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



Spring visitors to the Argentinian city of Rosario, on the Paraná River, 300 km north of Buenos Aires, should not miss the week-long “Rosario grows roots” festival. Last year’s festival included guided tours of vegetable gardens along the city’s main railway line, workshops on organoponic gardening, and open-air cooking classes at a 5 ha garden park. It ended with a Sunday fair in the riverside Plaza Suecia, where members of the Rosario Gardeners’ Network displayed their organically grown vegetables and medicinal plants, along with the technologies they use for vertical gardening, solar drying of produce and anaerobic waste recycling. Celebrated annually since 2004, “Rosario grows roots” is a showcase of urban agriculture in a city which is, itself, internationally recognized as an example of how agriculture can be integrated successfully into urban development.

With 1.35 million inhabitants, the Rosario metropolitan area is Argentina’s third largest urban agglomeration and one of its most prosperous. Linked to the rich farmland of Santa Fe Province by road and river, its ports handle most of Argentina’s exports of wheat, soybeans and vegetable oil. Exports of soybeans in 2013 reached 50 million tonnes, worth US$17.5 billion.

Just 13 years ago, Rosario was a rusting industrial city in a nation whose economy had collapsed. Many of the city’s steel, chemical and paper factories had closed, and one-third of the workforce was unemployed. By December 2001, around 60 percent of the population had incomes below the poverty line, 30 percent were living in extreme poverty, and hyperinflation had increased the price of staple foods four times over. Desperation in Rosario’s slums led to the looting of supermarkets by hungry people in search of food.

In February 2002, the municipal government responded to the crisis by launching an urban agriculture programme in collaboration with two key partners. One was the national Pro-Huerta (“Pro-Garden”) programme, established in 1990 to foster small-scale, self-production of fresh food, mainly in low-income urban and peri-urban areas. The other was a Rosario NGO, the Centre for Agro-ecological Production Studies (CEPAR), which had promoted vegetable gardening in the city’s slums since 1987.

The initial plan – to provide 20 gardening groups with tools and seeds, and then gradually extend the programme throughout the city – was soon overwhelmed by requests for assistance. Funding for equipment, inputs and training workshops was increased, and within two years, some 800 community gardens were producing vegetables for an estimated 40 000 people.

The programme’s immediate objective was to meet the emergency needs of unemployed slum-dwellers. But it also had a very clear vision of establishing urban agriculture as a permanent activity in the city. Given that an essential prerequisite was the long-term availability of suitable land, several local government departments collaborated with the National University of Rosario in a survey which found that 36 percent of the municipal area was vacant space.

Areas that could not be built on and were, therefore, suitable for farming included land along railways and highways, low-lying, peri-urban land subject to flooding, and designated greenbelts that had not been realized owing to lack of funding.

To provide gardeners with security of tenure, the city mayor approved in September 2004 an ordinance that established a rapid process for formalizing grants of vacant urban land to residents for agriculture. The Secretariat of Municipal Planning then worked with international partners to draft proposals for integrating agriculture into Rosario’s urban development plan.

Meanwhile, the programme was implementing another key part of its long-term strategy: establishing a system for the direct marketing of gardeners’ produce. Within six months of the start of the programme, the first urban farmers’ market was in operation, and two more had been opened by 2004.

The first phase of the urban agriculture programme was so successful that, in 2004, Rosario was awarded the UN-HABITAT International Award for Best Practices in urban development. An evaluation found that some 10 000 low-income families were directly involved in gardening, and that producers were earning from sales up to US$150 a month, well above the poverty line. Two-thirds of gardeners were women and, for the vast majority of them, agriculture was the main source of income.

Since that year, urban agriculture in Rosario has evolved along with Argentina’s economic recovery, and the re-emergence of the city as a centre of industry, commerce and services. Today, the number of city residents practising horticulture is around 1 800, of which 250 are full-time commercial producers organized in the Rosario Gardeners’ Network.

The past decade has been a phase of consolidation for the urban agriculture programme. The focus has been on securing land and infrastructure for permanent cultivation on a larger scale, shortening marketing chains, establishing agro-industries and farmers’ markets, increasing the supply and quality of organically grown produce, and promoting horticulture as an integral part of efforts to rehabilitate brownfields, create greenbelts and improve the quality of life in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Underpinning the entire programme is a solid political and institutional commitment, from national to local level. The city’s commercial gardeners have been enrolled in the National Registry of Family Farmers, which entitles them to development assistance, social benefits and old-age pensions. Pro-Huerta continues to provide training, seed and tools, and the Santa Fe provincial government funds the installation of infrastructure as part of its support for family and community gardening in urban and peri-urban areas.

