Luiz Alberto de Jesus with the newly sown planters on his balcony in the Babilônia favela.
Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS
Urban Agriculture Sprouts in Brazil’s Favelas
By Fabíola Ortiz *
Organic agriculture is a growing trend in big cities
around the world, including Latin America, and now
the favelas of Brazil are no exception.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 24 (Tierramérica).- You do not need to live in the countryside to grow
vegetables, as hundreds of thousands of people
involved in urban agriculture from Havana to
Buenos Aires know very well. Now they are being
joined by residents of Rio de Janeiro’s “favelas”.
Plants can flourish in the middle of the city,
everywhere from community gardens to the rooftops
and balconies of homes in Brazil’s poorest
A pioneering initiative is now underway in two
favelas or shantytowns in particular: Babilônia
and Chapéu Mangueira, both located in the southern
Rio de Janeiro district of Leme.
The initiative forms part of Rio’s Sustainable
City program, being carried out by the Brazilian
Business Council for Sustainable Development
(CEBDS). So far, 16 residents of the favelas have
volunteered for five months of training in
techniques for growing crops in household
Organic agriculture is a growing trend in big
cities, said Marina Grossi, president of the
CEBDS. “Not only because people want organic food,
but also because it shortens distances and
In Cuba, urban farming dates back more than two
decades and has been a resounding success. Last
year’s yield of vegetables and herbs was more than
a million tons, while the country’s total
horticultural production was 2.2 million tons.
The sector employs around 300,000 people, and the
products are sold without intermediaries. Small
livestock and poultry farming have also been
incorporated, and training is provided on issues
such as soil improvement, water management and
agroecological pest control.
In 2007, the Cuban government decided to extend
urban agricultural production to the suburbs,
largely through small farms organized into
Brazil, with a population of 192 million, is a
world power in agriculture, primarily on the basis
of export-driven agroindustrial production. But
there are a mere 120,000 urban farmers, and just
over half of them receive support from the
government to maintain their crops and supply food
for their own needs and local markets.
“We did a survey to find out what the residents of
Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira eat. And we decided
on a system of continuous production based on
agroecology,” with no chemical fertilizers or
pesticides, explained the coordinator of the
organic agriculture course, Suyá Presta.
The highest possible degree of diversification is
achieved in every single planter. “Every week new
seedlings are planted so that production never
stops,” Presta told Tierramérica.
Luiz Alberto de Jesus, a 52-year-old resident of
Babilônia, is one of the students taking the
course. He has a second-floor balcony where he
shares a garden with four neighbors.
“When I first heard about organic food I didn’t
know what it was. There is no mystery to producing
food, you can grow it in planters in very small
spaces. I used to think you needed a big piece of
land to plant food,” he said.
In his garden there is lettuce, arugula,
watercress, cherry tomatoes, rosemary and mint.
The first harvest will be in February, and the
apprentice farmers are anxiously awaiting it.
“I want to raise people’s awareness so that they
will eat organic products. I’m going to pass this
information on to the young people and children,”
In 1990, Argentina launched its successful Pro-
Huerta program, aimed at promoting small-scale
organic farming in both urban and rural areas. In
2005, the initiative was “transplanted” to Haiti,
and helped spare many families from hunger when
the 2010 earthquake demolished the capital and
As one of the food sovereignty strategies adopted
in Venezuela, a major importer of food, urban
agriculture has been actively promoted since 2004.
There are no consolidated figures on the volume of
food produced by the country’s urban and peri-
urban agricultural production units (UPAs), nor on
the number of consumers or people working in these
However, national volumes of horticultural
production for a market of 29 million inhabitants
suggest that urban agriculture does not feed more
than several thousand or perhaps a few tens of
thousands of families.
According to official statistics, there are some
20,000 registered urban UPAs, of which 2,400 have
been consolidated and another 4,000 are in the
process of doing so. In 2011, the Venezuelan
government invested 2.5 million dollars in this
sector, according to the Ministry of Agriculture
In Caracas and eight states, primarily in northern
Venezuela, vegetables and aromatic and medicinal
herbs are planted. There have also been forays
into the raising of fruit crops - bananas,
papayas, oranges, mandarins - as well as the
production of organic fertilizer.
But there are other factors involved in the
equation in Venezuela.
The Women’s Development Bank (Banmujer) provides
financing for these initiatives as a means of
combating the feminization of poverty and the loss
of agricultural roots among the poor sectors of
the population who move from the countryside to
towns and cities.
In 2010, 47 percent of the microcredits provided
by the bank were for agricultural activities, and
“many of these are in urban and peri-urban areas,”
said Nora Castañeda, the president of Banmujer.
“We now have women farmers who devote themselves
full-time to this work and put incredible effort
into it,” she told Tierramérica.
“One of our clients, a woman peasant farmer who
was abused by her husband for more than 20 years,
recently came to give us a course on how to
produce humus,” she recounted.
“For her, the most important thing isn’t being the
farmer that she is today, but having overcome a
situation of violence, thanks to an economic
foundation that made her stronger and more
valuable, even in her own eyes,” said Castañeda.
Self-worth was also mentioned by Rio resident
Reina Maria Pereira da Silva, 58, who was inspired
by the CEBDS course to plan a garden for her own
“I have learned something new. It’s never too
late, and this has also raised my self-esteem. I
feel more capable. It’s wonderful to harvest
healthy food that I planted myself,” she told
“I always liked to plant things, but I didn’t know
how. There are techniques and planning involved,
such as the time when you should harvest in the
summer and the winter. Everything we grow is going
to be for our own use and to donate to schools,”
By 2050, 90 percent of the population of Latin
America will live in cities. Today, 111 million
people in the region live in overcrowded
neighborhoods like favelas, according to the
The demand for food will be greater, and there
will be fewer people to produce it in rural areas.
This means that urban agriculture is both a
“strategy of emancipation” and a significant means
of improving the quality of life in cities, said
Hélio Tomaz Rocha, the coordinator of urban and
peri-urban agriculture at the Brazilian National
Secretariat for Food and Nutrition Security.
Rocha advocates the planting of urban gardens in
vacant lots in metropolitan areas, which are
otherwise used as dumping grounds, for the
establishment of slum housing, or for real estate
He also highlights the need for a specific public
policy to promote urban agriculture. “We know that
it works, that there is space available in cities,
but there is no formal system. It is moving
towards greater sustainability, but it needs an
initial boost,” he commented.
The Brazilian government began to provide funding
for urban agriculture projects in 2003, and many
of the beneficiaries are also beneficiaries of the
Bolsa Familia cash transfer program.
A total of close to 20 million dollars were
invested in the sector as of 2010, through
agreements with municipal and state governments,
benefiting 74,000 people who were employed in
urban garden initiatives.
Of the projects that have been carried out in
Brazil, 38 percent are concentrated in states in
the southeast and 30 percent in the south, while
the remainder are divided among other regions,
except for the north and northeast.
This year, close to five million dollars will be
invested in 42 initiatives selected through an
annual competition. The majority will be carried
out in the northeast, with 17 municipalities
* * Additional reporting by Humberto Márquez and Estrella Gutiérrez (Caracas) and Patricia Grogg (Havana).