Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Philippi Horticultural Area: Preserving agricultural land is urgent

There’s been news recently about the PHA: about the need to protect the agricultural land of the PHA, for the vegetables it produces for the City of Cape Town. Nazeer and the PHA have been fighting for the PHA to be preserved as farmland, and I stand alongside them.

Some older commercial farmers have said: you don’t represent us! This may well be because they are old and need to retire, and have little to retire on— they have worked for themselves all their lives, and there is no pension plan or medical scheme to fall back onto. From the time I’ve spent in the PHA, I could imagine it a hard place to retire. I see them trying to cash in, or already having cashed in and sold to developers, who leave the land fallow as they wait eagerly for zoning to be approved. And I think: perhaps it is a luxury for me tie myself to the land I steward. It must hurt to move on.

There have been several excellent articles about the fight happening in the High Court, and I don’t know more than the authors of those articles about the status of the PHA. I speak as a middle-class academic heading slowly into full-time farm-related activities. I don't want to ignore the racial and class battles at play, but I want to explore the possibility that the needs of the poor and the needs of the middle-class, (and the needs of the city's residents more broadly), all overlap.

Protecting the PHA is a core responsibility of the City, firstly by retaining rural zoning.

At the same time, this is not the end of the City’s responsibility (and, perhaps only the beginning of the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture). Rural or even agricultural zoning is not enough. The divide between the commercial farmers (many of whom are selling and leaving) and the landless farmers (who do not have the money to buy up land) is a reflection of the core challenges faced by farmers. Farming, especially small scale farming, especially physical labour: that these are complex, difficult activities. There ARE still commercial farmers in the PHA who continue to farm despite not having made money for themselves for several years. If the city saw crime in the area as an issue, or the agricultural extension office appreciated and supported the types of capital inputs uniquely needed for urban organic agriculture (for chippers or fencing, for example).

The current battle over the PHA comes after many years of neglect of that area by the city. Commercial farmers— including a robust organic agricultural tradition in parts of the PHA— have been selling up and leaving because it is dangerous, hard work, with little money, and their children will not take on the baton. While the area is close to the centre of the city, and close to market, it is no longer a safe place to raise children. While it remains potentially viable as a livelihood for very poor farmers if they are given land, this does not mean that the small scale commercial farmers aren’t also worthy of our compassion. Those who want to make money by paving over the city and are making boardroom decisions— developers and politicians— are making a choice that cannot be undone. It is the decision to use the space that is resulting in a free-for-all, and this is ultimately the city’s responsibility. It is not easy to re-ruralise built up areas. And there is a massive moral weight to that choice, given both income inequality and food insecurity (lack of dietary diversity in particular) set to worsen with climate change.

To make farming work, the City has to see urban farming as viable, important work. The farms cannot be seen as simply bits of land in a free market economy, or worse, as opportunities for densification. The land cannot be judged by what is looks like when you drive by fallow bits, as that is as much the consequence of political action as the driver or it. Work done by small-scale farmers involves stewardship that is quite different from larger scale operations. It is in the City’s interest to build agricultural traditions— not wine grapes in 17th century vineyards— but the basics: fruits and vegetables to nourish the people of our city.  This should be viable as a living for the middle-class, as well as for the poor. If it is not viable for the middle-class (commercial farmers) it will never really be viable for the poor, even if it appears to be, for a time.

Climate change makes this urgent. Diversified urban farms are essential in an age of uncertainty— small-scale farmers can adapt and grow varieties that work in our climate, we are flexible. I have eight different types of granadillas growing, all suited to slightly different climates. Each year, I throw out pumpkin seed and harvest seed from the best pumpkins that needed the least work. For all this resilience, it takes time to build a farm. For the land once farmed organically in the PHA, it makes me shudder to think of the work undertaken covering that land with compost, year after year, only for builders rubble to be dumped on it: turning all their work to dust. Soil building takes at least five years, growing perennials takes 5-7 years of investment, growing a windbreak takes 10-20 years, learning how to farm well takes decades. If we wait until the problem is urgent and in our face (when fruits and vegetables become too expensive for the majority of our city), it will be too late. 

Our family is on the front end of a trend: there are plenty of young (ish) people looking to farm in the city: they need viable small plots where they feel safe. Far from undermining the goals of poor farmers or even the landless poor in townships, having a mixture of farmers changes the colonial and condescending tone that continues to plague conversations around “local” fruits and veg in Cape Town. That is, farmers don’t need your help in the sense that we’re needy nor do we want you to buy our food/plants out of charity, we need help in the sense that we present a clear, rational response to urban problems, and that response will continue to encounter roadblocks until a faceless economic system acknowledges that climate change is real, urgent, and caused by capitalist excesses. While the economy more broadly is anonymous and distant, our city officials are not. They are human and face difficult decisions. What we ask is that they do not let money or even self-preservation define their choices. The needs of the poor and the needs of a hot planet are aligned.

We face a similar battle in our little set of smallholdings, one that is less public. Raising the possibility of densification and development in a place like ours leads us on an inevitable path that ends with our soil, our work, the connections we have cultivated in our neighbourhood, and even our land itself, all disappearing. It also leads to transience and lack of stewardship: a willingness to do with the land whatever they want, as the whims of the economy and the pressing political priorities shift. Yet the soil is central to our life, our wellbeing, and our future, even in the city. And so, we farm as though all this were not happening, as stewards. 


suscol said...

Interesting piece. And your note that irreversible decisions that generate wealth for a few, are made around board room tables (and in council).
Please do though, note that the PHA is a peri-urban farmland - producing city-scale volumes that have fed the city for 140yrs. As disdiguishable from urban agriculture, which has no proven role in securing food security.
So while a large support base for the PHA are actually city gardeners - I would like to request that the PHA be regarded as the rural farmland that it is.

Concrete Gardener said...

Thanks so much for this. I agree that this is rural farmland (our home in the southern peninsula is also rural farmland within city limits- and also peri-urban-- so I'm well aware of the difference). I know the jury is out on urban ag as providing food security, but I think this is in part because food security has historically been narrowly defined as synonymous with hunger, and because calorie crops are typically not grown. There's more evidence of urban ag providing dietary diversity and providing closed loops with regards to waste. I would argue that the contribution of the PHA is to dietary diversity/a healthy, nourishing diet, not food security per se (though potatoes are grown in the PHA so maybe to the extent that's a staple calorie crop, maybe I'm wrong).

My reference to urban ag here I think speaks to a few things that I have found makes the type of agriculture I'm practicing on 2 acres uniquely urban, despite being on rural land: First, we have abundant organic sources of free nitrogen, with which to make compost. Secondly we are close to market and can market directly to customers. (possibly thirdly: our farm practice is threatened by urban growth). These are the things that I think make our agriculture "urban"-- and I think this is in common with much of the PHA. These characteristics make things like chippers and fencing urban investments, in terms of making use of urban waste streams and not getting pumps and crops stolen because of our proximity to the city. I also think many farmers in the PHA are de facto small scale farmers.