Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean



In October 2009, representatives of city governments, ministries of agriculture, research institutes, NGOs and international organizations from 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean met in Medellín, Colombia, to develop strategies for reducing high rates of urban poverty and food insecurity across the region. They met as many countries were emerging slowly from the effects of global fuel and food price inflation, which had pushed the cost of living beyond the resources of many of the region’s 160 million urban poor. The Medellín meeting proposed a new agenda for an urban transition toward social inclusion, improved quality of life, equity and sustainability. Its Medellín Declaration urged national, state and local governments to incorporate urban and peri-urban agriculture, or UPA, into their programmes for eradicating hunger and poverty, ensuring food and nutrition security, promoting local development and improving the urban environment.

At the time, UPA was providing a safety net for many low-income families. A recent FAO analysis of national household surveys collected between 2003 and 2008 shows, for example, that 1.4 million urban dwellers in Nicaragua and Guatemala were also food producers. Savings made on food purchases, along with sales of produce, accounted for more than one-fifth of their household income.

Five years later, this report looks at the progress that has been made toward realizing Medellín’s vision of “greener cities” in Latin America and the Caribbean – ones in which urban and peri-urban agriculture is recognized by public policy, included in urban development strategies and land-use planning, supported by agricultural research and extension, and linked to sources of technological innovation, investment and credit, and to urban markets and consumers.

Since 2009, the urban population of Latin America and the Caribbean has increased by some 50 million, to almost half a billion. It is now the most urbanized region in the world, with 80 percent of its people living in towns and cities. Almost 70 million are concentrated in four megacities: Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in Brazil.

While the proportion of slum dwellers in the urban population has fallen, their total number has grown to more than 110 million in 2010. Urban poverty rates remain unacceptably high – 30 percent of urban residents in Colombia, 35 percent in Guatemala and 24 percent in Paraguay were living below the national poverty line in 2011.

And the spectre of urban hunger has not been beaten. A recent World Bank study found that higher food prices are “here to stay” in Latin America and the Caribbean. The negative impacts of future price increases, the Bank says, are likely to be felt mainly by the urban poor.

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) believes, however, that Latin American and Caribbean cities have the chance to escape from underdevelopment, inequality and unsustainability. Following 50 years of rapid growth, the process of urbanization is “virtually completed” in all countries.

Now, says UN-HABITAT, the region needs to create urban centres that are environmentally sustainable, promote social inclusion, favour local employment, respect diversity, and reaffirm the primacy of public spaces. A starting point for that transformation is urban and peri-urban agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has actively promoted UPA since 1999, when it reported that 800 million people worldwide were engaged in crop, livestock, fisheries and forestry production within and surrounding urban boundaries. Since then, the urban population in the world’s less developed regions has grown from 2 billion to more than 2.7 billion.

Along with population growth, and the rising challenges of climate change and the depletion of natural resources, the concepts of UPA have evolved. Food production in urban and peri-urban areas is now seen as integral to resilient and sustainable “city-region food systems” that are incorporated fully into development planning.

As well as providing the urban poor with nutritious food and extra income, UPA has become a key strategy for reducing cities’ ecological footprint, recycling urban wastes, containing urban sprawl, protecting biodiversity, building resilience to climate change, stimulating regional economies, and reducing dependency on the global food market.

To assess the state of urban and peri-urban agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean, FAO conducted a survey in 2013 in 27 countries; completed surveys were received from 23 of them. FAO also commissioned case studies on agriculture, as it is practised in and around 13 of the region’s major cities.

Data was provided on agriculture in 110 cities, municipalities and towns, ranging from major urban agglomerations, such as Mexico City, to the community of San José del Golfo (population: 5 889) in Guatemala; from the prosperous regional capital of Belo Horizonte, in Brazil, to overcrowded camps of displaced people on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

FAO’s inquiry has confirmed that UPA is widespread in the region. It is practised, for example, by 40 percent of households in Cuba, and 20 percent in Guatemala and Saint Lucia. In Bolivia’s main cities and municipalities, 50 000 families are also food producers. In Bogotá, 8 500 households produce food for home consumption. In Haiti, 260 ha of land in and around Port-au-Prince and other towns are cultivated by 25 500 families.

