Inside the dense, urban favelas of Rio de Janeiro, gardening is an active and powerful social practice that influences, reshapes, and re-imagines places where people are living under extreme environmental and socio-economic stress. Our lack of imagination and creative involvement with informal or irregular urban communities (frequently referred to as slums, or in Brazil, favelas) are emblematic of some of the most neglected places on the planet. They are also representative of some of the most critical crises we face in the 21st century. These spaces are invisible to many, and are often perceived to hold little value. They are characterized by low-income and weak state capacity, yet they can also be seen as ingenious platforms for creative resilience—the very foundation that exemplifies favela life.
Rio’s 750 or so favelas, whether clinging to the steep South Zone hillsides, or sprawling across the flat, less affluent North Zone of the city, are among the most densely populated in Brazil, and some of the largest in all of Latin America. They are places where the extremities of environmental degradation collide with institutional neglect, poverty, and the threat of violence. These are places where cared for and desirable public space is a complex and unfamiliar concept. These fragile living conditions are exasperated by spatial isolation and social exclusion. Identifying the multiple roles urban gardens play in responding to some of these critical issues is challenging.
Inside the favelas, the gardens are a mean to build and use human and social capital—the critical assets needed in order to produce safe, clean, and productive public space. Gardening can be a mean of engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, frameworks, and organizational structures to bridge the ambiguities and disconnects between the formal, resource-rich city and the informal, resource-starved favelas. They can aid in developing and cultivating basic forms of economic, social, political, and environmental values—the building blocks necessary to improve human security, ecological stabilization, and social stability. Gardens strain to emerge as sites of defiance, assertion, resourcefulness, and peacefulness, important not only for their ability to increase food and nutrition security or offset income, but because of their psychological components—their capacity to diminish feelings of lack, scarcity, insecurity, and stress.
It is difficult to imagine in some large sense how urban gardening can, in any way, restructure the dominant socio-political paradigm, but on a micro-level this restructuring does occur, through what Francesco Caruso refers to as “the politics of doing.” Whatever the limitations of favela gardening may be, these projects can create very real interruptions in prevailing power relations, and have very real consequences for favela constituencies. In Rio, the gardens have created social areas for safe and therapeutic respite, and small clusters of organic agricultural production that provide many local families with food and access to medicinal herbs on a daily basis.
Programs such as Hortas Cariocas, a directive of the Municipal Department for the Environment, has worked with residents to establish more than 40 community food gardens citywide in approximately 25 inner-city favelas and schools. Gardeners are paid a small stipend (approximately $160 per month) and supplement their income by taking home two to three bags of fresh produce weekly. Local schools and more at-risk members of the community also receive produce from the program. Hortas Cariocas works in conjunction with multiple public and private partnerships, resident groups, and NGOs to help favela residents establish and maintain their gardens. Their program also encompasses youth education and training in agro-ecology.
In the contested space of the favela, where threats of forced relocation and armed conflict remain very real, the notion of cultivating public space for social protection can be a difficult concept to grasp. But the gardens do provide safe social spaces where people can gather. These gatherings are, in themselves, forms of micro-political actions that offer a very important alternative to the status quo. In this context, the gardens function as living labs, operating in open space that, just by being there, expands social possibilities. The Hortas Cariocas initiative is also responsible for setting up the biggest urban organic vegetable garden in Latin America. Located in the Complexo de Manguinhos, a cluster of low-income communities of Rio de Janeiro, the garden that used to be a garbage dump frequented by crack users is now more than one kilometer long, with more than 300 garden beds that are maintained by dozens of community residents.
However, even as gardens are proving to be sites of social interaction, ecological regeneration, local activity, and platforms for policy reform, they continue to be threatened by private development, demolition, and a lack of institutional support. Thus, they remain fragile and prone to collapse. While some community gardens blossom and bustle with growth, others have been paralyzed, abandoned or bulldozed. Neglect and structural violence, surges in armed conflict, inter-personal or inter-organizational disagreements, or abandonment by project partners, can quickly crush community resolve. These are the reasons why municipal-level infrastructural support, multi-stakeholder commitments, and the replication of initiatives like Hortas Cariocas are so crucial.