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Allotment Gardens

Towards food security and urban environmental management 

Allotment gardens established in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, are providing the much needed food, nutrition and income to the farmers. Among the non-monetary benefits of the allotment gardens are the strengthening of social values since they have become places where people can meet, discuss issues and enjoy spending quality time with their families and friends in a clean and natural environment.

Historical background

The history of the allotment gardens in Germany is closely connected with the period of industrialization in Europe during the 19th century when a large number of people migrated from the rural areas to the cities to find employment and a better life. Very often, these families were living under extremely poor conditions suffering from inappropriate housing, malnutrition and other forms of social neglect. To improve their overall situation and to allow them to grow their own food, the city administrations, the churches or their employers provided open spaces for garden purposes. These were initially called the “gardens of the poor” and were later termed as “allotment gardens”.

Allotment gardens are characterized by a concentration in one place of a few or up to several hundreds of land parcels that are assigned to individual families. In allotment gardens, the parcels are cultivated individually, contrary to other community garden types where the entire area is tended collectively by a group of people. The individual size of a parcel ranges between 200 and 400 m2, and often the plots include a shed for tools and shelter. The individual gardeners are organized in an allotment association which leases the land from the owner, who may be a public, private or ecclesiastical entity, provided that it is only used for gardening (i.e. growing vegetables, fruits and flowers), but not for residential purposes. The gardeners have to pay a small membership fee to the association, and have to abide with the corresponding constitution and by-laws. On the other hand, the membership entitles them to certain democratic rights.

The importance of allotment gardening in Germany has shifted over the years. While in times of crisis and widespread poverty (from 1850 to 1950), allotment gardening was a part time job, and its main importance was to enhance food security and improve food supply, its present functions have to be seen under a different point of view. In times of busy working days and the hectic urban atmosphere, allotment gardens have turned into recreational areas and locations for social gatherings. As green oases within oceans of asphalt and cement, they are substantially contributing to the conservation of nature within cities. What was previously a part time job is nowadays considered as a hobby where the hectic schedule of the day becomes a distant memory, while digging the flowerbeds and getting a little soil under the fingernails. However, in situations of weak economy and high unemployment rates, gardens become increasingly important for food production again.

Establishment of Allotment Gardens in Cagayan de Oro City, Phillippines

In 2003, the first allotment garden of the Philippines was established in Cagayan de Oro as part of a European Union funded project. Meanwhile, with the assistance of the German Embassy in Manila and several private donors from Germany, this number has grown to six self-sustaining gardens located in different urban areas of the city, enabling a total of almost 70 urban poor families to legally access land for food production. Some of the gardeners belong to the socially most disadvantaged group in the city, the garbage pickers of the city’s controlled landfill site (GEROLD etal., 2005). Besides different vegetables, the gardeners grow also herbs and tropical fruits. In some gardens, small animals are kept and fish ponds are maintained for the gardeners to avail additional protein sources for the daily dietary needs. Each allotment garden has a compost heap where biodegradable wastes from the garden as well as from the neighbouring households are converted into organic fertilizer, thus contributing to the integrated solid waste management program of the city. Further, all gardens are equipped with so-called urine-diverting ecological sanitation toilets. Ecological sanitation is a three-step process dealing with human excreta. Urine and faeces are contained, sanitized and recycled, thus protecting human health and the environment. The use of water is limited for hand-washing only and by using the sanitized urine and faeces for plant production, the need for artificial fertilizers is reduced. Unlike in Europe, where allotment gardens are usually located on public lands owned by different government entities, all allotment gardens of Cagayan de Oro are established on private land due to the lack of publicly owned open spaces. Prior to the establishment of the allotment gardens, the Chairman of the Barangay (= city district) approached private landowners and asked if poor residents of the Barangay could use their vacant land for food production only.

The conditions for the land use were then formalized into a memorandum of agreement jointly signed by all stakeholders: the landowner, the local government unit, the academe and the community members. The urban poor families committed themselves to use the land for food production only but will not construct residential structures except for a small shed for tools and other garden implements. The local government facilitated the community organization while Xavier University in cooperation with the GTZ Water and Sanitation Program provided guidance on integrated crop management, composting and ecological sanitation through a series of workshops and hands-on trainings. The production practices for vegetables in allotment gardens are similar to those in rural areas, however, differ in the choice of suitable cultivars as well as in the reduced application of agrochemicals due to the proximity to populated areas.

