36 year old farmer Maiquel Roberto Junges, works on a small family property in the Não-Me-Toque municipality, located in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Together with his two brothers, he used to work thrice a week at a haymarket to sell his milk, soy, wheat and corn.
His family is suffering irreparable losses due to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Junges says that the drop in clientele due to social isolation policies, as well as the closure of businesses and lack of government incentives, are creating a scenario of terror and hopelessness in the countryside.
“We had a big batch of produce set up here and a lot of it rotted because it didn’t reach the hands of consumers, causing us great losses,” he recounts, also telling us of “a great waste” that happened in mid march, when more than 80% of the produce ended up in the trash bin.
In an attempt to sell off the remaining merchandise, the farmer’s family did everything. Among the strategies was an ample online campaign, with social media posts directed at potential customers, but even this did not help solve the problem.
“We tried to reinvent ourselves, but the majority of our clients at the haymarket is elderly, and many of them don’t have these means of communication, so we aren’t able to reach this target audience,” says the farmer, who only saw the situation improve when commerce was allowed to reopen in April. The uncertainty of the back and forth between closures and re-openings the state is undergoing due to covid-19, has resulted in a 20% decrease in sales at the current time.
The rural laborer highlights that the scenario has an aggravating factor: the exclusion of family farmers from the list of beneficiaries of emergency assistance funds, a monthly stipend of R$600 paid by the federal government to certain sectors of workers during the pandemic.
When the spread of the coronavirus became a reality in the country, farmers in the area were already suffering losses due to a six month long drought between November and April, which caused a major drop in production, that ended up blending in with the damage caused by the unexpected pandemic.
“That’s why some help should have already come our way. A lot was said about the 600 Reais but our local organizations advised us to not sign up for it, since the government app didn’t have a farmer option. They only had an ‘autonomous laborer’ option, so if we sign up a such, there could be other issues, related to social security, or even with government subsidies. Therefore, this didn’t get to farm workers,” Junges laments, adding that many peasants are currently unable to pay their debts.
The Landless Workers Movement (MST), affirms that the reality of the family farmer in Rio Grande do Sul is a nationwide story. Francisco Dal Chavon, who works in the entity’s production sector, tells us that the segment has been accumulating losses since 2017, when national unemployment levels began to take a toll on the countryside, causing a decline in sales, and consequently, in production.
In May of this year, for example, tomato production saw a 7,34% drop when compared to the same period in 2019, when it had already experienced a 15% shrink in comparison to 2018. Oranges dropped almost 6% between May 2019 and 2020, having had a previous yearly decrease of 5,52%.
“If you don’t sell them during the harvest period, you loose. And there is another factor: you cannot store this, and for it to grow back, for you to produce again, nature demands time. All this, in a way, has rocked the sector, that’s why the crisis is long, and the recovery slower, due mainly to these two factors”, says Francisco, while mentioning the “preceding crisis and the pandemic”.
Faced with this context, the MST member believes the country needs emergency policies for the population in the countryside. The issue has been taken up with the proposal of a law, known as PL 886/2020, which is a mash up of different demands from various rural social movements.
Without a set date for a vote on the bill, the project is atop the list of priorities for entities that represent peasants, family farmers, “quilombolas” (farming communities established by former slaves), among others.
Being debated are measures like rural credit lines for small producers, the renegotiation of debts, technological support for water access, specific measures targeting women, as well as other incentives. All these points comprise PL 886/2020, but there is other legislation aimed at rescuing farmers during the pandemic, more than 25 are being discussed in Congress at the moment.
“We are putting it in God’s hands”
Generally speaking, such projects highlight that the pandemic brought about socioeconomic changes that considerably worsened the lives of families that depend on small agricultural production for their survival. It is the case for farmer Francisca Luiza Guedes de Araújo – or Chica, as she prefers to be called – who lives in the rural Serra do Ramalho municipality, in the countryside of the state of Bahia, where she grows produce and other plants. She claims that the explosion of coronavirus cases in the country has directly impacted her family’s production, making their lives worse than before.
“Everything has become harder for us because we were selling our products for school lunches, but with the pandemic, schools closed and we also had to cut production,” tells the agrarian worker, adding that what is cultivated needs to adapt to the demands of the current vegetable markets.
“We have to adapt in order to move forward. We are putting it all in God’s hands and praying that this pandemic will end soon, however, when we think things are getting better, they end up getting worse,” Francisca vents, also telling us that she sometimes risks her life and that of her family by going into urban centers in search of new customers.
The situation of rural women is often brought forth by unions and rural social movements. As farmers and homemakers, they today need to deal with not only the multiple tasks they had before, but also with the apprehension caused by the deepening of the socioeconomic crisis in the country.
“The importance of emergency assistance for women is fundamental, because when there is no food at home, they are the first to worry. Hard times are always harder for us, in terms of providing food and care. Women’s situation is complicated, especially if you consider the notion that there has been an increase in domestic violence as well,” affirms farmer Sônia Costa, from the town of Francisco Santos, in the state of Piauí.
Resident of the Serra dos Morros community, Sônia told our news team that the suspension of farmer’s markets in her state have caused her sales to plummet by 90%.
“There is no chance of selling at market, but we have also opted not to sell door to door, so the change in relation to sales is drastic. This all began in a period when we were starting to harvest our crops. We have diminished our production, and are waiting to start things up again when all is this is over,” the farmer tells us, pointing out that today, her sales are reduced to people coming to her doorstep when in need of something.
As a consequence of the current context and the heavy losses, her family’s emotional health is being affected. “This messes with us because it brings about future concerns. An example is the post-pandemic situation, we don’t know what will happen, or what may happen or how things will be. We are hopeful that this will pass, but it will surely not be the same,” Sônia says sadly.