sweet potato sunset
I have been sitting on this post for a while now; it was three months ago, to be exact, when I started writing it. Part of it is guilt about not having made much progress with my supposed ‘research project’ on urban ag. Part of it is a genuine lack of certainty about what exactly my thoughts are on urban ag, and what I could possibly write to contribute to the discussion. Which is why I am going back to school. For a long-ass time.
Starting in April, I spent a few weeks working with an urban ag co-op in Bamako. We sat under a mango tree for several hours a day talking about their issues and problems – illiteracy, c0-op organization, lobbying power and lack of agency concerning legislation about agriculture practices in Bamako, land tenure and insecurity, water issues, lack of resources, lack of NGO presence. The list goes on. I met with officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Chamber of Agriculture, the Regional Direction of Agriculture, and talked with researchers, ministers, officials, attachés, ad nauseum. The particular co-op we were working with is extraordinarily well organized, has a clear vision of where they want to go, and has some pretty significant connections within Bamako (their former president is now the president of the Chamber of Agriculture in the District of Bamako). But that doesn’t get them far when the system is not built to support them.
diagramming different organizational strategies
Bamako is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Africa; construction of offices and hotels and apartments takes precedent over land used to grow lettuce or beets, and farmers (who don’t, incidentally, pay income tax) don’t really have much power in the face of huge Libyan or Chinese companies that come in to build their massive complexes; the government doesn’t give weight enough to the potential problems with relegating producers to the periphery (or farther) of the city (i.e. how will the food be transported in to the city because what good does a vegetable market do 35 km from Bamako if the food is needed in Bamako?); a co-op expect is not really well positioned to move forward if out of 40 members, only 2 are somewhat literate; technical assistance and extension agents are there, but have only a vague sense of what is really needed and don’t work on an individual level with the producers. To further render difficult the task, the individualist mentality, built from the scarcity paradigm, tends to reign supreme: people group together not for the benefit of the group, but for the gains they can get, as an individual, by aligning themselves with other people. In other words, each member of the co-op is acting as a single unit that happens to be loosely associated with the larger group; land is cultivated individually, resources are owned individually, inputs are acquired individually – the only thing cooperative about the co-op, is their capacity to access things like NGO financing and trainings.
urban compost - the potential is huge.
All of this is quite daunting, and has caused me more than one existential crisis of the ‘what-the-hell-am-i-doing-here-anyway’ persuasion. The co-op I was working with in April, when it came right down to it, really just wanted resources. Someone to landscape new farming plots they had bought outside of the city; an organization to finance a tractor; organized transportation in and out of Bamako once they are inevitably kicked out of the city. And who am I to judge them for wanting these things? The problem becomes creating a sustainable development model from these things. Getting an NGO to buy you a tractor does not automatically teach you how to operate said piece of machinery, and said NGO will not help you when it falls into disrepair. There are organizations doing literacy trainings and capacity building work but the problem is that the linkages don’t exist between the organizations in place and the co-ops that could really benefit from their services. State budgets are not constructed in a way to support long term growth, but look to shorter solutions to ‘reduce hunger’ or ‘increase productivity’. It’s a systemic problem that runs the length of the development chain – there are gaps and shortages and breaks in communication and mismanagement of funds and the list goes on.
But back to urban agriculture itself. Until the governments of cities realize how vital it is to the survival of ever-expanding urban populations, it will not be prioritized amongst city planners and zoning officials. If a city doesn’t demands that it be able to feed itself, it will constantly be relying on resources from an ever-more-scarce population of rural producers that often don’t have the means to produce even enough for themselves. Until we put a heavy enough emphasis on sustainable and safe food systems, come up with the innovations need to create these systems, are empowered enough to become a part of what we’ve created, we will forever rely on the currently negligent systems in places that have repeatedly and consistently failed.
So there’s my diatribe. (Excuse me while I step off my soap box and regain some composure.)
There is a way that this can work, and there are places and people and cities putting the process is in motion. The world is not an impossible puzzle to figure out; it’s just a complicated one. The fundamental need to feed ourselves – while slowly being moved to the top of the priority list of policymakers and other key people in the mix – is a need that will not go away. Cities cannot rely on rural areas to provide for them while continuously grow bigger and bigger and leaving behind a shrinking population of farmers. So abandoned lots in Detroit and Baltimore will become food gardens, and plots not yet turned into apartments or offices in Bamako will produce onions and carrots and sweet potatoes. Chickens and goats will be raised next to kindergartens, and it’ll all be cobbled together somehow. Eventually, though, the green space in cities will hopefully be fruit trees and cabbage patches rather than decorative ivy; city zoning will take agricultural production into consideration; and the concept of eating locally will be supported by governments and states, not just NYTimes op-ed columnists and CSA members.
gardens and football games