Cidades Sem Fome

December 12, 2009

We took the subway into the east of the city, almost until we couldn’t go anymore.  At Carrao we met Hans, a southern Brazilian of German descent, wearing a white tee shirt and khakis.  In a blend of English and Portuguese we talked about his NGO Cidades Sem Fome.  I asked him questions as we walked down a side street to his small red car and we all slipped in and started driving farther east.  We got on and then off a highway and turned into a favela.

I was surprised that the favelas here are different than in Rio.  The structures look the same—two story brick buildings with the gray mortar squeezing out between.  But they have more roads, and seem less like houses of cards that will tumble at the slightest breeze.  The sky darkened as we made one last turn through, passing children on bicycles and kids kicking around soccer balls, men and women hanging out in doorways and chatting.  We stopped in front of a sell house—a small, square shop lined with shelves displaying a huge array of lettuces and cabbage, bins of tomatoes and beets, bananas, some chips and brandless cola and toothpaste.  Hans explained that this was one of his two stores where he sold the produce growing across the street, and also where he brought extra produce from his larger farm on the periphery.  While a little girl went to get the key to the farm, he explained that in these areas of higher density he has a lot of people to feed, and only small spaces to grow food, where as on the periphery it’s the opposite, so he has set up his twenty-one gardens around Sao Paulo so that they reinforce each other.  To turn a profit so the gardens become self-sufficient for the residents (all the money goes straight back to them) he has worked out a system where he matches supply and demand, moving the produce around to where it’s needed.

The menina who was getting the key rode toward us on her bicycle, past a half dozen little boys flying those infamous kites.  Hans thanked her and took us through a gate and up some steps into the garden.  It was beautiful.  The earth was rich and dark, and still tinged red like most of the soil we’ve seen in Brazil.  Cabbages formed leafy rows only to give way to bright green lettuces, tangles of parsley.  He explained that at the beginning they planted a variety of things, and then concentrated on the vegetables.

There were seedlings shielded by tubs resting on their sides.  The land was owned by Petrobras, and there were pipelines laid underneath.  Ironic that under this gorgeous, special garden, there was oil.  The irrigation system, when necessary in this rainy place, was fed by pumps and the water from a nearby spring.  Hans said that this land used to be filled with garbage, now it seemed pristine.

We met Jose, or Mr. Ze, who was one of the primary caretaker farmers for this space.  He was compact, with dark skin, loose jeans, and a light blue sleeveless jersey.  He wore Havaianas and a hat, and poked fun of Hans’s belly, round under his tee shirt.  Hans said that most of the thirteen people he had working this space used to earn their living collecting cans for recycling. On the fringe of the farm there were a few banana trees, and Hans planned to cover the wall that separated the space from a municipal school with maracuja, passionfruit plants, and other crawling vines.

From this favela, we drove to Suzano, a neighboring town where Hans had has main farm, with greenhouses, more land, plans for aquaculture and expansion.  He had just submitted a plan to Deutche Bank and received approval and money to build a classroom building, so he had a better space to teach and train residents.  We drove for what seemed like forever, through stop and go traffic choked with trucks, until we were out of the city and everything was green jungle (and a mountain of now grassy landfill).  We arrived at the farm, where the main caretaker was hanging out outside his cement house with his three or four year old son.  He was weathered, with a salt and pepper shadow on his chin and a plastic cowboy hat.  His son was adorable, and chased after the chickens that pecked around.  Laundry hung outside the house, and we admired the vegetables, the seedlings, and the beautifully constructed green houses.

This area had only been built six months ago (Hans started Cidades Sem Fome in 2004) and it was already so established, so impressive.  It was amazing to see how such a program could take hold. It  put my own roof gardens project into perspective—how much work it had taken for Hans to set up his gardens, to gain the trust of the communities, the challenges with the municipalities, and how much work it took to get money from USAID, Deutche Bank, Petrobras.  He has huge plans, endless ideas for expansion, and I can’t wait to help, and to learn to farm.

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