The lab of Vale do Canela

{ Anna Marsh Diary }

The tragedy of the commons: A phrase invoked to describe the phenomenon that occurs when individuals act based on their own self-interest within the context of communal space or resources. In other words, what happens when everyone thinks to themselves, “will this really make a difference,” as they discard a Snickers wrapper in a park or catch a few fish in an endangered zone.

Anyways, the consequences of this conduct are indeed tragic in Vale do Canela, a small neighborhood in Salvador where Canteiros Coletivos has maintained a surprisingly thriving garden. The one hundred or so square foot plot of land, tucked beside a highway and between a couple commercial high-rises, is the organization’s “laboratory.” Close to Débora’s old apartment, the spot seemed like a good place to plant the seeds for this urban gardening organization. But before Débora and the original Canteiros volunteers could even think of breaking ground, they had to figure out what do with the piles and piles of trash covering the land.

Over the course of who knows how many years, residents and workers of Vale do Canela had discarded their trash upon the small plot of land, eventually contributing to what one might call a small landfill. Because “what difference will my empty water bottle make?”

But after sorting all of the trash into four “mountains” – wood, plastic, metal, other – and appropriately discarding the materials, Débora and volunteers were able to begin planting. The recovery of space was made complete by one of Thiago’s murals on a bordering wall – a beautiful tree with actual moss serving as the foliage. Art and nature co-exist.

And three years later, the little spot is still flourishing. Débora, a few volunteers who have recently joined the Canteiros team, and I have spent the past few weeks tending to the space after a bit of a maintenance pause. We’ve cleared a substantial but not surprising amount of trash (one to two large trash bags each week) and introduced a few baby plants among the resilient older ones.

Canteiros’ efforts remind me that while prioritizing one’s self interest can contribute to the destruction of public space and depletion of communal resources, the reverse logic can be applied in great ways. If everyone were to accept that his or her actions and contributions do make a difference within the greater context of our planet, than climate change might not be the greatest threat to national security. And the collaborative gardens in Vale do Canela and a few other spots throughout Salvador serve as an example of what could be occurring on a greater scale.