by Chingwei Chen
by Chingwei Chen
I smell a smell that has become familiar to me. It is fetid—acrid smoke rises from the pan—its propagator aptly having a name with four letters. Foul to some, yet fervently used by others. While some call it The Devil’s Dung, it will be the base for lunch. Different coloured lentils stew over the stove; I pick out the gases it leaves behind that if not would turn into farts. The mountains gleam through my kitchen’s greased-up windows. I am surrounded by the tallest peaks in the world. More than gleam, the mountains radiate. It is a rare thing to be able to see them this time of year. But the imposed lockdown has brought the clearest, bluest skies in decades. The sun comes in strong bursts through the monsoon clouds, just earlier roaring, as though being born for the first time. Under the shine, slices of white radish that will turn brown and flavourful pickle away. A cast-pan of greens fry, potatoes bubble waiting for spice, rice steam away in an iron pot. Is this the smell of home?
While lunch sorts itself out, I sort out my pantry. Potatoes, cabbages, beans, a couple of gourds. There has been less to choose from these days. This year’s especially heavy monsoon has drowned crops and brought pests to eat what remained. Evenmore, like an ominous scene from the bible, the locusts came. All heads turned to the sky when the swarm flew in unhindered by the pandemic we were all under. A moment where one was not sure if one should gawk or if one should awe, or if one should perhaps do both. One, two, three, twenty-three, four-hundred-and-twenty, four-hundred-and-twenty-one… counting them was impossible. The swarm seemed to make the lost, usual, grey, and heady haze come back. Nature is a sight indeed, both in ultimate forms of beauty and ugliness, whether of creation or tragedy. Heads turned back to the ground when they left, looking further down than where their toes lay, not knowing what would happen next.
The lockdown has brought different ways. Farmers harvest unripely, anxious to make sales. Villagers whose yearly income and families depend on seasonal foraging are unable to do their jobs. Prices are hiked. Fruits are limited. Many vegetables are unavailable. Cheaper-priced produce now come from a country two borders down, sprayed with fresheners to make the journey. If not, arrive with a cloud of enveloping mould. Home-grown vegetables have become the best option. Sellers come by pushing their carts, making their rounds around the neighbourhood in the wee hours of the morning before the blares of authorities arrive. We must vacate before the sun rises. It is during such that sometimes rules must be broken in order to survive. Neighbourhood grocery shops close their front doors openly but open their back doors closely, providing some much needed provisions during this time; their highest sales are packed instant food, beer, and long cigarette rolling papers. An empty stomach is more worrisome than clogged up lungs, hunger being one of the hardest thing a living thing should ever endure. At this moment, my partner walks through the door with today’s slaughter. A young adolescent brings the load fresh to the butcher every morning and evening, trudging from the local slaughterhouse with his bicycle and the daily carcasses. Today we have lung, intestine, parts of spine, parts we cannot decipher, thick pieces of hide, and an eyeball. The butcher’s wife says we must keep the better, meatier cuts for humans to eat. There has been less slaughters she had explained next to the lad huffing by his worn-out vehicle. Nonetheless, our dogs will be happy. Here, my companions lay. Where am I? I must be home.
In the middle of the main road that rings the capital, a red chariot 13-men-tall, carrying the giver of rain, sits silently. The only sound coming is the sound of rain falling on rotting wood. But just shortly before, the chariot was being pulled by 800 men, all in protest, screaming slurs in between hips of hoorahs, violently parading down, fighting for the right to celebrate tradition. They had been waiting to conduct their yearly procession since the beginning of the lockdown. In the end, the crowd was hushed with tear gas and water cannons. The God of Rain was not blessed. As tears rushed down the faces of all parties that day, one wondered, will more crops join what has already been drowned?
