Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Starting From Scratch: A small urban agricultural project in El Alto

I volunteered for International Citizen Service (ICS), a scheme based in the UK funded by the British government, and found myself running an entrepreneurship programme for their partner Aldeas Infantiles SOS in Bolivia with three other young people. Arriving in La Paz without a word of Spanish was perhaps foolish as, even from a holidaying perspective it would have been a struggle but, coming over as a development worker still causes me to shudder in disbelief and shame. In fact, the embarrassment consisted of multiple feelings of inadequacy, such as lacking any skills specifically related to our project, concluded by an overriding suspicion that my presence could be entirely useless. Where would I go from here? I knew enough about the politics of international aid to know what I had to offer was not ideal and for pessimism to sink in. Had I been so typically arrogant to assume my Western grounding would instantly translate into a beacon of empowerment for La Paz’s poverty-stricken population? Well, after two months I am not so harsh on myself or those that came with me in the same capacity, with a mind for action and the intention to do something, and to do it right.

My first professional research into urban agriculture began on Wikipedia. Not something you’d want to share with a hopeful community of Bolivians standing by. The concept however was simple and not unfamiliar. Cultivating vegetables and rearing livestock can have a wondrous impact on almost any community. It´s not just cities in developing countries where access to fresh and safe food can be extremely challenging, but also in cities that are seeking business opportunities and a boost to community spirit, that can use innovative and efficient growing techniques to create sustainable urban and peri-urban agriculture. The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) defines their goal as ´All persons in a community having access to culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate food through local, non-emergency sources at all times´.  With 50% of the world´s population dwelling in cities and 250 million of them continually hungry, it’s clear that urban agriculture isn’t just a nice idea but a completely necessary one in working toward food security.

wilfredo, karen bartosz and james
Wilfredo showing Karen Quispe [Cooperante for Entrepreneurship], Bartosz Pęziński and James Wainman the produce growing in an example greenhouse in El Alto

In India and China, urban gardening has sprung up without the encouragement of NGOs out of sheer desperation. Impressively, more than 70% of Beijing’s non-staple food such as vegetables and milk were produced within the city itself in the 60s and 70s; Cairo’s small-scale rooftop gardening project became officially adopted by FAO in 2001; and Havana in Cuba, receives 90% of its fresh produce from local urban agriculture alone. In the States, gardening collectives are highly successful and very modish in Los Angeles, Seattle and even New York. In all, despite our lack of experience, we had a myriad of inspirations. It was a matter of selecting those which shared certain similarities to our situation in La Paz. The high altitude and the harsh arid conditions of the Altiplano would be our main challenge in trying to cultivate robust vegetables to feed struggling families of the vast city of El Alto.

So why focus on urban agriculture in La Paz? It was a previous group of volunteers that had put some time into deciding the path for our small entrepreneurship programme and, after a few days of exploring the local cuisine, we began to see the topic’s importance. For 10 Bolivianos, I had a quarter of a roast chicken with a piled plate of rice, pasta, chips and plantain, something most high-street menus depend on. Tasty as it was, the sides were carbs, carbs and more carbs! So whilst the markets are brimming full of juicy organic-looking vegetables and fruit, Bolivia does not appear to be a pioneer of balanced dishes or healthy eating.  About 27 per cent of Bolivian children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, with a prevalence of stunted growth, iodine deficiency, anaemia and vitamin A deficiency throughout their lives. It is not just a battle against a plant-unfriendly climate but also to change cultural habits.

Urban agriculture could provide local people not only with an improved diet but also open up the opportunity for selling surplus in a country overflowing with markets and independent street stalls. There are other potential benefits, such as women empowerment, which have the potential to be integrated into the project, giving Bolivian women a more prominent role in contributing to the household income and deciding on how to spend it.

To my own surprise, a strong development project plan materialised quickly, complete with key phases, comprehensive Excel tables and serious proposals to bring to the chosen community, Portada Triangular in El Alto, of about 200 families and confirm our intentions. From a human rights-based approach to development, there were certain principles we were keen to express from the start. Firstly the project had to be appropriate. We carried out questionnaires door-to-door which confirmed that people’s diets were heavily based on starchy carbohydrates and that there was also a commitment and enthusiasm for embracing change. We also discovered that we could locally source materials and labour. When asked what they would spend extra cash on, most people agreed on vegetables.

Most importantly, we wanted to assure the community that the greenhouse would be theirs and not ours; theirs in every sense, to benefit from and to aid in building. Allowing a sense of ownership, capacitation, mutual accountability and trust to naturally develop supplanted any temptation to get visible results first.

Wilfredo with karen, kapil, james and bartosz
Wilfredo with Bartosz Pęziński, James Wainman, Kapil Pankhania and Karen Quispe [Cooperante]

Our first meeting was a success that exceeded any of our expectations. A table covered in low carbohydrate vegetarian dishes we’d prepared at home to vibrantly demonstrate the potential of the vegetables we could grow in the greenhouses and days of preparation left us anxious as we waited in the community hall beneath the Children’s Centre of Aldeas Infantiles SOS. After allowing for Bolivian timekeeping, we started our presentation an hour and a half late, the room still slowly filling. They listened, took notes, asked profound questions and debated and, for fear of sounding cheesy; it was everything we could have dreamed. Bolivian people enjoy expressing themselves, often talking for ten minutes to passionately describe both their doubts and appreciation. The physical support we offered was the financing of materials (on behalf of ICS), taking part in the construction and offering manuals and workshops to maintain the project, but our contributions were spectacularly matched as people signed up to volunteer in their spare time and a donation of wood and 200 adobe bricks were given! We must thank the Junta Vecinal, who could not have been more welcoming and encouraging.

We cannot imagine the success of our project without also thanking the people of FOCAPACI and their manager Señor Wilfredo Blanco. With a successful greenhouse project, also in El Alto, they shared their experience with us and we hope to build a long-term relationship with them.

We, and the community, decided that a main greenhouse would be built near the children’s centre to serve as an educational environment for the children and the community members. It would also serve as a pilot for people to recreate in their own homes. Following suit, each of Aldeas Infantiles’ thirty-five centres would build pilot greenhouses, which would again teach surrounding locals to build them in their own homes. Once the scale of the project became clear, we were ecstatic. With honest intentions and commitment, we had orchestrated something sincerely well thought out and sustainable.

When we told the community of Portada Triangular the project was theirs to look after, we were not giving them a false sense of confidence. Essentially they could have done it on their own. The research and training we put ourselves through was simply to pass on the knowledge to them. The theoretical support of an international development organisation spurred them on, but we all learnt from the opportunity to work alongside people of different cultures to develop from our differences.

Despite fearing we would not have the respect of the local people, as we really were starting from scratch; the way we carried out our project created a productive relationship. Obviously my Spanish improved but I also learnt that, whilst Bolivia may be the poorest country in South America, the people are rich in a way that cannot be measured by economic indicators. Our relationship with the local community will only strengthen whilst we spend the next couple of weeks building something that will last, together.

Wilfredo with Clara Chan, Karen Quispe [Cooperante], Kapil Pankhania and James Wainman

Written by Clara Chan
Edited by Liam Hilton

Editor’s Note: Clara’s article was chosen for the second volunteer publication in the Inspira magazine and this entry will be updated with information of the publication once it has gone to print.

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