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Community Gardens :Is Growing Food, Growing a Movement?

I posted a comment to the GLW List about community gardens. I pointed out that the Socialist Alliance often argues for community gardens in its local government election campaigns such as the one currenty in Fremantle.

Many members of the Alliance are enthusiastic about the urban farming movement in Cuba especially in the wake of Roberto Perez tour here last year.
GLW coverage of tour
Transitions to sustainability
Cuban experience: the challenge of fossil fuels and climate change [ Roberto Perez ]
Roberto Perez 's tribute to Australian permaculturalists
Roberto Perez on bio-fuels, agribusiness & the food crisis
Cuban permaculturist: "Climate change means we must change"
Roberto Perez Live in the NinFM Studio
Roberto Perez - Empowering Community - Part 1
Roberto Perez - Empowering Community - Part 2
Roberto Perez - Empowering Community - Part 3
Roberto Perez - Empowering Community - Part 4

We utilize the documentary The Power of Community in our reach out work and the Perez tour itself was a partnership between socialists and permaculturalists. I know one SA member who had also been part of Permaculture teaching tours to Cuba going back to the 1990s.

But there's a bit more to the story.

I can't speak for other centres, but here in Brisbane we have a regular presence at the city's largest City Farm at Northey Street and have conducted workshops there on the environment movement. To the north of the city we have a regular weekly presence at the local vegetable markets and initiated a community garden project in Sandgate-- at the PCYC in fact.

So we're not strangers to urban agriculture which we tend to package under the heading Permaculture or community gardens. However, aside from the greening of our cities what's the political point?

The political point?

I think there is a significant political point to be gained from engaging with the community garden movement:
  • For the political activist it enriches your environmental understanding and your respect for the complexity of ecology. So it's a course in biology.
  • Gardening like this also humbles you because you soon realize that despite your own efforts so much more food has to be produced elsewhere to feed you.us. So how can it done sustainably?This means that your outlook gets located within a new focus that is very concrete and very basic .
  • When you join with others in a community gardening situation -- while many cannot and will not grow beyond the green thumbs aspect, you are networking with others in your local community in a project that is ongoing. Within that context the whole environment change and climate change challenge is unavoidable -- thats' the stalking monster.
  • To be frank, too, that's where the environment movement is at for the moment generally -- into sort of rarefied good deeds, into individualism and local engagements -- rather than building broad mobilisations. But it is among these sorts of networks that we can work towards the organising that such a movement will require.So its' like 'consciousness raising' I guess.I mean that in the same sense as the womens' movement began through a process of consciousness raising initiatives.
  • We're also finding that we can open up a dialogue by deploying such tools as the documentary The Power of Community which has in this neighborhood locale gone down extremely well.We can pull 30 to a screening. In like mode we've addressed similar crowds over the new democracy process in Venezuela. and 21st Century Socialism. So we are indeed putting down green roots while raising red solutions to climate change and community empowerment.
  • But once you begin to explore the whole 'urban farm' thing the logic of suburbia begins to break down and more questions keep cropping up.So , in the case here, where there is a debate over the future use of the Deagon Race Course -- we advocate a people centred agenda: community housing, city farms, etc rather than one driven by profit centred real estate development.
While I've written often here about the merging of socialist perspective with sustainable environment management theories like Permaculture, Norm Dixon sent me a link to this post about Growing Food, Growing a Movement on a blog called Working Class Perspectives.

Sherry Linkon notes the divide that separates organic vegey gardeners colonising inner city gentrified suburbs, from the working poor . She then goes to point out something else:
One more urban farm won’t, of course, revive our national economy, nor will it soon solve the problems of hunger among poor and working-class residents of the city, or even of this one neighborhood. But livable wage campaigns and sustainable urban agriculture programs offer good models for how to improve the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods.
In the US there are projects that are engaged with these issues, --such as in Youngstown -- but here the urban farming movement either tends to be made up of a middle class layer of hobbyists , or is the province of marginalised ethnic communities, such as the new layer of migrants from Africa, who garden to produce the vegetables they used in their homeland. For the moment it isn't essentially politically engaged -- despite the location of some of these farms in what were suburban political hotspots in the past -- or consciously aligned to the working class.

But I think Linkon has a point . The sort of hippiefied greening that embraced the inner urban left ghettoes of the sixties and seventies advocated collectives and cooperatives as ends in themselves. While there's no doubt that a potent impulse exists to grow your own, the challenge still is, I feel, to nurture and develop that impulse into something that is not limited to mulching.

This conflict was evident during the Perez tour where farming and politics seemed to collide and many audience members could not accept that his was a political message not just an agricultural one.

The fact is, I think, that like the new environment movement itself we are still experiencing early days and while we can stand on the shoulders of the alternative culture movement -- a la Nimbin -- it is the limits of that movement that we need to address while being aware and deferential of its achievements. But it would be a mistake to ignore those achievements. and not seek to advance them further by broadening the political context beyond the neighborhood.

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