Hunger has returned to Brazil. But somehow, during a polarizing and intensely fought presidential election, it has not entered its politics.

A recent national survey on hunger in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit Brazil hard, found more than half of the country’s population, 125.2 million people, experienced some degree of food insecurity, with more than 33 million people going hungry.

Three times as many Brazilians faced hunger in 2022 than in 2013, a return to the kind of widespread hardship that had long characterized life for many in Brazil.

The survey had found that nearly half of families experiencing severe food insecurity live in the country’s low-income northern and northeastern regions, and 65% of homes headed by a person of African descent have had to restrict their food intake. Nearly one in five households headed by women have gone hungry, primarily due to wage disparities; while families with children are worse off than those without.

The survey helped fuel an expectation that Bolsonaro’s chances in the October 2 general elections were poor. Polls showed former president Lula da Silva potentially winning the election outright, with Bolsonaro carrying just 33% of the electorate. The same polls showed that among families with household incomes of about $450, Lula registered 54% against Bolsonaro’s 26% with a two-point margin of error.

The polls were wrong. Bolsonaro’s conservative values and tough-on-crime discourse found traction, while the issue of hunger has been largely absent from election campaigning. The failure of Bolsonaro’s agricultural policy and social programs to slow the rise of hunger in Brazil hasn’t weakened support for his reelection even among the electorate made food insecure during his presidency — a remarkable reflection of contemporary right-wing populism and the power of social media messaging.

Chief João Kanamary and his family live temporarily on the banks of the Javari River waiting for social benefits such as “Bolsa Família” and for medical care, both of which are made difficult with the dismantling of FUNAI in the region. August, 2022. Photo by Rafael Vilela for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Bolsonaro often attacks low-income Brazilians as lazy or criminal. In 2012, he said northeasterners didn’t want to work because they would stop receiving their dues from the government’s income-transfer program, the Bolsa Família. The social welfare program was among Lula’s most celebrated initiatives and played a major part in reducing Brazilian poverty during his first term in office almost 20 years ago. Bolsonaro replaced Bolsa Familia in 2021 with his own program, the Auxílio Brasil.

As recently as September, Bolsonaro had said that government handouts had prevented low-income people from learning professional skills and that they had been “habituated over the years to not worrying” about how to support themselves. And in a rancorous debate with Lula on October 16, Bolsonaro implied that residents of favelas are criminals.

Meanwhile, his policies have exacerbated hunger. On his first day in office, Bolsonaro axed seven government ministries and eliminated the National Council on Food and Nutritional Security, which served as the nodal point for hundreds of state and local councils. “You eliminate the head and you cut all the space for discussion,” said Vera Villela, President of São Paulo’s Municipal Council on Food and Nutritional Security.

A system of food stocking that ensures supplies for public facilities like schools and hospitals shrank from 349 warehouses in 1991 to 92 last year, and the Bolsonaro government announced it will close 27 more. Meanwhile, the government supports export-focused production making Brazil one of the world’s leading exporters of commodities like soybeans and beef.

And yet Bolsonaro remains electable in large part with the help of this demographic that he so frequently scorns. Brian Winter, the Editor of Americas Quarterly, says Bolsonaro has wooed the country’s evangelical leaders, benefiting from waves of disinformation on social media and messaging platforms and calculated financial support to the poor and to truckers, in his attempts to sway voters to his side. The sheer complexity of the Brazilian electorate helps explain why growing poverty and hunger haven’t had the impact on voters that Bolsonaro’s opponents might have expected.

The Brasilia Teimosa favela in September 2022 in the Pernambuco region, northeast Brazil. According to the Brazilian Network for Research on Food Security, 33.1 million Brazilians live in hunger. Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images.

Doraci and Jurandir live in the Northeast. They moved in together as teenagers and had a roof over their heads but little else. “We didn’t even have bedsheets,” says Doraci Anunciada de Oliveira Silva, now 39 years old. “The ants would bite the baby as he slept on the floor.”

The couple met in 1999 when Jurandir, then 19 and three years older than Doraci, was hired to build a fence around her parents’ property. “He asked if I wanted to date him, and I almost said no,” Doraci recalls. “But he was so nervous and trembling in his agony, that I decided to give him a chance.”

They live in Alto do Rosario, a community of about 500 people in the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil’s semi-arid region. The bumpy red dirt road leading to the settlement rises and dips over hills, winding between scraggly trees and fences made from knobby, barkless branches and barbed wire.

Despite the material hardships they faced early in their relationship, Doraci and Jurandir have managed to build a small farm that not only provides for their needs but also enables them to sell products like cheese and butter at a pair of local markets.

Their good fortune stands in stark contrast with millions of other Brazilians, particularly in rural areas and in the country’s northern and northeastern regions.

But Doraci and Jurandir had no access to running water for years. Every day, Doraci would carry an empty jug over a mile to a watering hole where she would fill it and carry it back on her head. “I suffered a lot,” she says of the hard daily work of tending to animals, carrying water, and looking after the crops.

