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

Belo Horizonte


Brazil has become the international benchmark for measuring national commitment to food security. Its Zero Hunger programme, launched in 2003, made eradicating hunger and fighting poverty key objectives on the domestic agenda. The government adopted a national food security and nutrition policy that recognizes the inalienable right of all citizens to sufficient, good quality food, and implemented it with a combination of emergency measures and programmes to redistribute income, boost food production and create employment. Within six years, initiatives such as the Bolsa Família cash transfer scheme for low-income families, free meals in every public school, and support to small-scale family farming had reduced the number of people facing food insecurity from 50 million to 30 million. Many of the programmes implemented under Zero Hunger were pioneered in the 1990s in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte.

Belo Horizonte is the capital of Minas Gerais state and Brazil’s sixth largest city, with a population of 2.5 million. While the city itself is 100 percent urban, it forms the core of the Belo Horizonte Metropolitan Region, which comprises urban and rural areas with a total population of more than 5.7 million, making it Brazil’s third most populous urban agglomeration after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Like other Brazilian cities, Belo Horizonte suffered high rates of poverty and hunger in the early 1990s. It was estimated that 38 percent of families in the metropolitan region lived below the poverty line and 18 percent of children aged less than three years were malnourished. Infant mortality was a high 35.3 per thousand live births.

In 1992, Belo Horizonte elected a new mayor whose programme promoted inclusive social and economic development, focusing on ending hunger and poverty, creating jobs and investing in education and health. Among his government’s first acts was to create a municipal food supply agency, SMAB, charged with preventing and reducing malnutrition among vulnerable groups, bringing food to parts of the city that were neglected by commercial outlets, and increasing food production.

With an initial annual budget of some US$18 million, SMAB designed a series of interventions based on the principle that all citizens have the right to an adequate quantity and quality of food throughout their lives, and that it is the duty of government to guarantee that right. One of its earliest initiatives, which provided enriched flour through health clinics to pregnant and nursing women, and to mothers of young children in low-income communities, is credited with helping reduce the city’s under-5 child mortality rate by 72 percent between 1993 and 2005.

Today, SMAB has grown into the Secretariat for Nutrition and Food Security (SMASAN), with a staff of 180, including 30 nutritionists, a budget of US$27.2 million a year, and programmes that benefit more than 300 000 citizens daily. Although its approach has evolved over the years – for example, big improvements in child nutrition led to discontinuation of the enriched flour distribution – its basic mandate remains that of ensuring food and nutrition security in Belo Horizonte, especially among low-income residents.

It does that through a comprehensive set of programmes aimed at providing access to food – including free food distributions and school meals, subsidized food sales and the regulation of prices in food markets – and increasing agricultural production in both surrounding rural areas and within the city itself.

Food production is recognized as a legitimate land use in Belo Horizonte and is promoted by the municipal government’s Urban Agriculture Support Policy, which sees it as contributing to “the full development of the social functions of the city”.

At last count, SMASAN’s programme for urban and peri-urban agriculture, operational since 1998, had created 185 vegetable gardens and 48 orchards across Belo Horizonte. They include gardens in schools and early childhood centres, three fully commercial gardens, and non-commercial gardens in health and social welfare centres, nursing homes, shelters and other public facilities (for example, inmates of the city’s Gamelleira prison have a garden and donate what they grow to charity).

The staff of SMASAN includes agronomists and agricultural engineers, who can call on support from the Minas Gerais state agricultural extension service. Together, they manage the supply of free or heavily subsidized inputs – such as seed, fruit tree seedlings, organic fertilizer and soil amendments – and supervise the installation of irrigation systems and greenhouses.

To qualify for assistance, at least 10 citizens must form a group and apply for the lease of a public area for their gardening project. The majority of farmers in community gardens have incomes that amount to less than two minimum wages, more than half are women, and the predominant age group is over 60. Gardening is usually a part-time activity, a way of saving on food purchases, and a source of relaxation.

