- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

GUARIBAS, Brazil — Nearly a thousand miles from Rio de Janeiro’s beaches and not far from the Mountains of Confusion, a dirt road with potholes nearly big enough to swallow cars leads to ground zero of “Lula’s revolution.”

Here, a rail-thin man named Isais Conrado Alves opens a grimy sack to take out his most valuable possession: a yellow ID card entitling him to 50 reals, or about $17, every month for food.

The subsistence farmer was among the first to receive the benefit now being tested by the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known popularly as “Lula” and Brazil’s first leftist leader in 40 years.

“It’s the first time I ever got anything from the government,” said Mr. Alves, 61, who bought enough rice for one month to go with the dried beans his wife cooks every day.

More than 40 million Brazilians survive on less than $1 a day, although the country of 174 million people is fertile and the size of the continental United States.

Guaribas, a farming outpost five hours from the nearest paved, two-lane highway is among Brazil’s poorest towns.

And it’s one of the two places Mr. Lula da Silva picked to start fulfilling his pledge to give all Brazilians three decent meals a day — even though the town backed another presidential candidate last fall.

Mr. Lula da Silva began his “Zero Hunger” campaign in January, promising to expand the effort to 1,000 towns and 1.5 million people by the end of this year. But the effort already faces criticism for bureaucratic stumbling and slowness in adding areas.

Even in Guaribas, in the heart of the country’s arid northeast outback, some people say the town needs clean water or a better roads more than food money.

The antihunger effort is being watched closely throughout Latin America, and is an important test for the president. Success or failure may determine whether Mr. Lula da Silva, who was born in a poor northeastern town, wins a second term in 2006.

Like many of the 4,800 people living in the Guaribas area, Mr. Alves harvests 5-foot-high, yellow-flowered stalks of beans surrounding his home. He produces about eight 132-pound bags a year. Six are sold for the equivalent of $20 each — giving him an annual income of $120. His family eats the rest.

Mr. Alves said he uses the government stipend to buy rice, soybean oil, dried beef, coffee and sugar for his wife and two children. The family also ate chicken, something not seen for months on the roughhewn wooden table in their tiny mud-brick home.

“Fifty reals may not sound like a lot, but to buy basic things for a family of four, it’s OK,” Mr. Alves said.

But it won’t be easy alleviating the misery in Guaribas, which is named after a species of long-tailed monkeys that roam the nearby mountains.

Townspeople are already complaining that they need a regular source of water — especially during the six-month dry season that has just started. There is barely enough water for drinking or cooking during the dry months, and never enough to irrigate the parched earth.

And some of the poor farmers couldn’t get the first stipends because they lacked proper documentation to satisfy Brazil’s cumbersome bureaucracy.

Nestled in a valley below squat, rocky hills, Guaribas is 34 miles from Caracol, the closest place with a hospital, well-stocked stores and regular bus service.

The drive takes two hours, and the only warning of hazards ahead are swarms of green butterflies flying around water-filled potholes that can stretch the width of the road. Some people say improving the road would be the best way to raise the town’s living standards.

There are plenty of needs.

Because there is no running water, most people use the bean fields behind their homes as toilets.

Guaribas has one of Brazil’s highest infant-mortality rates. Many children are small from not getting enough food, and some have distended stomachs from malnutrition. Fruit and vegetables tend to be unpopular with locals, so few people eat or grow them.

The town has mail service, electricity and four public telephones. There are two small stretches of paved road and a dusty soccer field.

Only two out of every five people can read, and nine out of 10 have spent three years or less in school. The few people with televisions receive only one channel, but most families have radios.

People buy food at six stores the size of small garages. At one, there is more cachaca — Brazil’s fiery sugar-cane liquor — on the shelves than food.

Seventy percent of the people live outside town in small villages where children run naked among piglets and chickens searching for food.

“We don’t have streets. We don’t have lights. We don’t have water,” said Joao Anatolio da Trindade, who coordinates the hunger program for Lagoa de Baixo, a hamlet a few miles away.

Even in Guaribas proper, women walk a mile to carry water from a spring that slows to a trickle during the dry season, when they must wait 10 hours to fill the two five-gallon buckets allowed each family every other day.

“The money for food helps, but it’s not a solution,” said Joao Abimael Neto, who heads the municipal health department. “What’s happening is that Guaribas is a laboratory for an experiment, and Lula needs to make sure it works, because that’s what got him elected.”

Mr. Trindade said the stipend system has a major flaw: Families get 50 reals a month no matter how many children they have. “A family that has eight people only gets enough food to feed them for a week,” he said.

Just outside Guaribas, the Rocha family struggles to grow enough beans to eat and sell from their 14-acre plot. In August and September — the driest months here — there is only enough water to cook the beans to a crunchy consistency.

The family of 11 applied for the stipend, but was turned down because an identification document lacked the name of a long-dead grandmother.

“We’re hoping,” said Joao Rocha, 23, sitting on a pile of beans in a barn while a brief downpour interrupted the family’s work. “But right now we’re sufferers, and everything stays the same.”

Critics of the program say Mr. Lula da Silva’s administration has been slow to extend it beyond Guaribas and another poor northeastern town.

Some also say the program doesn’t go much beyond social programs introduced by his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Among other antipoverty measures, Mr. Cardoso established a food stipend that gave families up to $15 a month as long as their children stayed in school.

Mr. Lula da Silva’s critics also cite bureaucratic delays that have held up donated food from corporations, and a $16,500 donation by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen. The check couldn’t be cashed initially because there was no bank account set up to receive it.

Jose Graziano, the federal secretary of food security, acknowledged in an interview that Mr. Lula da Silva’s antihunger program got off to a shaky start. Officials were surprised, for example, that so many people in Guaribas didn’t have the identification they needed to qualify, he said.

But problems are being fixed, Mr. Graziano said.

In Guaribas, hundreds of children and adults are attending literacy classes, he said. A judge recently went to the town to help arrange identification documents for people who don’t have them.

“We are learning things in Guaribas,” Mr. Graziano said. “The program we’re implementing starts with the food card, but this is only the start, and the program doesn’t end with the card.”

Construction of cisterns to collect rain from the roofs of houses during the wet season will be expanded, and Mr. Graziano said money will be budgeted to dig wells in Guaribas or build an aqueduct from Caracol — which has its own water problems — next year.

Campaigns are also planned to persuade Guaribas farmers to start vegetable gardens and raise more goats, he said. Although many people in Guaribas have goats, they don’t milk the animals because they say the milk — like fruit and vegetables — tastes unpleasant.

Despite the snags, those getting the food stipends are grateful. Valdenos Alves bought enough food with his first payment to feed his wife and three small children for 23 days.

Now he can set aside some money from selling beans, and Mr. Alves is thinking about buying furniture. The only piece the family has is a bed — where parents and children sleep together.

His goal is to get his wife and children off the packed dirt floor at dinnertime.

“If I could buy anything,” he said. “I’d buy a table and four chairs.”

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