Can you imagine if we had a community garden in every favela in Rio de Janeiro to grow and supply organic vegetables for every household? Better yet, that every resident could cultivate their own vegetable garden? Read on to find out how we are pursuing this dream in the Kelson’s favela, in Complexo da Maré, in Rio’s North Zone.
We often see that peripheral territories, whether a favela or other vulnerable areas, receive little or no attention from the government. Garbage on the street, blocked sewage, pollution, natural disasters, and the spread of diseases are some of the consequences of a system that does not assist favelas nor recognize low-income citizens as full human beings, denying their basic survival needs, practices typical of environmental racism.
Environmental racism is a concept that acknowledges discriminatory practices in the development of environmental public policies and legal regulations applied in black, peripheral and favela territories, for example. The term was coined by African American activist Benjamin Franklin Chavis Jr. in the early 1980s during civil rights protests against environmental injustices. As Executive Director of the Commission for Racial Justice, Chavis Junior defined environmental racism, in summary, as “racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants near communities of color and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental movement.”
In addition, illness and early deaths of children, youth and adults have been increasingly recurrent due to the expansion of food deserts. According to the World Health Report 2002, low consumption of fruit and vegetables caused 2.7 million deaths that year. Twenty years later, in 2022, after a period of improvement in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the situation has once again gotten worse in Brazil. With the rising cost of living, many families are unable to buy fresh foods and the core staples of the Brazilian diet (beans, rice, vegetables, and meats) and choose to buy cheaper processed products: instant noodles, soft drinks, sausages, cream-filled cookies, powdered drink mixes, etc. However, cheap can get expensive.
During the pandemic record unemployment and widespread income declines in favelas exacerbated the problem. Numerous civil society organizations fought back, committed to reducing the impacts caused by the coronavirus pandemic in the favelas. Yet, even with so many rapid-response initiatives, including those to distribute basic foodstuffs, civil society responses have not been enough to prevent food insecurity.
Seeing these issues, I realized that we could change the reality of our favela families. Many houses in the community have backyards, porches, and pots with inedible plants, in addition to community spaces that could serve as tools for promising changes in the favela. Why are we not taking advantage of this? We’ve got to reach people with these ideas!
With this in mind, in 2021 we started dreaming of creating a vegetable garden in the community where I grew up: the Kelson’s favela, in Complexo da Maré. This was only possible through peer-to-peer organizing among several people who came together to draft a project to be included in an internal bid by the Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities (IEAHu) at Rio’s Catholic University (PUC-Rio), where I work. We then managed to raise R$7715 (US$1480) to build five productive plant beds and kickstart the project.
With the funds in hand, we invited several volunteer collaborators to build the plant beds and mobilize our community to participate in the project. One of the mobilization activities worth mentioning was the celebration of Children’s Day on October 12, 2021.
Our goal was to bring children from the favela closer to the history of the place where they live. Volunteers organized a scavenger hunt in which the clues described important places in the community, and the treasure were seedlings of native Atlantic Forest trees to be planted in the community by the children. In addition to these plants being edible, which also helps ensure food security in the community, they help to reduce the impact of the tree deficit in the area, reducing the impacts of climate change and urban heat islands.
First, there was storytelling relaying the history and construction of the Kelson’s favela on top of the old Praia da Moreninha, highlighting important historical figures from the community who helped build the original homes on stilts over the mangrove. After the stories, children were given clues as to where the treasure—the tree seedlings—might be hidden.
After the clues were discovered, amid a lot of fun and running around, we planted the seedlings with the children on land that would otherwise have fallen into disuse and which was prepared for planting by a team of volunteers.
Our work promotes a closer relationship between food and those who consume it. After mobilizing the community, we started building an urban, organic, agroecological community vegetable garden to teach about socio-environmental issues in the territory.
We called our initiative the Maria Angu Community Garden. We chose the name to reclaim the memory of the Maria Angu favela in Leopoldina that completely disappeared with the forced evictions realized by the Carlos Lacerda administration in 1964-1965. Residents were moved to Vila Kennedy, in the West Zone, to houses that were still under construction at the time.
