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ARGENTINA: Urban Gardens Provide More than Just Food

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 9 2006 (IPS) - The community gardens initially created to help confront the effects of the late 2001 economic collapse in Argentina have now “grown” into a government-run urban agriculture programme, which provides unemployed workers with much more than just food for their families’ tables.

Some 7,000 people who were out of work before entering the programme have joined forces to clear the land, plant and harvest vegetables, and sell their produce in street market stalls.

Many of them are also now involved in agricultural development projects aimed at supplying the market with organic produce, grown without chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

They are participants in the Urban Agriculture Programme set up by the city government of Rosario, located on the banks of the Paraná River in the eastern Argentine province of Santa Fe.

The programme encompasses over 600 community gardens created on formerly vacant lots, on both public and privately owned land, as well as a distribution and sales network and projects designed to develop related industries.

With a population of 1.3 million, Rosario is Argentina’s third most populous city. As a river port, it has historically been an area of significant industrial development. But beginning in the late 1980s, as a result of the implementation of neoliberal free-market economic policies in Argentina, many of the city’s factories began closing their doors, plunging more and more of its residents into poverty. By 2001, a full 61 percent of the population of Rosario was living below the poverty line.

Rosario is the only municipality in the country governed by the Socialist Party, which was first elected to the city government in 1989. “When the crisis hit, I had seven daughters and my husband was unemployed. I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing,” Mirta Palese told IPS. The crisis she was referring to was the economic, financial and social meltdown that forced then president Fernando de la Rúa out of office halfway through his four-year term in 2001.

It was then that Palese set her sights on a vacant lot that was slowly turning into a garbage dump across the street from her house in the west end of Rosario.

The owner of the lot agreed that it was preferable for it to be used as a garden, and allowed Palese to take it over temporarily.

Once she had permission to use the lot, Palese went to the city government for seeds and gardening tools. Now she and a neighbour raise tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, spinach, green beans, radishes and peppers on a 10 by 30 metre plot of land.

The two women also sell the vegetables they grow in the community markets that have been held six times a week in five different neighbourhoods of the city since mid-2002. The municipal government covers the costs of transporting the produce, the stalls and awnings set up for the market, the baskets used to hold the merchandise and the uniforms and gloves worn by the vendors to comply with hygiene standards.

But the women find time for even more. With two other neighbours, they spend the morning washing and cutting vegetables to prepare plastic-wrapped, individual serving-sized trays of ready-made salads. “All you have to do is add the seasoning,” noted Palese, who explained that they sell the salads in office buildings at lunch time.

This initiative also forms part of the programme implemented by the city government, which contributes the facilities and materials needed for packaging the vegetables, including refrigerators. The participants are also offered training through the city government’s Food Institute to ensure the safety and quality of the final product.

Thanks to the gardens, an estimated 40,000 people living below the poverty line are provided with food for their own consumption. In addition, participants can earn a monthly income that in many cases is triple the subsidy paid to unemployed heads of households by the federal government.

The garden tended by Palese and her neighbour forms part of the Urban Agriculture Programme coordinated by Raúl Terrile, an agricultural engineer working as a consultant to the Rosario city government for this project and a member of the non-governmental Centre for Agro-Ecological Production Studies (CEPAR).

Terrile told IPS that at the height of the crisis there were over 800 community gardens, but as the economy began to recover, “the project went from being an emergency measure to becoming a development strategy,” in which the majority of participants û approximately 65 percent û are women.

“The programme is not designed for subsistence agriculture, but rather is aimed at developing a source of family income,” stressed Terrile. Consequently, the support offered in the form of inputs and training should be ongoing, he added.

In recent months, the Rosario city government has also contributed fences and irrigation systems to the project.

However, one of the key contributions has been the measures implemented by the city government to legalise the use of privately owned land for community gardens. The owners are exempted from paying municipal taxes on the land for two years, the standard time period for which the lots are ceded to the programme. If the owners have accumulated back taxes over the course of many years, they generally find it preferable to renew the contract for a longer period.

In the case of public land, which accounts for the largest gardens, they have been pledged to the programme for a period of ten years. Up to 70 people work on each of these government-owned plots of land, which can be as large as five hectares.

In the majority of these large gardens, food is produced exclusively for sale, explained Terrile.

The participants receive monthly training sessions, while technical assistance is provided in the field on a weekly basis. “The continuity of the programme and the ongoing participation of its beneficiaries demonstrate that the project works,” he remarked.

In addition, the initiative has earned the recognition of the United Nations. In 2004, the U.N. Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) selected the Rosario Urban Agriculture Programme as one of the “best practices” worldwide for improving people’s living environment, especially among the poorest sectors of the population, while promoting sustainable development.

This incentive motivated the Rosario city government to further increase its support for the project, and the local planning department is now involved in the task of identifying available areas in the city and designing new spaces that can be adapted for urban agricultural use.

This has led to the emergence of a new kind of public area, known as “garden parks”. “These are gardens with a landscaped design that are created along the sides of major avenues and other highly visible areas of the city. These gardens, in addition to being productive, are pleasing to the eye,” explained Terrile.

The Rosario programme is part of a network of cities working to develop urban agriculture. With the support of the Institute for the Promotion of Sustainable Development in Peru and the Resource Centre for Urban Agriculture and Forestry in the Netherlands, its organisers are seeking to promote the initiative as a development strategy that can be implemented in other cities.

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