Organic Food as a Human Right: Rio de Janeiro Favelas Organize for Food Sovereignty During Covid-19

Ana Santos. Photo: CEM in Serra da Misericórdia, in Rio de Janeiro's North Zone.

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This is our most recent article on Covid-19 and its impact on the favelas. It’s also part of a series created in partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University in California, to produce articles on human rights and socio-environmental justice in the favelas for RioOnWatch.

Human rights and environmental activists have long stressed the importance of promoting sustainable and democratic alternatives to the current agricultural system. In Brazil, the world’s largest consumer of pesticides, many citizens struggle to access fresh, healthy and organic products. Many poor Brazilians, as is common in the United States, are constrained to consume heavily processed and less healthy food. Though the country’s agribusiness sector plays an major role in Brazil’s economy, its intense focus on profit amid few effective health and environmental regulations deprives the population access to high-quality products, environmental safety, and health for both consumers and producers.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, local initiatives throughout Rio de Janeiro’s peripheries have worked to respond to the needs of marginalized, low-income communities, in some cases by promoting food sovereignty and strengthening residents’ access to fresh, healthy, nutritious diets. “The journey to health starts with what is on your plate, building a resilient immunity starts with the quality of the food you eat, and everyone has the right to healthy, real food,” explains environmental engineer and activist Lorena Portela, of the Intelligent Garden project in the Providência favela.

Rather than resorting to traditional industrial-scale food schemes, several small community-based initiatives in Rio de Janeiro are building sustainable projects to ensure fairer and healthier ways of feeding the most at-risk populations during the pandemic. Here, we’ll take a look at two of them: the Serra da Misericórdia Center for Multicultural Education (CEM), a project developed by Ana Santos promoting food sovereignty and agroecology, and Inclusion Project (Projeto Inclusão), an educational initiative run by Élida Nascimento. Both are part of Rio de Janeiro’s Sustainable Favela Network.*

Ana Santos: CEM—Serra da Misericórdia Center for Multicultural Education

Ana Santos is an educator and cook in the favelas of Complexo da Penha, in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro. She is co-founder of the Serra da Misericórdia Center for Multicultural Education (CEM), which advocates for food sovereignty and security in the area surrounding Serra da Misericórdia, the largest urban forest in Rio de Janeiro’s intensely developed North Zone. The initiative places agroecology and urban agriculture at the heart of the fight against social injustice.

CEM launched their Favela sem Corona (Favela Without Corona) project a week prior to the quarantine. The project raises funds to buy food directly from organic producers at affordable prices, then distributes to families at no charge. “There were many doubts and uncertainty around this virus. After all, no one from our community had been infected yet,” said Santos. “Still, we saw the need to expand our efforts and our communication strategies, as many people were already losing their income.”

Though Brazil does not lack fresh organic products nor widespread production on family farms, due to high subsidies for agribusiness at the detriment of small-scale production and organic products, organic products are only financially accessible to a small group. Santos acknowledges this reality in her community: “I am not saying that here in the favela we don’t know what to eat [healthfully]. I’m talking about access. I’m talking about this country’s lack of public policies for healthy food consumption.”

Portela, of Intelligent Garden, explains that agricultural policies in Brazil incentivize a focus on exports. Government subsidies for agribusiness far exceed those given to local producers offering organic products, and cheaper food products generally targeted for lower-income families are usually highly processed.

Santos says that the Favela Without Corona campaign focuses on distributing fresh produce both in order to bring nutritional benefits to residents in need and in order to support local farmers. “Many of them lost their institutionalized spaces for commercialization of their products” in the crisis, she said. “We helped them generate income by bringing their products to the favela.”

Furthermore, the project’s linking of small-scale producers and favela consumers reduces costs. Normally, the price of organic products would be far higher due to the role of a middleman distributor, which can multiply prices up to ten times their original amount. Amid the crisis, a simpler and cheaper alternative has been revealed. The right public policies can make all the difference in supporting these more accessible prices, explains Portela, especially if they address the longstanding demand for land reform. “Guaranteed health for the whole population cannot be reached without a proper agrarian reform,” she said, which values “the small producers or farmers.”

