‘Meals safety is safety’: Brazil’s city farm success story | Agriculture Information

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Every week Ezequiel Dias, a town builder, knocks on the doors of the makeshift red-brick houses of his community and delivers fresh sweet potatoes, pumpkins, onions, cabbage and herbs.

He checks if the families need additional help. Some need face masks, others need soap. But only a few are hungry. Many of its neighbors – most of whom are informal workers who make up about 60 percent of the workforce in Rio de Janeiro and have little or no savings – were unable to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 44-year-old resident of Manguinhos knows the gloomy reality well. Many years ago he was also on the ground. “I was unemployed, helpless for five years and my family was at home to support,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Then all of a sudden the Manguinhos vegetable gardening project popped up and turned my life around,” he added.

The Horta de Manguinhos (Manguinhos Vegetable Garden) project, an urban agriculture initiative and Latin America’s largest community farm, is helping at least 800 families survive the coronavirus outbreak and employing more than 20 local workers at a time when Brazil is having a problem too has struggled pandemic-ridden economy.

Ezequiel Dias was unemployed for more than five years before being offered the opportunity to work on the farm [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]Dias, who has been with the project since it started in 2013, is now giving hope to many of the 32,000 residents of the Manguinhos complex in the northern zone of Rio, one of the poorest favelas in the city.

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

More than 15 percent of teenage women have children, and in some areas unemployment exceeds 50 percent. This means that Manguinhos’ Human Development Index is just 0.65 percent below the five lowest in Rio de Janeiro, according to the report, which was drawn up between 2010 and 2015.

“Our life is always a struggle”

Hortas Cariocas, founder of the Manguinhos Vegetable Garden Project, is one of the few city-led social development initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty in communities like Manguinhos. The project was founded to solve food insecurity, stimulate the local economy and offer fresh, affordable food to residents, who often go without meat or vegetables for weeks.

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

Horta Manguinhos helps locals eat organic food without having to spend their monthly wages in the supermarket [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]Working with the Manguinhos Residents Association and with local and state funding, the project provides workers with training, basic equipment, and enough groceries to take home to their families on a weekly basis. In accordance with the guidelines, they must also distribute some of the products to vulnerable members. The rest is sold commercially to Brazilian dealers.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, trading ceased on March 27th last year to ensure the two tons of monthly produce feed as many families as possible.

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

Social tools

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

“This farm fell from the sky. That has meant that my family did not go hungry this year, ”said 69-year-old Diane da Silva, a farm worker and grandmother who has been working on the construction site since 2013, to Al Jazeera. Given that many women in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro often support their families on their own, she said that without the project, her family might not stand yet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, workers distributed two tons of monthly produce to local families and brought three bags of fresh vegetables and herbs to their homes every week [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]In a country where the use of agrochemicals rose sharply under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the farm also taught the city gardener how to lead a healthier life. “I didn’t know before that there were vegetables and herbs without pesticides,” she said.

Cesar Barros believes offering local opportunities to residents could help move a turn away from the violence and crime that have plagued the favelas.

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

The Manguinhos vegetable garden project is especially important given the favela’s turbulent past of drug trafficking and violent shootings.

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

The Horta de Manguinhos project is an urban farm in a once drug-ridden favela in Rio de Janeiro [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]After the pacification, the city destroyed a dilapidated piece of land the size of four football fields, which used to be one of the largest “cracklands” in Rio de Janeiro. While many criticize the brutality of pacification, others believe that the Manguinhos farm was one of their success stories, painting a brighter image and a better quality of life for its citizens.

“If you had come to this room before, you would have run away. There were drug addicts who smoked crack around the clock. It was unbearable, ”said Erivaldo Lira, President of the Manguinhos Residents Association.

“Food security is security”

Before the Manguinhos vegetable garden project existed, the favela residents who lived above the urban farm’s original location would face dire conditions. Improving the quality of life has no price, said Lira’s business partner Cesar Barros.

“We have taken Manguinhos from the side of the violent police and put it on the positive side. We have finally turned an extremely toxic area into a spring. People ask: Is security not a problem here? My answer is always: food security is security. It depends, ”he added.

With unemployment spiked during the pandemic and 300 Brazilian real ($ 52.85) monthly emergency payments ended in December, residents often say they fear hunger more than the virus itself.

Local children play and wander freely in the gardens [Ian Cheibub/Al Jazeera]Environmentalists say Manguinhos is a symbol of the scale of urban development initiatives that are likely to emerge in the city in the years to come.

“With other smaller urban agriculture projects, we are already producing more than 80 tons of products that benefit more than 20,000 families. And the initiatives continue, ”said Eduardo Cacaliere, Environment Minister of the city of Rio de Janeiro, to Al Jazeera.

“In order to support food security for as many families as possible, we are committed to expanding the vegetable garden program with great care and taking into account the city hall’s strict budget restrictions. The Manguinhos vegetable garden project expresses the success of these projects. “

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