Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Often in Brazil and throughout Latin America, the outskirts of large cities are characterized by high instances of poverty, destitution and social upheaval. As a result of rapid internal migration from the rural countryside to cities over the past fifty years, these spaces have predominantly been occupied by irregular or illegal land parcels formed by subdivisions of very large properties that were never officially approved for occupation. In these areas, the majority of houses are self-built since the population cannot afford to hire professional builders. The makeshift homes that characterize the favelas are also present. Furthermore, some public and private companies abandon their plots of land altogether due to their location in the impoverished outskirts. These abandoned plots then become space for “at risk” homes, drug dens, or other havens of illegal activity.
With approximately 320 km² and over four million inhabitants, São Paulo’s Zona Leste (the city’s eastern region) is a clear example of this situation. Characterized by high poverty levels, it registers the lowest per capita family income as well as the city’s lowest concentration of economic activity. Although it represents 35% of the metropolis’ population, it is responsible for a mere 6% of the municipality’s income generation. Zona Leste is also characterized by high rates of violence. According to the University of São Paulo’s Nucleus of Violence Studies, this is the region in the city where dwellers run the highest risk of being murdered. This fact is manifested in the area’s weak social fabric, with mistrust and few chances for positive community life. Quality of life is further undermined by the concentration of economic activity in the center of the city, forcing the local population to spend hours in unreliable and expensive public transportation in order to arrive there, whether for work or access to public and private services. , One of the most persistent problems within the area is unemployment. With the promise of good jobs and better opportunities in São Paulo, immigrants have been flocking to the city from all over the country for decades, particularly from the northern and northeastern regions. However, since a large portion of these people hail from rural areas, they cannot apply their knowledge in an urban context. Faced with job offers that do not need these skills, these people are deemed unqualified. As a result they are either underemployed, or they stay unemployed altogether.
Urban agriculture offers a dignified solution for this imbalance, though little has been done at the governmental level to promote it. According to the last study done by the Ministry of Social Development and Hunger Alleviation in 2007, urban agriculture is practiced in 600 localities in Brazil. These are communities, groups and individuals who produce mostly vegetables, both for personal consumption and for sale in open-air markets and groceries. According to the Ministry itself, however, these numbers are not reliable because there are no clear legal parameters to define this group. As a consequence, many citizens who could be classified in this category are not and are thereby excluded from low-interest lines of investment and credit, insurance and methods of purchase, which are legally offered to other farmers. If these urban farmers, who are currently excluded from the benefits commonly available to rural farmers, are identified and recognized as such; then, they may well be able to overcome their subsistence and produce food products for sale and for their own consumption.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Hans Dieter is converting abandoned land plots in impoverished areas in the outskirts of São Paulo, the largest city in South America with a population of over 20 million, into vegetable gardens, using them as a tool to change the lives of these communities. Hans’s premise is that the urban peripheries have been unable to promote an improved quality of life for its population because its various assets have gone unused. Thus, in fully activating the potential of these territories and of the people who inhabit them, Hans creates a new context of activities that not only generates jobs but, above all, recreates a feeling of community. His strategy encompasses a number of different innovative tactics, such as a low-cost greenhouse and small grocery facilities that sell the products produced in the gardens. His initiatives are directed towards a longer-term goal of rendering urban agriculture, an important means for community development.
Through his vegetable gardens, Hans is creating collective spaces within low-income communities, reinforcing social ties and restoring trust in areas that had been weakened due to poverty and violence. Once parcels of land ripe for makeshift housing, garbage dumps or illegal activity, these abandoned plots become productive places that bring people together. Importantly, Hans changes how the urban gardeners perceive themselves. They are largely immigrants hailing from North and Northeastern Brazil, many of whom are transitioning from a rural to an urban environment. By engaging community members in the garden production and cultivation, Hans uses his vegetable gardens to value and recover the knowledge and traditions acquired in the fields. In turning this agricultural knowledge into a profitable activity, these people can perceive themselves as qualified professionals in a new context. Hans’s initiative also responds to many women’s need to find work that is both geographically close to their homes and with a flexible schedule – something the formal work market rarely accommodates. It offers a rational answer to the questions of women in need of childcare during the workday in an area with an insufficient number of day-care centers.
Beyond actually cultivating the vegetable gardens, Hans stimulates a culture of entrepreneurship among the young people who work in them. They assist in creating small grocery stores to sell the products harvested in the gardens themselves. These small ventures not only serve to foster greater economic activity in these regions, but also allow these young entrepreneurs to become increasingly more self-sufficient and slowly overcome poverty. Now, Hans is also taking his work to schools and teaching students how to turn vacant lots into food-producing areas in addition to environmental education, recycling and food safety.
With a pilot project in the outskirts of São Paulo advancing, Hans possesses a powerful solution to change urban agriculture in the entire Brazilian territory. Similar areas surround large metropolitan centers all over Brazil and have an identical potential for community vegetable gardens, whether due to the characteristics of the local population or the existence of abandoned plots. Now ready to multiply solutions, Hans is bringing together various Brazilian organizations that promote urban agriculture in a great network and is now sharing his extremely replicable strategy for impacting impoverished urban populations nationwide. He is also seeking a large-scale public policy change that will enable urban agriculture around Brazil and thus pave the way for his vision.