Image for ‘Without it, I might be dead’: the garden that saves lives

‘Without it, I might be dead’: the garden that saves lives

People in Rio de Janeiro are digging deep to create the world’s largest urban garden. As well as feeding low-income families, the project brings many other benefits

People in Rio de Janeiro are digging deep to create the world’s largest urban garden. As well as feeding low-income families, the project brings many other benefits

It’s a muggy summer’s day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Heavy clouds threaten rain, but this doesn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the 15-odd gardeners who are cheerfully weeding around mandioca (cassava) plants in a community vegetable garden.

It lies deep inside Manguinhos, one of the many bare-brick favelas that populate Rio de Janeiro’s vast North Zone, far from the city’s postcard views of beaches and lush green hills. The site was previously a rubbish dump, known locally as a ‘cracolândia’ frequented by drug-users. 

The Manguinhos garden is part of the Hortas Cariocas project (Carioca Gardens), which is named after the ‘carioca’ – inhabitants 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 that are located either in schools or in ‘vulnerable’ neighbourhoods, such as favelas. 

Nurtured to life via agroecological practices, the gardens produce organic food that is then supplied to people living in surrounding communities. Hortas Cariocas is run and funded by the municipality, but each garden is tended by a group of locals who receive a small stipend for their work. 

“We don’t earn very much, but we have a lot of fun,” says Rosilde Rodrigues (main image), who is perched on a concrete raised bed between two rows of mandioca plants. She reports feeling happier and healthier since joining the team of gardeners six or eight years ago. (She laughs, saying she can’t remember exactly how long it has been.) 

Stretching the length of four football pitches, the plot in Manguinhos is said to be the largest community garden in Latin America. But this is about to change: in September 2021, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, announced that the city would soon be home to the largest urban garden in the world. 

Rio de Janeiro

In 2020, the garden produced 82 tonnes of food. Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares

Work has already begun to link two existing gardens at opposing ends of the Madureira Mestre Monarco, a long, thin park that spans 4.5km in the Madureira area of the city’s North Zone. The plan is to create a single garden that runs the length of the park, covering 11 hectares of land that currently lies idle – the equivalent of 15 football pitches. The municipality says the project will be completed by 2024 and bring food security to 50,000 local families. 

Barros, the Hortas Cariocas founder and coordinator, explains that the enlarged garden will benefit five nearby favelas and follow the same model as existing gardens. Each of the five favelas will provide a team of local gardeners. Half of the produce must be donated locally, but the team is then free to commercialise the other half, adding to the stipend they receive. 

“It is more than an expansion project: it’s a project to reclaim the area,” Barros says of the Madureira garden. The construction of the park in 2012 displaced existing informal gardens, he says, disrupting a historic means of subsistence for the neighbourhood. Madureira was historically an agricultural area, supplying produce to nearby wholesale markets. 

Rio de Janeiro

A resident receives donated vegetables from the project. Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares

Barros is now seeking out the families that used to tend these informal gardens and getting them involved in the new project. “It’s a revival of culture too,” he says. 

He’s proud of that, but the primary aim is to grow food. In 2020, its gardens produced 82 tonnes, most of which was donated during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The favela residents involved in the gardens are nonetheless enthusiastic about the project’s other benefits, such as education and bringing people happiness. 

Rio de Janeiro

Some favela residents 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 its surname is ‘Saving Lives’,” says Ezequiel Dias Areas, who manages the team of gardeners in Manguinhos. Dias Areas was unemployed for five years before getting involved in 2013. Without the garden “today I might be selling drugs, I might be dead, I might be in prison”, he says. 

Douglas dos Santos, a 30-year-old father-of-four, tells a similar story. “I feel valued,” he says, explaining how he learned about agriculture from scratch via the project. He now leads a team of eight in a garden squeezed between train tracks, a polluted stream and the Madureira park’s cycleway. This garden, which serves the nearby Palmeirinha favela, will be part of the Madureira expansion. 

Despite his pride, dos Santos isn’t blind to the project’s shortcomings. He readily admits that juggling a cordial relationship with the favela’s residents’ association, the drug traffickers who control Palmeirinha and the municipal authorities, is no easy task. 

Without the garden, today I might be selling drugs, I might be dead, I might be in prison 

He is also wary of local politicians’ attempts to exploit the gardens to further their own agendas, saying the city’s involvement is sometimes more of a hindrance than a help. 

Still, Barros’s project has so far survived five municipal administrations, while thriving on the commitment and enthusiasm of those on the ground. 

“I’m not leaving,” Rodrigues from Manguinhos says with a smile, as she brushes soil from her bare hands.

Main image: Rosilda Rodrigues smells basil as she works at the Horta de Manguinhos vegetable garden. Credit: Reuters/Pilar Olivares

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