The 15th Garden, a cross-border movement for food sovereignty in Syria
Report of two presentations about “The 15th Garden” by Ansar Hevi. This report combines the presentation and discussions during a workshop at Reclaim the Seeds in Nijmegen on March 4 and a meeting in Amsterdam on March 6 2017.
Ansar Hevi shared with us her story about the 15th Garden, a beautiful, inspiring project for food sovereignty in Syria, where people show their strength via self-organization in a country in war. “In order to understand this project, we have to understand what is happening in Syria”.
Ansar showed a map of Syria – not one with occupied areas, which we always see in the news – but showing the agricultural produce. Based on this map the political situation and start of the war in Syria was explained. The media in Europe write about the violence and cruelties, but meanwhile the life goes on and so does the revolution. We were the first to watch the latest movie Field of Battle by Abou Naddara where we see farmers continuing their everyday work on the field, with the sounds of war – bombs and gunshots – close by. “They have to, because they are the ones who feed the people. If they stop farming, their community has no food.” and “Farming is about long term planning. Your work for the next 6 month.” Ansar explained how food is used as a weapon. But, as always, there is resistance from the people. She shows a picture from the south of Damascus which states: “One day we will blast the soil open with flowers. The Revolution continues.”
In 2011, the uprising started in the countryside. On the 15th of March there was a demonstration in Damascus in solidarity with the people in Egypt. On the 18th of March, there were also demonstrations in the south. People were angry at the police. Children had sprayed graffiti on the walls of their schools with sentences they’d seen in Egypt. These children were taken away, tortured. Their parents protested and screamed hopelessly, but the governor told them: “Go home, and make new children.”
It is remarkable that this were often regions were the Baath party from Assads father had been popular in the past because land reforms of this regime that was relatively socialistic in the ’70s. People had free health insurance, free education etc., but no political rights whatsoever. The government employed half of the working class. But in the meantime there were 17 secret services to control the population and each other. Also the agriculture sector was controlled by the state which is one of the reasons that it is so hard right now to start up local and an independent food production.
Since the 1990s, Syria had become more and more liberal economically. There was a dictatorship with neo-liberal policies that aligned with the bourgeoisie elites of the country. Because of reduced financial support from abroad the regime had to reduce its expenses. This resulted in the dismantling of the social system. Still, Syria was food sovereign, but farmers had to produce more export, water-intense crops instead of food for the own population. Up until 2011, agriculture was the most important pillar of the economy with 27% of the GDP (in comparison with the industry, only 7% of the GDP). Before 2011, roughly 37% of the country was used for agriculture.
But after the uprising in the countryside in 2011, everything changed. From the beginning food has been used as weapon to control the people. Around the first besieged cities the agricultural land was ruined. The army of Assad wrote on the walls “Starve or go down on your knees”. They started to undertake all kinds of methods to starve people and make them surrender. Food is used as weapon in various ways:
- bakeries are bombed;
- people in prison are starved;
- fields are burned, right before harvest time;
- seed banks are bombed, which makes many varieties, adapted to that specific climate over thousands of years, lost for ever;
- agricultural fields around Kobani are mined;
- fruit trees are cut and burned;
- urban and rural communities are sieged;
- ‘policy of scorched earth’: the army goes to an area, burns the soil and forbids access to the area.
In this way, farmers have been pushed to the cities more and more. They are unable to leave the city, and so they have no other option than to start urban city farms, often on a roof. “If you’re lucky, you have a taller building next to you, so you are protected against gunfire.” Syrians are proud people. “They don’t want to be objects of development aid – they want to be in charge of their own lives: that is food sovereignty.” In besieged areas, people even exchange their car for a kilo of rice.
People do anything to obtain seeds, which they can sow in their (urban) gardens. These seeds have to be open pollinated seeds, so that the people can save more seeds for the next planting period.
While the news is extensively covering the international refugee crisis, there is less attention to the people who remain in Syria, many of whom are living under siege. With their cities under attack, it can be extremely difficult to get basic necessities, like food and fresh products. The short movie ‘Love during the siege’ gives a good impression of the life in a besieged neighbourhood.
The 15th Garden is bringing life and vivacity back to these war-torn cities across Syria. It supports locals starting gardens in empty lots, teaching them skills, and provides assistance to existing urban and rural farms. Two main goals of 15th Garden is to get food to those trapped in cities while raising awareness about food sovereignty.
In Europe the 15th Garden still has to explain people about the cruel situation in Syria. There is a lot of attention for IS. “But there is an important difference between IS and regime: IS is proud about their cruelties while the regime is hiding it. In the past years many more people have been killed and injured by the regime.” There are about 50 communities besieged by the regime and 2 by IS, in one case even together with the regime.
One major obstacle has been the acquisition of seeds to get the garden projects started. The regime has always been centralised the distribution of seeds; farmers had to hand in their harvest and received new seeds the next season. And obviously the war situation and sieges made it even harder to get access the right seeds.
Another problem at the start was the lack of knowledge. Many people in the urban areas didn’t know how to grow food. And this resulted in some disappointments as well. To spread the knowledge and to educate gardeners people in Syria publish and distribute newspapers, add tutorial on Youtube and use the radio to reach people.
Ansar: “It’s beautiful to see the creativity of people, their passion, their will to make it work, and they manage!” Currently, the 15th Garden is also thinking on setting up ways to teach farmers to make and repair their own tools and machines. There are still many challenges, everybody in the network wants food sovereignty, during and after the war: decide about what you want to eat. access to land and to seeds.
Support the 15th Garden
In Amsterdam the presentation resulted in a talk about how people in the Netherlands can help and contribute to the network. Some ideas that have been mentioned:
– Collect seeds to send to Syria. It is important to collect the right seeds: open pollinated, from crops that do grow in the Syrian climate and soil, preferably crops that people like to grow. It is better to have larger quantities of a few good crop than many small bags of many different crops. It would be best to organise the packaging and transport of the seeds before we start to collect them.
– Help with the production of tutorials for the Syrian gardeners. A lot of info has already been shared on Youtube. There are still some topics uncovered.
Similar support is also organised for other professions like fire fighters and doctors.
– Spread the critical news about Syria. Also in the Netherlands people see the IS as the main problem in Syria while many more people are killed by the Assad regime. It would be good to spread the message that also Assad has to go to make peace possible. This can be done by contacting the media but as well by organising solidarity protests in the streets when something happened (again) in Syria and join Syrian protests in the cities in the Netherlands.
At the meeting in Amsterdam there were as well people who could help with awareness programmes for schools or raise the topic within Syrian women organisations.
– Raise money for the 15th Garden network. The network is doing a lot of good work but for some of their activities they need some money. A fundraiser can go well together with spreading information about the continuous struggle and revolution in Syria. This could for example be done by organising a benefit dinner. It is already possible to donate. Transfer money to:
IBAN: DE27 4306 0967 1182 7353 00 / BIC: GENODEM1GLS / GLS Bank
(It is a German bank account. So it could be the case that there will be charges for international charges. Please check this with your bank!)
– Invite Syrian refugees (and other refugees) to your existing garden project or start a new project with refugees. There are concrete plans to do this at a garden project at a refugees centre at the former Bijlmer Bajes.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to help with one of those ideas or if you have another idea to support the 15th Garden in the Netherlands.