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A creative enterprise: Horticulture in Lima

Brightly coloured houses etched into the steep mountain side of Villa Maria del Triunfo, one of the poorest parts of Lima (REDE)
Brightly coloured houses etched into the steep mountain side of Villa Maria del Triunfo, one of the poorest parts of Lima

Below the misty summits that shadow Villa Maria del Triunfo, one of the poorest parts of Peru's capital city, layers of brightly coloured houses are etched into the steep mountain side. Between the houses are gardens, impeccable rows of leafy vegetables cultivated in former wasteland, which now supply the daily diet of an increasing number of Lima's urban poor. But food security is only one of the benefits accruing from garden vegetable plots in Latin America, and some fear that merely recognising their role in the production of basic foods is causing the sector to be undervalued, seen only as an activity for the poor.

For most families in Latin America, urban agriculture is a secondary source of income, a family enterprise to use spare time in a productive manner, to reduce food bills, and to provide enjoyment. In a recent survey of Villa Maria del Triunfo, 29 per cent of families were found to have a garden, and 80 per cent of produce was consumed by the families. The Association of Resources for Development (Spanish acronym REDE) which conducted the survey, has a mandate to change the perception of urban farming, and to raise awareness that garden plots can reduce food insecurity, and also deliver value-added produce, to improve nutrition and increase income.

Selling more, and selling better

The task of encouraging families to sell fresh vegetables is not an easy one; risks are not lightly tolerated in a poverty-stricken environment, and the process of adding value requires a change in decision making. For example, the scale of production may be different, and there will be changes in how marketing is managed. Traditional methods of crop management may incorporate new technology, such as the 'botanic potato' introduced by the International Potato Centre, to improve quality. Knowledge of the market and price fluctuation is also essential to ensure a profitable business.

Garden plots can reduce food insecurity, improve nutrition and increase household income (REDE)
Garden plots can reduce food insecurity, improve nutrition and increase household income

REDE has trained farmers to accept these changes in order to earn a reasonable income. Training is provided mainly by women, who play a significant role in urban agriculture, and beneficiaries are learning how to make produce such as fruit marmalade and hot pepper or garlic sauces, to be sold at local markets. In Villa Maria del Triunfo there are weekly markets for urban farmers, supported by the municipality, and some districts in Lima have held organic fairs to make consumers aware of the growing availability of fresh produce in the city.

A long history of agriculture

A glance at the history of Lima will show that agriculture has traditionally played a role in the city's development. In the 16th century, local churches and convent garden plots provided fresh produce. But following a common trend throughout Latin America, much urban development took place in the best agricultural areas of the city, replacing garden plots.

In Villa Maria del Triunfo the soils tend to be sandy, arid and saline, and this, together with the lack of space, high cost of land, and lack of water, make successful urban horticulture a challenge. But Jose Andres Dasso, Executive Director of REDE, points out that, with the right measures, the sandy soils can be improved by applying organic matter and plenty of water, and extra costs can be recovered from sales profits. The project has trained farmers to prepare natural fertilisers and compost, enabling them to produce a wide range of leafy vegetables, fruits and roots. It has also incorporated agro-forestry into production systems to further protect and boost soil fertility.

Community garden market selling the locally grown produce (REDE)
Community garden market selling the locally grown produce

Although high water fees in the district remain a problem, REDE maintains that home gardens are the most accessible way for poor families to balance the daily food basket in this district, and in most urban centres in Latin America. Further training is needed to provide farmers with information on health issues and the treatment of waste-water.

Looking further afield

In Cuba, during the economic crisis of the 1990s, people began to grow crops to meet their own needs, as transport from the rural areas and foreign imports collapsed. In backyards, buckets, barrels and vacant lots, vegetables and herbs from small enterprises plugged the gap in severe food shortages. With the support of Oxfam, who have also supported the REDE project, farmers were trained in insect management, organic composting and cultivation. Now those involved in horticulture projects in Cuba have shifted from producing vegetables for the local community to investing in other projects, such as day-care centres. For REDE this is the ultimate goal, with urban agriculture generating income that can be ploughed back into community enterprises.

With contributions from: Jose Andres Dasso, Executive Director of REDE

Date published: March 2007


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