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



In April 2000, Quito hosted a meeting of local government representatives from nine countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. The outcome was the landmark Quito Declaration, the first to call on the region’s cities “to embrace urban agriculture”. At the time, food production was widespread in Quito itself. Between 1980 and 2000, waves of Andean indigenous migrants had almost doubled its population, from 780 000 to 1.4 million. In inner-city barrios and settlements built on surrounding hillsides and ravines, many of them had resorted to small-scale agriculture to feed their families. Yet Quito’s urban agriculture was unrecognized in municipal regulations, only “tolerated” by planners, and not considered in the programmes of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. Much – but not all – of that has changed over the past 14 years.

El Panecillo is a loaf-shaped hill 200 m high in Quito’s historic centre. Most of El Panecillo cannot be built on, owing to its steep slopes, and the surrounding area is home to some 1 900 low-income families, including many internal migrants.

It was there that a pilot programme, launched in September 2000 and co-funded by the municipality and international partners, helped to increase food production in home gardens, promoted the recycling and re-use of organic wastes, and established a community plant nursery. It also developed a microcredit system and implemented four projects – designed with community participation – for produce processing and marketing.

The lessons learned in El Panecillo were used to develop a municipal programme aimed at improving the food security of vulnerable populations in Quito’s urban, peri-urban and rural areas. That programme, the Participatory Urban Agriculture Project (AGRUPAR), was launched in 2002, and was initially managed by the city’s Directorate for Sustainable Human Development. Since 2005, it has been implemented by the municipality’s Economic Development Agency, Conquito, whose mandate is to create an entrepreneurial, sustainable and innovative city that generates employment and distributes wealth equitably.

Today, AGRUPAR is one of Conquito’s most successful initiatives. It brings together some 12 250 urban and peri-urban farmers and 380 community-based organizations, supported by local and national government departments, universities, development cooperation agencies and NGOs, and the private sector. Its primary focus is on enhancing food security and promoting food processing, access to microcredit, microenterprise management and marketing.

AGRUPAR is operational in all eight administrative zones of the Metropolitan District of Quito. Agriculture is practised by community groups, families and schools, in centres for the elderly, single mothers, abandoned children, migrants and refugees, in social rehabilitation and health centres, in centres for the disabled and in religious communities. At last count, the project had helped establish 1 072 active gardens – including 140 community gardens, more than 800 family gardens, and 128 gardens in schools and other institutions – as well as 314 livestock production units. Annual food crop production is estimated at 400 tonnes.

Project participants include rural people who have migrated to the city and for whom gardening and raising animals is a means of surviving in an often hostile environment, and maintaining their rural roots and traditional knowledge. Many others are underemployed workers who take up agriculture in order to save money on food purchases and make extra income from the sale of surpluses. Around 86 percent of participants are women.

The average income of households joining the project is around US$350 per month, well below the minimum needed to feed a household, which is set at US$600. Most participants have completed only primary school.

Joining AGRUPAR usually requires the formation of a group of at least six people – friends, relatives, neighbours or residents of institutions – who apply for assistance in establishing their garden. They need to have enough space for an in-ground plot or for microgardening, access to clean water, and the commitment and spare time (at least 12 hours a week) needed to care for their crops.

The staff of AGRUPAR then provide seeds and seedlings, conduct technical training on agricultural production, and help to develop participants’ management skills. People who maintain an active garden can access further training in nutrition, food processing and marketing, and the breeding of animals.

Between 2004 and 2012, the project provided training for more than 7 350 people. Services are provided under a symbolic pricing policy, with each training session costing US$0.50 per person. The municipality’s annual contribution to the AGRUPAR project – some US$250 000 a year – meets the cost of training, technical advice and logistics. It also covers part of the costs of seed, inputs and equipment, and animals such as poultry, guinea pigs and bees. However, while Quito’s city government remains the main source of funding, around half of investment in productive infrastructure – such as micro-greenhouses and small sheds for animal husbandry – comes from participants.

The project actively promotes production that meets Ecuador’s standards for organic agriculture, which require holistic production systems that enhance biodiversity, biological cycles and soil health, prohibit the use of GMOs, and control pests without chemicals. The AGRUPAR project is registered as a producer and marketer of organic produce at national level and shares the cost of certification with producers.

More than 90 percent of gardens are less than 500 sq m in size, and a little over half are less than 100 sq m. The cost of establishing a basic 100 sq m urban garden for organic production is around US$80, including tools, seed, fertilizer, fencing and access to water. Incorporating drip irrigation and a micro-greenhouse costs an additional US$480. By 2013, drip irrigation systems had been installed in 70 gardens, and growers were using around 100 micro-greenhouses.

Crops grown in the city’s huertas range from potatoes, maize and quinoa to vegetables – mainly swiss chard, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes and carrots – as well as aromatic plants, spices, and fruit such as lemons, passion fruit, babaco and blackberries. Gardeners are encouraged to use environmentally friendly cultivation practices: maintaining soil health with compost and green manure, rotating crops, protecting soil with cover crops and live barriers, and irrigating with potable water or harvested rainwater. Animal husbandry is promoted as a source of income, protein and manure.

Where little land is available for horticulture, AGRUPAR promotes alternatives such as vertical gardens on walls, and microgardening in recycled containers, such as bottles, boxes and tyres, which permits food production on terraces, balconies and patios.

The project estimates that about 47 percent of garden produce is sold; the rest is kept for home consumption. Participants earn at least US$55 a month from the sale of surplus produce and make a further saving of at least US$72 a month on food purchases by consuming what they grow. Total savings are 2.5 times the value of the government’s human development voucher, which provides US$50 a month to vulnerable households.