The promotion of urban agriculture is a policy of the Rosario city government, implemented by its Secretariat of Social Development in cooperation with Pro-Huerta and CEPAR, and aimed at “integrating men and women into social enterprises for the production and processing of food for family, community and market consumption”.

The urban agriculture programme has an annual budget of some US$380 000 and is staffed by 25 agronomists and gardening promoters. Its activities are supported by a wide range of local, national and international public and private institutions, including RUAF, the municipality’s services for public housing and parks and gardens, the Faculties of Engineering, Architecture and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Rosario, and the public/private sector Rosario Foundation.

Rosario is one of the few large South American cities that have incorporated agriculture fully into their land use planning and urban development strategies. Its Land Use Plan 2007-2017 makes specific provision for the agricultural use of public land in the spatial organization of the city and its territory. Under its Metropolitan Strategic Plan 2008-2018, Rosario is building a “green circuit”, passing through and around the city, consisting of family and community gardens, large-scale, commercial vegetable gardens and orchards, multifunctional garden parks, and “productive barrios”, where agriculture is integrated into programmes for the construction of public housing and the upgrading of slums.

In 2014, the green circuit consisted of more than 30 ha of land used to grow vegetables, fruit and medicinal and aromatic plants. The cultivated area includes a green corridor along the railway line through the city’s northern district. Four fenced plots, which total 2 ha, are equipped with irrigation systems and greenhouses and used by residents and schoolchildren from the surrounding area to grow vegetables, ornamentals and aromatic plants.

Group productive gardens are used for the intensive production of seasonal vegetables and a wide range of aromatic plants, such as citronella, sage and rosemary. The gardens, which average 2 ha in size, are divided into plots of from 500 to 1 000 sq m, each cultivated by a gardener or a family. Each productive garden provides employment for around 20 people, and includes a seedling nursery, irrigation infrastructure and a training area.

Flowers, vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants are grown in smaller plots called huertas-jardines, which maintain plants, shrubs and trees that have been adapted to Rosario’s climatic and growing conditions, and provide seeds and cuttings for the city’s gardening community. In collaboration with Pro-Huerta and the Gardeners’ Network, the urban agriculture programme has also created training areas, called eco-huertas, where citizens can learn the basics of organic food production at home.

But the centrepiece of Rosario’s green circuit is the city’s innovative garden parks – five large, landscaped green areas covering a total of 72 ha of land, which are used for agriculture and for cultural, sports and educational activities. Horticulture is practised on 24 ha of the total area, divided into plots averaging 900 sq m, for use by some 280 commercial gardeners, and smaller plots where 400 residents grow vegetables for home consumption.

One of the city’s first parques-huerta was inaugurated in 2008 on flood-prone fields in Molino Blanco Sur, a neighbourhood of 800 families on the city’s southern boundary. The park incorporated 5.6 ha of existing vegetable gardens and included, along one of its sides, a demonstration area which provides space for small-scale horticulture in front yards, organoponic microgardening, and protected woodlands.

Other garden parks are situated on 3 ha of riverside land granted by the National Roads Authority in the Saladillo Sur neighbourhood; inside the 260 ha Bosque de Los Constituyentes nature reserve; along the Rosario-Buenos Aires highway in the low-income Miraflores barrio; and on 3 ha of land belonging to a senior citizens’ centre, Hogar Español, on the edge of farmland southwest of the city.

Plots are assigned annually, free of charge, to gardeners in return for a guarantee that they will grow crops continuously throughout the year, using agro-ecological production practices. The majority of gardeners come from nearby low-income neighbourhoods. They include ex-factory workers and fisherfolk, and many internal migrants from rural areas, who have contributed positively to the programme thanks to their knowledge of farming and intensive crop production.

Agricultural activities in the city are supported by an agro-ecological nursery, which raises seedlings and produces compost and liquid fertilizers, and the Ñanderoga Seed Bank, which conserves the seeds of more than 600 local and native plant varieties that are adapted to Rosario’s growing conditions.

