By Thiago Lima
The New York Times warning that the main tragedy of coronavirus in Brazil could occur in its slums became widely known, since it is practically impossible to enforce social isolation and hygiene measures as recommended by the World Health Organization in these areas. In order to deal with this specific crisis, which is steeped in a structural condition, we will argue that Agrarian Reform should be part of the solution, as it would be able to create a healthy social distancing.
Currently, 13.6 million people live in slums in Brazil. The images are well known: small, poorly built, cramped houses, narrow alleys and lack of basic public services such as drinking water, sewerage services, security, not to mention the struggle to maintain food and nutritional security. Under these conditions, the possibility of a selective isolation of populations at risk can only be considered by those who are malicious or ignore the Brazilian household structure.
In these places, the practice of parental abandonment is very common and in nearly half of households women are the main providers and grandmothers are responsible for raising their grandchildren and doing other domestic chores. It is important to highlight that the existing child care services do not meet the mothers needs thereby affecting their ability to work and thus rendering support from other family members essential. These family members often share the same household. With regards to children, if it is difficult to confine them indoors under normal circumstances, it is practically impossible to restrict them in tiny houses, sharing few rooms and with no comfort all day.
This scenario is not specific to Brazil. According to the United Nations Program for Human settlements (UN-Habitat), “half of the world population lives in urban areas, with a third of these living in slums and informal settlements. The number of people living in slums increased from 760 million in 2000 to 863 million in 2012. Estimates suggest that more than 70% of the world population will be living in cities by the year 2050.” The high concentration of people living in slums in large cities is a global phenomenon, as explained by Mike Davis (2006) in “Planet of Slums” (Planeta Favela). It is a situation imposed over the last few centuries mainly as a result of a colonial and imperialist history. Why? (1) Because the territory was shaped to fulfill an economic function based on latifúndios (large land holdings, plantations etc) forcing the expulsion of people from the countryside to the cities and (2) because the notion of citizenship did not develop in these societies. That is, there are” people who are not people” in the full sense. These people are regarded as semi-persons whose tragedy is accepted to be a natural part of the landscape.
These two points are fundamental: “favelização (growth of the slums) and citizenship. The intense urbanization accompanied by the growth of the slums seems to be a characteristic of many developing countries being advanced by capitalism. Persistent dynamics, as Virgínia Fontes (2010) critically argues, in which capitalist activities in rural areas promote the emigration of the labour force to the cities by making life impossible in the countryside.
These processes of expulsion and agglomeration of people in disgraceful living conditions occur, to a large extent, because the notion of citizenship has not developed or taken root in many of these countries’ societies. That is, the idea that every person has rights to be guaranteed by collective structures, rights conferred by the fact of being recognized as part of the nation, is not present. In Brazil, Jessé Souza (2017) is one of those who considers slavery to be a dominant feature of our society. But how can we talk about citizenship development if what we have observed is a withdrawal of rights and “undoing citizenship”? We witness labour conditions equivalent to slavery and the gradual decrease of work and retirement rights. It is sure that the public education and health systems have many management flaws but nothing to compares to the precarious political direction and financing policies fall far short of what is needed. Income concentration allows that only 6 people have the same income as 100 millions Brazilians; while half of the country population does not have access to a sewer network. Finally, it is under these conditions that we must understand the superhuman effort that families living in slums need to make to protect themselves from COVID-19.
We must agree to say that “the world is small” is a statement that does not fit Brazil. It is a country with 8.5 million square kilometers and very unequal land distribution. For instance, 2% of rural establishments occupy 55% of the rural area. On the other extreme, 50% of rural establishments occupy 2% of the rural area. Deconcentration is necessary! We do not ignore the political difficulties around the issue. However, a solution needs to be found. For example, a study carried out by OXFAM concluded that the land owned by the biggest debtors in the country could assist all 120 thousand landless families that were living in camping sites in 2015, demanding an agrarian reform in Brazil.
The difficulties of putting social isolation into practice in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that deconcentration should be made not only for those families who already recognize themselves as landless but also be proposed for families living in slums and for homeless people. Life in the countryside can offer a kind of tranquility that does not exist in urban agglomerations and working with agricultural production can offer a new start for those who cannot find the means to live with dignity in the cities.
We know that the pandemic will hurt the most fragile national economies to death and that the resumption of investment will require the engagement of the State. In this sense, a national agrarian reform program with land redistribution is an excellent opportunity to organize and streamline the resumption of economic activity, based on a long-term infrastructure investment project that would create the conditions for the emergence of small cities with decent housing in every possible way.
Furthermore, the global magnitude of COVID-19 brought up, in all its strength, the opportunity to reflect on our agri-food standards. Rob Wallace (2016) has been warning for some time: “big farms make big flu”; therefore, the existent agri-food pattern based on grain-meat complexes with animals in overcrowded environments and dependent on international trade is one of the main causes of respiratory epidemics that have emerged since the 1990s. Thus, the deconcentration of people and redistributing them, say, over the large seas of soybeans monoculture, for instance, could lead to new agri-food standards, also more deconcentrated, more ecological, that would favour sustainable production and consumption. Deglobalization is also essential (Patnaik, 2018)!
According to Machiavelli, no one defends a territory better than a settler. This post-COVID-19 settler could be the one intrinsically interested in the development – in the broad sense of social justice – of the territory. After all, the poor people are the ones who need a clean and balanced environment, where they would produce and supply a considerable part of the local markets. This is not only a Brazilian issue. It concerns the world’s peripheries.
DAVIS, Mike. Planeta Favela: São Paulo: Boitempo, 2006.
FONTES, Virginia. O Brasil e o capital imperialismo: teoria e história. Rio de Janeiro: EPSJV/Editora UFRJ, 2010.
PATNAIK, Prahbat. (2018). Globalization and the Peasantry in the South. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, 7(2), 234–248.
SOUZA, Jessé de. A elite do atraso: da escravidão à Lava-Jato. Leya, Rio de Janeiro: 2017.
WALLACE, Rob. Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.
Originally published at Boletim Cientistas Sociais e o Coronavírus