Thirty years ago, El Alto was a dormitory suburb, inhabited by mining families and migrants from rural areas, on the plateau that lies at an altitude of 4 000 m above the city of La Paz. Since then, its population has almost tripled, from 300 000 to 890 000. In the early 2000s, more than 70 percent of the population lived in poverty and around 40 percent of children under five years were malnourished, the consequence of extremely low consumption of animal protein, fruit and vegetables. To improve food and nutrition security in the city, FAO and El Alto’s municipal government launched a project, funded by Belgium, aimed at promoting the year-round production of vegetables in family gardens. That experiment in urban agriculture has had a lasting, positive impact in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and has helped find a place for UPA in Bolivia’s National Food and Nutrition Policy.
Even on a sunny, summer day in El Alto, the average temperature rarely exceeds 13°C. But inside the hundreds of mud-brick greenhouses that dot the city, gardeners work in temperatures of around 30°C, which create ideal growing conditions for luxuriant beds of lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, tomatoes, rosemary, coriander and strawberries.
In the neighbourhood of San Roque, on the city’s outskirts, 90 women cultivate 15 different types of vegetables and herbs, mainly for home consumption but increasingly with an eye to city markets, where their organically grown produce fetches good prices. Recently, some of the women built three new greenhouses, and plan to sell 70 percent of what they grow at local fairs. At current prices, sales of vegetables from a typical 40 sq m greenhouse would earn them at least US$560 a year.
El Alto’s backyard greenhouses have become symbols of urban agriculture on the Bolivian altiplano, the 125 000 sq km Andean plateau that is home to an estimated 4 million people. In fact, the region’s low and irregular rainfall, average night-time temperatures near zero and year-round frosts make production of many garden plants – including lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach and tomatoes – virtually impossible without greenhouses.
Between 2004 and 2008, the El Alto gardening project invested US$700 000 in establishing, in nine districts of the city, 1 187 family greenhouses and training low-income residents in horticultural production techniques adapted to the city’s agro-climatic conditions. To ensure sustainability, it also sought to assist the municipal government in drafting strategic guidelines for the further development of urban and peri-urban horticulture. One of the first initiatives of the municipality’s Environment Department was to create a Unidad de Microhuertas Populares.
Residents needed to have at least 30 sq m of free space for a greenhouse, and at least two hours of free time daily for gardening, to join in project activities. Other requirements included a permanent source of good quality water and “natural light for at least five hours a day”. Participants were also expected to contribute their labour and 40 percent of the cost of materials for the infrastructure.
From the outset, the project had an “open door” policy that encouraged the participation of community organizations, public agencies and other interested parties. That approach helped to create a network of collaborators, including the agronomy faculties of two universities, church organizations, microcredit institutions, youth rehabilitation centres and private companies.
The project established three demonstration and training centres (DTCs), where agronomists tested and evaluated 54 species of vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices for greenhouse production, and 14 different types of containers for use in microgardening.
Through workshops in the DTCs, participants learned basic gardening skills and were sensitized to the need to improve the quality of family diets. In all, the project provided training to some 2 000 home gardeners, the majority of them women, in greenhouse construction and maintenance, hydroponic production, composting, biological pest and disease management, irrigation, and best practices in post-harvest handling.
Solar-heated greenhouses – known locally as carpas solares – were essential for gardening in El Alto’s rigorous climate. The project developed two basic models: a structure with a sloping roof of agrofilm or corrugated plastic, facing north, and a simple tunnel greenhouse made with iron hoops and agrofilm for windier areas. (It also designed a fully portable model for use by people in rented accommodation.)
The ground area of the greenhouse, at 24 sq m, is sufficient to meet the needs of a family of five. Construction costs were around US$580 per greenhouse, with the project covering around 60 percent; beneficiaries provided labour and locally made building materials, such as sundried mud bricks.
By retaining warm air heated during daylight hours by solar radiation, the greenhouses allowed continuous production of a wide variety of vegetables and up to six harvests per year, depending on the crop. Extra warmth was provided by sawdust-fuelled stoves, and by water containers painted black, which accumulated heat during the day and released it during the night.
Tests showed that the temperature inside greenhouses was normally 10°C higher than outside. During freezing nights on the altiplano, when the thermometer dropped to -5°C, the temperature inside was 4.2°C. Daytime greenhouse temperatures sometimes reached 32.6°C.
In their carpas solares, families cultivated up to 32 recommended plant species, including nutrient-rich vegetables that were previously unknown in El Alto, such as spinach. To increase greenhouse output, families were trained in growing vegetables in a wide range of used containers – including old CD players, pots, shoes and helmets – fixed to the walls and hanging from the ceiling.
