We also want greens in our meals: community gardens in the Philippines
One of the founding mothers of the Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines, Ofelia Bagotlo, describes how community gardens on vacant city plots are providing vital nutrition for the urban poor.
I work for the Homeless People's Federation of the Philippines in Payatas, which is in Quezon City's district 2. Quezon City is part of the Manila Metropolitan Area and is the largest city in the Philippines – in both population and urban poverty.
Half the city's population lives in urban poor settlements, and district 2 has the densest concentration of urban poverty. The federation was born in the barangay (district government area) of Payatas, where I live, and its pioneering savings groups were formed and managed by waste-pickers who lived in the slums surrounding the mountainous garbage dump in its centre.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been in the Philippines for well over a year, and we still don't know how long it will last.
Besides the terrible health situation, people have lost their jobs and cannot go out to find work. Because of lockdowns and the closing down of transport systems, people are forced to stay in their houses and cannot go out to earn.
Maybe middle-class families can manage under these restrictions, but the urban poor who live day-to-day are really suffering – especially when it comes to food. With no income, families can't put food on the table and there is a lot of hunger.
Grassroots women and organisations are key to growth
A short time back, a friend in the Quezon City municipal office called me and invited us to join a project our city's mayor, Joy Belmonte, was initiating in food sustainability.
Food is our serious need now, so we were ready to join. The mayor has made urban farming a big part of her programme for the city, and she wanted to work with grassroots women and grassroots organisations to convert idle plots of land in the city into vegetable gardens.
So a small group of us started to look for vacant land in our parish to start a garden. About a kilometre away from my place in Payatas is the village of Amlac where we found a vacant lot of about 450 square metres. First we talked to the landowner, and then we talked to the president of the village to ask them if we could start cultivating that land. They agreed.
We started with only three women. I asked our parish priest to spread the word that if anybody wanted to join us, we were going to raise vegetables together on that empty land. As a result, more people joined us.
Initially, we divided ourselves into five groups to do our gardening. We got some young guys in the community to help us clear the land and make the planting beds. The mayor provided us with seed starter kits, and we made our own organic liquid fertiliser from kitchen waste. A friend had taught me how to make this, so I could teach the others in our group.
From small shoots…
Slowly, slowly, the vegetables that we planted grew – leafy greens, tomatoes, long beans, bitter gourds, aubergines, pumpkins, peppers, radishes, onions and even bananas. And our project kept growing too.
Now our group of volunteer gardeners has grown to 38. We're mostly women, but some men have joined us too. We sell some of the vegetables to earn a little income, but most are for our members to take home, so they can put nutritious food on the table for their families.
The mayor visited our urban community garden in Amlac. She was so happy to see that even though people don't have work, and don't have any way of earning, and don't have enough money to buy things, they are happily harvesting the vegetables they had grown themselves. Food is not a problem for us now, because of the vegetables we grow in our garden.
Community garden network is growing along with the greens
Other groups in the city are doing the same thing. Now there are 160 community vegetable gardens on vacant lots all over Quezon City, providing nutritious food and additional income for thousands of low-income urban farmers and their families.
In our district 2, 11 hectares of idle land has been turned into vegetable farms. We hear from our friends in the federation in the city of Iloilo that the municipal government wants to replicate this community gardening project there.
The mayor and the city councillor have asked me to take training courses in agro-enterprise and organic farming, so I can pass on those ideas and techniques to other communities that want to grow their own vegetables.
Common ground – working together
I realise now that people living in an urban poor settlement cannot do this kind of gardening by themselves – especially in a crisis like the one we are in.
We need to help one another, and work with the government, to get land for farming and to spread the knowledge about how to grow healthy, organic vegetables. This is not the time to fight with the authorities or to complain so much.
What we need to do now is help one another. If every city government could do what our mayor has done with us, to help us make these gardens on idle land, nobody would go hungry.
People can feed their own families, even if they don't have money to buy food in the market. In their own back yards or on land in their local communities, they can get the nutritious greens they need for their families.
- Read how land on a former garbage dump in Chiang Mai, Thailand has been transformed to become a lifeline for the area’s urban poor
Ofelia prepared this blog post in May 2021 as she worked virtually with Indu Agarwal of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) to prepare a film about the community vegetable gardens in Quezon City. This was part of Slum Dwellers International’s ‘Rough and Ready Advocacy’ project. https://www.sparcindia.org/