By Geela Garcia

Gardening, as is shown in whatever form over Instagram, may have been in vogue among stressed out urban denizens during the prolonged lockdown due to COVID-19, but for urban women and their families in Pandi, gardens are a lifeline.

During more than two months of severe lockdown, from March to May 2020, and the series of restrictions on travel and economic activities, the food supply was affected due to limited government food subsidy and the loss of employment and other means of livelihood. However, with the produce from their vegetable plots, urban poor communities in Villa Lois, Pandi in Bulacan, were able to weather the community quarantines and keep themselves healthy.

Planning for the community garden of Pandi started in April, the height of the lockdown. It wasn’t any random gardening because the women wanted to learn about agro-ecology. Agro-ecology brings science into food production of whatever scale by using natural and environment-friendly techniques. It is mindful of the interaction of plants, animals, built environment and people. Thus, it took the women until August to set up their community garden, which is now a part of the state housing complex that they occupied in 2017.

Collective action is necessary for a successful community garden

On March 8, 2017, during the International Working Women’s Day, urban poor women led some 12,000 people to the historic #OccupyBulacan movement which reclaimed over 6,000 empty homes constructed by the government in Pandi. At two o’clock in the morning, they moved in, bringing with them food and other supplies that proved useful when they repelled attempts of police and civilian authorities to eject them. In the end, the government blinked in the face of determined resistance and the Kadamay urban poor occupy movement won.

Bebe recalled that the areas around housing units were unwelcoming. “Damuhan siya, parang gubat” (Tall grasses are growing, it’s like a jungle), she said.

Bebe’s family was with her throughout the occupation and stood with her during the attempts by the police to drive them out of the complex. “Gusto rin nilang magkabahay. Sa hirap ng buhay sa Maynila, pag wala kang bahay, kababayad mo pa lang, may utang ka na naman. Kaya sumali sila sa Kadamay kasi gusto nila ng sariling bahay” (My children also wanted to have our own house. Life in Manila is difficult if you don’t own one. That is why they joined Kadamay because we want to have our own homes).

To this day, the community that emerged from the occupation still suffers from various forms of harassment. Households were not provided with running water and electricity. To be able to work, they have to apply for a pass, certifying they are residents of Pandi. Kadamay, as an organization, was red-tagged or falsely named as “communists’  front” by the military.

The pandemic worsened their condition. Many of the residents lost their jobs which were of the kind that just allowed them to survive daily. Fe, who makes eco-bags for a living, stopped working when the strict quarantine was declared on March 15. “Hindi na ako nakapasok simula nung pandemic, mahina po yung gawa” (I didn’t go to work since the start of the pandemic because there was little demand (for the bags).

Families in Pandi did receive weekly relief goods from the government at the height of the hard lockdown but these were hardly enough for the needs of their family. Carmina said that the weekly ration of three kilos of rice during the hard lockdown was not enough for her family of seven. For every meal, they need half a kilo of rice. When the government financial assistance came, they were already deep in debts.  “Tiis talaga nung time nung lockdown, pinagkakasya lang yung ibibigay eh” (We tightened our belts during the strict lockdown. We made do with whatever were given to us by the government), Carmina added.

While in lockdown, Carmina said that they had nothing to do, “Nagchichismisan kami, naglalaro ng BINGO para may magawa (We passed the time idly and we played BINGO).” Some of them had vegetable patches that yielded only enough for a household. But since the land in Pandi is fertile, the organization proposed to start a community agroecology garden, run by women, five months after the lockdown was declared.

Kadamay members of Pandi attended workshops on sustainable farming and agroecology ran by MASIPAG, an organization that advocates sustainable farming. During the workshops, they were taught organic farming. This makes food safe and healthier to eat. The women also learned about climate and their relation to animals and people. By having gardens, they can help reverse land degradation and climate change.

The initial stage of setting up a community garden was not easy. Ryan, the agro-ecology trainer from MASIPAG, emphasized the importance of collective action for a successful community garden. At that time, some members were hesitant or showed no interest in garderning. For Carmina, this is because they cannot imagine the difference a community garden could make.

Carmina said she understood why some women did not join the project at first. Some mothers were already burdened by house work and caring for their children that the garderning project would add to their multiple burden. “Sa bahay, napakaraming gawain, my gad, umiikot lahat. Syempre nanay ako, obligasyon kong maglaba, buti na lang may kasamang tumutulong, yung anak kong binatilyo” (At home, there are just too many things to do. My God, you are surrounded by chores. I’m a mother, it’s my responsibility to wash clothes and it’s a good thing that my grown up son helps me).

