Urban agriculture in Brazil’s favelas

Deep in the heart of favela (shanty town) communities in the metropolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil, seeds of transformation are beginning to sprout

Established in 2004 by local social entrepreneur Hans Dieter Temp, an organisation called Cidades sem Fome (Cities Without Hunger) is working to reduce hunger and joblessness among some of the most economically deprived areas of Sao Paulo, through urban agriculture.

Local community members are given the tools and training to start producing fruit and vegetables on unused land acquired by the organisation. This not only brings much needed quality produce and food security to the community, but it is also addressing the issue of unemployment – a constant problem in Brazil’s favelas.

Eduardo Ribeiro, a young man who lives in the east zone of Sao Paulo, has seen the benefits of the organisation’s work directly at home. “Since the project became established it has changed a lot for us here,” he says. “There is now more healthy food available at the market and it’s great knowing that it was grown by some of my cousins, who now have more skills for other jobs in the future.”

According to the economic league table published by the Centre for Economics and Business Research in December 2011, Brazil has now leapfrogged the UK to become the sixth largest global economy and one of the world’s fastest growing. This booming economy, alongside recent political policies, is contributing to a better quality of life for lower social classes. However, continuing inflation of world food prices along with a lack of access to healthy fresh produce is a growing concern in expanding cities like Sao Paulo.

The availability of land for urban agriculture and food production is scarce, especially in areas of great demographic concentration. Last year, data specialists Mercer found that Sao Paulo was among the cities in the Americas with the highest living costs, and with this only set to rise, it will likely be the poor that suffer most.

This is why the work of organisations like Cidades sem Fome is so valuable. It has to date created over twenty urban gardens and farms in the city, which it claims have given direct benefit to more than 700 active gardeners and a further 4,000 community residents.

By offering an array of professional organic and horticultural training courses, locals have been given a high level of education and seem to hold not only a deep sense of gratitude for Hans and his initiative, but have also cultivated a greater sense of pride.

“The gardeners here are very respected, because we know how much they contribute to the place and that means a lot to them I am sure,” says Eduardo, adding: “Maybe if every favela in Sao Paulo had such wonderful gardens, our realities and reputations would be very different.”

Cidades sem Fome is doing all it can to improve such realities, not only through its work in the soil, but through programmes targeting important local issues such as child malnutrition and educating young mothers on the importance of breastfeeding.

To date the organisation’s projects have been funded by various foundations and charity programmes, state-owned companies and government organisations, both at home and abroad. Its innovation and continued social striving has led to Cidades sem Fome receiving an award from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, for “providing concrete solutions to problems faced by communities around the world.”

Working with local people, the project has recently developed a process for building greenhouses using alternative and recycled materials. Meanwhile, Hortas nas Escolas (Gardens in Schools) is its educational initiative, running in various state schools within favela communities,  teaching the younger members of the communities about important aspects of local food production.

Eduardo is keen to note another aspect that has also added to the quality of life of the children in his community: “We haven’t had much direct connection to nature in this place for a long time. We talk about ‘the nature’, but never see it as something we are part of. Today with the gardening programme at the school, the children can see nature as something we co-exist with and not simply a place we visit.”

There is no doubt in Eduardo’s mind that Cidades sem Fome’s approach has an immense importance. “Politics can only ever go so far, but this type of work is maybe limitless as it transforms communities’ futures from the ground up, literally.”