Urban farmers in an allotment garden
Urban farmers in an allotment garden

Contribution to food security

Prior to the establishment of the allotment gardens, a food security survey was conducted among 300 respondents in four of the pilot city districts to determine the food security status level of households and, thus, compile baseline data to evaluate the impact of the allotment gardens in a later stage. Since the full range of food insecurity and hunger cannot be captured by any single indicator, the so-called “CPS Food Security Supplement 1” was applied in the study to measure the food security scale. Specifically, the CPS core module finds out about household conditions, events, behaviours, and subjective reactions such as (1) anxiety that the household food budget or food supply may be insufficient to meet basic needs; (2) the experience of running out of food, without money to obtain more; (3) perceptions of the respondents that the food eaten by household members was inadequate in quality or quantity; (4) adjustments to normal food use, substituting fewer and cheaper foods than usual and (5) instances of reduced food intake by adults and children in the household. The results showed that on the adult scale, only 29.3% of the respondents were considered food secure, while 31.3% were food insecure without hunger and a high 39.4% were food insecure with hunger (Table 1).

The levels on the child scale were somewhat different. Only 22.3% could be considered food secure, while 43% were food insecure without hunger and 17.7% food insecure with hunger. The latter number shows that adults are willing to share food with their children and rather suffer from hunger than their children. 17% of the respondents did not have children, thus explaining the remaining balance to 100% (Table 2).

Table 1: Food security status of urban poor in Cagayan de Oro on adult scale

Categories Frequency (#) Percentage (%)
Food secure 88 29.33
Food insecure without hunger 94 31.33
Food insecure with hunger 118 39.33
Total 300 100.00

Table 2: Food security status of urban poor in Cagayan de Oro on child scale

Categories Frequency (#) Percentage (%)
Food secure 67 22.33
Food insecure without hunger 129 43.00
Food insecure with hunger 53 17.67
No child 51 17.00
Total 300 100.00

Two years after the implementation of the allotment gardens (and one year after the outside funding had ended and the gardeners were able to sustain their activities without financial support), a survey was conducted to assess the socioeconomic effects of the project. The perceived benefits of the allotment gardens in Cagayan de Oro are ultiple. 25% of the vegetables produced are consumed by the family, 7% are given away to friends and relatives while 68% are sold to walk-in clients, who come mostly from the direct neighbourhood. They appreciate the freshness of the produce, the convenience of proximity as well as the lower price compared to the public markets. The gardening activities, a secondary occupation for all the association members, have augmented the available income by about 20% while the vegetable consumption has doubled for 75% of its members. This is especially notable since the average vegetable consumption in Cagayan de Oro is only 36 kg per capita and year, which is one half of the recommended minimum intake as suggested by FAO. Besides of these benefits, the respondents particularly appreciate that the allotment gardens have strengthened their community values since it is a place where they can meet, discuss issues and enjoy spending quality time with their families and friends in a clean and silent natural environment which they are deprived of in the densely populated areas where they live.

Political Outreach

The project has been awarded with best practices award of the German Government in 2004. The German Government also signalled further support for up scaling the activities in future. The city government of Cagayan de Oro is presently mainstreaming the concept of allotment gardening into its overall city planning and development, which will also use participatory GIS-based approaches to identify suitable areas for further allotment garden sites. This will be supported by a city ordinance that will give tax holidays and other incentives to landowners who make their areas available for allotment gardens.

Robert J Holmer
E-mail: Robert.holmer@worldveg.org

Axel Drescher
E-mail: Axel.Drescher@sonne.uni-freiburg.de

Longer version of this article first appeared in Christine Knie (ed.) 2005: Urban and Peri-Urban Developments – Structures, Processes and Solutions. Southeast Asian-German Summer School
Prog. 2005 in Cologne/Germany, 16-29 Oct, 2005: 149-155.