The city’s 48 community gardens average around 150 sq m and are used to grow leafy vegetables and herbs for home consumption. Cultivation practices are largely organic. Pesticide is prohibited, and soil is usually fertilized with manure and earthworm humus purchased from outside the city. Since treated wastewater is not available for irrigation, gardeners use the city’s drinking water supply.

The three large commercial gardens are operated by 30 families and are located in the neighbourhoods of Barreiro, Maca.bas and Vila Pinho. They sell most of their organically grown produce to local schools for students’ meals, to the public at on-site sales centres, through fruit and vegetable markets, and door-to-door. In 2013, families operating two of the community gardens earned US$4 800 from the sale of vegetables to schools. The profits enabled them to buy their own inputs and equipment, with only minimal support from the municipality.

One of the most effective tools for promoting urban agriculture in Belo Horizonte has been school gardens, which increased in number from 60 to 126 between 2008 and 2012. Children are invited to attend workshops on microgardening, and those joining the programme receive technical assistance from SMASAN to set up their gardens. Gardens have been established in schools and kindergartens with a total of 96 000 pupils, who spend on average one hour a day caring for the plants. The gardens are used to grow cabbage, lettuce, aromatic plants and herbs, and serve as open-air centres for environmental and food education.

In the meantime, the secretariat’s orchards programme, Pró-Pomar, distributes fruit tree seedlings (typically cherry, carambola, orange, lemon and tangerine) free of charge to schools, institutions and community groups, primarily in low-income favelas on sloping land, where trees are also needed to prevent soil erosion. Members of the community are selected to care for the trees and all citizens are invited to help themselves to the fruit. In 2011-2012, SMASAN provided 1 300 tree seedlings for planting in schools and community areas. It is estimated that 30 000 people consume fruit grown in Pró-Pomar orchards.

Low-income urban and peri-urban residents also benefit from a programme for growing food and medicinal plants in areas without enough space for a full garden. On request, SMASAN provides self-organized community groups with training in microgardening, as well as compost and seeds. Participants are expected to supply the garden containers, such as wooden crates and discarded tyres, and plastic bottles for drip irrigation. In 2012, more than 90 four-hour training workshops were conducted, with the participation of 1 100 people.

Support to urban agriculture in Belo Horizonte is not limited to SMASAN programmes. Another source is the city’s five “centres for agro-ecological living”, set up since 1993 by the municipal parks administration. Located mainly in peri-urban areas, the centres are managed by local residents and provide courses in organic gardening, waste recycling, nutrition and ecology. They have helped 98 families establish their own gardens. The centres also maintain nurseries – called “living pharmacies” – for the production and distribution of medicinal plants.

The municipal government also provides support and incentives to family agriculture in the metropolitan region’s rural areas. Public procurement of food from smallholder family farmers for Belo Horizonte’s school meals programme and public restaurants is not only encouraged but now mandatory under federal law. SMASAN also manages a programme called Direto da Roça (“Straight from the field”), which provides 30 sales points within the city where small-scale farmers can sell leafy vegetables, fruit and root crops directly to consumers. Licences are obtained through public bidding. By agreement with SMASAN, prices are fixed at an “affordable” level, which means savings for customers and higher volume sales for producers.

Farmers sell either their own produce or that of a cooperative. The quality of produce is controlled through laboratory tests and on-farm visits by SMASAN staff, who also advise farmers on good agricultural practices and organic production. In 2012, one cooperative and 25 individual farmers sold through the programme more than 700 tonnes of fruit and vegetables, worth an estimated US$870 000.

Belo Horizonte’s food and nutrition security system handles some 45 000 tonnes of food consumed in the city each year. Although the contribution of urban agriculture to that total is small – around 50 tonnes – the programme has had positive impacts. Vegetable consumption has increased among families and students directly involved in gardening, and an estimated 9 000 city residents have access to pesticide-free produce at a reasonable price.

Urban agriculture has strengthened social networks. The high level of community involvement in urban farming – through production groups and local councils – has been an important factor in the steady growth in total output and the area under gardens.