Among capital cities, the “greenest” is Havana, where 90 000 residents are engaged in some form of agriculture, whether backyard gardening or working in the city’s commercial gardens and livestock farms. Quito also stood out: at last count, the city had 140 community gardens, 800 family gardens and 128 school gardens.

Urban agriculture in the region encompasses a wide range of activities suited to small spaces, from backyard vegetable gardening to intensive production of flowers and the raising of small animals for eggs and meat. School gardens and backyard, family horticulture are the dominant forms of urban food production, followed by the microgardening of vegetables in containers.

Family gardens are common in urban areas of Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru, and in most Caribbean countries. They produce eggplant and okra in Antigua and Barbuda, carrots and coriander in Tegucigalpa, broccoli and quinoa in Quito, and spinach and strawberries on Bolivia’s altiplano.

In El Alto and other Bolivian cities, families also raise guinea pigs, which fit easily into small spaces and are a good source of protein. In Mexico City suburbs, residents keep rabbits, birds and sheep. In Kingston’s inner city, youths breed tropical fish for export to North America.

Urban farmers come from all age groups and walks of life. But most are from low-income households, and they take up farming as a means of reducing their spending on food and making extra income from sales. In 16 of the 23 countries surveyed, people practising UPA earned some income from the activity and used it, typically, to pay for gardening tools, consumer goods, home improvements and school fees.

The main benefit, however, was improved access to food. Urban food producers and their families enjoyed a more diverse diet than other urban dwellers, and were more likely to consume fruit and vegetables regularly.

Women are the driving force behind urban agriculture in many countries, and particularly in the Caribbean, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua. A high proportion of urban farming families are female-headed: 90 percent in Managua, 86 percent in Haiti, 70 percent in Belize City and 25 percent in Quito.

The main challenge facing farmers in the cities surveyed was lack of space, followed by the poor quality of soils and the unreliability of water supplies. For those interested in producing bigger surpluses for sale, the main constraints were the high cost of inputs, the lack of quality seed, and the unavailability of credit needed for buying tools and processing equipment. But higher yields were no guarantee of higher earnings – most producers had very limited access to markets and were rarely organized in marketing cooperatives.

In city-region food systems, agriculture in peri-urban areas and in adjoining, fully rural areas is critical to the supply of food, and other goods and services, to urban centres, and contributes to employment, livelihoods, nutrition and environmental resilience. The city-region scale is seen as a sustainable, manageable spatial unit for integrating food production with other ecosystem services, while addressing hazard risks and providing social protection for the rural and urban poor.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, peri-urban agriculture includes large farming areas that produce cereals, vegetables and root crops, grazing land for goats and sheep, dairy farms, and intensive livestock production units. Some 22 800 ha of farmland within the bounds of Mexico City produce annually around 15 000 tonnes of vegetables. On the outskirts of Lima, short-cycle vegetables are grown on some 5 000 ha of irrigated land for sale in the city’s markets. Small-scale farming is a source of income for settlers from rural areas and many of Lima’s urban poor.

Despite its role in creating employment and feeding cities, peri-urban agriculture is under increasing pressure from urbanization itself. In Argentina, the production of soybean for export has displaced peri-urban production of milk, fruit and vegetables.

In Mexico City, informal settlements are spreading on land reserved for agriculture, and the overexploitation of aquifers by domestic and industrial users has caused a serious decline in the supply and quality of water. Small farmers have limited access to the city’s markets; they lack processing technologies needed to add value to their produce, and are exposed to health risks from the overuse of agrochemicals.

In Lima, intense competition for water forces most farmers to irrigate with highly polluted wastewater. Urban sprawl has taken out of production some of the Province of Lima’s best farmland, and is pushing agriculture into more distant and less fertile areas, which will lead to longer distribution channels, higher food prices and shortages of some produce.

Growing greener cities with agriculture needs the support of government, from national to local levels. Governments set urban development policies and priorities. As major landowners and managers of solid wastes and water supplies, they can provide – or deny – the resources needed for UPA. We examine here the extent of political and institutional commitment in the region, and what that support means for urban and peri-urban agriculture “on the ground”.

Twelve of the 23 countries surveyed have national policies that explicitly promote UPA. Eight of them are in the Caribbean. Cuba’s policy dates back to 1997, when the government decided to promote urban agriculture nationwide. Its UPA programme has established in Havana a network of agricultural supply stores, municipal seed farms, composting units, veterinary clinics and centres that breed biological pest control agents. Urban farmers are entitled to agricultural insurance and production loans.