The night of the full moon is looming. The next festival will arrive shortly. It will be 10-days-long, starting when the moon is still half-asleep, and ending when she is in full bloom. It is a celebration for the victory of good over evil, marking the day when their goddess defeated the demons. It starts with a grand platter. A conglomeration of grilled buffalo meat marinated with a very generous amount of green and red chillies, a large variety of spices, and then still further spiced by dunking in mustard oil; dried and fried fish; rice, flattened and puffed; roasted black soybeans; different types of lentil patties, some fried with mince, some with egg, some served as is; spiced potatoes; eggs, boiled then fried; fresh and dried fruits; fresh garlic and ginger; several types of bread, sweet and savoury; and lastly, not forgetting, moonshine distilled from different rice, grains, and millets. The meal symbolises luck, fortune, and wealth. It would be a long awaited meal for it was only on festive days as such that anyone could have one—the same feast that they offer to their Gods, with the only exception being that a platter for a God is just as the mountain ranges they sit in, tall majestic, with each peak topped with a smoked fish, whole. Today, normally, a human-portioned meal is readily available at many local eateries.
This feast, however, is not all that is offered. On the eighth day of the ten days— with its people celebrating eating copious amounts of meat throughout— it is the Goddess’ turn to be fed. A blood-thirsty manifestation of her will arrive. Thousands of buffaloes, goats, hens, and ducks must be beheaded to feed her. I was here at the same time last year. I saw animals come and carcasses leaving. Piled one on top of the other, all missing heads, pulled away in a wagon by just a young boy, leaving the city’s stray dogs to lick up what was left. The air was thick with blood. The streets were stained red for weeks after. But this year, what will happen if an angry, hungry goddess is not fed? A quote intrusively resounds: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. This year, will the mountains of offerings come? The mountains that corner every crook of every of the many narrow alleyways that make the veins of the city; will they appear? Will blood flow down the paths of the valley? This lunar year, will the Gods be fed?
Around this time, a festival of my roots also draws closer. I should be labouring in the kitchen, pounding with my pestle, freshly roasted peanuts for its oil. Syrup will be simmering, the lye is ready. I omit the egg wash for my daughter’s allergies but I do not miss out the element of ornament that they must have; they are still traditionally hand-shaped in animals of different sorts. I place them ready to eat in her lunchbox, together with her lantern, ready for her to bring to school. She will show them off to her friends, homemade animals of the moon, a benefit of having allergies and a mother around. During this lockdown, I reminiscence. I miss the flavour of lotus and winter melon. I miss the meaning of a golden egg. I miss the reunions of families. I miss flying to the moon. I have been living on and off the road for almost six years, moving between paradises in slums and slums in paradises. Now, I am here, 4,986 kilometres away from what was home, stuck in a lockdown, sitting at 1,400 metres high, yet—I am home.
With the length of the lockdown, I have seen the seasons change from warm to cold, and then back to warmish again. It should be warmer, as it was last year, but the weather has been dampened by the prolonged monsoon. We have yet to have a sunny week here. And it has begun to get colder again. Coming from the equator, seasons bewilder me. Plants I have never seen flower before bloom underneath my feet. Fruits of different colours and climates come and go, short-lived and cherished. People come out later when it is cold. I hear yawns softly ringing down my alley. Children start school later; laughter is delayed. Veggie and meat vendors open their shops later too, when the slowing sun has finally reached theirs. The dogs come around, basking in the treasured sunlight while it it out. In the summer, tea shops are open before dawn, ready to serve their regular customers already there. Even the cake shop is open for business. People here like their sweets for breakfast. My favourite breakfast spot, serving deep-fried, poofed bread, will already be flocked with my neighbours from around, all ready with empty bags to take some back home for their families. In fall, the time around now, the Mid-Autumn Festival finally makes sense. Today, I am blessed with a sunny day wedged in between rainfall; I appropriately say my prayers for a good harvest this year.
As I watch children fly kites from the rooftops instead of carrying lit lanterns down the streets, I wonder how the meanings of things have change. Though I think of celebrating this year with a samay baji instead of a goehpia, are things really so different? I am fed, I am warm, I am with family. Whether home is here or home is back—I am fed, I am warm, I am with family. Must it matter that a golden egg means nothing here? I watch the kites try to bite each other down. They brace the arriving festival, kite-flying being an important part of it; they are asking the Gods to stop sending rain. As the big day closes in, even more kites will come. Maybe, soon, the sun will come to stay.
lost.kucing_ is a cat with no and many homes. With a jade-and-white rabbit and two black-and-white dogs, she lives (though always temporal) on a little street aptly named Old Freak Street. They wait patiently to reunite with the rest of the furry family, so that they may fly back to the moon all together, and finally have the welcome-home cheese-party that they have been impatiently awaiting.
