Who owns the Garden?
By Stephen Bartlett
“Who owns this garden?” asks a ten-year-old girl from Field Elementary School, a rake in hand to spread some mulch. It is a warm day in May and she is on a walking field trip with her fourth grade class.
“No one owns this garden,” I reply. “How could someone own all these wild living things? You want to put an earth worm on a leash?” I smile. She purses her lips and smiles back, but she is not satisfied.
“I mean, who owns this land?” she insists.
“Well,” I say, “the church there owns the land, technically speaking. But anyone who wants to can come here and harvest and eat. So you see nobody really owns it. Or you could say God owns it,” I conclude, pulling at some edible weeds called purslane moving in on the lettuce and radishes.
“Anybody can come here and eat? Really?” Her face is intense and her eyes wide in question.
“Yup, anyone who is hungry or strolling by here can just stop in and eat whatever they want to. That’s why we call it a community garden. It belongs to the community, which means everyone.”
“Even if they never work here?” she asked.
“Even if they never work here,” I say.
The girl stopped spreading the mulch, deep in thought. Finally, she said, “Cool!” and her eyes shone as she smiled, and then ran for the wheelbarrow to get more wood chips to spread with her classmates.
This conversation took place in the John Leake Memorial Garden at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky in a garden coordinated by Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville (SAL). ‘Sal’ means ‘salt’ in Spanish, one small but salty part of a growing movement of urban agriculturalists cultivating available urban plots in cities across the U.S.
Millions of family farmers have vanished from the countryside due to unfavorable economic conditions, slanted policies and resulting bankruptcies. As a response, urban agriculturalists and local farmers are developing rural-urban partnerships and producing food in or near where the buyers live in the cities. City people are looking for healthy fresh food produced in healthy soils and animals raised humanely. The loss of small-scale farmers, often called ‘peasants’ (‘people of the land’), has happened in other countries as so-called “free trade” has impoverished farmers around the world. This happens when surplus and cheap foods from Europe and the U.S. are exported and “dumped” on the markets of other countries, sold at prices below the cost of production, which means local farmers go bust.
So why are 80 percent of the hungry people in the world rural? Don’t rural poor people have better access to food than the urban poor? The answer is, “No, they don’t.” This answer has to do with the question that girl in the garden in Louisville was struggling with. In contrast to the sharing represented by that community garden where anyone can come and harvest, in many parts of the world land, water and even living seeds have come to be the private property of rich individuals and transnational corporations.
Collective or shared land holdings formerly common in many places have been outlawed and broken up by the buying up of individual land titles given to families or by driving people from the land through violence or threats of violence. Whole communities and even indigenous groups speaking the same native language have been displaced from their ancestral communities. To make matters worse, the surplus production of many small-scale farmers once sold locally cannot compete with the cheap imported products, so those growers too are getting cash-poor and hungry in the dry season and leaving the countryside.
So when the price of foods shot up last year, the number of hungry people in the world exploded to over 1 billion. The staple foods corn, wheat, and rice almost doubled in price not because of any shortage, since 2008 had a record grain harvest worldwide, but because capitalist investors and even pension fund managers were making expensive bets that the prices for food would go up in the future, buying what are called “commodity futures.” The big bets themselves drove up the prices of those foods. Some people and agribusiness companies were making fortunes while one billion people were suffering from hunger. Poor people went hungry not because of a shortage of food but because they didn’t have enough money to buy food or enough land to grow their own food.
So what is the solution to this? We all need to rebuild our local food economies and buy less food (and less seeds, chemicals, fertilizer) from giant corporations. When we all have access to food grown nearby, by farmers or community gardeners, or can go back to growing the food for ourselves, we will all be a lot more secure. When that happens, when we all have access to land to grow food, and seeds and water, chronic hunger will begin to disappear. It really is as simple and as difficult as that! We say no to the privatization of the goods of nature!
*Stephen Bartlett is a Response contributor and an urban agriculturalist in Louisville, Kentucky and Coordinator for Education and Advocacy, Agricultural Missions.
Learn more at www.agriculturalmissions.org.