Urban farming provides seeds of hope to residents of Rio’s favelas

A favela resident with fresh produce collected from a Hortas Cariocas garden in Rio de Janeiro, June 13 2022.
A favela resident with fresh produce collected from a Hortas Cariocas garden in Rio de Janeiro, June 13 2022. © Facebook/ @HortasCariocas

In one of Rio's working-class neighbourhoods, known as favelas, residents have been cultivating Latin America’s largest urban garden. The ‘Horta de Manguinhos’ currently feeds around 800 families a month with a produce that is pesticide free and affordable. It is one of many iniatives that highlight the capacity of favela residents for resilience, self-reliance and sustainability - even in the face of violence - as our Observer Yuri Lopes Cruz explains.


The Manguinhos garden is part of the Hortas Cariocas project, named after the ‘carioca’ - inhabitants of the city of Rio. The project was launched in 2006 and now includes 56 gardens located in schools and idle land in favelas.

Hortas Cariocas is run and funded by the municipality, but each garden is tended by a group of locals who receive a monthly stipend for their work, as well as heaps of fresh food they can take home at no cost. Half of the produce is donated locally, but the team is then free to commercialise the other half, adding to the stipend they receive.

“The gardens work with Rio’s most vulnerable”

Our Observer, Yuri Lopes Cruz, is a biologist and urban farmer specialised in agroecology who works with Hortas Cariocas. He grew up in the Complexo do Alemão, a patchwork of favelas in Rio's North Zone, and he has been fighting for food sovereignty in favelas for over a decade.

Yuri Lopez Cruz taking a selfie with the Hortas Cariocas team in the Complexo Do Alemão

The plot of land where the Manguinhos urban garden is located used to be a 'cracolândia' frequented by drug users. Now, the land produces around three tonnes of carrots, onions, cabbage and other vegetables a month for the people who need it most.

The garden works with Rio’s most vulnerable people, providing them with healthy food, employment and life prospects. 20 people from the favela have been employed. None of these gardeners had prior experience in gardening before the project started. 

Hortas Cariocas has received international recognition as an impactful socio-environmental policy that generates employment and guarantees food security.

The Manguinhos garden is the largest and most successful of Hortas Cariocas’ projects, stretching an area the size of four football fields. An international agreement called the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact said it was one of the best such systems in the world

“Healthy food is often reserved to the elite”

In Brazil, the rate of obesity among people over the age of 20 rose from 12.2 percent to 26.8 percent from 2002 to 2019, according to government statistics. For Yuri, this is partly due to the lack of access to information about nutrition - which Hortas Cariocas is working hard to provide through various workshops to people of all ages.

Nutrition is incredibly important, but in Brazil, healthy food is often reserved for the elite. Meanwhile, poor people are left with poisoned food.

The vegetables cultivated in Hortas Cariocas urban gardens are all organic. No fertilisers, agrotoxins or pesticides are used. This is incredibly important to us.

Hortas Cariocas organises various workshops to teach people, old and young, how to garden and develop healthy eating habits.

The use of agrochemicals has soared under Jair Bolsonaro. In 2019, the Brazilian President approved the registration of 474 new pesticides - the highest number in 14 years. Pesticide imports to Brazil also broke an all-time record, increasing by 16% between 2018 and 2019, when 335,000 tons of pesticides were purchased.

“During police operations, we can't work"

Yuri told us that violent confrontations in the region, which interrupt project activities, are a challenge for Hortas Cariocas.

Rio's police force are one of the deadliest in the world. They are known for rushing armored trucks and helicopters into the favelas in what are described merely as “police operations.” Ostensibly targeted at local drug trafficking gangs, such operations often leave homes destroyed and black youth dead. 

On Thursday 21 July, 2022, police killed at least 18 people during a raid in the Complexo do Alemão, where Yuri is from. Four hundred heavily-armed military police were deployed.

Videos circulating on social media showed intense shootouts and a police helicopter flying low over the favela.

During police operations, we can’t work. Schools, health facilities and shops are also forced to close, while children have to stay at home. Anyone can get hit by a bullet at any time.

In regions in the West and North zones of Rio, which include the favelas of Alemão, Pehnha, Manguinhos and Jacarezinho, police enter without warning and they are already shooting when they arrive. The police associate favelas with trafficking, which only serves to criminalise poverty.

Police can sometimes mistake us for drug dealers and kill us without asking. I’m white, but if I were black, it would be more difficult for me, because of the structural racism. So when there are police operations, our work is at risk, we have to stop everything.

One of my friends, Jessica, is involved in a project that encourages women to build pharmacies in the Complexo do Alemão. Her mother, who also worked with the initiative, was recently killed during a police operation.

Favelas are home to some of the most creative and resourceful people in Rio

However, Yuri warns against reducing favelas to places of police, violence and drugs. They are home to some of the most creative and resourceful people in Rio, who carry with them the strength and energy to transform realities.

The media often talk about favelas when bad things happen, but too often, they forget about the beautiful stories that people here make happen.

Hortas Cariocas is an example of one of these many beautiful stories. At a time when inflation is pushing food prices to sky-high levels, the urban gardens are offering an important lifeline to residents, who are taking matters into their own hands. 

120 other iniatives strengthening social resilience and environmental sustainability in favela communities can be found on a map published by the Sustainable Favela Network (SFN). It includes collectives installing solar panels, building bio-systems to treat sewage and setting up green roofs and community gardens.

“We want the project to be replicated around the world” 

Yuri hopes the Hortas Cariocas urban gardens can inspire communities elsewhere, helping others who are grappling with hunger and poverty. 

The plan is to further develop the Manguinhos garden. We also want the project to be replicated not just around Brazil, but around the world. Some regions in Africa and China have already replicated the Hortas Cariocas programme, because it really works [the Manguinhos garden currently feeds 800 families and employs 20 people].

We will see after the election in October, the result will really make a difference for our growth. We hope the next government in power will introduce more humane social integration policies that provide funding for projects like the Hortas Cariocas, which would enable our growth and sustainability.

The first round of Brazil’s presidential election will take place on 2 October 2022 with a second round scheduled for 30 October if none of the candidates gets 50% of the votes. 

The two main candidates are far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his left-wing rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is known for his policies to lift people out of poverty.