-
tions' Food and Agriculture Or-
ganization. (He now lives in
Pars as an exile after having

his civil rights cancelled by
Brazil's present military-domi-
nated Government.)
No one would quarrel with
the broad outlines of de Cas-
tro's historical analysis of the
development of Northeastern
society and the resulting ills.
But, somehow, by a twist of
logic typical of Latin-American
nationalists, the United States
and the Alliance for Progress
take part of the blame. (Out
of fear of Communism, we sup-
port the wrong side.) He also
blames the intrusion of Ameri-
can trusts. I would agree that
our Latin-American policy has
sometimes been ill-advised and
often short-sighted; but our
State Department cannot be
charged with the feudal agrar-
ian system nor could it force
agrarian reform down the
throats of any Brazilian Gov-
ernment without being accused
of intervention.
De Castro warns: "In the
Northeast, or even Brazil as a
whole al aid from the
Alliance for Progress and all
the plans for international co-
operation to engender balanced
economic growth. .. [are] ir-
remediably doomed to fail un-
less accompanied by basic
domestic reforms the first
of which must be to abolish
the feudal agrarian system .
the Alliance, instead of helping
the Brazilian people, will ac-
tually help their enemies. The
end result of these inadequate
efforts of relief would be to fo-
ment revolution." Basic re-
forms are already called for by
the Alliance for Progress, but
they are too often honored in
the breach by our policy
makers and by the Latin-Amer-
ican governments.
This is a book aimed at
awakening the interest and sym-
pathy of the North American
public in the plight of the peo-
ple of Northeastern Brazil. As
such, it is important both as a
synthetic analysis of the past
and present of this Important
region, and as an expression of
our responsibilities to Latin
America, as viewed by a cos-
mopoltan and liberal Brazilian.


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