Lea Rekow

Lea Rekow is co-lead and co-curator of BifrostOnline. Her professional focus lies in building and applying creative practices across disciplines to engage with complex issues in fragile and vulnerable areas, mostly through co-producing multi-year projects.

Please tell us about the work you’re engaged in.

I have an organization called Green My Favela. We work to restore degraded lands and make urban gardens in irregular and informal communities (favelas) in Rio de Janeiro. One in five people that live in the greater Metropolitan region, around 12 million people, live in favelas. That’s a substantial portion of the population living in poverty. These communities range in size from a few thousand people to complexes of multiple favelas gathered in clusters. I’ve worked in favelas as small as 15,000 people and as large as a hundred and fifty thousand. Most people think of favelas as slums but in fact they are really vibrant low-income informal communities that have been built organically overtime by the people themselves without any help from the government.

How did you become involved with this project?

Like most things in my life, I stumbled into this project. I was in a favela meeting with a community leader who spent his life working in the largest favela in Rio, a favela called Rocinha. For 25 years, until he died, Tio Lino worked with kids using recycled materials to make art work. He was talking about wanting to make a garden and I said, “great, let’s do it.” At that same time a philanthropist contacted me with some money wanting to put into a project and I was also contacted by a group of twenty international volunteers. Tio had access to a space around about 80 square meters in size. Typically, available spaces in the favelas, if they’re not utilized or built on, are used as garbage dumps, so the primary task of starting these sorts of project is to remove garbage. Depending on the favela, these spaces can be very inaccessible—little labyrinths with winding pathways that go up and down, accessible only by foot. So the first thing we have to do is to remove garbage from the site, and then excavate it. In this case, we had to dig terraces and retaining walls and landscape it.

We got the community involved—we had to work with permissions from the neighbors, with permissions from the ruling drug gang at the time (this was before pacification in Rio). We had to then get the help of the community to take ownership in the space and primarily we did that by with working with the children to build a children’s garden. That garden was recognized by the United Nations—it was the same year of the UN Rio+20 summit (2012). We were invited to participate in that. They showcased the garden as it was the first community garden of that kind in a favela, and from that point on the project really expanded quite quickly. The state government of Rio De Janeiro got involved and invited us to start participating on everything from advising on garbage pickup to doing trash audits in schools. We were then introduced to the Municipal Department for the Environment, and got involved in helping them with their similar, but larger-scale program, called Hortas Cariocas. They were making organic food gardens and so we started working with them on different gardens. We also got involved independently with some other community spaces in other parts of Rocinha, and in other different favelas. We helped create protest gardens in one because the residents were being evicted. In another, we tried making an orchard on very steep land to stop erosion, and so on. We ended up working with Hortas Cariocas in this large project in the North Zone, in the Manguinhos complex, and that is where we have worked for the last several years.

Can you tell us more about that project?

Since 2012, we’ve been working in Manguinhos, collaborating to create the largest organic urban food garden in Latin America. We were invited by the Department for the Environment’s Hortas Cariocas program to help remediate this space and establish a community section of the garden. Overall the space is around three kilometers long and runs underneath the transmission lines and next to a long river that functions as an open sewer. Manguinhos was a very agitated area that used to be referred to as the Gaza Strip. It was an armed bastion of drug-dealing and a cracolândia—a large crackland with two or three thousand crack addicts and drug dealers living and dealing and using crack cocaine on top of this mess of a garbage dump that snaked under the transmission lines. It was filled with vermin, open prostitution and frequent public executions and murders. It was a very difficult social situation that remains problematic, of course, but now one of the good things—and one of the few good things that came in the lead up to the Olympics—was that there was federal money that came down for the redevelopment of Manguinhos. Unfortunately, redevelopment money usually means mass evictions of people and that did happen at Manguinhos. But this area that was a crackland was a very violent area, it wasn’t a positive space. When the military police went in and took control from the drug gang (the CVs) it bulldozed the crackolândia, so what was left was a strip of vacated space. Hortas Cariocas came in and put about $225,000 of federally allocated money into the project and removed 750 tons of garbage from the site, scraped the top half-meter of soil away, filled it with gravel to increase drainage, built more than 300 raised garden beds, and filled them with clean topsoil. They paid a number of people from the favela to work in the garden, however the space was so big that it was too much to manage, so they asked us to establish a large section by working with retirees and children. We established this through different model where people took ownership over their own plots and began to farm them voluntarily, without any stipend. The space became self-sustaining very quickly.

