“Food security is security”: the success of Brazil’s urban farms | Agriculture News

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Every week, Ezequiel Dias, an urban farmer, knocks on the doors of makeshift red brick homes in his community with a delivery of fresh sweet potatoes, pumpkins, onions, cabbage and herbs.

He checks to see if families need extra help. Some need masks, others need soap. But few are hungry. Many of its neighbors – the majority of whom are informal workers, who make up around 60% of Rio de Janeiro’s workforce, with little to no savings – have been unable to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 44-year-old resident of Manguinhos is well aware of the grim reality. Many years ago it too was at its lowest. “I was unemployed for five years, helpless, with my family at home to feed me,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Then suddenly the Manguinhos vegetable garden project appeared and changed my life,” he added.

The Horta de Manguinhos project (Manguinhos vegetable garden), an urban agriculture initiative and the largest community farm in Latin America, is helping at least 800 families survive the coronavirus outbreak, and employs more than 20 local workers at a moment when Brazil grapples with an economy plagued by a pandemic.

Ezequiel Dias was unemployed for more than five years before being offered the opportunity to work on the farm [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]

Dias, which has been employed by the project since its launch in 2013, is now providing seeds of hope to many of the 32,000 residents of the Manguinhos complex in the northern zone of Rio, one of the poorest favela groups in the region. city.

According to a 2015 study by Griffith University Brisbane, the demographics and level of poverty in the region are grim.

Over 15 percent of adolescent girls have children and in some areas unemployment is over 50 percent, making Manguinhos Human Development Index as low as 0.65 percent, among the lowest five of Rio de Janeiro, according to the report, which was carried out between 2010. and 2015.

‘Our lives are always a struggle’

Hortas Cariocas, who founded the Manguinhos vegetable garden project, is one of the few municipal-led social development initiatives that aim to reduce poverty in communities like Manguinhos. The project was founded to address food insecurity, boost the local economy, and provide fresh, affordable food to residents who would often go weeks without meat or vegetables.

“When we wanted to start the farm 15 years ago, the first thing we thought about was that the poor couldn’t afford to eat organic. The poor need to eat organic, without having to spend a fortune in the supermarket, ”explained Julio Cesar Barros, creator of the Hortas Carioca project.

Horta Manguinhos helps local residents eat organic without having to spend their monthly salary at the supermarket [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]

Together with the Association of Residents of Manguinhos and with municipal and federal funding, the project provides workers with training, basic equipment and enough food to take home each week to their families. In accordance with its guidelines, they must also distribute some of the products to members at risk. The rest is sold commercially to Brazilian distributors.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, trade was suspended on March 27 last year to ensure the two tons of monthly produce feed the most struggling local families.

“Today I live on this farm,” said Dias, the farmer. “Since we are a poor community with countless socio-economic problems – where access to proper sanitation, employment and education is often a struggle – our daily life is always a struggle. But thank God, we have managed to survive this pandemic. This farm has kept our community alive.

Social tools

Employees also believe that the educational and social tools provided by the farm are just as important as the production itself.

“This farm fell from the sky. This means that my family has not gone hungry this year, ”Diane da Silva, 69, a farmer and grandmother who has worked at the site since 2013, told Al Jazeera. Rio de Janeiro often support their families on their own, she said her family might not still be on their feet without the project.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, workers distributed two tons of produce per month to local families, as well as brought three bags of fresh vegetables and herbs home each week. [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]

In a country where the use of agrochemicals has exploded under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the farm has also taught the urban gardener how to lead a healthier life. “Before, I didn’t know there were vegetables and herbs without pesticides,” she says.

Cesar Barros believes that providing residents with local opportunities could help move away from the violence and crime that plagues the favelas.

“Some of our employees were involved in drugs and crime before. That’s why we say that the project’s last name saves lives, ”said Cesar Barros.

The Manguinhos vegetable garden project is particularly important given the checkered past of drug trafficking and violent shootings in the favela.

Previously under the control of the drug lords of the Red Command, for decades residents lived in a state of perpetual violence where public shootings between traffickers, rival factions and state military forces were the norm. In 2012, state pacification police units invaded the favela with 1,300 troops, helicopters and tanks.

The Horta de Manguinhos project is an urban farm in what was once a drug-plagued favela in Rio de Janeiro [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]

After the pacification, the city bulldozed a dilapidated field the size of four football fields that was once one of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest “Cracklands”. While many criticize the brutality of the pacification, others believe that the Manguinhos farm was one of its successes, giving a brighter image and a better quality of life to its citizens.

“If you had come to this space before, you would have run away. Drug addicts smoked crack 24/7. It was unbearable, ”said Erivaldo Lira, president of the Association of Residents of Manguinhos.

“ Food security is security ”

Before the Manguinhos vegetable garden project existed, the favela inhabitants who lived above the original site of the urban farm encountered deplorable conditions. Improving the quality of life is priceless, said Lira’s business partner Cesar Barros.

“We took Manguinhos from the violent police pages and put him on positive pages. We have turned an extremely toxic area into a spring for good. People ask: Isn’t security an issue here? My answer is always: food security is security. That’s what matters, ”he added.

With unemployment skyrocketing during the pandemic and after the emergency monthly cash payments of 300 Brazilian real ($ 52.85) ended in December, locals often say they fear hunger more than the virus. -even.

Local children play and roam freely in the gardens [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]

Environmentalists say Manguinhos is a symbol of the scope of urban architectural initiatives likely to develop in the city in the years to come.

“Along with other smaller-scale urban agriculture projects, we are already producing over 80 tonnes of products that benefit more than 20,000 families. And the initiatives keep coming, ”Eduardo Cavaliere, environmental secretary for the city of Rio de Janeiro, told Al Jazeera.

“To support the food security of as many families as possible, we are committed to expanding the vegetable garden program, with great care and taking into account the severe budget restrictions imposed by the town hall. The Manguinhos vegetable garden project expresses the success of these projects.

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