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

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

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 the 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. 

The gardens are kept alive by agroecological practices and produce organic food for the residents of the surrounding communities. Hortas Cariocas operates and is funded Each garden is managed by the municipality, but a group of locals receives a small stipend to help them. 

“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 claims she is happier and more healthy since joining the team six or eight years back. (She laughs, saying she can’t remember exactly how long it has been.) 

The Manguinhos plot is said to be the largest Latin American community gardening plot, measuring four football pitches long. This is about to change. In September 2021, Eduardo Paes (Rio de Janeiro’s mayor) announced that the city would soon have the largest urban garden anywhere in the world. 

Rio de Janeiro

The garden produced 82 tons of food in 2020. 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 claims that the project will be completed. In 2024, we will provide food security for 50,000 local families. 

Barros, Hortas Cariocas founder/coordinator, explained that the garden will be enlarged for five favelas in the area and follow the same design as the existing gardens. Each favela will have a team of local gardeners. The produce must be donated in half. However, the team can then commercialise the remaining half to increase the stipend. 

“It is more than an expansion project: it’s a project to reclaim the area,” Barros says of the Madureira garden. He claims that the construction in 2012 of the park displaced existing informal gardens and disrupted a traditional means of subsistence for the area. Madureira was once an agricultural area that supplied produce to nearby wholesale markets. 

Rio de Janeiro

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

Barros is now looking for the families that used the informal gardens and getting them involved with 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. Its gardens produced 82 tonnes of food in 2020. Most of it was donated during the worst 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

Favela residents make a small living tending to their gardens. 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 five years prior to becoming 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 will serve the Palmeirinha favela nearby, will be part in 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, I might be selling drugs today, or I might be dead. I might even 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 Rodriguez smells basil while she works in the Horta de Manguinhos vegetable gardening. Credit: Reuters/Pilar Olivares