Urban Agriculture in the Heart of Caracas: A Conversation with Glenda Vivas

Urban gardens, inspired by methods developed during Cuba’s special period, are being used to promote food security in Venezuela.
The Bolívar 1 Organoponic Garden, founded in 2003 by Hugo Chávez Frías, serves as a flagship for urban agriculture in Caracas, employing Cuban-inspired methods to produce healthy food crops while offering educational workshops.

The Bolívar 1 Organoponic Garden is a two-acre plot in the center of Caracas. Wedged between concrete high-rises, this flagship garden produces a variety of food crops using Cuban-inspired methods of urban agriculture, while offering educational workshops for both adults and children. The Bolívar 1 project is affiliated with the Urban Agriculture Ministry – a stone’s throw away from the garden – and falls under the purview of the Venezuelan Corporation of Urban and Periurban Agriculture [CVAUP]. In this interview, we talk to Glenda Vivas, the project coordinator, about the history of this project, how it responds to the blockade-induced crisis, and about the worldwide need to shift to organic agriculture. 

Can you talk about the history of the “Bolívar 1” garden? How long has it been around?

The Bolívar 1 Organoponic Garden was founded by Comandante Hugo Chávez Frías on March 31, 2003. It was conceived as a prototype – a seedbed, if you will – for urban agriculture in Venezuela. With this garden, Chávez aimed to demonstrate that many of our vacant urban plots could yield useful food crops and satisfy the needs of the people. 

Located between two of Caracas’s primary thoroughfares, the Bolívar 1 Garden currently provides a variety of healthy foodstuffs to urban dwellers and serves as an educational center for the community. 

Over time, Bolívar 1 has also evolved into a hub for various urban food production initiatives, including vertical chicken coops, rabbit breeding enclosures, and hydroponic gardens. In short, the Bolívar 1 Garden is an initiative that aims to promote food sovereignty, which is particularly important for a country under siege. 

What inspired this project and the agroecological methods used here?

The Bolívar 1 Organoponic Garden dates back to 2003, shortly after the April 2002 coup and the [Dec 2002-Feb 2003] oil sabotage. During this time, Chávez made visits to Cuba, where he encountered the urban agriculture initiatives that had emerged during the Special Period. The Cuban model taught him – and us – that vacant urban lots can become a means of resistance in the face of imperialist aggressions.

To what degree do Venezuela’s organoponic gardens employ the Cuban blueprint?

While the Bolívar 1 Organoponic drew a great deal of inspiration from the Cuban model, we adapted it to suit our environmental conditions and available resources.

One of the key features of Cuban organoponic agriculture is the practice of contained built-up hilling. Hilling involves creating raised beds of soil where seeds or seedlings are planted. This technique helps with drainage, provides better root aeration, and helps with weed control. 

Since good soil is a limited resource in any city, Cubans came up with the idea of containing the hilled beds with asbestos roofing. Now, you could ask, why did they use asbestos roofing? Cuba was (and is) under a blockade that limited the import of many goods, so they built their organoponic garden beds with what was available. 

In Venezuela, we adapted the Cuban model to our specific circumstances. First, we adapted our crop selection and rotation patterns to the unique characteristics of our climate and soil. Second, at the time of the construction of this garden, Venezuela had not yet faced sanctions, so we were able to use conventional construction materials for lining the beds, thus avoiding the use of asbestos.

The bottom line, however, is that organoponic gardens both in Cuba and Venezuela are resource-efficient initiatives and share the strategic aim of providing food to the people.

You learned about urban agriculture practices in Cuba. Can you tell us more about your education?

Certainly. I studied in a technical agricultural school in Táchira state, but later I received invaluable training in urban agriculture in Cuba. Despite challenging circumstances, Cubans have developed a sustainable model for urban agriculture that requires minimal resources yet achieves relatively high yields… even in vacant lots! This technique, known as “organoponic” gardening, is widespread in Havana today, where you can see many gardens blooming in that city’s concrete jungle. 

How many people work with you in the Bolívar 1 organoponic garden?

I coordinate a team of 19 people, including seven of whom are differently abled. Our team operates as a cohesive unit, tending collectively to various tasks within the garden, including composting, soil preparation, weeding, harvesting, security, and distribution of produce.

What does the garden yield, both quantitatively and qualitatively?

Over the years, we’ve optimized our techniques and methods to maximize productivity and sustainability. Right now we can achieve some seven kilograms of produce per square meter for short-cycle crops. 