What are the benefits you have seen?

The primary take-away for the gardeners is that it reduces hypertension, because it’s a very pleasant, cleaner, and safer space to be socially active. The children like it because they’re not scared to go outside their front doors. It’s not infested with rats and cockroaches. It doesn’t smell bad. It has brought back biodiversity and it’s a joyful place where people are proud to come and bring families on the weekends. People bring their little birds in cages and hang them in the garden and socialize. They have barbecues. The children fly their kites. People from the community come by and are able pick free vegetables anytime, without restriction, so it also has use value in that it increases nutrition uptake for a lot of people. Our section of the garden augments the dinner tables of about a hundred and fifty people. Manguinhos is one of the more impoverished favelas in Rio. Typically, people might earn $30 to $50 a month, so as you can imagine, when you’re at this poverty level, your diet pretty much consists of beans, rice, coffee, margarine and white bread. You can go for three weeks without consuming any vegetables. The biggest problem is for children under 5 years of age—around 80% suffer from mild undernutrition.

One of the interesting things about the garden is that there hasn’t been any real tragedy of the commons. The space is open 24/7 to anyone that wants to come in, and there is very little theft of food. As I said, people are welcome to come and take food and it’s a very nice feeling for the gardeners to be able to give food to more vulnerable members of the community and their friends and family. It’s also important because public space in the favelas is a really foreign concept and not many people feel that they can have valuable public space outside.

It’s always the children who love to participate most. They’re anxious to have something to do and the community is anxious for them to have something to do as well, because there’s still a lot of pressure for them to join gangs and it’s very difficult for them to really see anything else other than drug culture. You often find kids drawing an array of automatic weapons in chalk on the ground or making guns out of rubbish and playing with them. It’s very strong culture and because boys in particular are very pressured to participate in that culture the garden gives them something else to do and something else to look forward to and that’s also interesting because that then encourages a sort of leadership potential within the youth constituency who trying to finish high school and start university and invest in their community. They can actually see another way to move forward. Gardeners that are older retirees are very happy to have this space. They put in their own time, they build their own tool sheds, they mend their fences, they collect their own seeds, they do seed saving, they cut the grass between the beds, they really spend a lot of time looking after the space. The people that we work with that are of employable age don’t have employment. There is a 50% unemployment rate in Manginhos, so people have a lot of time but nothing to do, so we’ve been able to get community partners that now look after their gardens and it gives them a sort of a way to expand their ownership over the space. We’ve also seen more gardens spring up around the periphery. People have started to be very entrepreneurial. There’s a lot of people now starting to house chickens and ducks and pigs and to build pens out of the remains of garbage. One of the things that’s been really nice about about the garden is hearing people’s stories. We have one guy who has this fantastic duck pen. He told us that having that has saved him from doing crack and being an alcoholic. The garden gave him the confidence to be able to build his duck pen. He treats his ducks like he’s their father and they are his children, and it’s really rehabilitated him and given him the ability to generate self-esteem. So it has these peripheral benefits for the community who aren’t directly participating in gardening. There’s another man who always watches over the garden. He has a bar next to it and doesn’t ever garden himself, but he considers himself a sort of guardian of the space. We sometimes store tools with him. One of the biggest issues that we found while gardening is that that often people have to give it up if they have a health problem. When you live in a favela, you don’t necessarily have access to (adequate) healthcare. It is a very big problem and so people tend to suffer from an array of health issues and sometimes that prohibits them. It’s one of the challenges that makes the garden vulnerable, but on the other hand the way this particular garden has evolved is that if one person can no longer garden, or withdrawals from the project, that space is handed over to somebody else. Somebody is always ready to replace that person. There’s also a lot of families that manage spaces together. People have established a camaraderie and come together to exchange knowledge and teach each other how to garden and share the responsibility for watering their spaces. We haven’t defined any guidelines about how to grow, what to grow, how to take ownership of the space, or what to do with their food. They’re free to sell it if they want. They can do anything they want but uniformly everybody always chooses to give the food away and that’s an interesting result.

