Brazil's stunted generation
The result of a starvation diet – Brazil 30 years ago
The fossil record suggests that one response to a warmer world is for many species to become smaller as nutritious food becomes scarcer. Within living memory this became a tragic reality in Brazil.
SAO PAULO, 4 February – The prediction by scientists that humans would respond to climate change by becoming hobbit-sized in order to survive has already happened in Brazil. A near-starving population in the north-east of the country produced a generation of children who became pigmy-sized adults after being brought up on a diet of rats, snakes and cacti. Adults grew to only 1.35 metres (4ft 6ins).
This is exactly what scientists had predicted. They were looking at the fossil record of the last time the world had warmed by 6°C, 55 million years ago. In a warmer world, the 30 scientists concluded, plants became less nutritious and mammals, insects and even earthworms had to eat more to survive. In response they became smaller and reproduced earlier.
The Climate News Network reported exclusively on the work of the Bighorn Basin Coring Project, involving scientists from the US, UK, Germany, and the Netherlands, on 7 January. Dr Phillip Jardine, from the Department of Geography at Birmingham University, said that dwarfism was expected to be a successful survival strategy.
Unknown to the scientists on the project, this apocalyptic vision of the future had, in fact, already occurred. In the 1980s Brazil’s Northeast, the poorest, most backward region of the country, much of it semi-arid, was hit by a prolonged drought that left millions of families starving. Without food, they resorted to eating rodents and cactus plants.
They were encouraged by a local Red Cross doctor, José Pontes Neto, who said: “Go on eating rats, snakes and chameleons, they are a source of protein.” But the doctor warned that the infant population in the drought areas was so riddled with intestinal worms and chronic hunger that the result would be a generation of “nanicos” – dwarfs.
His comments were published in a UNICEF study carried out at the time. It concluded that three and a half million children aged one to five years old were permanently affected by dwarfism. Specialists called it “nutritional dwarfism”.
Man-made hunger to blame
One of Brazil’s leading researchers into nutrition at the time, Dr Nelson Chaves, blamed the region’s chronic sub-nutrition not only on the long-lasting drought, but on the existing unequal social structures.
In a report published in April 1984, entitled Northeast: Drought, Hunger and Misery, carried out by IBASE, the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses, a well-respected NGO, he wrote:
“Due to protein deficiency, the stature of the population in Zona da Mata (the main sugarcane growing region) is progressively diminishing, becoming similar to that of African pigmies.
“But the dwarfism of the African pigmy is genetic, while the march towards dwarfism we see here is from sub-nutrition. It is a consequence of progressive endemic hunger, caused and maintained by man. It is hunger resulting from economic and social inequality, from poverty… The final result is a deteriorated population, sick, hungry”.
Dr Chaves said that while the sugarcane plantations, owned by the local elite, received financial support from the then military government, impoverished rural workers were ignored.
At the time, the workers were not even allowed to keep vegetable plots for their own subsistence, because every inch of land had to be used for sugarcane. Underpaid and exploited, people could afford to buy little food. Their basic diet, consisting of beans and manioc flour, lacked protein. Meat was almost never eaten.
Seven years later, on 19 November 1991, the Brazilian newspaper A Folha de São Paulo caused a sensation with a front-page story entitled Gabiru man is a new species in the Northeast.
Reporter Xico Sa wrote: “A new sub-race is appearing in Brazil, made up of tiny people. They are the same size as African pigmies and they have been baptised gabiru men. This ‘sub-race’ is the result of hunger, subnutrition and poverty’.”
Gabiru is the name of a species of large rat found in the region, and was originally given to the undersized inhabitants by Brazilian sociologist Josue de Castro, in his classic study The Geography of Hunger.
The newspaper story was illustrated with photographs of a so-called gabiru-man, Amauro Silva, just 1.35 cm high.
As a result of the Folha’s story, a parliamentary committee of inquiry was set up to enquire into the causes of hunger in Brazil. It concluded that six million children were undernourished and that 10% of them would suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Since the 1980s nutritional standards in the Northeast region have improved along with the economic situation. Between 1989 and 1997, children’s average height increased by 7 cm, according to research by the government statistics agency, IBGE.
An IBGE researcher said: “Height is one of the best indicators of the quality of life of a population. In the Northeast, logically there are still undernourished and undersized people, but the gabiru is more and more of an exception”.
Since 2002 the introduction of government welfare programmes and increases in the minimum wage have raised millions above the poverty line. IBGE research now shows there are more obese than undernourished people in the region.
These programmes mean that although once again the Northeast is in the grip of a devastating drought, people do not starve. Television coverage shows dried-up riverbeds, withered crops and the carcases of animals that have died of starvation. Water tankers crisscross the dry countryside supplying villages, but people are no longer forced to eat rats and snakes to survive.
The drought cycle in Brazil’s Northeast has existed as long as records go back, but in recent years the droughts have become more frequent. An increase in global warming could make the semi-arid region uninhabitable. – Climate News Network