J. De Castro e il “The Black Book of Hunger”

Ripubblico qui in inglese, con un titolo diverso (il titolo originario era Seventy Years of World Hunger), e primo tra i “saggi dispersi”, un breve articolo sulla fame nel mondo che avevo scritto per un sito americano che oggi ha chiuso definitivamente i battenti. Nella prima redazione, a mo’ di presentazione, dicevo che “The mass media inform us every day about world hunger, but we are so used  to such topic that we take no notice of it. But what are the consequences of this phenomenon on developed countries? An explosive issue in politics today.” (I mass media ci erudiscono ogni giorno sulla fame nel mondo, ma siamo così assuefatti ad un  siffatto argomento che ormai non ci facciamo neppure più caso. Ma quali sono le conseguenze di questo fenomeno sui paesi sviluppati? Un problema politico che oggi è diventato esplosivo).


The problem of world hunger was brought to public attention in the early 1950s   by the Brazilian anthropologist Professor J. De Castro, who published in 1957 a book entitled O Livro Negro da Fome (The Black Book of Hunger), which was translated into all languages. But six years before (1951) Professor De Castro had published Geoplolìtica del Hambre  (The Geopolitics of Hunger), in which the author states that world hunger is a problem  from which “our civilization has  kept its eyes averted, afraid to face the sad reality.” (The Geopolitics of Hunger, p. 51).


Professor De Castro stressed that, despite the international success of books like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, his voice was “crying in the wilderness of indifference.” (The Geopolitics of Hunger, p. 54). The Grapes of Wrath tells “the story of the Joad family’s epic journey of hunger across the richest lands of the richest country in the world”, during the years of the Great Depression, when many American children were dying of malnutrition because food was destroyed to keep high prices (The Geopolitics of Hunger, p. 53). Besides, according to Professor J. De Castro, statistics showed that at that time “China’s tragically high rates of general and infant mortality were largely due to hunger and to the chronic undernourishment which was a permanent condition there.  It  is no exaggeration to say that some 50 percent of Chinese mortality was directly or indirectly caused by chronic malnutrition” (The Geopolitics of Hunger, p. 161).


During the 1980s, Susan George published How the Other Half Dies, where she stated that many observers attributed world hunger to the action of natural forces, but in reality she stressed that corporations “destroy food by the hundreds of tons to keep it off the market is need be,” (p. 115) adding that “One of the best ways of keeping food prices high and under control is not to produce food in the first place. This has been the tactic employed particularly by the mayor grain-producing nations like the US and Canada.” (p. 115). To cover the truth, many policy makers and industrialists attributed the causes of hunger to mythical reasons like disastrous harvests, S. George said. (p. 115).


At the beginning of the 1990s,  R. Dumont stressed that the African population is in a constant state of food insecurity. They don’t eat when they are hungry. And in some African countries this phenomenon cuts across half the population.  Food security of local populations has been destroyed by deforestation, erosion and impoverishment of the soil caused by a policy of intensive monoculture, creating ecological imbalances. Finally R. Dumont asserted that environmental degradation is a political problem, and such problem should stay at the top of the world’s agenda. If developed countries will  continue to degrade the environment and the planet’s climate system, the problem of hunger  will become more serious in the Third World, because between 1950 and 2050 the African population will have multiplied to 10 times, and misery will be considered unacceptable by the international community.



These pioneering case studies show clearly that the Western world today suffers from the inability to solve agricultural and food security problems in the Third World.  Of course, the failure of food security policies in Africa, which is exacerbated by armed conflicts, enhanced an increase in migration flows within Western European countries, and we all know this.


The new partnership agreement established between the United States and China clearly demonstrate that the heads of the world’s two superpowers have a full awareness of the interdependence of social structures, climate change and environmental change. Then it is high time, and perhaps not too late, to take serious action to combat a phenomenon that goes well beyond the “chronic malnutrition” throughout the Third World.


Because It Is Profitable


“Why invest in the Amazon?” Among the several answers invariably figured: “Because it is profitable” (S. George, p. 187).


The expression because it is profitable should be erased  from the agenda of all  economic and politic actors who invest in Third World regions, because, today, it is much more useful for us (without exception) to do the exact opposite of what has been done so far. And therefore we need to recall the words of Professor J. De Castro who was the pioneer of world hunger studies,


“Many people are still taken in by the archaic and feudal notion that hunger and misery are necessary and inevitable. Contemporary political thought clings to the false idea that economic life is some sort of game, in which some must always lose in order that may win. The struggle for prosperity will have to begin by clearing up that misconception; the science of economics must become an instrument for the balanced distribution of the good things of the earth.” (The Geopolitics of Hunger, p. 449).


So economy is not a game, but an instrument to ensure a balanced distribution of the goods of the Earth.


“But what, for that matter, should be the real proposal of an economy? Profit  or the fulfillment of vital needs? Should agriculture merely keep a profitable business going or should it resolve the problem of feeding the community while also safeguarding the public health?” (J. De Castro, The Black Book of Hunger, p. 20)


Then Professor De Castro added:


“No political leader, however powerful he may be, no economist, however learned he may think himself, has the slightest right to interfere with the birth of children.


No! Things should go in just the other direction.” (J. De Castro, The Black Book of Hunger, p. 37).


So, at the present moment, one should provide a realistic approach to solving problems of incommensurable magnitude, because today is different from yesterday, and if error persists, we take big risk, and we’re really getting off lightly there.


But “You don’t understand anything,” Orson Welles said to the Middle Man. Yes, I think we are middle men.




J. De Castro, O Livro Negro da Fome, São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1957 (The Black Book of Hunger, New York, Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1968)

J. De Castro, Geoplolìtica del Hambre, Solar-Hachette, 1951 (The Geopolitics of Hunger, Monthly Review Press, 1952).

S. George, How the Other Half Dies: the Real Reasons for World Hunger, Montclair, New Jersey Allanheld, Osmund & Co., 1977.

R. Dumont, C. Paquet, Démocratie pour l’Afrique: la longue marche de l’Afrique noire vers la liberté, Seuil, 1991 p. 44, 98, 80, 57.


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