Beautiful Horizon, where hunger is on its way out
People who know me are aware of my reverence for Brazilian music—from the primal, unfettered samba, to the forward-looking, nationalistic compositions of Heitor Villa-Lobos, to the smooth bossa nova of Gilberto and Jobim. But recently, an even sweeter sound has emerged from South America’s largest and most populous nation: the whoosh of hunger rapidly receding into the past, at least in the city of Belo Horizonte.
Brazil’s third (or fourth) largest city, with a total metropolitan population of about 6 million, is the capital of Minas Gerais state in the country’s densely populated southeast. Portuguese for ‘beautiful horizon,’ Belo Horizonte rose quickly through the 20th Century to become one of Latin America’s major urban centers. The city hosts a wealth of industry and is currently the Latin American headquarters for Google. But in Brazil, a land of stark contrasts between affluence and poverty, many were left behind in the boom.
In 1993, Belo Horizonte enacted a policy of “food as a citizen’s right.” Working to creatively balance the interests of local farmers and consumers, the city administration brought family farmers into prime vending locations throughout town, where they could sell their products to the appreciative impoverished for well under market price. This move saw many farmers dramatically increase their livelihood against the broader national decline in agricultural revenues. The city also opened three large “People’s Restaurants” and a number of smaller eateries where homegrown food vendors could sell their wares to the public for something like 50 cents a meal.
Writing at CommonDreams.org, Frances Moore Lappé says:
What does a democracy look like that enables citizens to have a real voice in securing life’s essentials? Does it exist anywhere? Is it possible or a pipe dream? With hunger on the rise here in the United States-one in 10 of us is now turning to food stamps-these questions take on new urgency.
To begin to conceive of the possibility of a culture of empowered citizens making democracy work for them, real-life stories help-not models to adopt wholesale, but examples that capture key lessons. For me, the story of Brazil’s fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, is a rich trove of such lessons. Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy food in the market-you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you.
Lappé goes on to remind us that, while the tenets of capitalism may render such concepts strange to our ears, food sharing is actually one of the fundamental social innovations which provided a competitive edge to the human species. When people can work together to solve large problems to the mutual benefit of all involved, we see the human spirit at its finest. Belo Horizonte has lived up to her name in more than one way.