In Brazil, support to UPA is part of the national Zero Hunger policy. Implemented with local authorities, it includes the building of farmers’ markets, training for school gardeners, the allocation of vacant urban spaces for agriculture, and reduced taxes on land used for the purpose.

Then there are countries with no policy on UPA, including some – Colombia, Ecuador and Peru – which have large urban populations and active urban agriculture programmes in their capitals, Bogotá, Quito and Lima.

Even in the absence of a national policy, however, UPA has been mainstreamed at a fairly high level within national institutions. While Bolivia has yet to adopt its draft National Food and Nutrition Policy – which is expected to endorse urban and peri-urban agriculture – the country’s Ministry of Productive Development and Plural Economy will launch, with FAO’s assistance, a national UPA programme in 2014.

Out of 26 countries for which information is available, 17 have at least one government ministry charged with regulating, facilitating and supporting UPA. In the Caribbean, a national ministry, usually the Ministry of Agriculture, is responsible for the sector in 11 of the 12 countries surveyed.

In Antigua and Barbuda, support to backyard gardening includes the services of eight extensionists and six community facilitators, and the supply of seeds, seedlings, fruit trees and inputs, free of charge or at minimal cost. In Guatemala, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food has created a Department of Urban Agriculture, which provides producers with training, tools and inputs.

In some countries, UPA is promoted by national research institutions. Argentina’s Pro-Huerta gardening programme has been operational for more than 20 years under the National Institute of Agriculture and Livestock Technology, and has helped to establish 8 000 community gardens, 7 000 school gardens and half a million family gardens.

But the real test of political and institutional commitment must be at the city level. In Caribbean countries, it is national government institutions that regulate and support agriculture in urban areas, which is to be expected, given the small size of most Caribbean island states.

In Cuba, Guatemala and Nicaragua, the task is shared between national, provincial and local authorities. In Rosario, Argentina, the city government allocates 25 agronomists and US$380 000 a year to its agriculture programme, while Pro-Huerta provides training, seeds and tools and the Santa Fe Province funds the installation of infrastructure.

Belo Horizonte’s Urban Agriculture Support Policy recognizes UPA as contributing to “the full development of the social functions of the city”. The local government invests $240 000 a year to promote urban, peri-urban and rural food production, with support from the state agricultural extension service. UPA development is guided by a Council for Food Security, which includes representatives of municipal, state and federal governments.  

Local government, at different territorial and administrative scales – from parish and municipality to district and province – is responsible for UPA in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru. Many cities have mandated specialized agencies to manage and support UPA activities in their jurisdictions. In Quito, it is the municipal agency for economic development, which provides subsidized inputs, conducts agricultural training and helps to develop urban gardeners’ management skills.

Several municipalities on the outskirts of Guatemala City have their own home gardening programmes. Municipalities, often working with NGOs, are also the main promoters of UPA in El Salvador and Honduras. El Alto’s municipal government established a unit to support urban greenhouse gardening in 2003 and has adopted as a public policy the promotion of agricultural and livestock production in its urban and peri-urban areas.

Provincial and district governments have responsibility for UPA in Peru. The Metropolitan Lima Municipal Council adopted in September 2012 an ordinance, applicable in all 43 of its districts, which establishes an urban agriculture programme. However, many of Peru’s local administrations have no policy or programmes for agriculture.

Why do some cities embrace Upa and some not? Among factors favouring Upa development is the involvement of international organizations, such as FAO and UN-HABITAT, and international Ngos, such as the Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF Foundation) and the Institute for the Promotion of Sustainable Development (IPES).

Between 2004 and 2011, a multidisciplinary Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture Group, based in FAO’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, promoted UPA development across the region. It organized high-level meetings of policymakers and launched projects in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela which generated knowledge and tools that are used today in the design of Upa strategies and programmes, and in training and technology transfer. The regional UPA initiative also produced a series of radio programmes and educational videos, an on-line capacity-building course, and practical manuals on subjects including gardening, simplified hydroponics, seed production and biological pest control.

