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



Rising at an altitude of 5 200 m in the Peruvian Andes, the River Rímac carves a path of 200 km down to the coastal desert, through the city of Lima and into the Pacific Ocean. The Rímac is the lifeline of Lima’s water supply, providing most of the drinking water of its 9.6 million inhabitants, and used to irrigate much of its 12 500 ha of peri-urban farm land. It is also the Lima region’s main means of waste disposal – the discharge of untreated effluent from mines, factories and human settlements has led to levels of contamination that have been described as “catastrophic”. As its population grows, at the rate of almost 200 000 a year, Lima has become increasingly vulnerable to water scarcity, which will be aggravated by climate change. Meanwhile, rising incomes are creating demand for a greater variety and higher quality of food, even as urban expansion pushes agriculture onto less productive land.

Intensive agriculture was the foundation of the civilizations that emerged on Peru’s arid central coast 7 000 years ago. The abundant waters of the Rímac River and the rivers of Chillón to the north and Lurín in the south – along with the region’s shallow water table, its fertile valley soils and stable climate – favoured the irrigated production of cotton, maize, beans, sweet potatoes and vegetables throughout the year. In the early 20th century, agricultural land in what is today the metropolitan area of Lima totalled some 600 sq km.

Lima is now the fifth largest city in Latin America, home to almost one-third of Peru’s population, and – with an annual rainfall of just 25 mm – the world’s second biggest desert city after Cairo. Since 1950, the mass migration of rural people from the country’s highlands has increased its population nine times over. In the past 30 years, the urbanized area has expanded by more than 200 sq km and it is expected to increase by more than 16 sq km a year until at least 2020.

Although an estimated 17.5 percent of Lima’s residents – or more than 1.5 million people – are poor, the living conditions of many more have improved remarkably in recent years. Since 2000, Peru has had one of the region’s fastest growing economies, and 60 percent of the capital’s population is now considered “middle class”. Economic growth and higher incomes have fuelled the buying up of agricultural land for housing, industry and infrastructure, while urban land prices have soared (according to one report, the average price of land for new office buildings and apartments in Lima rose by almost 50 percent in 2012-2013).

Along with economic prosperity and urban growth, Lima’s agricultural area has shrunk to about 125 sq km. Urbanization has taken out of production some of its best farmland and, in recent years, has claimed large tracts of uncultivated land in the lower reaches of the Rímac, Lurín and Chillón River basins. Agriculture is being displaced to areas which lack the fertility, adaptability and performance of coastal valley soils, which will lead not only to more lengthy distribution channels, but also to the risk of shortages of some produce.

Population growth has also increased pressure on the city’s water resources, with further negative consequences for agriculture. Around 80 percent of water captured from the three rivers, and almost all of the city’s groundwater – making an annual total of some 600 billion litres – are destined for human consumption and industry. In addition, Lima’s human population and its factories produce large volumes of solid and liquid wastes that are dumped into canals and rivers, leading to high levels of contamination of crop irrigation water. Until very recently, less than 10 percent of the 550 billion litres of wastewater generated each year was treated.

Agriculture is practised in peripheral zones north, east and south of Lima, and most extensively in the districts of Carabayllo, Puente Piedra, Pachacamac, Lurín, Lurigancho Chosica and Ate Vitarte. It is the main source of income for many settlers from rural areas, and provides temporary employment for Lima’s urban poor. Many work as unskilled labourers for landowners, while others rent a small plot for cultivation and sell the produce. Although farm sizes range up to 600 ha, about 60 percent of holdings are less than 1 ha and 43 percent are less than 1 000 sq m.

Peri-urban farming produces a wide range of crops – mainly vegetables, fruit, ornamental plants, maize and fodder. In 2007, more than 5 000 ha of irrigated land in the Rímac, Chillón and Lurín river basins were being used to grow vegetables for sale in the capital’s markets. Production systems are very dynamic, with farmers sowing simultaneously a wide range of short-cycle vegetables to take advantage of changing market demand, and practising continuous crop rotation to optimize land use.

A 2007 study of peri-urban crop production found that less than 200 ha of cropland were irrigated with water that had been filtered by local treatment plants. The rest drew on river water and untreated wastewater, which are often highly polluted with heavy metals, parasites and faecal bacteria.

Health concerns are also associated with the thriving small-scale pig farming industry that has developed, using municipal wastes as feed, in marginal and often illegally occupied communal areas, where it provides employment for a large number of settler families. Pig farmers work in precarious conditions, and several studies have found that harmful residues in the animals’ feed pose a health risk to both the producers and consumers.

Within the city’s built-up area, food production is practised in family plots as small as 4 sq m and in community gardens of up to 1 000 sq m, mainly in the southern districts of Chorrillos, Villa El Salvador and Surco. As well as growing vegetables and fruit, many residents raise guinea pigs and poultry on garden wastes and scraps from the kitchen.

Urban farmers use almost no chemicals and irrigate their crops with drinking water. Production is usually for home consumption – only a few farmers have installed hydroponic systems for the production of high-value vegetables for sale to supermarkets or at organic food fairs. While no reliable data is available on the number or the socio-economic conditions of residents of Lima involved in urban and peri-urban agriculture, it is practised in areas with generally high rates of poverty. Studies have found that farming families are more likely to have a diversified diet based on fresh, home-grown produce supplemented by purchased foods.

In fact, the local production of a wide range of plant and animal foods is believed to play an important role in child nutrition in Lima, where rates of child malnutrition are half the national average.

