09/24/2023 – 5:21
Josué de Castro innovated by bringing sociopolitical explanations to hunger and was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize. According to experts, his work remains current. Soon after he graduated, doctor Josué de Castro (1908-1973) began to divide his time between his office and a fabric factory in Recife — where he worked as an occupational physician. The boss accused the employees of indolence. After examining them, Castro said: “their disease is hunger”.
The young doctor ended up being fired from the industry. But the subject, a wound from Brazil at that time that persists in Brazil in the 21st century, never left his focus. Dead for exactly 50 years, Josué de Castro remains a necessary intellectual for understanding Brazilian poverty, mainly through his books Geografia da Fome, from 1946, and Geopolitics of Hunger, from 1951.
“He began a long tradition of studies, mobilization and public policies on the issue of hunger, just as the campaign initiated by Betinho is a milestone in the same process. [o sociólogo e ativista Herbert de Sousa (1935-1997)] and, in 2003, the binomial Fome Zero and Bolsa Família”, says economist Marcelo Neri, director of the Center for Social Policies FGV Social.
Professor at the University of Brasília (UnB), nurse Helena Eri Shimizu highlights that Castro “showed the real picture of hunger in Brazil”, revealing that “it was a problem arising from social inequalities”.
Geography of Hunger was innovative because it demonstrated the socioeconomic origins of the problem, deflating the deterministic explanations, then in force, about the situation. “The book examines the food regimes of each Brazilian region and the possibilities offered by natural factors, highlighting the organization of forms of property and current labor relations”, explains sociologist Rogério Baptistini Mendes, professor at Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie. “Hunger, a misfortune that afflicts human beings who eat insufficient food to meet the needs of life, is treated as a consequence of economic, political and social organization, not simply as a physiological sensation due to a lack of supply, for example.”
“Until then, hunger was seen mainly as a critical episode, a crisis that was attributed to natural phenomena, such as a drought, or temporary ones, such as a war”, contextualizes historian Adriana Salay Leme, who recently defended her doctorate on the work of Castro. “In the book, he summarized the discussions of the time, showing that this hunger caused by a crisis, which he called epidemic hunger, was not more important than endemic hunger. By endemic hunger, he understood a daily and less intense phenomenon, which may not kill through starvation, but which slowly killed the population due to associated diseases.”
Leme adds that the doctor was successful in his efforts to “publicize this broadening of the sense of hunger”. “There is something essential for us to think about hunger today: the link between access to food and income. Income is a determining factor in a family’s ability to access food and this made him link his view of hunger with poverty and not with natural phenomena”, she says.
In Geopolitics of Hunger, Castro took the theme to a global scale, once again denaturalizing poverty and explaining the geographic, biological, cultural and political factors that lead to hunger. Mendes emphasizes that the book “burys” the idea that the Earth’s population increase would imply an insufficient supply of resources.
“In the work, there is an analysis of the logic of the functioning of the global food system, formed in the wake of colonialism and based on the old international division of labor”, says the professor. “Today, in a world where agriculture is intensive and focused on the production of commodities, especially in underdeveloped or developing countries, it is easy to understand that the hunger of populations is due to a process that generates wealth that is concentrated.”
For Neri, Castro’s work “is a watershed moment”. “Although written almost 80 years ago, its message remains current. The world has more than enough agricultural production to feed the entire population. The same was and is true for Brazil”, argues the economist.
“He showed that political interests and the concentration of wealth are the true causes of the food scourge that condemns individuals and societies”, summarizes Mendes.
Born in Recife, Josué Apolônio de Castro grew up in a poor area of the city, close to the mangroves. He wanted to be a psychiatrist. He started medical school in Bahia and finished in Rio. By then he had already decided that instead of mental health, he would take care of problems arising from poor diet: he specialized in nutrition.
In 1932, according to information from the Josué de Castro Study Center, the doctor carried out extensive research into the living conditions of Recife’s workers. He moved to Rio and at the age of 28 he was accepted into public examination as a geography professor at the then University of Brazil, now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
In the 1940s, he went on study trips about food and nutrition in countries such as Argentina, the United States, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. In 1943 he became professor of nutrition at the public health course at the then National Department of Health. He was then appointed director of the National Food Technical Service, later renamed the National Food Commission.
He would still occupy several important positions. He was a federal deputy for two terms, president of the executive board of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and, in 1957, founded the World Association to Fight Hunger. When the 1964 military coup came, he was Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN) — he ended up being removed from his position and exiled to Paris, where he died in 1973.
In the last years of his life, he confessed to missing Brazil a lot. “You don’t just die from a heart attack or chronic glomerulonephritis, but also from homesickness”, he went on to say.
Castro was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize: in 1954, for Medicine; in 1963 and 1970, during Peace.
A problem that persists
“Brazil has stood out internationally on this topic since Josué de Castro”, highlights Neri. “And today even more so, due to the paradox of being a large food producer.”
Mendes recalls that eight decades ago the country was mostly rural and “rehearsing its urban and industrial transition”. “Since then, a lot has changed to remain the same. The humiliated of the land, without political, social and labor rights, migrated to the cities driven by the demonstration effect of a world that promised upward mobility”, analyzes the sociologist. “The result was the formation of a new type of poverty on the outskirts of large cities, where life is precarious. It is these people that Josué de Castro’s readers look to today. They are victims of the past and present, they are in a world that insists on not incorporating them as full citizens, with the right to the dignity of life and the development of their human potential. Your hunger hurts.”
Historian Leme sees “changes and continuities” in the scenario. “Today we no longer have populations moving away from the semi-arid region when there is a prolonged drought. One of the biggest droughts this territory has ever had happened between 2012 and 2017, but fundamental policies such as Bolsa Família and the cistern program, in addition to faster circulation of food, meant that these families were able to remain in their territory”, she comments.
“This means that the epidemic hunger in the semi-arid region mapped by Josué has diminished. In the past, structural hunger, which he called endemic, persisted”, she explains. “If hunger is structural, it is only by changing the structure that we will combat it effectively.”
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