“Without it, I might be dead”: the garden that saves lives – Positive News
The people of Rio de Janeiro are digging deep to create the largest urban garden in the world. In addition to feeding low-income families, the project brings many other benefits
It’s a humid summer day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Heavy clouds threaten rain, but that doesn’t seem to deter the roughly 15 gardeners who happily weed mandioca (cassava) in a community vegetable garden.
It sits in the heart of Manguinhos, one of the many bare-brick favelas that populate Rio de Janeiro’s vast northern area, far from the city’s postcard views of beaches and green hills. The site was previously a dumping ground, known locally as a ‘cracolandia‘ frequented by drug addicts.
The Manguinhos garden is part of the Hortas Cariocas project (Carioca Gardens), which bears the name of the ‘carioca‘ – residents of the city of Rio. Launched in 2006 by Julio Cesar Barros, an agronomist who works for the municipality, the project now includes 55 gardens located either in schools or in “vulnerable” neighborhoods, such as favelas.
Fueled by agroecological practices, the gardens produce organic food which is then supplied to people living in the surrounding communities. Hortas Cariocas is managed and financed by the municipality, but each garden is maintained by a group of inhabitants who receive a small remuneration for their work.
“We don’t earn a lot, but we have a lot of fun,” says Rosilde Rodrigues (main image), who is perched on a raised concrete bed between two rows of mandioca plants. She says she feels happier and healthier since joining the gardening team six or eight years ago. (She laughs, saying she can’t remember exactly how long.)
Spanning four football pitches, the Manguinhos pitch is said to be the largest community garden in Latin America. But that is about to change: in September 2021, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that the city would soon be home to the largest urban garden in the world.
In 2020, the garden produced 82 tons of food. Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares
Work has already started to connect two existing gardens at opposite ends of Madureira Mestre Monarco, a long and thin park that stretches for 4.5 km in the Madureira district of the city’s northern zone. The plan is to create a single garden that stretches the full length of the park, covering 11 hectares of currently uncultivated land – the equivalent of 15 football pitches. The municipality says the project will be finished by 2024 and bring food security to 50,000 local families.
Barros, the founder and coordinator of Hortas Cariocas, explains that the expanded garden will benefit five neighboring favelas and will follow the same model as the existing gardens. Each of the five favelas will provide a team of local gardeners. Half of the products must be donated locally, but the team is then free to market the other half, in addition to the allocation they receive.
“It’s more than an expansion project: it’s a project to reclaim the area,” Barros says of Madureira’s garden. Construction of the park in 2012 displaced existing informal gardens, he says, disrupting a historic livelihood for the neighborhood. Madureira was historically an agricultural area, supplying produce to nearby wholesale markets.
A resident receives donated vegetables from the project. Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares
Barros is now looking for the families who tended these informal gardens and involving them in the new project. “It’s also a revival of culture,” he says.
He’s proud of it, but the main goal is to grow food. In 2020, his gardens produced 82 tonnes, most of which was donated during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Favela residents involved in the gardens are nevertheless enthusiastic about the other benefits of the project, such as education and people’s happiness.
Some favela dwellers earn a small income from tending the garden. Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares
“I always tell people, ‘Hortas Cariocas’ is the name of the project, but his surname is ‘Saving Lives’,” says Ezequiel Dias Areas, who manages the gardening team at Manguinhos. Dias Areas was unemployed for five years before getting involved in 2013. Without the garden “today I could be selling drugs, I might be dead, I might be in jail,” says- he.
Douglas dos Santos, a 30-year-old father of four, tells a similar story. “I feel valued,” he says, explaining how he learned farming from scratch through the project. He now leads a team of eight people in a garden wedged between train tracks, a polluted stream and the Madureira Park bike path. This garden, which serves the neighboring favela of Palmeirinha, will be part of the Madureira expansion.
Despite his pride, dos Santos is not blind to the shortcomings of the project. He freely admits that juggling the association of favela residents, the drug traffickers who control Palmeirinha and the municipal authorities is not easy.
Without the garden, today I may be selling drugs, I may be dead, I may be in prison
He is also wary of attempts by local politicians to exploit the gardens to advance their own agendas, saying city involvement is sometimes more of a hindrance than a help.
Yet Barros’ project has so far survived five city administrations, while thriving thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of those on the ground.
“I’m not leaving,” Rodrigues de Manguinhos says with a smile, as she brushes the dirt with her bare hands.
Main image: Rosilda Rodrigues smells of basil as she works in the Horta de Manguinhos vegetable garden. Credit: Reuters/Pilar Olivares
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