Featured image from Uncle Tapani
by Foodscape Pages
“Instead of holding an idea in and doing it myself, I wanted to challenge myself to let ideas out for free use, and see where seeds of ideas would germinate. So making that image, and putting it up online, was a way of dispersing seeds.” Huiying Ng
by Sit Weng San
by Ng Huiying, Woon Tien Wei & Tan Hang Chong
In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two foremost exporters of food to Qatar, imposed a food blockade on their neighbour. This food blockade led Qatar to fall back on imports from Iran and Turkey. The blockade had longer-term implications for Qatar; by June 1 2018, it had dedicated financial capital to boost its own food production.
Food blockades are not the sole threat to food security. While Singapore diversifies its food sources, the threat of impending food shortages in the region is real, as changing weather patterns, droughts, and monsoon, increase the unpredictability of harvests.
But we don’t have to look as far as Qatar just to imagine a food-secure Singapore. 1960s Singapore just after independence was fully self-sufficient in its food, with jobs on food production that employed residents here and provided fulfilling work.
Over nine percent of the Singaporean population worked on family farms in the early years of independence from the 1960s to 1980s. Their strong attitudes for the nation and independence provided important labour, motivation and energy that made food sufficiency possible. These family farms were the cornerstone of food security in a small vulnerable island state. Not only did they meet 50% of the nation’s vegetable needs and 30% of its fish needs, these small-scale farms were able to practise crop rotation, preserving soil fertility, and mixed farming with animals and food crops. Agricultural production increased despite land limitations, and food products were exported.
Understanding the multiple values that family farms brought to the health and stability of Singapore takes some digging, because this story is not well-told. Cynthia Chou’s in-depth research into the end of agriculture in Singapore, some of which we cite here, has a lot to offer us.
We are often led to place more weight on industrial plantations, based on simple comparisons of size. But the acres of small-scale family farms, with their high density, self-ownership, links to family cultivation, and intercropping practices, supported a vast number of social and ecological links, as well as self-employment, healthy communications, mental and physical activity in community with others.
By 1848, there were at least 378 acres of small-scale family-run vegetable farms clustered around the Braddell Road area. In comparison, by the early 1900s, the wealthy Chinese businessman Tan Kah Kee owned 500 acres of land in what is now the Yishun/Sembawang area for pineapple plantations and rubber, opening a pineapple factory in 1905.
In 1931, in spite of limited land, family farmers produced nearly self-sufficient quantities of vegetables for the population. They produced these for the market, existing alongside large capitalist plantations.
The vegetables grown included lettuce, cabbage, onions, parsley, celery, spinach, mint, cucumber, cowpeas, radish, loofah, lady’s finger, brinjal, french beans, bitter gourd, yam, bean, sweet potato, tapioca, groundnut and soya bean.
In March 2019, the Singapore Food Agency (Agri-Food Veterinary Authority at the time) announced plans to increase the production of nutritional needs again to 30% by 2030. In this opinion piece, we highlight the historical link between nutritional needs and social resilience, and the opportunities to connect these in the coming decade.
In particular, we highlight the opportunities presented by stacking multiple uses of land. We focus on the concept of establishing food forests on military land as a viable food security strategy in Singapore and examine one case example of the Green Circle Eco-Farm, as a ready-made future food forest, with proposed guidelines on developing it.
Defence agriculture as functional and innovative use of space
Defence agriculture, as we playfully term it, is not a new narrative in Singapore’s history. “Citizen soldiers who double up as farmers,” as David Boey writes, were already a thing in the 1970s. In 1974, then-Minister of Defence Dr Goh Keng Swee —who took charge of the Primary Production Department a decade after on 6 Jan 1984 — introduced pineapples into Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) camps. The prickly plants provided food, psychological sustenance, and physical defence. Boey, a former defence correspondent for The Straits Times, wrote that 6.5 hectares of military land was transformed into Singapore’s largest pineapple plantation with more than 102,000 Emas Merah and Sarawak pineapple suckers grown by these soldiers. This land has since been re-transformed; it is the land on which the present Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central now stands.