Spanning 8,283 square meters, Bolívar 1 features distinct zones such as the “White Zone” for leafy greens and the “Orange Zone” for other short-cycle crops like peppers, leeks, and spring onions. There are 150 plant beds in total. Along the East edge, we have a traditional “conuco” [subsistence garden] with perennial crops such as mango, soursop, avocado, and plantain. 

We also have a series of composting pits to improve soil quality and for making humus fertilizer. Finally, we have a 120 square meter nursery where we can grow 28 thousand seedlings at a time. 100% of the plants that we grow at Bolívar 1 come from the nursery, but the nursery also feeds other urban gardens in Caracas. 

Our production is free from agrochemicals. We use no industrial fertilizers or chemical pesticides. Instead, we make our own fertilizers using worm beds and we use a variety of plants to keep pests away, from color traps such as sunflowers to medicinal plants that repel harmful insects. Finally, we have created wind barriers with sugarcane. 

Much of this has to do with old practices that had been displaced by conventional agriculture. They represent cheap and efficient solutions for producing healthy food. 

How do you distribute the produce that comes out of Bolívar 1?

We have a small store at the entrance for direct sales to the surrounding community. Additionally, we collaborate with nearby schools to distribute produce, thus ensuring wider community access. Beyond that, the most important “distribution” we do is spreading the word: organoponic agriculture represents a challenge to agro-industry, because it offers sustainable and organic produce, thus reducing the carbon footprint while contributing to food sovereignty. Organoponic agriculture is about providing healthy, locally-grown food to families.

Some 20 years ago, when the Bolívar 1 Garden was founded, many people thought that organoponic gardening was just a whim that Chávez had, while others saw it as simply a decorative addition to the urban landscape. However, history has proved them wrong, since the garden turned out to be much more than that. Urban agriculture is a strategic option for food sovereignty. 

Can you explain more about the importance of organoponic initiatives for a country that has been targeted by US sanctions?

Organoponic projects join organic practices with urban agriculture. Urban organic agriculture offers a sustainable path for food security, reducing reliance on imported inputs while mitigating the adverse effects of conventional agriculture. It is also far less dependent on fossil fuels because the food travels shorter distances, and we do away with the dangerous toxic practices linked with conventional agriculture.

The latter is very important for humanity, because the world’s most fertile lands are already eroded by the abuse of agrochemicals. If we keep using agrochemicals at the current rate, yields will go down over the next 20 years. 

The Bolívar 1 project has had its ups and downs. Interestingly, its most significant growth spurt occurred in recent years. What factors contributed to this?

I think that adversity itself made us grow. When oil profits were abundant and the economy was booming, we became complacent. However, with the onset of the US sanctions, things began to pick up steam. And mind you, I’m not just talking about Bolívar 1, I’m talking about the whole of Venezuela. When the unilateral coercive measures were set in place, the pueblo transitioned from paralysis to resilience and ultimately to resistance. Now we are getting back on our feet!

Your team also promotes other urban agriculture initiatives. Can you tell us more about them?

We work with organized communities to repurpose vacant lots and turn them into thriving urban gardens. To do so, we develop a comprehensive plan with the communities, offer them training, and provide seedlings.

We work with communes such as Ana Karina Rote in San Martín and the Housing Assembly [“Asociación Viviendo Venezolano”] Jorge Rodríguez Padre in Antímano. Additionally, we work with schools and partner with approximately 400 small-scale producers who are dedicated to urban agriculture.

Organoponic initiatives empower communities as they take control of their own food sources!

What are your insights into this project?

Our mission is about producing food harmoniously with nature, while reclaiming urban spaces from capitalist exploitation. Our tasks here include tending seedlings, nurturing plants, and harvesting produce. Yet we also organize workshops for children, adults, and seniors. We are committed to creating “oxygen-rich” spaces where creativity can flow and life can thrive.

What significance does this gardening project hold in the face of the imperialist blockade?

By nurturing the environment, growing wholesome produce, and caring for the birds and the flowers, we erect a barrier against oppression. 

With the conuco, with the medicinal plant garden, and with our natural fertilizers, we are not going back to the past. Instead, we are building upon it. Here we combine traditional practices with modern technology: we use nutrients that come from livestock to fertilize the garden; we employ horse manure to balance soil acidity; and we draw potassium, calcium, and iron from certain seeds to nourish the ground and increase yields.

Urban organic agriculture is one of our weapons in the struggle against the US blockade.

Photo: Venezuelanalysis

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