Monday, March 06, 2006

Back to the Garden

In his writings, Richard Heinberg talks about the four possible options available to industrial societies during the coming decades of oil depletion. Despite the fact that they seem to be the two we are currently following, there are two which won't ensure much hope for the future: "Last One Standing - The path of competition for remaining resources" and "Waiting for a Magic Elixir - Wishful thinking, false hopes, and denial." The other two, "Powerdown - The path of cooperation, conservation, and sharing" and "Building Lifeboats - The path of community solidarity and preservation," are far more likely to shelter our society from catastropic collapse. (Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, 2004.)

Recently I have encountered two wonderful examples of exactly what Heinberg is talking about in his book. The first has actually been going on for quite some time, but the fact that we are carefully protected from knowing much about Cuba, except that it is a Bad Communist Dictatorship, has kept us from hearing about it. Wide distribution of this piece, and of the documentary of the same title, should change that, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. It's the story of how Cuba survived the loss of their supplies of oil, food, and 85 percent of their trade economy after the fall of the USSR. In brief:

"Try to image an airplane suddenly losing its engines. It was really a crash"... A crash that put Cuba into a state of shock. There were frequent blackouts in its oil-fed electric power grid, up to 16 hours per day. The average daily caloric intake in Cuba dropped by a third... So Cubans started to grow local organic produce out of necessity, developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers as petrochemical substitutes, and incorporated more fruits and vegetables into their diets. Since they couldn't fuel their aging cars, they walked, biked, rode buses, and carpooled.
In 2004 a group called The Community Solution , from Yellow Springs, OH, came to Havana to observe and film this amazing experiment in community "powerdown" and "lifeboat building."
Since the early 1990s, an urban agriculture movement has swept through Cuba, putting this capital city of 2.2 million on a path toward sustainability.

This need to bring agriculture into the city began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of more than 50 percent of Cuba's oil imports, much of its food and 85 percent of its trade economy. Transportation halted, people went hungry and the average Cuban lost 30 pounds.

"In reality, when this all began, it was a necessity. People had to start cultivating vegetables wherever they could," a tour guide told a documentary crew filming in Cuba in 2004 to record how Cuba survived on far less oil than usual.
Please do read the entire piece, for a powerful uplift of spirit at the evidence of what the human community can do when the need arises. These are the opening paragraphs:
Havana, Cuba -- At the Organipónico de Alamar, a neighborhood agriculture project, a workers' collective runs a large urban farm, a produce market and a restaurant. Hand tools and human labor replace oil-driven machinery. Worm cultivation and composting create productive soil. Drip irrigation conserves water, and the diverse, multi-hued produce provides the community with a rainbow of healthy foods.

In other Havana neighborhoods, lacking enough land for such large projects, residents have installed raised garden beds on parking lots and planted vegetable gardens on their patios and rooftops.
The second example has been much in the news lately, if, that is, you live in South Central L.A. It is the South Central L.A. Farmers' fourteen acre spread of community gardens. Just over a year ago, the local paper L.A. City Beat published a lengthy history of these gardens:
The space is the South Central Community Farm, a 14-acre community garden just south of downtown smack on Alameda Street, right up alongside the industrial warehouses of the City of Vernon. The contrast with community gardens elsewhere in the city is shocking. These aren’t tiny weekend projects with a few tomatoes and California poppies. The 330 spaces here are large, 20 X 30 feet, many of them doubled- and tripled-up into larger plots, crammed with a tropical density of native Mesoamerican plants – full-grown guava trees, avocados, tamarinds, and palms draped in vines bearing huge pumpkins and chayotes, leaf vegetables, corn, seeds like chipilin grown for spice, and rank upon rank of cactus cut for nopales. The families who work these plots are all chosen to receive one because they are impoverished by USDA standards, and use them to augment their household food supply. These are survival gardens.
(Trouble in the Garden)
The above article has the best history of the gardens and explanation of their problems I have found. The problem is that the people who have been farming here since 1992 don't own the land they have turned into a paradise, a jungle, a rich food source for the community. They were granted use of it under a revocable permit obtained by the L.A. Regional Food Bank. The story of the land ownership is too exceedingly baroque to go into here, thus my recommendation of the article. The owner of the land, a developer named Ralph Horowitz, first began trying to evict the farmers two years ago. During the course of creating a farming community of 350 families, however, a direct democracy was also created: has become a model for community land-use. Its formal decision-making structure, park planning, political outreach, and indefatigable presence at City Hall – they’ve spoken at every City Council meeting this year – have transformed the place into a democracy workshop.
There’s a General Assembly meeting every week, where all 350 or so families can vote on farm matters like marches or buying a generator. The captains hear concerns and are in charge of security and logistics. Tezozomoc and Rufina Juarez are the elected representatives interacting with lawyers and city officials. And then there is a massive outreach campaign in which everyone does his or her part, bringing in supporters, money, and outside organizing expertise.

“We used to just like work on a little parcel, do our little gardening thing, then just go home,” says Maribel. “We would interact, but mainly just like neighbors. But now, since the whole movement, sometimes we vote and we gather and tell stories.”
And these people have no intention of leaving, as a sign hanging on the fence says "Aquí estamos y no nos vamos." They have been involved in litigation with Horowitz,the City, the Food Bank, since the first eviction notice. On March 1st they received yet another eviction notice, this one mandating that they leave the premises by March 6th, tomorrow. This sent the Farmers and their supporters into overdrive - protests and vigils were held, but more effectively, the Farmers returned to City Hall, demanding to be heard by the City Council and the Mayor, South Central Farmer Push and City Hall Budges.

It's not at all clear from this article just how far City Hall has budged. There seems to be the possibility of a very expensive buy-out option, and the Trust for Public Land may or may not be involved. The mayor's position on this is also unclear to me. I will try to keep up with this story in the coming days, and let you know what the end of the "Havana Experiment" on American soil turns out to be. Anyone with further links to this story is urged to leave them in comments. Only LAIndymedia seems to be covering it, although From the Wilderness is publishing public alerts.

Will this land, a wasteland full of dumped trash and debris fourteen years ago, remain a survival garden for well over a thousand people? Or will it enter a new life, as a Wal-Mart warehouse site? Powerdown, Lifeboat, or...Last One Standing?

More information: South Central Farmers, Save Our Garden, Day to Day Story on SC Farms (NPR), LA Voice Article,
Why the Nation's Largest Community Garden Must Become a Wal-Mart Warehouse.

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