Defence agriculture in this example shows that defence places have been included in mixed use (defence & agriculture) approaches to defence land. We argue that such creative use is necessary in a ‘land-scarce’ Singapore.
Stacking multiple values of defence through agroforestry
As our land use policies move with the times, defence is moving into virtual defence, but also climate and environmental defence. Food forests provide, firstly, a landbank of cultivated soil ecosystems for edible food growing. A local food forest also serves as a place for jungle survival training. National Service Forces (NSFs) today go through jungle survival training, which includes a few key lessons: shelter-building, looking for water and food. Food lessons focus on animal-trapping, killing and preparation of food that is required prior to eating. The emphasis is on animals: pythons, chickens, fish. Edible plant identification and knowledge of use is not included. Yet one might easily notice that knowledge of fungi, edible plants, and medicinal herbs are essential to basic survival, especially as climate conditions change and the need to deploy soldiers across various terrain increases.
The idea of stacking multiple uses together also goes hand in hand with the functionality that a food forest provides.
Food forests hold vast differences from conventional industrial agricultural plots. Based on agroforestry principles, the acres of land productivity that can be expected from food forests includes multiple values that go beyond the singular value (product yield) of conventional plots. Cacao companies, such as US-based company Cholaca (cholaca.com) are looking towards regenerative cacao production, driven by evidence that cacao agroforestry systems have higher returns on labour compared to full-sun monocultures, and as they realise the future survival of the business depends on sustaining the ecosystems that support their producers’ cultivable land. The need for regenerative agriculture is reflected in the new mass of knowledge, technological systems, and new strategic business directions being produced around it and highlights the next step in resilient and sustainable agriculture for the planet.
Case study: Green Circle Eco-Farm
Green Circle Eco-Farm occupies a farm plot in the Lim Chu Kang area in northwest Singapore. Its land lease runs out in December 2021 and next plans for the land are commonly understood to involve the conversion to military land.
Green Circle Eco-Farm has cultivated its land’s biomass over almost 20 years since 1999. Over these 20 years, the build-up of soil structure, soil vitality (a healthy microbial ecosystem) and water retention capacity on its land holds valuable protective functions that can be easily damaged, and lost.
If plans to convert the farm into military land are to proceed, we would urge extra precaution by planners and land developers to ensure that the soil is not removed or damaged during the process, and to carefully consider plans for how the land and soil may be optimally used in the process.
More thought and consideration of national food security, and resilience–the ability to reassemble and regroup in the face of challenge–should be given to the use of scarce natural resources.
The Green Circle Eco-Farm holds further potential to be examined as a pilot site for a food forest within defence lands, and how this contributes to public value. And it poses a clear question for us to respond to: as generations ready to inherit the planet, what are we willing to defend of the precious things we have?
Editors’ note: This opinion piece was written in 2019. Since then, Evelyn has received a two year extension of the land lease until the end of 2021. She is currently writing another proposal to extend her lease beyond 2021 so that she can continue farming.
Huiying Ng likes spending time in nature, with critters, and on observing (and acting in) human social life. She is a geographer with a background in psychological research, with a love for synthesis, ideation and exploration. She writes and develops action research methodologies relevant to agroecological futures, and enjoys creating and working with people across disciplines. She is a research assistant on the SEANNET project in Southeast Asia, and posts some of her work on https://anomalousitch.tumblr.com/. You can also find her on cargocollective.com/huiyingng.
Tan Hang Chong has been an avid naturalist and outdoor enthusiast since his school days as a Scout for ten years. His interest in biodiversity conservation and environmental sustainability was deepened by his membership with the Nature Society (Singapore), volunteerism with environmental civil society organisations and overseas community service expeditions. As an environmental educator, Hang Chong is passionate about sharing how we can live more sustainably and more mindfully about the impacts of our daily choices and actions.
He has an interest in environmental justice, food inequalities and the links between sustainable and ethical food practices to human and planetary health.