How many people participate in the project?

The number of people involved in the garden varies a lot. In a space of around 50 garden beds you may have as few as eight gardeners looking after the beds. There are around 350 beds in total throughout the entire space, each 10 meters in length. Altogether it’s hard to say how many people actually participate in the project because of it is a variable flow. You may have five people coming to the garden at any given time to just collect vegetables to make the next meal. You may have as many as 40 children come and help plant in a work day. It can be quite unpredictable that way.

What are the challenges?

We do still have to deal with the reality of drug trafficking. The main problem is the police coming in on operations and shooting at civilians. That’s a very dangerous aspect to living in a favela. The police are quite indiscriminate when they shoot—they’ll shoot children playing, they’ll shoot people sitting down and eating dinner in their homes, and there’s really no way to protect yourself from it because the M16s they use are military grade and favela walls are very, very thin and are easily pierced by bullets. These operations can occur on a daily basis. It’s a sort of a posturing, a sort of a political theater, and it all the times it’s the real deal—people do get killed and that’s the reality. Working in collaboration with the community does require the traffickers’ permission and their support. To move forward with any project, we do we also need the support of the Residents’ Association. They’re the group that often mediates between the State and the traffickers, so whether or not you’re an NGO, or an informal project like we are, or whether you represent the municipality or the state, you still need to confront that reality. The President of the Residents Association is usually the person who goes to the traffickers and says, “This is what they want to do, is that Ok? How do we, or can we, work it out?” Most things are channeled through the Residents Association although that’s not always the case. I don’t personally have any contact with the traffickers, although they are there. I can hear them talking on their radio talkies and we can see them with their guns. I don’t directly interface with them except when I have to, and that’s usually when someone that I bring into the garden steps out of line by trying to take a picture or something like that and that’s just not cool, so then I have to sort of talk my way out of it.

Since the World Cup came to town in 2014, incidents of police brutality and extrajudicial killings in the favelas have been exponentially increasing. In the lead up to the Olympics it got to a stage where Amnesty International launched an app called Crossfire where you could upload information in real time about different favelas where police shootings were occurring, and that was a valuable tool to have as it could be quite intense in that time just preceding the Olympics. The police were shooting one person every nine hours in the favelas. It’s terrifying, and it’s used as a way to terrify people—obviously. It terrifies me, that’s for sure. There are organizations like the Red Cross who operate in favelas like they would in low density war zone. They have evacuation routes to try to get people out during a shootout. Which is one of the problems—getting people in and out of the favelas who are isolated during armed conflicts. If there’s no way in or out and you’re shot, you might bleed out. Also they have established safe zones in schools and houses and that sort of thing where you can take people to take refuge. Myself and my colleagues, a couple of times, have had to run into people’s homes and hit the floor as police have come around the corner with their guns drawn. It’s not something I’ve easily shaken off, and I’m not I’m not unfamiliar with conflict zones.

Can you tell us what else the project brings to the people who live there?

The garden has different values. It has a direct use value in that it provides clean, healthy, pesticide-free food for people. It has non-direct use value in that it keeps the space cleaner, as this is in an area where the children are 500 times more likely to have some sort of issue with cancer and neurological disorders because of the high levels of lead in the area. There’s a lot of pollution. It also helps with designating areas to be kept relatively free of garbage. People have few garbage disposal options. You’ve got 50 thousand people living in a very cramped urban environment and you have little to no garbage pickup, so you’re dealing with open burns to get rid of your rubbish, and you have intense windstorms that swirl the garbage around and distribute it everywhere, with dust particles loaded with lead. It’s an interesting problem to try and traverse and so the garden is a space that can be kept clean (more or less).