We started the vegetable garden project to ensure organic food planted and harvested in the community, to nurture residents’ relationships with the environment and to promote community involvement with sustainable and ecological processes. All this helps to provide a better quality of life and well-being for the favela population, to guarantee food security, and to train community agents of change to work in the area contributing to both the socio-environmental and humanitarian development of the area and residents. These goals are essential to stimulate the residents to plant what we eat and consume what is healthy for our bodies.
Our participatory practices encouraged residents to develop a more proactive approach to solutions for local socio-environmental demands. A greater proximity with nature strengthens community ties and organization, in addition to providing the development of skills in planting and building vertical gardens through workshops held by the team.
During the development of the garden, between the first and second planting, we harvested beetroot, lettuce, cabbage, parsley and chives, cilantro, eggplant, okra, jilo eggplant, arugula and watercress. The community was able to see organic food grow and be distributed after the harvest for the use of two community daycare centers. We also delivered two socio-environmental workshops with the children at these daycare centers. The food distribution strengthens local cooperation networks and guarantees the delivery of food produced in the favela to the community itself.
For Silvia Regina, who is fondly known as Aunt Silvia, receiving produce from our garden means “healthy food and the guarantee of adequate vitamins in meals for the little ones.” She highlights that, in order to keep working with children full-time at the Little Hotel Children’s Daycare, it is necessary to build networks:
“We are always looking for partnerships to collect food for our little ones. For this reason, we were introduced to the Maria Angu Community Garden Project, where the agents also worked with our children before preparing the land. Soon after planting, we were blessed with healthy vegetables without any pesticides and added them to our diet.”
Another project that benefits from our harvest is the Jesus’ Little Sheep Daycare, managed by Denise Gonçalves, who describes receiving the produce with great enthusiasm:
“The vegetable and greens harvest has been wonderful. I’ve been enjoying it a lot. It’s been an enormous support to my children’s nourishment. The children like it when the food arrives, they even want to take pictures, because it’s different for them… organic vegetables are [now] part of our children’s lives. It is food rich in vitamins.”
The unique experience of harvesting organic products for the children’s consumption leads us to think about how far we can go with this project and possible future steps. In addition to dreaming of making it a means of generating employment and income, through a possible partnership with Rio de Janeiro’s municipal Hortas Cariocas program, we plan to extend the planting, expanding our vegetable garden and harvesting to sell organic food at low prices in the favela. However, our main goal is to build social and environmental awareness in the community and to consolidate a peripheral food security program.
The dynamic we have at the Maria Angu Garden is possible due to the active participation of many partners. Marina Mahfuz, a member of the Sustainable Perifa Institute and a project volunteer, believes that contributing to the food security of community daycare centers brings a lot of happiness and hope:
“Knowing that my dedication and knowledge can help guarantee a more dignified life for someone is something that fills me with satisfaction, as well as reconnects me with the sense of being alive within a community… Also, when I think that these daycare centers are run by people who dedicate their lives to solving a collective need—the care of children in the community who have no one to look after them while their parents work—I reflect on the importance of what we do with the project. These women [who run the daycare centers] are sheer power for their communities. Often, they cannot make ends meet with the contributions they receive from the children’s families. Being able to help them believe in the power of the network and guarantee safe and poison-free food for these children is something indescribable.”
Marina’s testimony expresses how we feel about this experience. We have the favela, the periphery and the people who live in it driving us to shake up social structures. We have socio-environmental justice, food security and sovereignty, in addition to climate justice, at the center of the agenda of struggles for sustainable local development.
Our simple vegetable garden may seem small and humble amid a favela with such high levels of social vulnerability, but the agenda is set and food sovereignty in the favela is our goal. Although the project has not yet achieved full autonomy for participants or complete community appropriation of the space, we have noticed its potential for development in the area. The smile of a healthily and safely fed child is priceless. This is what drives us to go further.
About the author: Walmyr Junior is co-author of Spokespeople of the Resistance and founder of the Maria Angu Community Garden-School. A teacher and activist for the Unified Black Movement (MNU), Walmyr is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Sustainability Sciences at PUC-Rio.