Urban agriculture has helped diversify the diet of urban farmers and their families. Surveys have identified in family diets more than 100 types of fresh and processed products, including vegetables, herbs, roots and grasses, flour and canned meat. AGRUPAR has worked closely with a research centre to identify and disseminate potato varieties that are better adapted to urban conditions and have high levels of zinc and iron.

Among the environmental benefits of urban agriculture is the conservation of biodiversity – some 50 edible plant species are maintained in Quito’s urban gardens. In addition, each gardening family recycles on average 12.5 kg of kitchen scraps per week as compost. An estimated 1 820 tonnes of organic wastes are recycled each year by AGRUPAR project participants. The increased availability of fresh produce also means less need to transport it from rural areas, which generates fuel savings and reduces air pollution.

As urban food producers achieve household food security, AGRUPAR encourages them to form microenterprises based on horticulture, animal husbandry, food processing and the production of organic inputs, and trains them in business planning, marketing, and accounting.

In fact, adding value to surplus production has recently become one of the most innovative features of Quito’s urban agriculture, generating revenue and providing full- or part time employment for half of the project participants.

Through community organizations, urban farmers have entered various links in the value chain, not only as primary producers but also as intermediate or final processors of products such as meat, canned goods, dairy foods and snacks.

Many farmers now supply certified organic chili and tomato paste to local food processing companies, and free-range chicken meat to restaurants. Certified organic vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, beetroot, lettuce and broccoli, are sold through farmers’ markets. Farmers’ associations offer home delivery of organic food baskets, which contain vegetables, fruit, herbs, pickles, jams and bread.

To help producers meet food quality and safety standards, AGRUPAR has introduced improved processing technologies and the use of containers, packaging and labels, and facilitated access to higher-volume markets, such as private and public institutions.

For those urban famers who lack the capital to invest in micro-enterprises, the project helped to establish 35 grassroots investment societies, to which members each contribute between US$10 and US$20 in start-up capital. Thanks to the high profitability of the sale of organic vegetables, the producers have built up savings that they invest in greenhouses, irrigation systems and livestock.

Market opportunities are also emerging with Ecuador’s “inclusive business” movement, which encourages large businesses to link up with small-scale suppliers, such as farmer organizations, provided their produce meets quality standards, is delivered on time and is accompanied by an invoice. But those opportunities present many urban farmers with a dilemma: entering profitable value chains creates tax obligations and could mean the loss of the government’s monthly human development voucher.

Future development of UPA in Quito will see an increasing focus on sustainable intensification and the use of more productive technologies. With greater diversification and quality certification, marketing options will expand beyond farmers’ markets to supermarkets and specialized outlets.

Increasing the area covered by the project will require not only greater support from local and international partners, but also a higher level of participation by urban farmers themselves in the provision of labour, land, materials, tools, seeds, seedlings, inputs and basic infrastructure. Since an estimated 30 percent of urban Quito is vacant land, development of agriculture in the city will also require a review of its cadastre to identify municipal areas that could be allocated for agricultural use, and measures to extend the concession of urban space to producers.

Quito’s experience has shown that intensive agriculture is feasible in an urban environment, and that it helps reduce malnutrition in poor households, strengthens household food security and generates employment and income. For the municipal government, AGRUPAR is a flagship project of its social inclusion policy and its vision of competitive economic development.

The project’s expertise has been used to help establish school gardens in support of the municipality’s programme for “healthy schools”, and the Ministry of Agriculture recently partnered with AGRUPAR in implementing the national nutrition strategy in areas with high levels of child malnutrition.

Given Quito’s current poverty rate of 27 percent – and projections that the city’s population will grow from the current 2.2 million to more than 2.8 million by 2022 – agriculture needs to become a key element in other municipal programmes for education, health, environmental protection and social inclusion. AGRUPAR could also serve as a model for similar programmes in other cities, and the basis for a national policy and programme for UPA.

Yet, 14 years after the seeds of the programme were sown in El Panecillo, agriculture in Quito still lacks a regulatory framework that would recognize urban farmers as legitimate stakeholders in the city’s social and economic development, and allocate vacant urban land for food production.

While Quito’s Development Plan, 2012- 2022, calls for an equitable, sustainable and participatory city – and envisages a “green Quito” that would improve environmental quality and help to mitigate the effects of climate change – it makes no specific mention of urban agriculture, or even huertas.

Continuing constraints to UPA development in Quito reflect the absence of policy and financial support from the national level. In Ecuador, agricultural development programmes focus on rural areas. It is difficult for urban farmers in Quito to register their associations, which restricts their access to land, since municipal land is granted only to legally recognized entities.

There are no specialized services to provide them with technical advice or credit and they are excluded from national programmes for input supply and the regularization of land tenure. For that reason, the project has proposed the inclusion of urban and peri-urban agriculture in Ecuador’s food sovereignty law, adopted in 2009, which establishes the legal obligation of the State to ensure that individuals, communities and peoples achieve food self-sufficiency.

Farmer meets consumer at bioferias

A notable AGRUPAR innovation has been the opening of organic produce markets – or bioferias – that have become sources of healthy food for Quito residents and a practical example of Ecuador’s solidarity economy. The city now has 14 one-day bioferias, open weekly between Thursday and Sunday.

To ensure the widest possible availability and consumption of organic food produced in urban gardens, bioferias are located in low-income neighbourhoods and peri-urban zones, as well as in better-off parts of the city.

Direct sale of produce through the markets encourages fair prices and creates a high level of trust between producers and their customers. Gardeners get to know the people who buy their produce, while consumers see “where their money goes” and how it benefits urban farming families.

In 2012, the bioferias of Quito sold more than 100 tonnes of organic produce (valued at US$176 000), which amounts to one quarter of the project’s total estimated garden production.

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]