Soledad Martinez is ensuring access to nutritious, chemical-free food for hospital patients, abandoned children, the poor, and the elderly by developing organic farms on abandoned plots and vacant institutional land.
Using her scientific knowledge of organic farming, her experience in environmental education, and her entrepreneurial drive, Soledad is helping to solve the problem of food scarcity, malnutrition, and hunger among groups insufficiently served by government institutions. Her idea is to develop organic gardens on vacant urban spaces near mental hospitals, children's shelters, elderly homes, and low-income communities where lack of food security compromises social and economic development. Soledad is teaching citizens a new relationship with the environment and demonstrating to them the importance of preservation and sustainable use of natural resources. By mobilizing volunteers and the business sector to provide support for the initiative, Soledad is also promoting the social integration of neglected groups and stimulating environmental awareness and social responsibility. Her idea, then, simultaneously addresses the health and nutritional needs of the participants, the preservation and beautification of urban environments, and the need for low-cost food alternatives, income-generation possibilities, citizen participation, and community building. Her model is replicable in communities that are facing similar challenges throughout Paraguay and beyond.
Among the poorest countries in South America, Paraguay is currently experiencing severe deterioration of socioeconomic conditions. The growth rate of the GNP in the last two years has slowed to 1 percent to 1.5 percent in comparison to an average of 2.4 percent in the past decade. In addition, the population is increasing by a rate of 2.5 percent to 3 percent, and the unemployment rate is close to 20 percent.
These indicators point to increasing poverty that has resulted in an increase in the number of people in the streets performing odd jobs or panhandling to meet basic food needs. The country's tropical climate is conducive to abundant production of food. However, low-income communities–the majority made up of migrants from rural areas–have lost traditions and connection to the land and have been seduced by "modern" store-bought consumerism. According to a human rights report in Paraguay, 30 percent of the population do not have access to food sufficient to promote healthy physical and mental development, and about 60 percent suffer from some form of nutritional deficiency.
In addition to the poor classes, other marginalized groups being served by government institutions in mental hospitals, shelters for abandoned children, and homes for the elderly also suffer from food insecurity. Given the high rate of government corruption and bureaucracy–the residue from a 35-year dictatorship–money that is budgeted for basic needs like food does not get allocated on time. This forces institutions to work with scarce resources, compromising the nutritional intake of their wards.
Closely associated with poverty and marginalization are the environmental problems in low-income neighborhoods that further compromise inhabitants' quality of life. Free spaces exist in neighborhoods and around public institutions, but most are used as informal dumping grounds. Such spaces are potential locations for communities and marginal groups to produce organic, nutritionally valuable food for consumption and to grow ornamental plants for sale. These sites can also serve as community gathering places to encourage community interaction and engagement. However, there is a lack of know-how and training to show community members how to take advantage of these spaces. To date, the only community garden development in Paraguay is in a Mennonite community in the rural northern part of the country. This project, however, is designed to produce food for sale outside the community rather than for consumption within the community. As such, it fails to embrace the potential of urban spaces for local food security and community development.
Soledad is implementing her idea for community organic gardens based on the successful pilot program she developed at the Psychiatric Hospital in Asunción beginning at the end of 2000. At that time, because of inefficient and untimely resource allocation by the government, the hospital was experiencing serious financial difficulties. In a courtyard between buildings, Soledad mobilized hospital employees, volunteers, businesses, and especially patients to create an initial garden project that provided low-cost organic food for the patients, and inaugurated a new occupational therapy. The garden, which produces 10 percent of the hospital's food, is the first step in a larger project being developed to create a farm to provide the hospital with nearly all of its food needs.
Central to her idea is self-production. By making the members of marginal and disadvantaged groups the producers of their food, she leads them to reestablish their relationships to the environment and with one another. Since in cases like hospitals and shelters, the patients are often hampered by physical or medical constraints, she brings in other actors both to sustain the project and to integrate various sectors of society. First, Soledad mobilizes volunteers. She selects the volunteers according to a specific profile and trains them in the theory and practice of organic and biodynamic farming on a model production farm. After this training, the volunteers are qualified to implement the garden project, support the process of production, and adequately manage the natural resources. Second, Soledad mobilizes small businesses through a network of 700 small-business entrepreneurs that she helped to establish, to provide the initial investments, services, and financial resources needed to implement the projects. For each garden project she implements, she targets local businesses or institutions to promote social investment in the location.
Soledad is now ready to replicate this idea in other institutions and poor neighborhoods in the greater Asunción area. She is currently negotiating with a shelter for abandoned youth, and she is also beginning talks with leaders in the riverside community of Bañado Sur, the neighborhood of Tacumbú, a school, and a home for the elderly. As an important component for working in poor communities, Soledad plans to train youth from the community to serve as technical advisors for the production of garden projects in other settings.
Nature represented an important force in Soledad MartinezÕs upbringing. She spent much of her childhood with her grandmother in the countryside learning the delicate balance between human beings and the land they depend on. Through her mother's garden in the city, she recognized the importance of maintaining that relationship, whether one lives surrounded by asphalt or forests. This background led her to seek out professional opportunities that brought her close to people cultivating the land, specifically those practicing agriculture in a sustainable relationship with the environment.
With a degree in agronomy engineering, Soledad began working in laboratories focused on ecological study, particularly the biological control of insect plagues. Realizing the lack of information on and appreciation of the environment, Soledad began to develop environmental education programs on organic production through partnerships with prominent environmental citizen sector organizations. At the same time, she began to practice what she preached and became a small farm owner, cultivating and selling organic produce. As an entrepreneur, she and a group of colleagues joined together to form the Entrepreneur's Club-Foundation, which brings together small-business entrepreneurs to share ideas and best practices. Soledad coordinates the Center for Ecological Action within this network.
Through 10 years of working with ecologically sound production, she has come into contact with groups of women, peasants, university students, professionals, and homeless people who are all interested in cultivating and learning to manage the land as a means for production. One day, returning from the weekly fair where she sells her organic produce, she stopped at a traffic light. A young street beggar came to her window to ask for spare change. When he saw the bag of carrots next to her, fresh from the market, he asked if he could have one. Soledad was surprised by his sheer joy when she handed him the whole bag, and shocked when the boy then disbursed the rest to the street children gathered at the intersection. In the back seat, Soledad's daughter said, "Instead of coins, let's give fruit or carrots so they can eat something healthy. Or we can make gardens in the street." It was exactly what Soledad had been thinking after seeing plots of unused land, the degradation of the environment, and the decline of nutrition levels. Soledad started setting in motion her idea to enable even the most marginal groups to rediscover a sustainable and beneficial relationship with their environment by producing their own food.