Woon Tien Wei is an artist/curator based in Singapore. His work focuses on cultural policies, collectivity in art, social movements, community engagement, land contestation and urban legends. In his practice, he works with independent cultural and social space, Post-Museum. In addition to Post-Museum’s events and projects, they also curate, research and collaborate with a network of social actors and cultural workers. With Post-Museum, Woon worked on Bukit Brown Index (2014-), an ongoing project which indexes the land contestation case of Bukit Brown Cemetery. He lectures part-time at Lasalle College of the Arts in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Woon received his Doctorate in Creative Art in the Arts from Curtin University of Technology, Perth.
by Huiying Ng
Ms Tan, 29, an urban farmer who has started growing microgreens along her corridor is part of a young community finding itself. She is not only growing Kale or Chinese Bok Choy but has also started searching her neighbourhood for useful materials that can go into a small compost bin, and collecting coffee grounds to add to her soil. She is beginning to find herself talking with neighbours too —- the auntie staying two floors below has been growing herbs for years and they suddenly have something in common to do and talk about. As Ms Tan begins to pay more attention to her plants, she realises that their leaves are starting to wilt after some time. Her new friends in the urban farming circles tell her she needs to replenish her soil, and they give her a long list of recommendations — for mostly purchasable material — but she does not know how to choose what works for her corridor garden. She also knows some neighbours empty their pots and buy new soil when their plants start wilting. The more she delves into her garden and soil, the more she realises how rich soil is, and how the soil on the roadside and outside her block is simply not rich enough for her plants.
5th December is World Soil Day. It might seem strange to celebrate soil when it is all around us, but as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) pointed out in May 2018, soils are the foundation of a diverse, healthy food system, and our bank account of healthy soil is running out. To address this, the FAO had proposed for a technical committee to be set up. This committee would identify best techniques to remediate or minimise soil pollution, and work at global and local levels to identify the main causes of soil pollutants, to map and model the extent of soil pollution.
Why should people in cities like Singapore care about the state of our soils? There is a close relationship between healthy soils and healthy bodies. As the world’s largest terrestrial pool of carbon, soil is also our biggest carbon sink. Seen as one soil body, global soil is a bit like human skin — the human body’s largest organ, one that transmits moisture and heat between us and the world. Through our skin, we also absorb contaminants, poisons and pollutants; fungal patches and sores begin to fester on unhealthy skin.
Healthy soil allows trees and plants to grow well, and these in turn shield the soil from the elements. Today, chemical contamination from patent-based industrial and household substances leach into soil on farms, factories, and built-up areas where infrastructure for safe waste disposal is absent.
What causes soil pollution?
The production of chemicals has grown rapidly in recent decades and is projected to increase annually by 3.4 percent until 2030. The conventional agricultural industry contributes a major portion of this amount, with its domestic and livestock wastes, as livestock is bred on hormone diets in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) . E-waste from old electronics and plastics are also emerging contributors. We have no idea, really, what happens to plastics as they break down in soil.
To give a sense of the impact of this on human health, levels of persistent organic pollutants in human milk in many regions worldwide are significantly above safe levels. This is especially so in India, and some European and African countries. In Thailand, a major rice-exporting country, bilateral Free Trade Agreements administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives to enforce usage of patent-based agro-chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides) across the country. These are sprayed across soils by workers who absorb all its risks: debilitating soil fertility and human health. While much research on these has been conducted public awareness and action about it is still minimal.
The amount of pesticide use in commercial, industrial agriculture has been increasing over the last decade. In Bangladesh its use has quadrupled. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, it has increased by more than 6 times, and in Sudan by 10 times. Every application of agro-chemical adds a layer on the soil, and when it exceeds the soil’s holding capacity, it leaches into surrounding soils and environments.
What can we do?
In Singapore, many urban gardeners meet their first challenge as they first dig into the soil in their community gardens. Over time, persistent gardeners and farmers have cleared local Singapore soil of construction debris, improved soil surface water retention, and created lively hubs in their neighbourhoods. While many gardens use store-bought material to keep the garden productive (and lively), gardens that have involved people in creating their own material from resources in the neighbourhood engage their members, friends and family circles in learning about producing and consuming sustainably — keeping production and consumption costs in balance.
