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Brazil: Maryknoll statement on economy
NewsNotes, January-February 2010

The following statement was written in November 2009 by members of the Maryknoll mission community in Brazil, a collaborative effort of priests, sisters and lay people who work in various ministries with impoverished and marginalized people.

The Brazilian, U.S. and international media have published much recently regarding the growth of the Brazilian economy. We, Maryknoll missioners in Brazil, have followed these news reports as well as collective and individual realities, both at national and local levels. The majority of the printed articles depict a positive picture of how industries have grown, some people who lived in poverty have entered the middle class and the natural resources of Brazil are being turned into energy and products to be consumed the world over. We recognize that economic conditions have improved for some people. The accomplishments of generating wealth and a growing economy along with the far-reaching welfare program known as Bolsa Familia have been much touted “successes” for the Lula government.

An account [in 2009] from Reuters states that “Brazil’s exports of beef, iron and to a lesser extent soy – the main products from Pantanal – have rocketed in recent years, driven largely by global demand.” Domestic consumption is rising as well; according to Business Week, “Brazilians are also buying more food, clothing, and household goods. . . . ‘Over the next five years, we’ll see a doubling of sales of durable goods in Brazil,’ says José Roberto Tambasco, vice-president for operations at Pão de Açúcar.” High Growth Markets magazine enumerated several reasons why investors should like Brazil, including: the improved investments rating it has received from Standard & Poor’s, the expanding domestic consumption, the plans to make major improvements in infrastructure, and the development that will go into hosting the 2014 World Cup.

These examples and many more show that Brazil’s economy has indeed grown in significant ways. It also shows how Brazil’s economy is connected to a diversified range of markets around the world. But how is all of this economic growth affecting Brazilian society? Who is getting left behind in Brazil? How is this impacting the environment?

Our concerns

Brazil is a country with great extremes of wealth and poverty. According to the GINI Index provided by the United Nations Development Programme, Brazil ranks as the eleventh worst country for income inequality. As Maryknoll missioners, we work with people who live in situations of poverty and are marginalized. By the nature of our work we take a different view of what is going on in Brazil. Our perspective seeks to affirm the God of life that is active in the world of those with whom we live and work, and it challenges us to denounce the injustices that we see. To the extent that we do this, our view of history and current realities is prophetic. We are aware that behind the “good news of profit” numbers published in the business sections of newspapers there is a growth in the numbers of people living on the streets and individuals and families struggling to survive.

There is a story that is not being told in the descriptions of Brazil as a good investment opportunity. For every anecdote about an individual’s success in leaving behind the favelas, there are millions who remain trapped in poverty, violence and a lack of opportunities. According to October 2009 statistics from the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE), almost one-half of Brazilian children and adolescents live in poor families, with less than half of a monthly minimum salary per capita. Thirty nine percent of Brazilian cities do not have electricity, running water, sewage or trash disposal. Only 18 percent of Brazilian children are enrolled in day care centers. Sixty three percent of Brazilian youth between the ages of 18-24 work without finishing high school.

The story of Marta reveals the experiences of many Brazilians struggling against poverty. She and her husband Antonio moved to the city of São Paulo from the northeast of Brazil in the 1980s hoping for jobs that would help them escape the crushing poverty in which they lived. Without an education it has been impossible for them to gain employment with a sustainable salary. Marta has cleaned houses and washed clothes to earn money, and Antonio has worked in a factory. In order to care for the special needs of their youngest daughter, Marta now stays home and watches the children of her neighbors for a little money.

Early in 2009, Antonio was laid off and has been unable to find work. The family gets milk and approximately $50 a month from a government program; this assistance does not meet their expenses. One of their teenage sons was recently arrested for shoplifting in a desperate effort to help the family, the other is being recruited by local drug dealers. This hard-working family has little hope that their economic situation may improve in the future. Their story is not uncommon. Many factors cause internal migration in Brazil: drought in the northeast, land concentration, economic insecurity, situations of urban and rural violence. This migration creates further instability and exacerbates poverty, violence and desperation in the communities that receive these migrants.

Our hope

We look at the Brazilian people with whom we journey in the struggle for a more just world and we celebrate with them the small, personal victories of employment, education and a growing confidence in their own abilities. We also look at the progressive social movements that have a vision of a new Brazil.

One example of how Brazilians are working to make systemic change is in the work of the National Secretariat of the Solidarity Economy and the Brazilian Economic Solidarity Forum (FBES). This government agency supports solidarity-based economic enterprises. One such enterprise is the Catende-Harmonia that is administered by the workers themselves since they rescued their factory from collapse in 1993. The 2,300 workers came up with a plan to keep their jobs and make the factory profitable. Inter Press Service describes the initiative as “cooperative, self-managing, and based on economic solidarity, with a large proportion of sugarcane plantation and industrial refinery workers also growing cassava, fruit, maize, potatoes and even raising livestock.”

This story highlights for us what happens when businesses are seen for what they provide people: employment, food security and a strong community. This contrasts strongly with the goals in the articles cited above where a company’s profits are valued and people are just seen as consumers.

As we continue to reflect on the enormous political and economic changes in Brazil and around the globe we offer the following questions for ourselves, for those who work in the media and for those who work in the world of international investments.
• Who benefits from the media reports that highlight the very small number of people who succeed economically? What assumptions are being made about the millions of people who remain on the margins?
• Do current and potential investors know about the grave damage that is being done to the environment and the egregious violations of labor rights in Brazil? What processes are there for investors to make responsible decisions that positively impact the working lives of Brazilians and protect the environment from degradation?
• How can projects of economic solidarity be expanded in Brazil and other areas of the world? How can people in the developed world support these initiatives?

Our hope is that we can continue to work with others and expand our partnership to continue addressing the urgent need for change in the unjust and exploitative structures in Brazil.

Signed: Joanne Blaney, Kathy Bond, Heidi Cerneka, Daniel McLaughlin, Carolyn Moritz, Angel Mortel, Mercy Mtaita, Theresia Ndesoma, Éfu Nyaki, Chad Ribordy, Flávio Rocha, Anne-Marie Yu-Phelps, Jonathan Yu-Phelps

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