But Carmina was determined to join the community garden project. She adjusted her time so that she can attend to all her responsibilities “Sa bahay maaga ako gumigising, kasi sa ngayon medyo busy na rin sa trabaho” (I woke up early, especially when she returned to work).

Other women who initially committed to the project became busy when school resumed because distance learning turns parents into tutors or teachers of their kids’ lessons. Some of them did not resume working because they decided to help their children with their lessons.

Anne harvesting malunggay/moringa leaves with her daughter.

Eventually, the women were pleased by the results of their community gardens. When they need vegetables, like kamote (sweet potato) tops and malunggay/moringa leaves, they can just pick some from their garden. Some of them work on the plots regularly.

Carmina checks the plots every day.  “Gusto ko talaga makita kung may improvement yung garden, chinicheck ko talaga siya. Sabi nga ng iba, araw-araw ko na lang daw chinicheck, pero nadadaanan ko lang naman talaga kasi siya kaya madali lang silipin” (I want to see if there is improvement in the garden. They say that I visit the plots every day. But I pass by everyday so I cannot help but check).

From the community garden of Pandi the women have harvested the usual variety of vegetables – okra, kamoteng kahoy (cassava), malunggay, and alugbati (Ceylon spinach) – but their lessons in agro-ecology gave them more. They planted other vegetables like mustasa, eggplant, and pechay. Those working in plots in Atlantica were able to harvest around three kilos of pechay which they shared with one another.

The rainy season brought typhoons and floods that destroyed some plots but the women started replanting them. On top of lessons on gardening, the women also learned how to make concoctions for fertilizers, plant sprays, herbal salves and supplements, and composting.

Recently, the women have also been invited to join a writing workshop held by the feminist publisher, Gantala Press. Through the writing workshop, the women were able to share and write their own narratives, ensuring that they tell and own their stories.

The workshop was an opportunity to articulate their feelings about their gardens. They also discussed the importance of working together, collective decision making, and solidarity. This makes community gardening and their approach on farming a trove of meanings from every experience of participants in the project.

(Gantala Press’ reading and writing workshop, November 2020)

The first writing session revealed that most of the women came from peasant families.

Nena talked about her life, growing up in Negros. “Yung nanay ko yung nag-aararo at nagpapalago sa bukid. Kailangan sa hapon, may bitbit kang kamote at saging, kasi yun yung almusal mo.” (My mother is a farmer. At sundown, you should bring home sweet potatoes and bananas for breakfast.).

Other participants originated from peasant families from Samar, Zamboanga, and Masbate. “Gusto ko talaga kasing makita kung ano yung Maynila, kasi kulang talaga yung (kabuhayan) sa amin” (I really wanted to see Manila because there are no jobs from where I came from.) said Teresa said.

Another woman summed up the situation in the province: “May nakakain naman kami sa probinsya pero hindi sapat” (We have something to eat but it was never enough).

When they left to seek better lives in Manila, they later found out that life is equally hard. Now living in Pandi, they are part of the so-called informal economy that produces goods for the bigger market but has no job security and with low pay.  They work as seamstresses, sellers of rugs, or owners of neighborhood sari-sari stores.

Attending the writing workshop means sacrificing a day’s income. “Magbebenta dapat ako ng ice candy ngayong araw, pero mas pinili kong pumunta dito (sa workshop). Sayang ang kita, pero marami rin naman akong natutunan” (I should be selling ice candy today but I chose to be in this workshop. I lost a day’s earning but I have learned a lot), said Nena.

(Bebe, Remedios, Regina writing poetry during Gantala Press’ writing workshop)

The women of Pandi intend to continue with their community garden, despite the initial difficulties they encountered. The patience tilling the soil, preparing seed beds and waiting for the plants to grow gave the women enough resources to understand their situation, environment, community and country.

Now, almost four months after they started their community garden, the plots are multiplying that there are now six community gardens in Pandi. “Gusto kong ipakita sa mas maraming pang mga miyembro na kailangan talagang pagbutihin yung pag-gagarden, na maculation ito sa kinabukasan. Nabubuhayan nga ako ‘pag nakikita ‘tong lumago,” (I want to show everyone how useful a garden is, for a better future. I’m happy seeing it grow.), says Carmina. WWW

Carmina’s haiku after the writing workshop with Gantala Press.