Rowan Fraser

Having got used to thinking of the city as being all concrete, iron and burgers, I was surprised to discover a series of vegetable gardens in Manila recently.  Lodged on a south-facing hillside, out towards Eastwood City, below a flyover, beside a jeepie stand.  The first time I was running late, but the second time I stopped in and looked over the garden.  A boy darted in and picked a cucumber.

‘Seeing urban and rural as distinct is misleading and bad for development’ states a refreshingly frank DFID report (PDF p. 5).  The report goes onto detail the ways in which urban and rural areas are getting mixed up, interacting and essentially causing a breakdown of the two term’s neat and false separation.  Urban agriculture, which involves vegetable production, livestock rearing, aquaculture and flower and ornamental gardens in urban and peri-urban areas, is one such breakdown.

The term, which carries the acronym ‘UA’, is a growing area of interest for numerous cities, citizens and consumers – even TED got in on it (‘About a year ago, I decided to become a farmer…’).  And while YouTube is stocked with clean hipsters planting beet in Minnesotan lawns, in this post I’ll look into a few lo-fi small-scale operations in two of the larger secondary cities in the Philippines, Naga and Cebu.

Urban Animal Farm

Both cities are increasing engaging UA, though perhaps begrudgingly, led by the Philippines’ impressively active communities.  One such member is Mr. Rufo Llorin Jr. who has set up and runs Naga City Goat Farm, a 15 hectare farm which as you can see is located in a largely residential area on the northeast of Naga City.  ‘It started as a hobby, ‘ says Llorin, ‘but now I have four farm hands who help run it with me.’  The farm breeds goats, and makes goal milk products including cheese.

High production costs eat into his earnings.  These include the cost of importing the goats, mainly from the US, for breeding purposes and the higher costs of land, taxes and utilities in urban areas as compared to rural areas.  Still, the farm is economically viable for Llorin, who makes a decent income from it, even if he views it as a social enterprise.  Some years he can make USD 1000 in net profit on his goats, not bad for a country whose average per capita gross income sits around USD 4000.

Naga City Goat Farm sells its products, especially its milk, on the local market, as well as nationally. The bulk of its consumers come from Naga City.  In this way, the farm conforms to one of UA’s best-established selling points: its good for local food security, local sustainability and the general self-reliance of the town.  As such, its not surprising that the local administration is paying increasing attention to UA.

Naga City: half fields half town

In 2010, the then-president of the Philippines … launched

and while the programme has to some extent been abandoned, and certainly not widely adopted by local governments, it is testimony to the rising profile of UA, especially in the Philippines.  The national Department of Agriculture has offices across the country, many of which are rolling out UA programmes at the local level.

Wilberto Castillo, Chief with the Department of Agriculture says that UA is growing in Naga City.  The city administration itself seems committed to urban agriculture.  Under Naga City’s current Comprehensive Development Plan 2011 – 2020, three of the four initiatives designed to ‘speed up economic development in Naga,’ (PDF p. 3) are related to urban agriculture (the fourth being tourism).  These include an agriculture investment programme, a series of community garden projects and a livelihoods support programme which includes farming.  This is quite a sizeable commitment.

A look at the city’s land use plan makes it clear why this is so: there’s a lot of green in it.  Indeed, over half of the official municipal area is given over to agricultural land uses.  Within the city boundaries, farmers produce rice, sugarcane, coconut and corn (main crops), as well as a host of less popular crops.

However, despite announced dedication to UA, Naga City has been slow to implement proposed plans.  This just adds to the constraints farmers and UA face. One glaring issue is sectoral competition for land.

As Naga grows (the Philippines is urbanizing at almost 2.5 per cent per year – relatively high, cf. Japan at 0.5 per cent), there is increasing pressure on agriculture land to convert to other land uses, namely residential and industrial.  In a single year, the city can loose over 1000 hectares of agricultural land to other uses.  In this context, the role of the local government to strategically plan and safeguard urban farmers becomes increasingly important.  The city agriculture office aims:

  • to provide technical assistance to farmers via improved crop production technology
  • to increase the production of grains (rice and corn) and other food crops within the key production areas
  • to enhance the productivity and increase farm incomes through a diversified livelihoods approach
  • to promote organic farming techniques to increase agricultural sustainability.

Last week, I called the agricultural office to see how they were getting on with this ambitious program of support.  Firstly, the city has focused on agricultural barangays (villages) within the municipality, and has sought to improve farm-to-market roads and irrigation networks.  Additionally, it has been looking at higher yield varieties of the staple crops, options for planting out vacant plots, and ways to encourage farmers to plant ‘high-value crops’ like cocoa.  It is, in effect, a program of agricultural intensification.

‘The real challenge’ says the Mayor’s Office, ‘is to strengthen the City Agriculturalist’s Office.’  There is an excellent road map in place for technical and financial assistance to farmers, however, after reading the city’s reports, it becomes clear that the program is not achieving all that it set out to. The quality of services delivered under this rubric varies widely. Some years, financial assistance hardly grows and technical assistance actually declines.  The Mayor’s Office is now encouraging greater consistency.  ‘A stronger agriculture office will enable us to implement ongoing agri-business initiatives.’

Rip up that lawn: you don’t need it anyway

Necessity, as the proverb goes, is the mother of invention and with increasing pressure on the agricultural sector, and agricultural practice, arise news ideas and new ways of working.  As Naga turns to the utilization of idle, vacant or under-utilized lands (many of which may not be ‘agricultural’ land per se), Cebu, a similar sized city on an island much farther to the south, is exploring options for planting walls.

Mr. Eric Smith heads Youth for a Livable Cebu (YLC), a small but highly active civil society group based in Cebu interested in all things sustainable.  Over the past few years, YLC has been running vertical farming projects with the overall technical input of City Sky Farms and in collaboration with local businesses.

YLC takes plastic bottles (the family-sized soda bottle kind,  1.5 liters or so), paints them greens, lies them on their sides and cuts holes in the top.  The bottle are filled with soil, planted, and strong up on wires, one above the other like a curtain.  ‘We usually partner with local business which can actually use the plants,’ says Smith.  Common varieties include basil (useful for the pizzeria which was the partner on that project), lettuce and Chinese cabbage (pechay).

While Smith reports growing interest in their projects from the City Agriculture Department of Cebu, there has been no official approach, and to date the YLC’s vertical farm projects are almost all independent of government.  When I ask Smith what’s next he says there are plans afoot for a vertical garden manual, and ideas around community gardens.  I ask Smith about soil contamination and pollution issues, and he says that the group uses compost developed by a local pizzeria – the same pizzeria with whom the group partnered on an earlier project.

‘We are hoping to make unused urban spaces more productive for agriculture.  In the process, these upgraded areas increase in value because they also become more aesthetically pleasing,’ he says.  This issue then, of the usability of urban land and in the case of YLC, not even urban land but rather urban space, is a central concern.

Sounding surprisingly metaphysical for a policy research report, the IFRPI recently became enthusiastic over the ‘dynamism and diversity of reality’.  For the IFRPI, UA is one way in which policy can get a little closer to capturing that dynamism and diversity, and with cities, civil society and businesses increasingly open to urban agricultural practice, I guess that beyond the better food, the sustainability, and the livelihood aspects, one other benefit of UA, too often forgotten, is how much jollier our realities all are.

Banner photo by Lufa Farms

Photo 1 by Naga City Goat Farms

Photo 2 by Linda

Photo 3 by Victorgrigas




Categories: Food Security, Livelihoods, Resilience