Cultivating change in Colombia
"If there isn't green, there isn't life," says Luz Dary Ayala. Ayala is one of the inhabitants of Ciudád Bolivar who is trying to revitalize this impoverished neighborhood of Bogotá by planting seeds.
Sprawling across the southern end of Colombia's capital, Ciudád Bolivar is home to 1,300,000 people, encompassing over 300 smaller barrios. The massive housing projects in the flats give way to brick dwellings and then to squatters' shacks of wood and sheet metal as the city spreads into the hills. Ciudád Bolivar is best known for its crime and violence in a city where more than half the population is poor, and a great number of children and elderly are malnourished. Its population consists mainly of campesinos and indigenous Colombians in search of a new and better life. Fleeing war, US-funded coca fumigation, economic hardship, guerrillas, and paramilitaries, they bring little to this community named after Colombia's liberator - sometimes no more than hope.
But in the summer of 2005, the Urban Agriculture Pilot Project began working with the people of Ciudád Bolivar, teaching them how to grow healthful food in their homes and open spaces, and helping them to repair their fractured social structure. The project, supported by the mayor's office, Bogotá Without Hunger, and the Network of Botanical Gardens of Colombia, among others, has the goal of training 6,000 families in the basics of urban agriculture using organic, water-conserving, environmentally friendly, and sustainable methods. Through workshops in the production of compost and bio-fertilizers, the use of medicinal plants, and cooking what is cultivated in the household, citizens are taking steps to reduce the hunger, malnutrition, and social maladies that plague their barrio.
Surrounded by the greenery of Bogotá's Botanical Garden, Carlos Romero, the project's agricultural engineer, explains the program's phases. The first 10-month phase was spent getting accustomed to how people and things operate in the barrio. The second phase, just recently funded, will concern "people, production, and promotion," Romero says, "to get more residents there to accept this form of agriculture." Coming from the countryside, many participants feel they must have large plots of land to produce food - a mindset Romero and the other technicians are trying to change. They are teaching the former campesinos to grow medicinal plants and vegetables like tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, garlic, and cucumbers in minimal space. Old household items like plastic soda bottles, cooking pots, tires, discarded bathtubs, and plastic bags are used to germinate seeds and grow plants. Their methods are “aprender-haciendo” (learning by doing).
"We are not producing engineers or technicians," Romero says. "These are simple people."
"The armed conflict is feeding the immigration to this area," says the project's agronomist Uriel Leon, as snapshots of Ciudád Bolivar's lives flash behind him through the open truck window. The women going to the market and children selling newspapers and candy are his students. The classrooms are 27 "self-forming nuclei," the centers where the locals are taught the theoretical and practical aspects of urban agriculture. Nuclei are located in schools, community centers, and vacant lots, and contain the 70 actual outdoor gardens and greenhouses where the participants get their "hands-on" experience. These "demonstrative units," as they are called, are established where they can be easily reached, so the gardeners can learn the techniques of daily maintenance. "Satellite nuclei" will be spawned from the original centers, promoting urban agriculture in other sections of Bogotá.
Leon is one of 12 technicians who make the rounds assessing the progress of the "urban farms" and discussing problems with the cultivators. At the PAVCO Foundation, whose grounds serve as a nucleus, he points out the old plastic soda bottles used to funnel water and the wooden fruit crates and black plastic garbage bags where vegetables grow - the pragmatic use of what would have been trash. He greets three elderly women who take care of the garden and explains that here people learn basic urban agriculture and are encouraged to start gardens near their homes. The women discuss the challenges of growing vegetables in their households. One has had trouble with animals, and another motions with her hand towards her open mouth and chuckles. "The grandchildren eat, but they don't cultivate."
In its first 10 months, the program has enabled almost 3,000 families to produce food. One successful "demonstrative unit" is in one of the most dangerous barrios, Altos de Casuca, a neighborhood of small houses and shacks that has grown into the hills above Bogotá. The murder rate in Ciudád Bolivar is high, and the district has historically had an armed presence of both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. According to Germán Bueno, the project's general coordination consultant, the government has resettled "demobilized" paramilitaries from other regions in Ciudád Bolivar, creating an even more volatile condition. Bueno recalls two weeks in December 2005 when the technicians could not visit the project sites because several rival paramilitary groups were conducting a turf war.
Some of the urban gardeners' challenges are environmental. The few available water sources, like the Tunjuelito River and a number of streams, are contaminated with sewage and garbage. Erosion is also a problem, and much of the topsoil in the area has been stripped away by corporations mining dirt, gravel, and rock for construction in downtown Bogotá. Cecilia, who oversees the project site in Altos de Casuca, says this is why they have to rely on compost. She gestures towards a group of abandoned houses down the hillside, where an area of the ward is being evacuated. The houses and earth have been slipping down into the valley; much of Altos de Casuca was built on a defunct coal mine. But her gaze quickly returns to a plot of healthy vegetables. Thirty-six people tend this garden, and they are approaching their third harvest.
Growing their own food and medicinal plants has given residents new hope.
"Planting is a distraction," says Ana Franco. "You start to work and forget the problems."
The collective gardens have tightened the bonds between neighbors as they exchange produce and ideas, strategizing how to supply local communal kitchens with vegetables, or to market their products commercially.
Experience and knowledge is being shared with the public through magazines, radio, and TV shows. Posters and stickers bear the slogan “ Volvamos a Sembrar” (We Are Returning to Sow) in hopes that others in Bogotá begin planting also, as the enthusiasm created in Ciudád Bolivar spreads throughout the capital, and then to other urban areas in Colombia.
As people return to sowing seeds in their urban gardens, they cultivate community and social transformation; the green color of life that Ayala talks about can grow across a map of the world, to other cities troubled by division, violence and war such as Belfast and Beirut, and someday, Baghdad.