Urban Ag and Revolution

They claim to be the only example of rooftop farming in Porto Alegre. Hence, a revolutionary example in many ways. A student of last week’s class kindly offered to showed me around in Porto Alegre including unusual places such as the movement-community-cooperative COOPSUL. Right in the middle of the centre a building was squatted in 2005 related to the World Social Forum marches. The building was long-term abandoned and the movement of (somehow translated) ‘roofless’ people, the urban counterpart of the MST, asked with the squatting for the right to good housing. Their slogan; ‘Utopia e Luta’ which means Utopia and Struggle/Fight.

Against the odds, their fight was productive and they were given the right to stay in the building in 2007 under the condition that it would be a community place, open for the public. The building was turned into 42 individual apartments and community spaces for 5 separate cooperative economic activities; baking, gardening, sewing, laundry services and t-shirt printing. With the years, reality hit utopia from the inside. Tensions around individual needs and collective organisation, around leadership and running the cooperative emerged. It was originally envisaged that the people who were selected for the individual apartments would also work in the cooperative activities. This turned out to be difficult for various reasons. As a result, the 5 activities are not all running in the way it was envisaged and the rooftop farm is still very much in construction and produces for the building only.

Despite internal difficulties, the successful access to living space by squatting is still charged with a lot of symbolic energy. The movement and the building became a symbol for other urban groups and movements and the organisation is asked to assist in demonstrations and other revolutionary activities. For example today, they went out to assist MST land occupation demonstration in the face of evacuation.

Porto Alegre’s 22 year old farmers’ market

On the saturday of my arrival in Porto Alegre, the “Feira dos Agricultores Ecologistas” was celebrating its twenty-second birthday. The market is situated at the border of the big Parque Farroupilha Redenção in the city centre and is at least a kilometer long. Back then, the market started with a group of citizens in Porto Alegre in search for healthier food both for the environment and for human health. The environment was not something which was considered a ‘political’ issue at the time of the ‘dictatura’. The environment therefore, was a topic for groups to come together and of course, discuss politics more broadly. More than twenty years ago, an environmentalist consumer cooperative  was established which organised a wide network of farmers willing to produce differently which was back then, more of an activist- against mainstream – thing to do than today. The farmers called themselves ‘agricultores ecologistas’, which refers to this activism. They consider themselves different from the broader movement towards organic production which evolved later. The subtle difference between their name and terms like ‘organico’ or other terms such as ‘agro-ecologia’ can easily be missed by a visitor.

However, these things were explained to me by Flávia Marques with whom I went there and who is one of the professors at the Post graduate program for rural development (PGDR) and who has worked with various of the farmers for years. One of the farmers on the market is specialised in plants for medicinal uses, the topic of her doctorate thesis. Further down the market there was also an empty stand with an elderly woman sitting behind it. Here people can get free advice on ailments also from a natural medicinal or holistic point of view. This week, at the two farm visits near Pelotas, both farmers had an extensive garden with herbs for medicinal use near the house. Also the municipal garden in Dois Irmãos had an herbal garden organised around the various human organs. It is one of the many striking differences compared to home for me. I learned that knowledge of the beneficial use of herbs is widespread and is not limited to organic farmers or ecologically oriented consumers.

A school meal in Dois Irmáos (2)

Municipal garden farmer explains

The Brazilian School Food Program underwent a lot of changes and, as posted earlier, the biggest change is related to localisation of the school meals. Previously, national menu’s with national tendering contract for enormous quantities to which only big companies were able to bid competitively were what the program was about. To give an idea, for 2010 the estimation was a total school food procurement market of 3 billion dollar providing food for 47 million students. Now cities and municipalities are responsible for contract tendering and supply selection. This has created opportunities to shorten the food chain although many municipalities still follow the logic of mass production and long supply chains (Triches and Schneider 2010). Therefore, additional Law 11947 created the rule that 30% of fresh produce has to come from the ‘family farm’.

Opportunities, but it has also created challenges. At municipal level, capacity is now assumed for things like the nutritional balance of menu’s based on local products, the legal process of tendering and supplier selection with many more suppliers and overseeing the many other issues such as logistics. Not all municipalities do have this capacity yet. Equally, not all ‘family farmers’ are equipped to supply particular quantities and collaborate with colleague farmers to meet demand.

However, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul many good examples can be found too. One of these is the school food program in the city of Dois Irmáos (see also Triches and Schneider 2010 in Portuguese). The municipality created a municipal ‘huerta’, a vegetable production garden which produces almost all greens for the school meals. Furthermore in collaboration with Rural Extension a pool of 160 family farmers is working with the program. Every 6 months, the municipality calls a tender to buy its supply for the coming half a year. Each time, 10 to 15 farmers of this pool are selected to supply foods like potatoes, onions, milk and meat. Although the bureaucracy involved in this tendering process is one of the biggest problems, the family farmers are not subject to the same legal scrutiny as is normal for other products. Buying from family farmers is done through a separate program PAA (Food acquisition program) where a certificate is needed which proves that the farmer can be classified as a ‘family farmer’ but where the language is different and the product descriptions simpler such as ‘salad’ or ‘potato’ rather than a legal description. The after-school which we visited invested in its own meat-cutting room in response to buying fresh meat from local farmers. Local nutritional studies show that the children like the meat and other food better.