In times of crisis, Bangkok is finding space to grow its own food on rooftops

In times of crisis, Bangkok is finding space to grow its own food on rooftops

15 Aug 2020 06:01AM

Asia
By Jack Board

BANGKOK: In a neighbouring province of the Thai capital, in one of the metropolis’ hottest and most polluted industrial zones is not an obvious place to start a farming enterprise.

But above the dusty, busy streets in Samut Sakhon, a concrete space that before had done little except radiate heat is now a little oasis. 

A sprinkler gently sprays water across beds of leafy plants and herbs and flowers. It is peaceful up here.

Importantly though, this rooftop garden has become a place of function and purpose for those who tend it. The building is home to the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), an organisation that provides legal and social assistance to vulnerable overseas workers. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, migrant workers were among those who lost their livelihoods and were unable to return to their home countries due to ongoing border restrictions. 

Suthasinee Keawleklai, MWRN’s coordinator, soon saw a growing problem – these workers were going hungry. “I noticed that people were starving because they had to cut their living expenses because they were furloughed and had lost their jobs. They had to do whatever it took to save money. They came to ask us for vegetable cuttings,” she said.

Ko Saw has found joy in learning the art of growing vegetables in this rooftop garden. (Photo: Jack Board)

Instead of trying to find ways to donate food, she looked up. “A friend of mine who’s into organic farming suggested that we should grow more vegetables. I told my friend that there’s no space. My friend said ‘if you have a rooftop, it can be done’,” she recounted.

A few months on, about 30 migrants – mostly workers from Myanmar and their families – care for the garden themselves in their free time, transferring seeds, cleaning and watering the transformed space. And the vegetables have become a daily food staple during uncertain times.

“Whoever comes can just grab them This is what we do. We don’t separate who helps or who doesn’t help. If they come here, they can take the vegetables to eat,” said Ko Saw, a member of MWRN and now a keen gardener.

Rooftop gardens like this are not designed to be relied upon for food, but they can play an important role in filling gaps during times of crisis. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked interest in urban farming over the past few months. In Thailand, looming concerns about food insecurity driven by climate change also means that urban farming is poised to be a crucial long-term resilience tool.

The rooftop garden in Samut Sakhon is small but functional and a boost to the local community. (Photo: Jack Board)

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

The Thai City Farm project at the Sustainable Agriculture Foundation Thailand has been sharpening urban residents’ farming skills for more than a decade. With a focus on the economically disadvantaged, especially slum communities, the project is aiming to build resilience among them.

Communities like the one in Samut Sakhon are the beneficiaries of guidance about how to set up their urban farm operations. Others are provided with soil and seeds to kickstart their planting ambitions. 

Overall, Thai City Farm helps oversee more than 450 community projects, a number which has accelerated quickly in recent times with 210 new projects being launched during the COVID-19 period.

“There are so many people who fell through the crack because they have no food of their own and never learn how to grow. When they are out of a job, they have no money to buy food. They have to wait for donations,” said Varangkanang Nimhatta, the head of the project.

She says that the basic skills to grow food have largely disappeared from Bangkok’s urban fabric. It is expected to be a growing problem with the United Nations predicting that about 70 per cent of the global population will live in cities by 2050.

“Nowadays, it’s clear that urban people barely have any skills to produce food or truly understand the origin of their food, food-producing areas, or farmers,” Varangkanang said. “Do we want people in the city to 100 per cent rely on themselves? No. But we want to rely on agricultural work in urban areas, as a tool, to make people learn basic skills

“Apart from that, we think that learning to become a producer will make people understand the true origin of the food, and become a consumer who supports sustainable, organic, and natural agriculture, as well as agriculture that supports small farmers to be able to make a living, agriculture that does not destroy the environment and our surroundings,” she said.

It is a mantra shared by one of Bangkok’s pioneering urban farmers, Nakorn Limpacuptathavon, the “Veggie Prince”. He has been growing and promoting a sustainable urban lifestyle for more than 12 years and his backyard today in the district of Lat Prao is brimming with greenery.

“We want people to re-learn and re-connect with nature again,” he said. “A crisis is like a catalyst – a catalyst to awaken the people. “The way to solve this problem is not hard. Everybody can do it.” 

The “Veggie Prince” has been cultivating his own small space for 12 years. (Photo: Jack Board)

READ: Interest in urban farming sprouts in Singapore amid COVID-19 outbreak

READ: New company by Temasek, Bayer to develop vegetable seed varieties for vertical farming

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