It’s a space that can be beautiful and in that sense it’s a tremendous feeling to walk through the favela and get to a garden. It’s something like walking through a narrow hallway in a Frank Lloyd Wright house and then coming out to see an area of expansive light. You can feel the weight lift off you. It’s wonderful when you arrive at a garden to have all the kids run and be excited that you are there and want to pick up a tool and want to start working. The kids work really hard. They haul garbage, they dig into the ground, they just love it. So that’s a really rewarding feeling and it’s also rewarding for the community to know that the kids have that space to go to. It’s also lovely to go to this space and have a lot of people really happy to see you and to be able to chat with them about how they are doing, what’s going on, what trouble they’re having, or what they’ve done. They love to show you the garden and what they’re growing. It’s such a beautiful social space to have, and such a topic of conversation. People are so proud.

Please tell us about your background.

I have quite an unusual background. I left home of very early age and decided that I would travel around the world. I sold my car and bought a one-way ticket out of Australia and landed in the Philippines and then went to Taiwan where I lived for several years, and traveled in dozens of countries in Southeast Asia and China, across Russia, down through Europe, around through Northern Africa and the Middle East and through Southeastern Africa. I worked in film and media a lot during in the 1990s, and in the arts, and I’ve always worked in tandem with environmental matters. In Botswana and Namibia I was tracking elephant herds overutilization of woodlands and making large-scale installations video installations, working with a scientist from Germany. I worked on the effects of climate change in India, on how if the Ganges became a seasonal river what effects it would have on the Hindu rituals and how that might influence a whole religion. In New York, where I lived for a lot of years, I spent a lot of time traveling everywhere from Alaska down through central and South America. I spent a lot of time in Cuba and Guatemala doing socio-environmental projects. In 2003 I did a project in Burma, where I crossed in illegally from Thailand, to take the oral histories of the ethnic leaders that have been fighting in the Civil War since 1948 because their stories hadn’t been told. Few people were willing to go in and document them because, you know, essentially they are on the run from the Burma army and living in IDP camps, and that eliminates a certain amount of people from wanting to go in. I have established myself enough that I usually can have people vouch that I am that I am trustworthy and so people tend to speak openly with me after a short amount of time. That was quite a large project. I’ve also done similar projects in El Salvador and Guatemala in post-conflict zones, and I’ve worked on water issues in El Salvador.

In 2008 I moved from New York to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was executive director of a large cultural institution and I managed to raise a lot of money to do a research and media outreach project on Navajo Nation so I got involved in a project about resource extraction and the legacy of coal and uranium mining on Diné (Navajo) lands. I became heavily involved in working with the Navao Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation project and the Uranium Mills Tailings Remediation Action, and some other environmental activist groups and research centers to document the fallout from decades of uranium milling and mining and nuclear testing and coal mining and the health effects it had in the people and their ongoing issues. That was a very important project to me. I worked on it for several years and I created a large online archive of interviews with those people about those problems. I also instigated a media outreach program in which we gave cameras and editing equipment and computers and workshops to Indigenous youth to get them to be digital storytellers and go out and film environmental issues that were affecting them in their communities and then distribute them to their chapter houses. As well we brought them to participate in a large Native Cinema Showcase festival. We had a large museum space where I also curated an arts/activist collective of Indigenous youth to come into a 5,000 ft2 warehouse and build a house out of recycled materials inside it and live in it for two months and do teach ins with different community members, including the mayor, different activist groups working on environmental issues, and other native leaders. That was a really rewarding project. At the same time I completely underestimated the poverty on the Navajo Nation. This is an area where 50% of native people live without electricity, though where most of the western United States’ coal for electricity comes from, so there’s a whole lot of ironies and dichotomies ot it. It was very eye opening to be able to work with these people, who don’t have access to clean water as it has been contaminated by uranium, who earn probably $3 a day living in really remote places. Life’s a struggle for them.

Is uranium mining still happening?

