With their expertise in agriculture, Hans Dieter Temp has been facilitating community vegetable gardens for people in urban areas marked by violence and a loss of social cohesion; thus providing a sense of self-worth, dignity, and community. Through these gardens, Hans is creating opportunities to improve peoples’ quality of life, generate economic sustainability, and rebuild the social fabric.
The New Idea
Hans is converting abandoned land plots in impoverished areas on the outskirts of São Paulo, the largest city in South America (20+ million people), into vegetable gardens, and is using them as tools to change communities. Hans believes the assets of urban peripheries have gone unused. Thus, by unleashing the potential of this land and the people living there, Hans creates activities that not only generate jobs but creates community. His strategy encompasses a number of innovative tactics, such as a low-cost greenhouse and small grocery facilities to sell garden produced products. Hans’s initiatives are directed toward the goal of rendering urban agriculture, as a means of community development.
Through community vegetable gardens, Hans creates collective spaces in low-income communities by reinforcing social ties and restoring trust where it had been weakened due to poverty and violence. Once parcels of land ripe for makeshift housing, garbage dumps, or illegal activity, these abandoned plots became places that brought people together. Importantly, Hans changes how urban gardeners perception of themselves. Hans’s initiative also responds to many women’s need to find work that is both close to their homes and flexible--something the formal market rarely accommodates.
Beyond cultivating the vegetable gardens, Hans stimulates a culture of entrepreneurship among the young people. They assist in creating small grocery stores to sell the products harvested in the gardens themselves. These small ventures not only serve to foster greater economic activity in these regions, they also enable young entrepreneurs to become more self-sufficient and slowly overcome poverty. Hans is also teaching school students how to turn vacant lots into food-producing areas, along with environmental education, recycling, and food safety.
Often in Brazil and throughout Latin America, the outskirts of large cities are characterized by high instances of poverty, destitution, and social upheaval. As a result of rapid internal migration from the rural countryside to cities over the past fifty years, these spaces have predominantly been occupied by irregular or illegal land parcels formed by subdivisions of large properties that were never officially approved for occupation. The majority of houses are self-built and the homes that characterize the favelas are also present. Some public and private companies abandon their land altogether due to their location. These plots then become space for “at-risk” homes, drug dens, or places for illegal activity.
With approximately 320 km² and over four million inhabitants, São Paulo’s Zona Leste (the city’s eastern region) is an example of this situation. Characterized by high poverty, it registers the lowest per capita family income as well as the city’s lowest concentration of economic activity. Although it represents 35 percent of the city’s population, it is responsible for only 6 percent of the municipality’s income. Zona Leste is also characterized by high rates of violence. According to the University of São Paulo’s Nucleus of Violence Studies, this is where people run the highest risk of being murdered. This fact is manifested in the area’s weak social fabric, with mistrust and few chances for positive community life. Quality of life is further undermined by the concentration of economic activity in the center of the city, forcing the local population to spend hours in unreliable and expensive public transportation, for work or access to public and private services. One of the most persistent problems is unemployment. With the promise of good jobs and better opportunities in São Paulo, immigrants have flocked to the city from all over the country for decades, particularly from the northern and northeast. However, since a large portion hail from rural areas, they cannot apply their knowledge in an urban context. As a result they are either underemployed, or they remain unemployed.
Urban agriculture offers a dignified solution to this imbalance, though little has been done at the governmental level to promote it. According to the last study done by the Ministry of Social Development and Hunger Alleviation in 2007, urban agriculture is practiced in 600 localities in Brazil. These are communities, groups, and individuals who produce mostly vegetables, both for personal consumption and for sale in open-air markets and groceries. According to the Ministry, these numbers are not reliable because there are no clear legal parameters to define this group. As a consequence, many citizens who could be classified in this category are not and are thereby excluded from low-interest investment and credit, insurance and methods of purchase, legally offered to other farmers. If urban farmers, currently excluded from rural farmer’s benefits are identified and recognized, they may be able to overcome their subsistence and produce food products for sale and their consumption.
Through his organization, Cidades sem Fome (Cities without Hunger), founded in 2004, and a vast network of partners, Hans has implemented over 21 community vegetable gardens in São Paulo’s Zona Leste. So far, 700 people have directly benefitted from the project, 4,000 people have indirectly benefited and 48 courses for professional training have been taught. The process to set up each vegetable garden is preceded with discussions around paradigm-changing work: and the negative perceptions many have about urban farming.
Hans first meets with land owners to introduce the project, and since gardening guarantees the space will not be used illegally, gaining permission to use the land is never a problem. Some companies, such as the power giant Eletropaulo, have received awards recognizing the initiative as an important contribution to the community. Using word-of-mouth to spread his work, members of neighboring communities often seek Hans out to ask for support in turning an abandoned plot into a vegetable garden. After signing the agreement with the proprietor, Hans organizes a meeting with the members of the community to introduce his work and to identify people interested to work in the garden. When there are less spots available than interested parties, a social worker from his team uses a questionnaire to map the socioeconomic profile of the public. This map then helps Hans identify those for whom participation in the initiative would have the greatest impact.