Since gardeners and their families were in daily contact with crops, pesticides were not used. Among safe alternatives introduced by the project were wild lupines – very abundant on the altiplano – to discourage aphids, and capsicum to ward off whiteflies. The project also introduced the composting of wastes from kitchens and greenhouses to make organic fertilizer (because composting units were in open fields, exposed to night-time frosts, decomposition took up to six months).
To reduce water consumption, the project promoted practices such as mulching which, by slowing the rate of soil moisture evaporation, was found to reduce water requirements from 5 litres per sq m to around 3 litres. Drip irrigation from plastic bottles, tailored to the root development stage of each crop, reduced irrigation needs to 2 litres. By carefully managing the water cycle in their greenhouses, some gardeners were able to obtain good harvests using just 1 litre of water per sq m per day.
To ensure the availability of good quality inputs, the project helped to establish a network of community seed shops – which distribute seed bought in bulk by the municipal government – and provided the capital to set up 18 family-run input supply stores. It also encouraged home raising of guinea pigs, which are native to the Andes and are a rich source of high quality protein, by introducing improved breeds and production methods to 250 families and conducting trials of greenhouse production of forage to feed them.
The El Alto greenhouses proved to be highly productive, with growers able to harvest six crops a year of chard and radish, and five crops of tomatoes. In one year, a 24 sq m greenhouse can produce almost 1 tonne of tomatoes, 460 kg of lettuce and 260 kg of paprika.
As production increased, many families began to generate surpluses and to sell their produce informally. Following a feasibility study, 70 families were trained in post-harvest handling and packaging and the project helped to create a brand, “Verdurita”, for the marketing of high-quality vegetables in El Alto and La Paz. By December 2008, a stable group of 20 women were selling produce to outlets such as restaurants and supermarkets, earning a monthly income of US$32 per greenhouse.
Six years after termination of the project, home gardening in greenhouses remains a widespread activity in the city. A survey conducted in 2013 found that production of vegetables saved the average gardening family some US$60 a month on food purchases. Around 70 percent of gardeners also sell surplus produce, generating cash income of about US$15 a month. In greenhouses where crops are also grown in containers, monthly output can be worth up to US$100.
What accounts for that sustainability? First, while the project encouraged group approaches to marketing, training and technical assistance, it found that vegetable gardening was more productive and sustainable when carried out by individual households – horticulture is an intensive activity, and collective production was more difficult to organize.
The project’s “open door” policy also proved to be one of the keys to its success. Many of the organizations that participated in its activities have continued to provide support to the development of urban agriculture in El Alto, and are replicating the greenhouse technology that was developed in the demonstration and training centres. For example, one local private company established a 120 sq m garden that is used by its employees and also serves as a demonstration centre.
Another key factor was the project’s participatory approach to capacity building, which focused not only on vegetable production but – above all – on raising awareness among low-income residents of the importance of nutrition and the need for healthier family diets.
The effectiveness of nutrition education was underscored by an evaluation in 2010, which found that the intake of calcium, iron, B vitamins and vitamin C among beneficiary families was “notably superior” to the baseline. The money households once spent on buying vegetables is now used to buy meat, eggs and milk, which were previously eaten only “on very special occasions”.
The support and political will of the El Alto municipal government were also decisive. During project implementation, the municipality’s gardening unit used its own resources and personnel to build 150 greenhouses, and is now responsible for promoting and coordinating all agricultural activities in the city.
The most lasting benefit of urban and peri-urban agriculture in El Alto has been placing UPA high on the political agenda in Bolivia, from local to national level. Similar projects have been launched since in other cities of the altiplano. In neighbouring La Paz, the municipal government and FAO helped to establish 150 peri-urban greenhouses of 60 sq m each; big enough to produce surpluses for sale. In the city of Oruro, another initiative established a demonstration and training centre that is being used to train 1 000 low-income families in greenhouse horticulture.
Another El Alto initiative that has been extended through projects to other towns and cities of Bolivia is the raising of guinea pigs and other small animals, and its community seed shops have been replicated in both urban and rural areas.
In 2009, Bolivia recognized the right to food in its constitution, and the government is finalizing a National Food and Nutrition Policy that is expected to include a programme for urban and peri-urban agriculture. Bolivia’s Ministry of Productive Development and Plural Economy are already developing such a programme, in collaboration with FAO. When it is launched in 2014, the programme will provide technical assistance and inputs for family greenhouse production in 13 municipalities, both for home consumption and, eventually, as a source of fresh produce for major cities such as La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Sucre.
In El Alto itself, the municipal government adopted as a public policy in August 2013 the promotion of agricultural and livestock production in its urban and peri-urban areas. The main objective of the policy is to reduce levels of malnutrition and to generate employment and economic resources for El Alto families, through the sale of vegetables and small livestock.