There’s a moratorium now on Navajo Nation against uranium mining, though in fact there are a lot of uranium leases still being sold around Navajo lands, but not on the reservation. Coal mining is still responsible for about 30% of the Navajo Nation’s income. The coal-generating plants produce electricity that goes down to Phoenix and Arizona and Nevada and native peoples are the ones that suffer for it. Like I said, the transmission lines run overhead but people don’t have electricity in their trailers. On the other side of that, we did a project where we sent youth out into shopping centers and asked people where their electricity came from. Out of a hundred people only two people knew that it comes from coal. Many assumed that it came from solar. A lot of people assumed that came from wind. Nobody really knew, other than it came out of the wall. It is interesting that in this climate of coal dominance in all of the western United States that nobody really knows where their electricity comes from. The electricity is also depleting the aquifers on the Navajo Nation to slurry coal hundreds of miles across the desert to get to other generating plants to power cities in the west.

What issues do you see in regard to climate change?

I think the issues Involved with climate change are very context-specific and I think they’re very complex issues and have lots of components to them. There are so many moving parts that it’s difficult to know where to start to even unpack them. I think one of the benefits of working on a local scale or municipal scale with different environmental advocacy groups and with different private-sector groups and with different NGOs, is that you have public, private and third sectors come together to tackle these problems in ways that are manageable so that you can see small results.

That’s how I work because I don’t have access to working on an international or national scale, or that’s just not the way things play out. I can pull from foundations, from the municipal government, or even a state-level, and so I’m interested in local and regional collaborations that involve a range of participants that are integrated enterprises that have upstream and downstream flows, and where the voices of everybody are at least able to be heard and not closed out of the conversation. On the other hand, one of the most important ways of working is to take action. I work rather quickly, so I like to see resources and see opportunities and pull these different things together and try and make something happen because I feel that sometimes we get bogged down in planning and strategizing and this goes on and on and things remain status quo. When people actually see change they can embrace it, but when you talk of it often you can’t really envision it, so the great thing about action is the momentum that it gains. We can see these small networks of people everywhere in small actions, coming together (and sometimes flying apart again), getting to know what works in one context and being able to see the stories that are happening all over the world in all different kinds of ways, benefiting all kinds of different people on different levels. It’s a wonderful experience and it happens not just in physical space, but in immaterial ways. It can happen in a range of ways that provide socio-economic and socio-environmental benefits. It can also give people a foothold to maybe take a step out of the poverty that they’re struggling with. It might give them the opportunity to be able to perhaps make better decisions because it just gives them room to breathe. So I’m interested in how all this can liberate us and can open new ways of thinking about organizational structures, and new people to work with. I trust that is possible, where there previously wasn’t a history of working with particular groups, to bring disparate groups together. That’s really exciting.

Are there any projects you feel are particularly exciting?

I see great projects everywhere around the world. There’s a ton of stuff going on in India alone. There is such a diverse range of restoration actions occurring in Kalkata. For instance, there is a fantastic municipal-scale project that pretty much takes all the garbage from the city and creates a whole formal waste picking economy that allows people, that were previously organized informally, to send their children to school. They’ve been able to create fish farms and produce agricultural projects using grey water runoff. In Delhi there was another project that also formalized waste pickers and it’s saved Delhi 20 million tons of CO2 a year. There are projects where ashas (midwives) can use open source technology on their cell phones during visits to remote rural villages so they don’t have to carry large textbooks with them. Many are illiterate so they can’t read, but now they can turn on a cell phone and get access to technology that allows them to be able to extend and share (diagrammatic) knowledge and to pass that knowledge on by working with their patients to reduce child mortality and post-natal complications associated with child birth. There are projects where waste water remediation has been used to clean up rivers by biotically remediating discharge from large slum communities to create gardens in yoga centers and at the same time improve the quality of life of the people living in nearby slums. There is a lot of different foot-powered transport making a comeback in cities in India as well. All kinds of projects are happening in every sort of way that you can imagine and it really gives me hope to see that localized projects can happen and turn around communities and environmental disasters on a local scale.

Credit: Rekow, Lea. Steven Hartman (interviewer and editing), Peter Norrman (recording) and PJSA (transcription). Transcript of full Bifrost Interview. Originally published in bifrostonline.org, 21 September 2018 (CC BY-SA 2.0).