Local NGOs can stimulate local UPA. Rosario’s programme grew out of an NGO initiative that introduced gardening in slums. The political will of individuals can also be decisive: programmes for UPA in Belo Horizonte and Bogotá were initiated by mayors elected on platforms of food security and inclusive socio-economic development.

Sometimes, the positive results of city initiatives can influence national policy. The success of FAO-supported backyard gardening projects in Managua and Tegucigalpa helped persuade the Governments of Nicaragua and Honduras to “up-scale” UPA to national level.

Following the 2007–2008 food crisis, a United Nations high-level task force called for a paradigm shift in urban planning, to one that encourages urban and peri-urban food production. Zoning land for agriculture is one recommended measure – it protects land from competing uses, and can help establish urban farming as an economic activity and urban farmers as a professional category.

FAO’s survey found that UPA is often excluded – or not explicitly included – in city land use planning and management in Latin America and the Caribbean. That was the case in Antigua and Barbuda, Chile, Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama and Paraguay. In another five, no information was available.

Only Cuba, Guatemala and Peru confirmed that UPA is included in the land use plans of at least some cities or municipalities. In Guatemala, the municipality of Palencia has recognized backyard gardening and the raising of small animals in its development plan. In Peru, local governments in three of Lima’s districts have incorporated agriculture in their planning, sometimes for civic beautification.

Crop and animal production is recognized as a legitimate land use in Havana’s strategic plan, which allows agriculture in areas where construction is not foreseen. The city’s Urban Planning Office conducts an impact evaluation of all proposals for UPA-related activities on public land, requiring, for example, that large vegetable gardens harmonize with their locations.

In Argentina, Rosario’s land use plan makes specific provision for the agricultural use of public land, and the municipality is building a “green circuit” of farmland passing through and around the city. Food production is also recognized as a legitimate non-residential land use, on a par with commerce, services and industry, in Belo Horizonte.

But urban planners are far still behind UPA in many cities, even some with long-standing UPA programmes. While Quito’s new development plan envisages an equitable, sustainable and participatory city with full employment and a diversified economy, it makes no mention of urban agriculture.

Peri-urban agriculture also needs protection from unplanned urban growth. To safeguard its supply of drinking water – and oxygen – Mexico City has classified more than half of its total land area as a protected suelo de conservación, which includes forests, grasslands, wetlands and 300 sq km of farmland. However, efforts to promote sustainable agriculture in suburban and peri-urban areas are stymied, not only by illegal settlements, but also by small-scale farmers’ lack of secure land tenure.

A strong trend in many UPA programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean is toward agricultural technologies and practices that produce more, and better quality, food while optimizing the use of natural resources and reducing reliance on agrochemicals.

In Havana, the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide is prohibited by law. To keep soil healthy, the UPA programme provides green manure and vermicompost, and links gardeners to sources of manure, household wastes and agro-industrial residues for making compost. Havana’s gardens are so productive and cost-efficient that the national Ministry of Agriculture promotes agro-ecological production in rural areas as well.

Vegetables are 100 percent organic and chemical-free in Rosario, where gardeners cultivate high-yielding beds of compost substrate. In Managua, they enrich the soil with fertilizer made by anaerobically fermenting household wastes, and combat whiteflies with sticky traps.

In Tegucigalpa, the FAO-supported project promoted low-cost gardening technologies that were easy to implement using local inputs. Because soil quality is more easily enhanced in small spaces, various containers were tested to optimize production. The preferred containers were old tyres, which gardeners found higher yielding and easier to irrigate. In El Alto, a project installed, in small, locally made greenhouses, hydroponic gardens that produce 40 kg of tomatoes per square metre a year.

FAO has promoted various technologies that conserve water. In Managua, the answer to dry season water shortages was a rooftop rainwater harvesting system, which channels run-off to a 5 000 litre storage tank. Gardeners in the city also adopted a low-cost drip irrigation system made from discarded plastic bottles. In El Alto, the use of surface mulch and drip irrigation reduced water needs by 80 percent. In Tegucigalpa, many women used old tyres filled with gravel to purify kitchen greywater, and re-use it on their gardens.

When appropriately treated, wastewater from domestic sources is safe to use on crops and contains nutrients that increase yields. Lima’s abundant supply of wastewater – some 550 billion litres a year – could soon be put to good use in its peri-urban farming areas. Thanks to two new sewage treatment plants, 100 percent of the Lima’s effluent will be treated by the end of 2014. That opens the way for the re-use of the city’s liquid and solid wastes on some 10 800 ha of farmland, which would increase production and create jobs.