Virtually all permanent agricultural areas in Rosario have been established in degraded areas that were once considered unsuitable for food production. Many sites had been used as garbage dumps, and soils were often contaminated with heavy metals. The programme has used a variety of agro-ecological techniques – including planting legumes and grasses and incorporating plant residues, wood chips, compost and manure – in order to improve soil fertility, structure and organic matter content.

Crop production on the restored land also follows closely the principles of agro-ecology, which promotes family-based agriculture that is socially just, economically viable and environmentally sustainable. Growers produce their own basic inputs, such as fertilizer and seed, and use no synthetic pesticide or fertilizer. They grow vegetables intensively in high-yielding organoponic beds of compost substrate, maintain soil productivity with vermicompost, green manure and mulching, and plant their crops in rotations, to prevent pest attacks and diseases.

As a result, the vegetables and aromatic plants grown in Rosario’s gardens are 100 percent organic and chemical-free. In place of certification by private agencies, the city has developed a system of “social certification”, with produce safety and quality being guaranteed by the municipality, the Gardeners’ Network, Pro-Huerta and a network of 450 consumers, Vida Verde (“Green Life”), which was established in 2008 to promote fair trade in locally grown organic food.

All production areas have facilities for washing vegetables prior to sale, and the garden parks are equipped with solar dryers designed by the University of Rosario’s Faculty of Engineering. In addition, the urban agriculture programme has created three “social agro-industries” – small-scale processing units managed by community groups, which provide work for people excluded from the formal labour market, and add value to primary production. The units prepare vegetable trays and baskets, process produce into pie fillings, soups, jams and sweets, and make a range of natural cosmetics, such as soap, gel, lotions and shampoo, from garden herbs.

Produce is sold directly from gardening sites, in weekly baskets home-delivered to consumers, to city restaurants, and through weekly “agrochemical-free vegetable fairs” that have been established in public areas in all six of the city’s districts. It is estimated that sales in 2013 amounted to 100 tonnes of vegetables and 5 tonnes of aromatic and medicinal plants.

Rosario has shown that, when there is political will and a clear policy of social inclusion, it is possible to build, in a very short time, a successful programme for urban agriculture. In just 12 years, the programme has transformed and made productive use of the city’s resources by rehabilitating wastelands, recovering and revitalizing public spaces, and creating an alternative, sustainable supply of nutritious, chemical-free food.

It has also brought important benefits to the city’s low-income residents, allowing many of them to become engaged in civic construction and local development. The garden has provided an occupation and a space for learning and sharing experiences; for many women, it has brought economic independence and enhanced social relations. There is widespread public appreciation of urban farmers as guardians of the land, whose work improves the living environment and contributes to the food and nutrition security of all citizens.

Gardeners are officially recognized as entrepreneurs in Rosario’s solidarity economy, which allows them to apply for municipal funding for their own investment projects. In 2013, twenty of them were certified as professional “organic gardening specialists” by the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security.

Soybean advances on city’s “vegetable belt”

In 1996, Argentina approved the cultivation of genetically modified soybeans. Since then, the country’s annual soybean production has quadrupled, from 12.4 million to more than 50 million tonnes, while the harvested area has grown from 6 million ha to 20 million ha.

Argentina is now the world’s third largest producer of soybeans, and is the leading exporter of soybean meal and soybean oil. Most of Argentina’s soybeans are grown in Santa Fe Province, and are processed in the Rosario municipal area for export.

Soybean production has displaced other traditional export crops, such as wheat and sunflower, as well as the production of milk, fruit and vegetables for the domestic market. In Rosario Department, around 70 000 ha of land were sown with soybeans in 2013, compared to just 3 600 ha under vegetables and legumes. Horticulture around the city of Rosario is under increasing pressure as farmers lease their land for soybean production, which is more profitable and more easily managed, and has lower labour costs. The city’s “vegetable belt” is also threatened by urban expansion.

To reduce the city’s growing dependence on produce grown in other regions of the country, Rosario’s Metropolitan Strategic Plan includes support to small-scale horticulture in semi-rural areas. The aim is to promote the adoption of good production practices and, by creating small producers’ associations, to improve growers’ access to the city’s markets.

This city profile taken from Growing greener cities in Latin America and the Caribbean (FAO, 2014). For a copy of the report, write to: [email protected]