When the U.N. chose Caracas, Venezuela, for the next piece of their long quest for viable forms of urban agriculture, they did not send in fancy Americans in suits, nor learned Europeans with multiple degrees. They followed a philosophy known as South-South relations, which encourages developing nations to share knowledge and skills with each other. The U.N. sent urban farmers from Cuba, and a few from Senegal.
Cuba’s Food Revolution
Cuba has gone through its own version of peak oil. When the Soviet Union fell, almost overnight all imports of oil to Cuba ceased. In the two years that followed, the average caloric intake for adults dropped to between 1400 and 1900 calories from the previous norm of 2600. To put this in perspective, the U.N. begins famine watch assessments below 2100 calories on average for adults.
In a hurry, Cubans began planting food to be eaten far far closer to home. To hell with the export crops, they turned rapidly to mass vegeculture, planting urban gardens known as organoponicos. Despite the return of oil to the country in recent years, and the resumption of such agricultural luxuries as tractors, these urban gardens remain.
“The food is fresher,” people say. They aren’t kidding. A customer to the farm stand at Vivero Alamar, a large community garden in Havana’s eastern fringe, puts in an order— 4 zucchini, 7 ears of corn, 3 tomatoes… And the clerk trots out into the garden and picks it.
Inefficient use of time? Perhaps, but time is not a worry. Time they have, it was in efficiency of food that Cuba couldn’t afford. While a tomato on the counter will last a few days, the tomato on the vine has only over ripeness to fear, and even then there are customers making sauces who prize those.
South-South Cooperation in Caracas, Venezuela
Senegal didn’t go through anything so abrupt that I’m aware of, but Dakar had been the site of an earlier U.N. project on rooftop gardens. Together, the Senegalese, Cuban, and Venezuelan farmers worked out the details of converting 21 hectares of land (nearly 52 acres) within this city of 4 million people to working urban farms.
Though they aimed especially for land within the poorer neighborhoods and outright slums that blanket the surrounding hills, there are also urban agriculture plots throughout the central city. These tiny farms are run by cooperatives and follow a number of different economic and leadership systems.
In addition, 4000 one-meter square ‘micro gardens’ were established through the city. These small plots are actually trays on tables: on the street, on balconies, and on rooftops. Lest you think so small a space cannot be productive, 330 heads of lettuce or 16 kilos (35 pounds) of cabbage or 18 kilos (40 pounds) of tomatoes are all standard production rates for these microgardens. (They have more than one harvest in this climate.)
In the cooperative farms, this productivity is fueled by compost. Tons of organic material that would have headed for a landfill, if it got picked up at all, has been diverted to compost bins. For the microgardens, which use a combination of clay pellets, peanut shells, and rice hulls as a lightweight soil, nutrition is provided through a solution added to the water that must be given to the plot each day. Though the government has said it will continue to supply the solution on an ongoing basis, sustainable alternatives that allow the farmers true independence need to be found.
Rather than using pesticides, the farmers use companion planting techniques that add aromatic plants in and amongst the crop plants to ward off insects. Basil, parsley, and spearmint perform double duty as insect repellent and tasty herbs. While the farm plots and microgardens in many neighborhoods are not exposed to pollution, those in the city center certainly are. Plants from these urban agriculture plots are tested on a very regular basis to be sure the pollution is not creating toxic vegetables.
Scaling Up Success
Throughout the city, people who could never have afforded vegetables now eat them every day at an affordable price or even for free through their own labor. So successful was this program in employing the unemployed and improving the nutrition and food security for countless Caracas inhabitants, Venezuela is replicating it in other cities, and the U.N. has hopped back across the pond to work on similar projects in sub-Saharan Africa.