You may not have a garden, lack knowledge or resources, or don’t want to do it on your own, so the offer to come together in your local community to produce some of your own food sounds like a great idea. Even better to do it organically, because you want to grow healthy food and protect the environment as well.
This great idea has become a reality for many people in the border counties of Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, and Fermanagh in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Organic Centre’s project “Building peace through our shared environment” engages 200 participants in community garden projects and 800 primary-level students in a school gardening programme.
The project works with a range of marginalised groups and individuals from both sides of the border and from the two main traditions on building peace through a range of environmental activities by breaking down barriers between the different communities and thus promoting peace and reconciliation.
The EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation has four strands which have each been integral to the development of these gardens.
Building positive relationships
When attending one of the weekly gardening sessions you are immediately drawn in by the energy, goodwill and positive attitudes of the participants and the project gardener.
Many gardens started with a green field site, often on hostile ground and with unfavourable weather conditions. Working together and growing as a team under the guidance of the project gardener has helped groups overcome the initial obstacles and turned sites into productive and beautiful gardens.
The willingness to help each other is obvious and many groups have organised meetings and activities outside of the gardening sessions.
Acknowledging and dealing with the past
The tough challenge of turning nearly unworkable soil and bad ground into a productive, edible garden brings awareness that it is possible, through teamwork and a common goal, to turn something which appears negative into something positive where everyone benefits. Participants also realised that this is a process – it won’t happen overnight.
In learning how the cultivation of food has changed over the years, participants are acknowledging the past. Since they started gardening they have found a common bond with older generations, their parents or grandparents, and talk about how they all used to grow food and the methods they used. There is a recognition that the traditional way of gardening was always organic – before industrial methods of food production and their dependency on artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides came into play.
A lot of sharing of this nature happens naturally at tea breaks and as people work and talk together.
Developing a shared vision of an interdependent and fair society
Many lessons can be learned from gardening, such as the importance of diversity in the garden – if only one plant variety is present then the whole is much more open to destruction from pests and diseases. Also, healthy habitats require a diversity of space for healthy interactions between pests and their predators. Equity is another important concept. The garden contains many types of plants that require different care. Not all plants can be treated the same, and in order to produce food, allowances must be made for different needs. Each plant rewards you in its own way.
This strikes a chord with a multicultural society, where people from different ethnic, religious or political backgrounds need to compromise and work together to build a fair society. Community gardens create a shared space for a diverse grouping of people that is also an asset for the wider community.
Participants often comment that they have developed a sense of belonging through the project. In learning respect for other living things, they are in turn instilled with a sense of respect for other people by looking beyond their differences.
Cultural and attitudinal changes
Gardening, like peace “growing”, is a process and there are no instant results. It takes time. Accepting the nature of seasonality and letting nature take its course throughout the garden year helps participants realise that changes don’t happen overnight.
Whatever participants made of organic principles at the start, their experience in practicing them and seeing the results of their work has a profound impact on their perception. Producing healthy food without the use of chemicals and artificial fertilizers isn’t just a philosophy any more, it becomes quite normal.
Changes in attitude became most apparent in the cooking sessions, which are an important part of the project. Having grown vegetables with which they were not familiar, participants were now cooking together and eating together. Discussing recipes and tasting uncommon vegetables and new flavours makes an impact and opens people’s minds. Negative attitudes to foreign foods and foreign people become irrelevant and forgotten in the process.
During the first Cross Community workshop at The Organic Centre, there was a marked observation – One school group was laughing and chatting while waiting in a room for the other school group to arrive. As the other group entered, the room fell silent and there was a great deal of tension felt as the kids eyeballed each other. Perhaps this was because it was an enclosed space, but once outside and involved in nature-based activities, interaction and laughter replaced the uncomfortable feelings. Engaging in common activities broke down the barriers their preconceptions had developed and they began to see each other as people engaged in a common goal. One girl said, “They are not as bad as I thought. They’re good fun!” They all said that they would like to visit the other school’s garden to see how it compared with their own. These sessions definitely developed a greater awareness that we’re all just people sharing the same earth and nature.
Composting and recycling are such an intrinsic part of the gardening sessions they become almost second nature to participants. Students in the school garden programme are enthralled with the composting system set up in their schools – the notion of changing waste material into wonderful fertile soil used to provide the plants with the food they need to give the kids food in turn. They continually look at the bottom of the bin to see the dark fertile soil compared with the materials at the top of the bin. This has given them more positive attitudes and know-how about how to deal with waste.
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Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people, healthy relationships
One of the attractions in joining a community garden project is its political neutrality; gardening and growing crosses all beliefs and backgrounds. It is not Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist; it is not right or wrong. It produces food and everyone can agree on that.
This neutrality allows people to come together for a basic purpose. Community gardening empowers individuals, knits together a strong community, beautifies local areas, produces fresh and nutritious food and provides valuable recreational, spiritual and therapeutic opportunities. Growing food together can be a healing process.
The attributes that make a good organic gardener also make valuable members of the community – those who care for the soil and build fertility; nurture seeds, patience and humility; accept failure; prevent diseases rather than curing them; are thoughtful and inventive; and respect all forms of life.
In many parts of the world, especially in war-stricken zones or areas of crisis, producing food is a necessity and it is often about life and death. We are fortunate in that we have a formal peace agreement in place in Northern Ireland and that growing your own vegetables is not about survival. It is more about learning skills and supplementing low incomes. However, with peak oil production and global warming those skills may become ever more important to reduce food miles and carbon dioxide emissions. It certainly will be easier to face the challenges of global warming in harmony with each other and the community garden projects can help in achieving that.
Author: Hans Wieland
Community Food Project Coordinator: Andy Hallewell