Trading jokes with his housemates as the sun sets over downtown Rosario, Argentina, nursing student Miguel Suarez drags a hose across the courtyard of the Medical Student House to water a leafy burrito plant (Aloysia polystachia). Leaning from a lawn chair to pick small leaves, agronomist Custodio “Lucho” Lemos explains that burrito herbal infusions are popular remedies for digestive and liver disorders in traditional Guaraní folk medicine in northern Argentina and Paraguay. A 2012 Brazilian study in the Journal of Medicinal Plants Research found burrito’s oil more effective against E. coli, Candida, and Trichophyton bacteria than first-line commercial drugs Gentomycin, Amphotericin B, and Terbinafine, respectively.1
A block from the historic central avenue Boulevard Oroño, the Medical Student House is part of the Medical School at the National University of Rosario, a city of 1.3 million best known as the hometown of Leonel Messi and Che Guevara. But on Tuesday evenings like this one, the dozen residents have been putting textbooks aside and becoming urban farmers in the new community garden which opened in their courtyard last May.
“It’s called kenaf,” says a female speech therapy student in the Medical Student House garden. She holds out a long segment of pale green stalk, tugging at the fibers. “You know Ford uses it now inside car doors? It’s an acoustic insulator—and very light. I want to know if we can use it inside hearing aids? ” she says, tapping on the back of her ear. Two Malaysian studies from 2014 and 2015 in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine found that kenaf seed extract and oil killed human cancer cells in lab trials and had a cholesterol-lowering effect comparable to simvastatin, sold as Zocor, making it a potential inexpensive “alternative natural source to replace synthetic hypercholesterolemic drugs.”2,3
This garden—where medical students are learning about medicinal plants they grow with their own hands and may later prescribe—is part of Rosario’s pioneering new Traditional and Alternative Medicine Program. The interdisciplinary initiative aims to promote the role of medicinal plants as well as Chinese, Ayurvedic, and indigenous medicine in public health. The project is a collaboration among Rosario’s Department of Health, Urban Agriculture Program, Subsecretariat for Non-Profit Economy, and the National Agricultural Technology Institute.
As one of its core components, the program has established a complete farm-to-clinic system for medicinal plants. In 2014, Rosario’s Department of Health began purchasing medicinal and alimentary plants from the city’s globally recognized Urban Agriculture Program, which links over 500 growers across 700 community gardens. The diverse array of medicinal plants comes from among the 687 seed varieties distributed by the Urban Agriculture Program’s Ñanderoga Seed Bank (Ñanderoga means “our house” in Guaraní). All of the plants are 100 percent chemical-free and organic, with safety and quality guaranteed by a “social certification” system co-managed by the city government, the national ProHuerta gardeners’ network, and the local Vida Verde (“Green Life”) Responsible Consumer Network.
Once purchased by the Department of Health, the medicinal plants are cut and bagged in public health clinics citywide, where trained health professionals prescribe the plants to patients as herbal infusions, free of charge. Among the most common plants are carqueja for detoxification, liver issues, and dermatitis; matico, burrito, rue, plantain leaf, and lemon balm for digestive issues; yarrow for fever; soapberry for arthritis and ulcers; loquat leaf for diabetes; and ambay for coughs and respiratory ailments.
Additionally, since 2013, the program has trained and certified over 100 health professionals—including doctors, nurses, and psychologists—to prescribe plants in clinics and educate patients about their uses. Held at the program’s downtown headquarters in Hospital Carrasco, the three-month training modules cover government-established protocols for the cultivation and use of each plant. They also include opportunities for the exchange of experiences among health professionals, many of whom have been using medicinal plants for over 20 years. The program currently operates community demonstration gardens in four hospitals and medical centers. Health workers and local school groups stop in regularly to learn and help tend the gardens.
The second stage of Rosario’s initiative to promote medicinal plants, already underway, is to produce artisan-made creams, gels, oil, syrups, soaps, repellents, and herbal medicines, free of synthetic coloring and fragrances, for commercial sale. One example is a repellent for mosquitos, a common problem in this subtropical region. The repellent is made from citronella leaf oil and is suitable for sensitive skin and babies, unlike industrial repellents. The city’s Urban Agriculture Program has established its own brand, Rosario Natural, sold both in stores and at weekly artisanal craft markets around the city. The program currently operates two facilities for artisanal production and is in the process of expanding to accommodate larger-scale production.
Knowing many are skeptical of traditional medicine, program coordinator Dr. Marcelo Sauro contends that the initiative has strong foundations. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Traditional Medicine Strategy 2002–2005 led to an innovative ordinance passed in 2007 by the Rosario City Council, calling for the city to “guarantee access to traditional medicines, promote their rational use…and promote a greater contribution by traditional medicine to the public health system.”4 The ordinance cited numerous public health policies in Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, and Peru, among other countries. It was originally drafted not by government officials, but by a group of citizens seeking greater public access to safe, high quality traditional and natural medicines.
In fact, “people in the community often know more about these plants than we do,” says Dr. Sauro. “It’s not hard for them to accept natural medicines, we don’t have to impose anything. Our goal is to complement conventional medicine, not to replace it.”
