Third Horto d’El Rey community workshop meeting on December 10

The north side of the Horto d'El Rey from Amaro Branco
The north side of the Horto d’El Rey from Amaro Branco

Last Thursday evening was the third Horto d’El Rey community workshop meeting. Per the research plan, residents of all the neighborhoods surrounding the garden (Carmo, Amparo, Amaro Branco, Bonsucesso) were invited to this workshop along with heritage experts. The turnout wasn’t quite as good as the first workshop, but much better than the second; in total we had enough participants to fully engage in the planned activities.

The first two workshops focused on identifying why the Horto d’El Rey is important and problems and issues associated with the garden. In this third workshop meeting, the participants discussed possible solutions that they could initiate and, ideally, independently implement. The participants agreed to discuss various ways to:

  1. help educate the community about the importance of the garden
  2. work with the owners of the garden to help protect and improve the garden
  3. address issues with crime
  4. explore the creation of a community land trust

The most popular topic was education and the least popular was ways to address crime. The first three items resulted from areas that the community identified in the first two workshops. The last item — the community land trust — was a bit of an experiment as it was an idea that I introduced because it seemed to offer a potential way for the community to directly control and manage the garden. While the participants wanted to explore the idea of the land trust, it did not directly originate from their earlier work.

One of the issues that I’ve struggled with in these community workshops is the degree to which my students and I intervene to direct the participants. Ostensibly, because we are using a community-based participatory research method, we strive, as much as possible, to empower the participants to discuss what they want using a method of their own choosing. In practice, I’ve found that because most people are not familiar with this methodology, they often request help and guidance and are very receptive to the ideas of conventional experts. My challenge, therefore, was to balance between facilitation of the workshops and leading the workshop, with the latter outcome one that I wanted to avoid.

For the most part, the community-based participatory research methodology has worked well. Based on feedback I have received, and if I had more time, it would have been useful to explore this method with the participants to help them understand their overall role in the research better. By the last workshop, however, most of the participants seemed to be comfortable and familiar with the facilitation process.

But, the land trust idea was clearly in the direction of leading a part of the workshop because the participants were not familiar with this tool, which is apparently unused in Brazil. My approach was to 1) respect the participants’ decision as to whether or not to discuss this idea and 2) try to provide information about land trusts rather than provide instructions on what the participants should do to implement a land trust. In other words, I tried to avoid directing their actions and instead tried to support their own exploration of the idea. To this end, my students and I created a site on the Internet with information on community land trusts, including case studies and ways to fund these endeavors that is accessible to the participants. Again, the goal is to catalyze interest by the participants in taking on this task.

For those of you not familiar with community land trusts, they are typically organized by an NGO/not-profit organization that buys land and then manages it in the public interest. They are often used in urban areas to help control the unsustainable appreciation of land values. In this case, the NGO owns the land and then creates long-term leases for homeowners. In this way, the NGO controls the value of the land, helping to keep it affordable for lower-income individuals. These kinds of land trusts are also used to help conserve agricultural lands as well as to conserve public parks.

In Brazil, it is typical for most land to be conserved by the government; from what I’ve been able to ascertain, there is not a tradition here of NGOs buying land and then conserving it in the public interest. A land trust removes the responsibility of conservation from the government and places power directly in the hands of community members. While potentially a useful too to help conserve the Horto d’El Rey, such an endeavor would be far from simple as it would require significant organization and fund raising to purchase the land, but it is theoretically feasible. And, as far as I can tell, there is not any legal impediment to the creation of a community land trust in Brazil.

In sum, participants at the meeting wanted to explore the idea of a community land trust further. While I will be returning to the United States soon, I will continue to work remotely with interested community members in providing information and international contacts to help further their work. What was especially encouraging was the interest that the participants had assuming leadership of the workshop process and continuing to meet, on their own accord, to work on solving problems with the garden. Ideally, therefore, this research project will continue in the absence of my physical presence, which is a very desirable outcome.

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