The families that will be responsible for the vegetable garden are trained to manage the space. The skills of each person working in the garden often blossom naturally and demonstrate who would be more apt for selling produce, cultivating the garden, specializing in communications, and other activities associated with maintaining the garden. Agricultural engineers routinely visit each garden and perform follow-up. The food produced is sold to the community. For those who work in the garden, besides the income generated, they have the benefit of taking home as many ingredients as they wish. In this manner, the project’s beneficiaries incorporate new habits of consumption and nutrition, develop a relationship with the environment, and come to mobilize and influence other families to change their behavior. They help them use their land to produce food, spices, and medicinal herbs only sold in large supermarkets at high prices and far from home.
Hans is promoting innovative solutions that make his approach to urban agriculture easily replicable. For instance, to avoid wholesale purchases of seedlings, which was cost prohibitive, Hans cultivated his own. This, however, required the construction of a greenhouse and an initial investment as high as some $30,000 dollars, a sum he did not have. To solve this challenge, Hans collaborated with his team of engineers to fabricate a greenhouse with alternative materials. His alternative greenhouse allows for similar rates of seedling cultivation, but costs only 10 percent of an ordinary greenhouse. Cidades sem Fome has three such alternative greenhouses that currently supply all the seedlings needed for the project. Hans also found an innovative manner to raise funds for the initial stages that also creates new nuclei of urban agriculture. Recognizing that large companies receive assorted requests to support a myriad of causes and initiatives, he sought a funding opportunity that organizations seldom resort to: foreign embassies and consulates in Brazil that must legally must pay to solve local development issues. Because this is not widely known, consulates rarely receive requests for support. Hans sent his proposal to finance the Cidades sem Fome to a number of diplomatic posts, and the Swiss, Japanese, New Zealand, and Australian embassies are now major sponsors. Hans’s portfolio of partners also includes banks and public-owned companies.
Hans has proposed a strategy which makes valuable use of distinct local assets that were previously unused or jeopardized the community’s quality of life. By creating jobs in these areas, Hans removes the burden of long work commutes to the city center, with opportunities for community-building, improving relations among neighbors, and fostering a collective spirit.
Hans has also been using his urban gardens as a teaching tool in schools. Launched in 2006 with the Secretary of Education of Peruíbe, this project has reached 2,800 teachers and students, and offers hands-on workshops in agronomy. Participation in this initiative teaches students that planting and harvesting a vegetable garden demands an understanding of mathematics, biology, and nutrition.
With the experience he has in producing urban gardens, Hans is introducing government policy to change the parameters which define urban agriculture in Brazil; thus, extending credit lines. As a means to strengthen his movement in favor of urban agriculture, Hans established a partnership with the Getúlio Vargas Foundation to map a network of all the organizations in Brazil that work on this topic Through this network and public policy, Hans hopes to expand his idea to other parts of Brazil and South American countries. Hans has also established technical partnerships between foreign universities such as the University of Berlin and the University of Sao Paulo; to support projects related to urban agriculture in Brazil.
Hans was born in São Borja in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul to a family of farmers. He grew up on a ranch and came to love the biodiversity of plant species. When Hans moved to Rio de Janeiro to study business administration, he missed the contact he had with the environment.
During the three years Hans spent in Germany studying to be a technician in Farming, Livestock Raising and Environmental Policy he saw to see how a country so much smaller than Brazil, and with a less diversified climate, could cultivate many different crops and plants. He concluded that it is not necessary to have a large plot of land to produce food products and ingredients that are both varied and nutritionally rich.
Returning to Brazil, Hans met his wife, living with her family in São Paulo’s Zona Leste. Once married, they decided to live in the region. At this stage, various abandoned plots of land began to call Hans’s attention. While visually unpleasant, he saw them as a threat to the safety of the homes in his community. To address this, Hans organized the community to turn an area across from their homes into a vegetable garden, using the knowledge he’d acquired during childhood to transform the space. Thus the first community vegetable garden was realized, as both a hobby and a way of bringing people together.
During this time, Hans changed careers. He’d always worked at multinational companies and decided to take a job with the São Paulo Secretary of the Environment. From this point on, Hans saw a way to systematize the methodology he’d started in his neighborhood to create public policy. After securing approval from the city administration, he became the coordinator of São Paulo’s Urban Agriculture Program and began to create vegetable gardens. Unfortunately, when the administration changed, the program was discontinued.
Frustrated that the public sector had paralyzed his program, Hans left his job to found Cidades sem Fome and has dedicated his life to it. In 2010, Cidades sem Fome was honored among twelve winners of the Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment (2010), an endorsement to promote urban agriculture as a means for economic development and an improved quality of life in peri-urban Brazil.