In Rosario, traditional and natural medicine has deep roots. Thousands of Rosarinos are displaced migrants from rural regions of northern Argentina, steeped in Guaraní folk medicine and agriculture. “With migrants travels their knowledge of ‘forgotten plants,’ both how to grow them and their uses, ” says agroecologist Custodio “Lucho” Lemos, founder and coordinator of Ñanderoga Seed Bank. “This is buenissimo, it enriches our community knowledge.”
Lemos is of Guaraní ancestry himself, originally a tobacco farmer from Corrientes province. He migrated to Rosario in the 1970s, as mechanization eliminated farming jobs. With just five seed varieties, Lemos created Ñanderoga Seed Bank in 1992 as a local civil association to counter the rapid loss of crop diversity brought by encroaching monoculture. The 687 varieties in the seed bank today represent over 20 years of work recovering plants used ancestrally for food, medicine, and other uses through seed exchanges and personal contributions. The 367 members of its Seed Godmothers and Godfathers Network reproduce and multiply the seeds they receive, trading them at Seed Exchange Fairs which draw hundreds from around Argentina. Together, their urban farms form a collective space in which the city constructs biodiversity.
At a recent Ñanderoga Seed Exchange Fair, Lemos picks up several fruits native to northern Argentina. One is a heavy, foot-long purple cassabanana. “It makes a juice that is low in sugar and good for diabetics,” he says. Another is an egg-shaped, bright red tamarillo (tree tomato), which has as much vitamin C as a small orange. Most Argentines have never seen either fruit, let alone eaten them.
The use of medicinal plants became increasingly established in Rosario more out of necessity than environmental awareness during Argentina’s long years of economic crises, from the late 1990s to its meltdown in 2002. At that time, food shortages led to two mass raids on Rosario’s supermarkets, poverty reached 48 percent,5 and there were shortages of certain drugs in health centers—some of which continue today. Some doctors began to walk with patients out of the office and into gardens to teach them about medicinal plants.
For Rosarinos today, the new Traditional and Natural Medicine Program launches at a time of heightened consciousness of health risks from the genetically modified (GMO) agriculture that surrounds their city. Santa Fe Province, in which Rosario lies, is one of the most agrochemical-blanketed regions in the world. Local headlines frequently report new links between agrochemicals and cases of disease. Dr. Damian Verzeñassi of the National University of Rosario Medical School found a 90 percent increase in Argentina’s cancer rates since 1997, the year after the country legalized GMO seeds. His ongoing epidemiological study of 65,000 people has found cancer rates in Santa Fe Province two to four times higher than the national average, in addition to higher rates of thyroid disorders and chronic respiratory illness. In 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that glyphosate, the most common herbicide in Argentina, sold by Monsanto as Roundup, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”6 On January 8, Rosario joined other cities across Argentina in mass protests against Monsanto.
Once famous for grass-fed beef, since adopting GMOs, Argentina has transformed into the world’s leading soybean exporter and fourth-largest corn exporter. Rosario is Argentina’s primary agricultural hub. On average, Argentine farmers spray 4.5 pounds of pesticide per hectare, twice that of US farmers. Spraying regulations often go ignored and/or unenforced. Citizens and their property are frequently doused in chemicals. As these events have been publicized, Rosarinos have become especially aware of the connections between more natural approaches to agriculture and health.
Like Rosario, hundreds of developing cities around the world—from Lagos to Karachi to Chongqing—are struggling to handle the mass influx of rural-to-urban migrants displaced by industrial agriculture. Urban systems are overloaded with demand for food security, medicine, and jobs, among other services.
Urban farming is an important means of achieving food security in developing cities. However, many urban farmers are squatters who frequently battle landowners and governments to secure even small parcels of land. But in Rosario—a city of 250,000 squatters—the city provides secure land for them, from 175 acres in its five Garden Parks to gated community gardens bounded by train tracks and factories on the city outskirts.7 “These are the only urban farms in South America that are permanent, public spaces,” says Antonio Latucca, co-founder and coordinator of Rosario’s Urban Agriculture Program. Agricultural land use is now fully integrated into the city’s 2008–2018 Metropolitan Strategic Plan, including a 75-acre “green circuit” passing through and around the city.
Few cities have been as successful as Rosario in building on migrants’ knowledge of traditional medicine, agriculture, and artisanal production. For its success in reducing poverty and promoting social inclusion during Argentina’s 2002 economic crisis, the Urban Farming Program won the 2004 UN Habitat Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment. Today, the program maintains a staff of 25 professional agroecologists advising city farmers. Its public farms include cultural and educational spaces for adults and youth, holding an extensive array of free farming, cooking, and artisanal craft classes, along with weekly farmers markets. Together, Rosario’s urban farms yield over 80,000 kilograms of produce per year, feeding 40,000 people. They produce five tons of medicinal and aromatic plants, which increasingly supply the new Traditional and Natural Medicine Program.
Only time will tell what new ideas and innovative industries will sprout from urban agriculture in Rosario. By building on the strengths of its rural migrants and forging new connections between city farmers and local industries, including traditional and natural medicine, Rosario is solving key urban challenges from the ground up.