Produce gardens dignify hillside district of Chile’s Valparaiso

By Maria M.Mur

Valparaiso, Chile, Apr 21 (EFE).- The external appearance of this Chilean port city’s hillside Villagra district changed radically during the pandemic, with garbage, rats and rusty appliances giving way to produce gardens for growing tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins.

One local resident of that community located between the Las Cañas and El Litre hills, Teresa Balboltin, said the view on the other side of her window is still hard for her to believe.

Even though more than a year and a half have elapsed, it seems like only yesterday when she and her neighbors met during the height of the pandemic and decided to clear out the accumulated waste that had blighted their neighborhood.

Villagra was “infested with pests,” the community leader told Efe. “We got rid of 10 tons of garbage. Most of the ravines in Valparaiso are small trash heaps and (people who) live nearby are stigmatized.”

“It’s easy to quickly get up and leave a place you don’t like, but that’s not the idea. It’s about recovering public spaces,” Balboltin added while slicing a pair of cherry tomatoes, one of the flagship products of “Huerta Villa Marat,” as her district’s produce garden is known.

Her other specialty are pumpkins, an essential item in Chilean soups and stews.

Midway through the interview, a group of “huerteras” – as the neighborhood produce farmers are known – gathered to ask how her “kid is going” while laughing and pointing at a pumpkin that now weighs almost six kilograms (13 pounds).

“When the pumpkin is ripe, its little stem turns the color of cork. That’s when you have to pick it. This one still has a bit to go,” Marta Rivas said.

Huerta Villa Marat is part of a broader project promoted by the Municipality of Valparaiso and encompassing 17 small cultivation areas, most of which have sprouted up on hillsides that had turned into garbage dumps.

The project’s municipal coordinator, Margaret Salinas, told Efe that its goals include “promoting a healthy diet, recovering public spaces and creating healthy environments for community encounters.”

A total of 2,500 vegetable and fruit plants have been sown since the end of 2020 under the initiative, whose goal is to produce 500 kilograms of food over the medium term and eventually achieve what Salinas calls “food sovereignty.”

The gardens also are environmentally friendly because no chemicals are used in growing the produce. The soil is fertilized with compost supplied by local residents and natural tobacco-, ash- or garlic-based products are used for pest control.

“They’re healthy products, not like in supermarkets where you don’t know what you’re buying. I’ve had a melon at home for a week, and it’s intact. That means it’s been (chemically preserved),” Rosa Carvajal, leader of a group of women who grow vegetables on the Porvenir Alto hill, told Efe.

Although the worst economic repercussions of the coronavirus crisis are in the past, poor residents of hillside communities on Valparaiso’s outskirts now face a new scourge: high inflation in Chile that came in at an annual rate of 9.4 percent in March.

“Grapes are unaffordable, and apples are now being sold for 1,500 pesos ($1.84) per kilo,” Rivas said.

Cesar Rodriguez, one of only a few male produce growers in Huerta Villa Marat, is an artisan who still is recovering from the economic blow of the pandemic.

“Replacing waste with fruit plants has been magical,” he said, though confessing that he himself was guilty of dumping garbage in the ravine years ago.

“We local residents have changed and have brought dignity to the hills,” Rodriguez said. EFE


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