Sustainable development of agriculture in and around Lima requires stronger government support. First, the benefits of food production in urban areas need to be recognized and prioritized in national policies.

For many years, the institutions most active in promoting urban agriculture and its inclusion on the political agenda were NGOs, research centres, international organizations and some private companies. Their activities persuaded the local governments of Lima’s Villa María del Triunfo, Chosica Lurigancho and Villa el Salvador districts to incorporate agriculture in their urban development programmes, sometimes as part of civic beautification projects.

A more recent positive development was the adoption by the Metropolitan Lima Municipal Council in September 2012 of an ordinance for the promotion of urban agriculture, which it defines as “a strategy for environmental management, food security, social inclusion and local economic development”. The ordinance, which is applicable in all 43 districts of Lima Province, also establishes a metropolitan urban agriculture programme which will include the use of public spaces for food production.

However, there is no clear national public policy that recognizes and promotes urban agriculture or regulates its incorporation into the overall strategic planning of Peruvian cities. The national Ministry of Housing, Construction and Sanitation has established policies and procedures for urban development, but has issued no regulations concerning agriculture in urban areas. In developing cities such as Lima, agriculture will only be profitable, competitive and sustainable when there are also clear mechanisms for zoning land for agricultural use, along with tax benefits for producers, supportive pricing of inputs, and assistance in accessing profitable and stable markets.

Action is also urgently needed to protect and enhance Lima’s peri-urban agriculture, which suffers major limitations, including a lack of fertile land and clean water for irrigation. Projections indicate that by 2025 the metropolitan area will have a population of 11.5 million and that urban sprawl will have expanded beyond the Rímac, Chillón and Lurín River basins. Along with urban growth, it is expected that the pressure on land and water resources currently used for agriculture will increase exponentially.

At the same time, Lima’s population growth and economic development is driving unprecedented demand for a greater variety and higher quality of food. Recent years have seen the spread of neighbourhood food warehouses, wholesale produce markets and large supermarkets in all areas of the capital. The increased sophistication and modernization of markets presents an opportunity for urban and peri-urban agriculture to become the main supplier of fresh, healthy “local food” for consumers.

The challenge is to create the necessary conditions to allow urban and peri-urban agriculture to realize its full potential as a key sector for ensuring Lima’s food and nutrition security, and as one that generates other benefits for society by conserving natural resources and safeguarding public health.

With the creation of the national Ministry of Environment in 2008, Peru has caught up with international standards in environmental policy. Since municipal governments are responsible for local implementation of environmental protection regulations, Lima should promote agriculture as an activity that improves environmental quality through its productive re-use of the city’s sewage and solid waste.

When appropriately treated, wastewater from domestic sources can be used safely to irrigate fruit trees, vegetables and ornamental plants. Since it contains nutrients such as organic carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, it permits more intensive use of land and improves plant vigour. Wastewater is something Lima has in abundance.

The good news is that Lima no longer discharges more than 80 percent of its sewage water directly into the ocean without prior filtering or treatment. In February 2013, the Peruvian government inaugurated the US$160 million Taboada treatment plant, the largest in South America, with the capacity to treat 75 percent of the municipal area’s effluent before discharging it into the sea through a 3.5 km-long underground pipeline.

Work also began in 2013 on another plant in La Chira, in the south of Lima, which is expected to be completed late in 2014, boosting coverage to 100 percent. The government also announced “future plans” to use the treated water for watering parks and gardens.

That revolution in wastewater treatment opens the way for the re-use of the city’s liquid and solid wastes as irrigation water and organic fertilizer for the production of food on the city outskirts, especially in uncultivated and abandoned farming areas. A recent urban water management study, funded by the European Commission, calculated that by re-using slightly more than half of its treated wastewater, Lima could irrigate parks and green areas of 28 000 ha and some 10 800 ha of farmland.

That rate of irrigation, which amounts to 8 million litres per hectare per year, would help increase yields and the quality of produce, and generate jobs and income. By reducing competition from agriculture, it would also increase the supply of clean drinking water available to city residents.

Pig farms win reprieve

Isolated settler communities in the hills around Lima have developed a highly efficient system of pig production in response to increasing demand for foods of animal origin. However, the inexorable expansion of the city limits has often brought pig farmers into conflict with new neighbours and the health authorities.

That is what has happened in the Saracoto Alto settlement in Lima’s Lurigancho district. When the first pigsties were built there in the 1980s, the area was still at a safe distance from population centres. Out of sight of health inspectors, settlers organized themselves in an informal association and raised their animals with little regard for sanitation. It was common practice, for example, to dump dead pigs in the dry bed of the nearby Huaycoloro River.

After urban sprawl finally reached the foothills in the early 2000s, complaints about the health risks to neighbours, consumers and the producers themselves prompted the Ministry of Health to order the immediate closure of the pig farms, which were the main source of income for 140 families.

The families appealed to the newly created Lurigancho district office for urban agriculture, which convened a roundtable dialogue between the farmers’ association and municipal authorities. They signed an agreement under which the office organized training for the farmers in pig management, especially sanitation. Since then, many farmers have adopted good production practices, such as vaccinating their animals, providing them with a healthier diet, safely disposing of pig wastes and building concrete sties.

Lettuce, beets, carrots and broccoli

At the Divina Misericordia school in the southern Lima district of Villa El Salvador, an FAO project helped establish a school garden used by students to grow lettuce, beets, carrots and broccoli. Teachers, students and parents built the garden from scratch, transporting soil to the site and installing an irrigation system.

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]