New gardeners tell their stories
Gains in nutrition, employment motivate urban poor
Caracas, Venezuela - Noraly Verenzuela, 28, used to advise tourists in a downtown hotel. She still works downtown, but now as the president of a successful urban gardening cooperative that grows and sells tonnes of fresh vegetables on a half-hectare plot surrounded by office towers.
The garden is one of almost 20 in and around Caracas started within the past year as part of an FAO-supported government programme to improve nutrition and livelihoods for the city's poor. Families and schoolchildren are also growing vegetables in 4 000 new microgardens that have sprung up on roof-tops and tiny terraces all over the capital.
"I didn't know anything about vegetables and how important they are for your health," says Ms Verenzuela, as she takes a break from preparing freshly picked produce for the cooperative's sales window opposite a busy metro station. "Now I eat vegetables every day."
"This is all ecological agriculture," she says proudly. "No pesticides are used. Instead we plant herbs such as basil, parsley and spearmint, which naturally repel insects, next to the lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables."
While most project gardens are located in neighbourhoods that are not exposed to pollution, in downtown gardens like this one, rigorous safety standards are followed. "The vegetables are regularly checked by a laboratory to make sure they are not affected by city pollution," she explains.
Gardens have also been planted outside Caracas: in the satellite town of Chupulun, Yolanda Leiva describes how her cooperative saved her family from extreme poverty after a natural disaster.
"I grew up on a farm in Ecuador but lived with my husband and our five children in Vargas on the Venezuelan coast before our house and everything we owned was destroyed in the 1999 landslide. I used to sell clothes and perfumes in markets before joining the cooperative," she says.
Proud microgardeners share new skills
In less than a year, the urban agriculture programme has also introduced microgardening to Caracas' poor neighbourhoods, perched on the steep hills surrounding the city.
Gladys Hernandez and her husband Luis Orlando Ramírez were among the first to join the project. Ms Hernandez says the family hardly ever ate vegetables.
"We have to go a long way down the hill to get fresh vegetables at the market. And they are expensive. With the microgarden we have access to fresh vegetables for free every day," she says.
The vegetables are grown in a mixture of rice hulls, peanut shells and clay pellets, held in a shallow plastic-lined tray on legs, to which a nutrient solution must be added every day.
"The key to success is to remember to add the solution and to grow herbs like basil next to the vegetables to keep insects away," says Ms Hernandez.
Lovely green gardens in the middle of concrete neighbourhoods are proving a compelling advertisement for the activity. The programme is expanding and microgardeners are helping by passing on skills to their neighbours.
Some gardeners worry about the cost of the nutrient solution, according to Zurima Vivas, a part-time supervisor paid by the project to advise 40 families. "The government has said it would supply some inputs on an ongoing basis," she notes. The plan is to involve the community in preparing the solution at an affordable price with raw materials bought in bulk.
Arturo Michelena, a programme agronomist, describes problems the programme has overcome. "Sometimes people try gardening once and don't continue. We try to take the table back and give it to someone who is doing well, as a reward."
"At the beginning of the year we had a general strike in Venezuela and were short of fertilizer," he recalls. "We had about 1 000 tables going at that point and were really worried. But we improvised and the crisis passed."
Start with the young
In Maria Taberoa Elementary School, the children will soon harvest and eat what they have grown on their microgarden tables.
"Initially, the project teaches them how to grow vegetables," says Margarita Esteves, the school's director, "but the project also instills the habit of eating vegetables every day."
Teachers, students and parents take part in the project. "Apart from having taught all of us a lot about growing vegetables and the importance of a diet rich in vitamins, the whole project has contributed to a change of spirit at the school. There is a feeling of working together," says Ms Esteves.
Jessica Suárez, 11, is an enthusiastic microgardener: "I have learnt how to manage the table and the vegetables, what vegetables can be grown, when to water and when to add the nutrient solution," she says. "When I have learnt enough I will do a microgarden at home with my parents."
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