The project gained strength and visibility over just a few months, and favelas from all over Complexo da Penha benefited from it, including Estradinha, Vila Cruzeiro, Quatro Bicas, Terra Prometida, Chatuba and Grotão. “The baskets of basic food supplies were first distributed to those who had registered on a list we communicated,” said Portela, “but we also ended up serving those who asked upon arrival.”

The project aims to go further to promote urban agriculture in Complexo da Penha. Portela said it plans to accompany families and help them advance toward food autonomy rather than depend on charity for healthy staples. Santos declares that “We know the future must be based in agroecology, as it not only values ​​local knowledge, but also strengthens the production of healthy food in our own backyards, keeping the favela green and strengthening our autonomy.”

CEM is one of a number of organizations currently being supported by the fundraising drive Field and Favela Holding Hands Against Coronavirus and Hunger. For US-based donors, Catalytic Communities, the 501c3 nonprofit that publishes RioOnWatch, has established a fundraising page available here where you can get a tax exemption for contributing. To have your contribution earmarked to CEM’s efforts, please type CEM in the “Additional Information” box on the fundraising page.

Photo: CEM

Élida Nascimento: Inclusion Project (Projeto Inclusão)

Élida Nascimento launched Projeto Inclusão (Inclusion Project) in 2014, after seeing the need for better child and adolescent education in Éden, her neighborhood in São João de Meriti, a municipality in the Baixada Fluminense region of Greater Rio de Janeiro. She wanted her initiative to show children that the world is larger than their community, and encourage them to reach for whatever goals they set their minds to.

After putting educational activities on hold due to the Covid-19 crisis, the project organized an online fundraiser, which allowed them to begin distribution of fresh and organic products to families in need in Éden. As Nascimento puts it: “We managed to distribute some basic foodstuffs and, with the funds raised online, we started including fresh products because there is no denying that this is the best prevention against the virus. Many illnesses seen in the local hospital are caused by malnutrition,” she said. “Healthy food and its nutritional value helps strengthen our immunity. How else are we going to protect ourselves against this virus, when there is no cure, vaccine or medicine?”

Nascimento says that the project aims to stand in solidarity with those in need, and “the most vulnerable are the ones lacking access to decent nutritional food.” She’s a firm believer in food sovereignty and advocates for the right for all residents to have autonomy over the choice of what they get to eat.

Nascimento explains that most Brazilians do not have a healthy diet, and that she has observed this directly while working with the community’s children. The kids weren’t accustomed to eating nutritional food, she says, so over the years she has made it a mission of hers to familiarize them with the idea that a fresh and healthy diet brings physical and emotional strength. The project’s campaign to encourage the purchase of fresh products has born fruit: “We saw they were familiarizing themselves with the new diets when they started sharing new recipes on a WhatsApp group we use.”

Such initiatives have in fact arisen as a direct response to the government’s inability to provide basic services to its most vulnerable citizens. Brazil’s failed Covid-19 response has revealed the crucial role played by these “invisible actors” striving to compensate for generations of state negligence. “There aren’t any governmental actions coming into play, we had to create our own,” says Nascimento. “Though they are small, they make a difference here in our communities. And the community embraced and has given us its full support.”

Projeto Inclusão

She admits, however, that the journey has not been easy, and as time goes by, the group’s activities have slowed due to financial limitations. Next up on their agenda is an effort to identify land for the residents to plant their own crops and grow their own food.

Please support the Inclusion Project through their current crowdfunding campaign Action During the Pandemic. For US-based donors, Catalytic Communities, the 501c3 nonprofit that publishes RioOnWatch, has established a fundraising page available here where you can get a tax exemption for contributing. To have your contribution earmarked to Project Inclusion’s efforts, please type Project Inclusion in the “Additional Information” box on the fundraising page.

*The Sustainable Favela Network and RioOnWatch are both projects of NGO Catalytic Communities

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