on Feb 26, 2013 • by Richard Emblin

Home » City, Homepage Featured » Urban orchards growing

With 8 million inhabitants moving through Bogotá on TransMilenio, groaning buses and cars, it may seem that this metropolis is losing much of its green space. Despite urban sprawl, Bogotá has its parks, such as Parque Nacional, the Simon Bolívar amd Tunal, to name a few. From an imposing mountain range flanking the city in the east, to wetlands and farmers’ fields rising up to the urban belt in the west, Bogotá’s ecological habitats are an important buffer from noise and pollution.

For many inhabitants of the north of Bogotá, the expanse of the south may seem a ‘no go zone’ given the patchwork of barrios cascading from dry hillocks into the urban chaos and the unjustified perception of gang violence. The Altamira neighborhood in the southeast corner of the metropolis is home to many who depend on a not-so distant city for a living.

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It’s a marginalized place, built brick by brick and perched on an arid ridge with spectacular vistas of downtown Bogotá. It’s a neighborhood where the elderly still greet each other on a first name basis and shun the menacing youths. Despite precarious economic conditions, the inhabitants of Altamira are innovators and expert horticulturalists.

Planting seeds in small patios, hemmed in by brick and washing lines, 14 local women are the active members of “Fundación Mujeres Empresariales Marie Poussepán” an organization created by Ruth Vargas, an industrial engineer who got involved in the barrio after many visits to a close relative. “I went to study mathematics so I could help others,” claims Ms.Vargas as she prepares a morning meeting with the women gardeners of Altamira.

With a video projector next to a tray of freshly-squeezed guava juice and the presence of a young agronomer, Vargas is updating the women leaders, many of whom are the heads of their households, as to the commercial objectives for the year. With half a dozen fully functional orchards in Altamira, as well as one in Subachoque, the foundation was asked last year to become part of Donaccion.org and their selective list of nationwide projects. This crowd fund pools together donations to keep community-led initiatives afloat.

“This is not a charity in the traditional sense of the word,” claims Ms.Vargas. “It’s about sustainability and strengthening personal values.” While most of the women members have converted their gardens into micro “urban farms” others dedicate their skills to elaborating knitted handicrafts such as quilts, which are sold at the foundation’s center in Altamira.

Understanding the variable climate, the amount of rainfall needed to grow tomatoes or spring onions has all been learned through trial and error. Ruth Vargas, however, believes that the locally grown foods of the Altamira orchards can make a difference with consumers in supermarkets. Hence, she works closely with “Impulsesemillas” a Bogotá-based company that supplies the seeds for this eco venture.

For the women of Altamira, their organic gardens are a haven, a refuge from the stresses of trying to make ends meet. At age 45, Esperanza works as domestic help in an apartment in the north of the city. As a mother of two youngsters, she heard by word of mouth about the community drive to create micro orchards. Looking at a barren patch of land, pressing up against her humble home, she decided to clear the earth, treat it with organic waste and plant her first rows of potatoes.

After two years of personal effort, her “Los Abuelos” garden is almost entirely self sustaining, allowing her to save money for her children’s education rather than spend on buying groceries. “It’s been a gift from heaven,” says Esperanza. The orchards are pesticide free, hence, nature takes its course. Such is the garden of Elvira Neira, who arrived in Bogota 14 years ago, and managed with little savings to start her home. Today, Elvira’s garden has all but consumed the house. A curuba tree snakes its way towards the rooftop, entangling itself with papaya and avocados.

Although seemingly chaotic, Elvira tends her orchard daily, examining every uchuva and raspberry. “It’s a spiritual experience for me,” claims Elvira as she descends into a green universe of exuberance. The urban orchards of Mujeres Empresariales are being helped by Fondo Acción, a private fund which oversees the individual donations of Donaccion. org. As crowdfunding, Fondo Acción manages the donations they receive online by individuals which range from $20,000 pesos to $1,000.000. With the funds, Fondo Acción helps the foundations with business workshops, technology supervision and provides gardening “kits” to those who want to seize a green initiative.

The social initiative by Vargas, as well as the philanthropy of generous individuals through Donaccion.org, is changing the way the residents of Altamira look at their community and the city at large. These are not women waiting for a charitable or government handout, but rather passionate individuals, eager to learn all they can about organic farming methods, when best to plant and how to use the internet to bring awareness to their initiatives. When one wanders from lush orchards to the sunlit balconies where hard to find herbs are grown next to hanging walls of cabbages and broccoli, the southern fringes of the city take on another dimension. There is plenty of green. And plenty of enthusiasm for sustaining our food future.

You can get involved in helping the orchards of Altamira: www.donaccion.org


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