Animal production can also be made safer and more productive. A district office for urban agriculture in Lima trained pig farmers in good production practices, such as vaccinating their animals, improving their diet, safely disposing of wastes and building concrete sties. The farmers have recently begun converting pig manure into biogas and selling it to urban residents.

Although Mexico City prohibits the use of agrochemicals on its peri-urban farmland, enforcement is weak because responsibility for compliance is placed on the farmers, not the suppliers. A transition to sustainable agriculture also requires more efficient management of urban organic wastes for composting, and increased capacity for the treatment of wastewater for irrigation.

To realize UPA’s full potential for generating income, stimulating economic development and delivering food that is safe and of good quality, producers need access to markets and technologies that add value to their produce.

FAO’s survey and city case studies indicate that many people practising UPA for home consumption also sell surpluses. The proportion of “commercial producers” was 26 percent in Antigua and Barbuda, 40 percent in Cuba, 54 percent in Bolivia and 68 percent in Dominican Republic. Even small backyard gardens often yield a little extra that can be sold. In one district of Managua, 17 percent of gardeners sell some of their vegetables in local markets.

Cities with successful UPA programmes usually have well-organized marketing systems. Havana has fruit and vegetables sales points located within 5 km of production units and throughout the city’s urban neighbourhoods, where producers sell directly to consumers. In 2013, sales amounted to 26 500 tonnes.

Another trend in Latin American cities is the spread of farmers’ markets that sell locally-grown organic food. Quito has 14 one-day bioferias, open weekly and located in low-income areas as well as in better-off neighbourhoods. In 2012, they sold more than 100 tonnes of produce worth US$176 000.

In Rosario, too, vegetables are sold at “agrochemical-free vegetable fairs” in all six of the city’s districts. Rosario’s vegetables are certified as organic by a system of “social certification”, guaranteed by the municipality, the city gardeners’ association, Pro-Huerta and a local NGO that promotes fair trade. The UPA programme in Quito is registered as a producer and marketer of organic produce at national level.

Belo Horizonte municipality plans to open in the city centre a weekly “urban agriculture fair” for direct marketing by farmers who have converted to organic production. The municipal government also provides 30 sales points where rural farmers sell each year some 700 tonnes of leafy vegetables, fruit and root crops.

Post-harvest processing adds value. In Antigua and Barbuda, some backyard gardeners sell fruit drinks and sun-dried hot peppers. As urban food producers achieve household food security in Quito, the city’s agriculture programme encourages them to form microenterprises, and trains them in business planning, marketing, and accounting. Urban farmers there have entered the value chain as intermediate or final processors of meat, canned goods, dairy foods and snacks.

The urban agriculture programme in Rosario has created three “social agro-industries” that prepare vegetable trays and baskets, and make pie fillings, soups, jams and sweets. In El Alto, 70 families who were trained in post-harvest handling and packaging now sell their vegetables under the brand name, “Verdurita”, in the capital, La Paz.

Many urban and peri-urban farmers have been tapped as suppliers of “institutional feeding programmes”. In Havana, UPA provided in 2013 some 6 700 tonnes of food to almost 300 000 people in schools, public health centres, hospitals and other institutions in the city. Urban, peri-urban and rural agriculture contribute to Belo Horizonte’s multiple programmes for food and nutrition security. A third of the food in the 46 million meals prepared annually for its school feeding programme is procured from family farmers in the metropolitan region’s rural areas.

The international community is developing a global development agenda beyond 2015, with sustainable development at its core. As part of that process, all stakeholders have been invited to participate in setting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be agreed by the United Nations General Assembly.

There is a general consensus that the SDGs should include: eradicating hunger and poverty, increasing agricultural production sustainably and improving food systems, and building sustainable cities that provide food security, economic opportunity and a healthy environment, and have strong links to peri-urban and rural areas.

The city-region food system offers a point of convergence for achieving all of those goals. In Latin America, the Caribbean and worldwide, urban and peri-urban agriculture will help to grow the greener cities of the future.

This city profile taken from Growing greener cities in Latin America and the Caribbean (FAO, 2014). For a copy of the report, write to: publications-sales@fao.org