Monday, March 31, 2008

Urban Farming in Parañaque

This post is a little bit serious and not directly related to my own garden.

It sings of the general benefits of poking around! On a recent walk in a subdivision nearby, I entered the world of the migrant urban farmers who survive on selling produce grown on other people's land.

I had visited several urban farms run by community organizations before, as well as those little empty-lot gardens maintained by the helpers of wealthier families in the metro. But I'd never seen people actually enter gated communities-- this particular one had the strange condition of having both large mansions and poor security-- and set up crop on unused parcels of land.

Romy has been in Manila for 20 years now. Once a squatter, he is now part of the nearby Gawad Kalinga community. I chanced upon him as he was getting ready to fill his large catchment hole up with water.

Apparently, he uses an gasoline-powered pump to course water from the street's sewer into the hole, now overgrown with vines after months of non-use. He then dips a pair of large watering cans in, and hooks them onto a wooden rod, which he balances on his shoulders. There is a technique in tipping the heavy steel buckets at the right angle to dispense a proper amount of moisture while walking in between rows. He showed me his various tools, and instructed me on which rakes to use during different kinds of weather.

Nearby was a collapsed and neglected trellis with alugbati and ampalaya thriving despite the heat. Obviously, this was for family consumption. Beside that was a large cleared area, where Romy was preparing to plant a new crop of pechay and lettuce. He uses NPK fertilizer and urea, claiming that the plants will not grow on this poor soil without them. His produce is usually sold to buyers from Divisoria, where many individuals and establishments buy their veggies.

On top of the giving you the freaky feeling of knowing that some of your food is probably "nourished" with untreated sewage (E. coli, bleach, motor oil, etc.), it makes you think about the exodus of farmers from their native provinces. Poor soil conditions, lack of transport to market, high input prices drive farmers to city centers. Often they stumble upon a general lack of opportunity and end up being squatters.

Migrants to large cities (especially older men and women) bring with them valuable knowledge about farming systems and climate, often leaving a vacuum in traditional technique transmission back home. (I myself have gained much valuable information from our past household helpers, who have come to Manila from their farming life in the province.) The settlers also face new challenges in the city: they must learn to improvise when faced with a new set of variables, water sources included.

While many may will find Romy's practices completely appalling, some may choose to take it as an indicator of how skewed the Philippine farming situation is in terms of poverty, migration, food security, and food safety. Needless to say, I came home to tend my garden with much more vigor after this stroll. Next I'll write about Pauli, another farmer I met that day.