How do we source would-be waste to generate healthy, fertile soil? As urbanites, how might we not only consume, but regenerate the planet in alternative ways? How does the act of making soil also create resources for healthier neighbourhoods and communities?
Foodscape Collective launched a Soil Regeneration Project in 2019, to enable and seed new social-soil communities in urban centres. Soil, we have found, is much more social than we think: the microscopic community of soil offers a mirror to our own human social communities. At the same time, the potential of soil to capture and store carbon in the ground deserves and demands urgent, immediate attention and knowledge co-formation from citizens globally.
We are preparing and holding workshops, and bringing our curriculum to more places, learners and schools. We are in search of more like-minded people and funds to sustain our activities over the next two years (yes!).
If you would like to explore a partnership with us, reach us at email@example.com with an idea for how this could look. Stay in touch with us and tune in to our stories of soil regeneration @soilregenerationproject.
Huiying likes spending time in nature, with critters, and on observing (and acting in) human social life. She is a geographer with a background in psychological research, with a love for synthesis, ideation and exploration. She writes and develops action research methodologies relevant to agroecological futures, and enjoys creating and working with people across disciplines. She is a research assistant on the SEANNET project in Southeast Asia, and posts some of her work on https://anomalousitch.tumblr.com/. You can also find her on cargocollective.com/huiyingng.
by Yuen Kei Lam
by Andrew Lim
by Denise Eng
by Huiying Ng
1. Nearly a billion tonnes of topsoil was lost during the 1930s dust bowl in America. It wasn’t just blown away, to be put back. Because an inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form, the loss was catastrophic. It changed the way agriculture, soil science and national security was developed in America.
Did you know that soil science used to consider the history and genetics of soil? Soil genealogy (i.e. where it comes from) was once the bedrock of soil science–it went hand in hand with geology. Today, soil science primarily considers and assesses soil based on morphology–soil structure, the way it looks, but not its biological life — the way it grows, spreads, and ages. As a result of this evaluation criteria, soil is evaluated as a purely natural, physical phenomenon, and human effects on soil are not measured. The US, which began intensive work mapping its soils after the dust bowl, has soil maps — with urban “blackholes” where the science does not reach. This is explored in detail here.
2. We are connected to soil in more ways than we realize. Just think: a third of the earth is covered in soil! That’s approximately 2344 Gigatons (1 Gt = 1 billion tonnes) of organic carbon, making it the world’s largest terrestrial pool of organic carbon. Unfortunately, this giant potential carbon sink is also becoming increasingly polluted by industrial and household products, wastes, and runoff —everything that goes into our daily lifestyles and consumption habits. We like to think of it sitting quietly in plots of land or getting carted around between nations, but soil is really a single body of continuous work that stretches between all our worlds. Metaphorically and literally, soils grant us nurturing space as much as space to stretch, but is often left on the wayside as dirt. Loose soils grant access to nutrients, access to other plants and beings, and the soils in our immediate spaces stretch us away from ourselves: feeding mosses and ferns, wayside plants and overlooked shrubs, they grow the arcades and facades that we humans move through. How do we attend more to soil?
3. Soil organic carbon is the basis of soil fertility. It is the amount of carbon stored in soil, and a component of total soil organic matter. Carbon kept in soil stays away from the atmosphere; and circulating carbon fuels life as plants grow, producing food. In 1990 a Global Assessment of Soil Degradation was made, combining maps from 21 areas of the world—the transnational efforts of soil scientists reaching across nation-states. This produced a World Map of the Status of Human-induced Soil Degradation . Reading the description of the map, you might be struck by the way soils move as a composite body on the planet, through natural and manmade structures. The map describes 12 forms of soil degradation caused through various agricultural activities, irrigation, land reclamation, acidification due to over-application of fertilizers and drainage of pyrite-containing soils. Soil is compacted and waterlogged through human intervention in natural drainage systems (though this doesn’t include paddy fields), and terrain is deformed as soils become exposed through overgrazing, removal of vegetation for monoculture agricultural purposes, riverbank destruction and mass movement.