Broad stakeholder participation has been a feature of Belo Horizonte’s approach to UPA development. SMASAN’s programmes are guided by a Council for Food Security, representing municipal, state and federal governments, labour unions, food producers and distributors, consumer groups and other NGOs. Strategies and action plans for urban agriculture are developed by a civic forum, the Urban Agricultural Space, which brings together 33 civil society organizations and government agencies.

Among the forum’s achievements was to persuade the municipality in 2010 to revise the city’s land use plan to include urban agriculture as a non-residential land use, on a par with commerce, services and industry. That recognition establishes urban farming as an economic activity and urban farmers as a professional category.

The forum also campaigned successfully for the approval, in September 2011, of the Municipal Urban Agriculture Support Policy, an important step forward as, until then, SMASAN agriculture programmes were regulated by municipal ordinances. The policy provides a firm foundation for further development of urban agriculture. The municipal government increased funding for SMASAN’s programmes for urban, peri-urban and rural food production from US$160 000 in 2012 to $240 000 in 2013, and is integrating agriculture into municipal programmes for housing, welfare, health, education, employment, training and environmental protection.

It has also decided to establish, in the centre of Belo Horizonte, a weekly “urban agriculture fair” for the direct marketing of fruit, vegetables, cereals and flowers by urban growers and by rural farmers who have converted to organic production. By offering a major new sales outlet, the fair is expected to encourage the expansion of commercial gardening and, SMASAN hopes, attract more young people to urban agriculture.

Currently, there are no urban farmers in Belo Horizonte under the age of 30, and making food production an economically profitable activity is seen by SMASAN as one of the key challenges facing UPA development. Nearly all community gardens are subsidized by the municipal government and, without that support, most urban producers could not compete with vegetable growers in rural areas. Urban land and production inputs – such as town water and compost bought from outside the city – are expensive, and the city’s services sector offers better paid and less physically demanding jobs.

 While SMASAN’s immediate priorities include further investment in training for urban food producers, in the longer term it plans to reduce production costs by improving wastewater treatment, introducing rainwater harvesting systems, and working with the city’s waste management service to improve the quality of compost.

Another measure on the SMASAN agenda is to guarantee urban farmers’ use of public land for at least five years. It is also lobbying for the zoning of parcels of urban land specifically for agriculture, which would relieve intense competition for land for real estate development. With lower production costs and security of tenure, Belo Horizonte’s farmers could take advantage of their close proximity to urban consumers and the premium prices paid for locally grown, organic food that has health, social and environmental benefits.

Belo Horizonte’s “alternative food system”

Belo Horizonte’s Secretariat for Nutrition and Food Security manages 19 programmes aimed at ensuring its citizens’ access to high quality and affordable food.

Food and nutrition assistance

In 2012, the school meals programme served 46 million meals to 80 000 students in schools, kindergartens and adult education centres. Since 2011, at least 30 percent of the food in meals is bought directly from family farms. SMASAN has 56 service points for preventing child malnutrition. In 2012, the city’s food bank distributed 380 tonnes of food to social organizations for the preparation of communal meals for 366 000 people.

Subsidized food marketing

Belo Horizonte has four public restaurants and one cafeteria that provide low-priced meals to the general public. The majority of customers – 80 000 a month – are low-income or homeless. SMASAN nutritionists design the menus to provide 20 different meal choices. In 2012, some 3.3 million meals were served, at an average price discount of 60 percent.

Food supply and market regulation

The Abastecer (“Supply”) programme allows licensed traders – currently numbering 33 – to sell fruit and vegetables in designated areas, on the condition that they offer at least 20 products at fixed, reduced prices. Abastecer licensees also help to increase access to fresh produce by selling fruit and vegetables at discounted prices from vans in the city’s peripheral areas. In 2012, a total of 43 300 tonnes of food was supplied through Abastecer.

Nutrition education and careers in the food sector

SMASAN organizes classes in food and nutrition for the general public and for people working in its programmes. The city’s Lagoinha food market serves as a training centre offering 40 different courses in food processing and preparation, including baking, confectionery making, and international cuisine.

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]