In 2004, during Lula’s first term as president, Doraci and Jurandir received a government grant to build a cistern. The simple structure has transformed their lives. It saves Doraci hours of work every day and also ensures that the family farm has a supply of water for the animals, plants and people.

During the pandemic, the Bolsonaro administration funded an emergency cash transfer program to try to guarantee that Brazil’s most vulnerable would be able to eat. As the election runoff comes closer though, critics alleged that the cash transfers amount to bribes. The Northeast has the largest number of emergency cash recipients — 9.75 million. A constitutional amendment in July allowed the cash transfers to continue after the height of the pandemic — and to increase. Yet Bolsonaro’s government has cut funding to programs such as the one that enabled Doraci and Jurandir to build their cistern and transform their family finances.

In 2008, they put a deposit of 500 Brazilian reals (at the time about $250) down on a second home one lot over from their own. Eight years ago, when Doraci was pregnant with their third child, she used a subsidy offered to low-income pregnant women to invest in a milk cow to produce cheese and two kinds of butter that she and Jurandir sell in local farmers’ markets. For years, Jurandir worked as a delivery driver in the nearby city of Surubim, giving them a cash income in addition to the foodstuffs they produce on the farm. 

A 2009 law, passed when Lula was president, requires state and local governments to spend 30% of their budget for school lunches and snacks on foodstuffs produced by family farms. Schools closed during the pandemic, and so did the spending. When most of Brazil’s states halted their purchases of family-farm products in 2020, it left farmers without a market for their crops. The state of Rio Grande do Norte may be the only one to have opted for a different approach: it expanded the role of family-farm produce. That state is now the most food-secure state in the northeast, and the fourth best ranked state in the country.

“The government of Rio Grande do Norte implemented an integrated policy involving several state agencies to combat hunger during the pandemic,” said Alexandre de Oliveira Lima. Lima runs the state’s rural development and agricultural program. “Here in Rio Grande do Norte, we had a big expansion,” he says, “a really big expansion of family farms” during the pandemic.

Doraci and Jurandir stand in the doorway to their home in Alto do Rosario in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, campaign stickers adorning it. Photo by Zoe Sullivan.

Beautifully shot and edited agriculture commercials fill ad breaks on Brazilian television. “Agro é top,” goes the slogan. Agro is the best. The ads reflect the deep political power wielded by Brazil’s agribusiness industry and the rural caucus in the Brazilian legislature.

Almost half of Brazil’s total exports in 2021, $120 billion, came from agriculture and livestock farming, a 20% increase over 2020 according to reporting by the Brazilian magazine Piauí. More than a quarter of Brazil’s GDP is attributed to agribusiness, although this figure includes ancillary activities like the sale of veterinary medicines.

“Agribusiness acts like a vacuum for resources that concentrates this wealth in a few pockets of prosperity,” wrote Marcos Emílio Gomes in Piauí. Foodstuffs exported from Brazil are exempt from export taxes thanks to the country’s “Kandir Law,” named after a former planning minister, which exempts raw and semi-elaborated export products from specific taxes. Agribusiness is the biggest beneficiary of this exemption. In contrast, family farms like Doraci’s and Jurandir’s represent more than three-quarters of all farms and yet account for just 23% of the land farmed.

Yamila Goldfarb, Vice President of the Brazilian Association for Land Reform, says the contradictions in Brazil’s agricultural system are striking. “There are difficulties in accessing credit,” she tells me. “There are difficulties in obtaining technical assistance, and when you analyze who is actually producing food, it’s not on these big farms. The big farms produce commodities: soybeans, corn, cotton — products for export. They are large consumers of pesticides; they deforest. They participate in this process of grabbing lands illegally, of deforesting in order to appropriate land.”

The large farms have institutional support through think tanks, the rural caucus in congress, and other advocacy efforts. Subsistence farming, on the other hand, according to Goldfarb, is portrayed as backward and as unimportant. “But it’s not, in reality. It has huge significance because it represents food security for a large percentage of the population,” she said.

The Brazilian government’s statistical agency backs up Goldfarb’s claim, reporting that family farms produce 48% of the turnover for coffee and bananas, 80% of cassava, 69% of pineapples and 42% of beans.

Still, family agriculture is often dismissed. Alexandre Pires of the Sabiá Center, which helped Doraci and Jurandir bring their dairy products to market, pointed to a lack of political engagement with family agriculture.

“There’s an absence of a political strategy that values camponesa [small-scale farmer] agriculture, that values family agriculture,” he told me. This lack of engagement, Pires said, is draining people from rural areas.

Just two weeks before the second round of Brazil’s general election, polls showed Lula’s lead over Bolsonaro dwindling to five points, suggesting that the outcome of the runoff remains a toss-up. And with approximately 20% of the population, or nearly 33 million people, abstaining from voting in the first round of the elections, the couple’s activism takes on additional meaning.

“I know a place here where there are people with really a lot of needs,” Doraci said. “And they’re talking about Bolsonaro, which makes me want to spit. How is it that in a place like this, people want to vote for Bolsonaro?”