4. Zooming in to Southeast Asia, did you know the tropics stand to lose more from deforestation and agriculture than temperate countries? Each plot of land deforested in the tropics emits three times the carbon emitted by the same activities in temperate areas (West et al., 2010; open access). Put another way, saving tropical forests from deforestation, and reforesting already deforested ones, has the greatest impact on keeping our global carbon bank safe. The tropics also hold divisive, regulatory and symbolically rich layers laid on through centuries of conquest, the inheritance of colonial law, and social categorization in pursuit of their natural resources.
5. Soil, as land, was once deeply connected to people’s sense of identity. “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [the English] Parliament authorized 4,000 acts of enclosure on behalf of the rising class of gentry, allowing them to expropriate about 15% of all of English common lands for their private use. These enclosures destroyed many commoners’ deep connection to the soil and destroyed their culture and traditions, paving the way for industrialization. A new class of people were created: wage-earners, consumers and paupers. People dispossessed of their commons who had no choice but to try to find a place for themselves in the new capitalist order.”
6. The loss of English commons took place over two centuries — the loss of commons in Southeast Asia today are happening in a matter of years through land enclosures in Yogyakarta, Kalimantan, Papua, and Sulawesi in Indonesia, and across Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. (Land enclosures in Singapore are a story for another time.) From 4,000 acts of enclosure in the seventeenth and eighteenth Century over 15% of all English common lands, global land enclosures now number in the millions of hectares, with wealthy countries investing in overseas land for food and biofuel production.
Soil, ownership and culture are tightly woven. The Diggers are a group of agrarian communists who flourished in England in 1649-50. From 20 poor men in April 1649 who gathered at St. George’s Hill, Surrey, and began to cultivate the common land, they more than doubled in the same year. “The Diggers held that the English Civil Wars had been fought against the king and the great landowners; now that Charles I had been executed, land should be made available for the very poor to cultivate. (Food prices had reached record heights in the late 1640s.)” (1994, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.)
The English Diggers inspired the San Francisco Diggers, who took the streets of 1960s counterculture SF as their stage across two brief years (1966-1968). The Diggers published pamphlets about their vision of the Free City, including one on Free Bread made only from whole wheat flour (a republished version shown here), and their money manifesto.
7. Once privatized, land is used for commercial development. Soil pollution has become a leading cause of environmental and social problems in many parts of the world, leading to human chronic illnesses from direct or indirect exposure, in agriculture, industrial runoff, and emerging causes such as micro-plastics. While Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first raised the call for alarm in 1962, even today, scientists are continuing to find dangerous levels of contamination in the soils of villages and homes near industrial factories. Thankfully, some countries are beginning to take steps—China, the site of some of these studies, passed a law on 2 January 2019 giving its environmental authority the power to set national standards for soil pollution control, setting safeguards for one of its greatest assets—soil. This is more than just environmental policy: securing nitrogen reserves has long been a matter of food and national security. The protection of soils from pollution goes a step further to distinguish and carve out harmful practices, providing a resource to reject environmentally and socially unjust practices.
8. The Land Matrix is a global and independent land monitoring initiative that keeps track of land deals. It estimates a rise in failed and concluded land deals from 62 million hectares in August 2015 to 72 million hectares in October 2016 (http://www.landmatrix.org/en/). This does not include the oceans and air, also commons under threat of enclosure.
9. Did you know that soil is a global body that we literally and gastronomically stand on? Soil supports a majority of food and taste production—phytonutrients are made by plants in soil and contribute to taste. The more we create good soil, the better our food will taste and the lower the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Huiying is a geographer with a background in psychological research, with a love for synthesis, ideation and exploration. She writes and develops action research methodologies relevant to agroecological futures, and enjoys creating and working with people across disciplines. She will continue her research on agroecology and its learning networks in Southeast Asia, and their abilities to respond to infrastructural development in late 2020 as a doctoral researcher at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. She’s on Twitter and Instagram @fuiin and writes about food and agriculture on hynng.substack.com. You can also find her thoughts on research at anomalousitch.tumblr.com.