Off the beaten path, a stone’s throw from the Petronas Twin Towers, a group of urban farmers are thriving on sales of their produce in their neighbourhood markets. But why are they shrouded in secrecy and what would happen if urban farming increased?
If you follow Jalan Ampang off the beaten trail, you will find yourself in a part of KL, very different to the tourist trodden city centre where the Twin Towers stand. Amongst hundred-year-old shoplots, behind a Buddhist temple, a plot of farmland thrives. The land is lush with vegetable plants and fruit trees, but is also rooted in mystery.
Living in large cities, in an increasingly globalised world, many of us are completely disconnected from the food production chain. Our only real “involvement” being periodic visits to the supermarket where we’re faced with seemingly endless options of conveniently packed and prepared foods carefully displayed under bright fluorescent lights, and flashy imports such as savoy cabbages and Camembert cheese.
Not so long ago, however, Malaysians would purchase and eat what grew locally from community-based farms and markets. In a major urban state like Kuala Lumpur, this system of community farming and markets is diminishing.
Farmland is traditionally set away from the city where land is much cheaper (and not reserved for development). Urbanites rarely have access to large enough parcels of land to run such operations, and a lot of vegetable farming occurs in states like Pahang, in weather-conducive areas such as Genting Highlands and Cameron Highlands. However, even in rural areas, farming is a contentious issue. The problem of illegal and indiscriminate farming methods, and land and river encroachment spurred government shutdown operations in the form of Ops Gading 1 and 2.
It is therefore refreshing to find farmland within the city.
According to a resident in the area, the land is owned by a lawyer who lives in Canada, and that the families who tend to the land peddle their produce at the neighbourhood wet market.
Each morning at 6 am, the small community wakes up to a lively market with tables of produce and wares lining the narrow alleyways. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meats, roast duck and pork, Chinese sausages, electronics, and even lingerie fill the many market lots.
Speaking to some of the vegetable vendors, we ascertain that their family has been using and working on a part of the urban farm for the past six years. Known only as Sharon, she explains that her husband’s family used to live on that land, but was evicted by the Ampang Jaya City Council (MPAJ). In a story that is common amongst the farmers on this plot – the land was being used by homeless squatters until about nine years ago when the city council decided to demolish the homes which had not been built lawfully.
However, since the land is privately owned, MPAJ could not determine its fate. Some of the displaced later managed to move back into the community and continued with their lives. Sharon’s family is one of them.
As for the mysterious owner who had moved to Canada, Sharon says, “As far as I know, the man who owns the land has given the community permission to use his land as they see fit.”
Sharon also explained the cooperative nature by which the farmers divided the land. “There are three families working on the land, but we decide together how much each family needs or wants.” About 20 different types of fruits and vegetables are grown on the farmland, each family with different varieties, and this is how they determine how much land is allocated.
Mr. Wong, another farmer on the urban plot grows sugar cane. When he harvests them, he trims the shoots to be sold for traditional Chinese medicine.
“I only grow sugar cane and bananas. I let the others worry about vegetables,” he said jokingly. Now in his seventies, he too used to live on the farm before the houses were demolished by MPAJ. “I lived there for more than 20 years, but they kicked us out. Now, they don’t bother us as long as nobody builds an illegal structure on the land.”
In a sense, the urban farm was birthed out of necessity. Having access to but not being allowed to live on the land, the squatters decided to convert the land for agriculture instead, living off the profits of their harvests, and making their homes elsewhere.
When contacted, MPAJ stated that they do not have a right to evict persons squatting on private property — the most they can do is advise the owners to notify the police. Ampang MP Hajjah Zuraida Kamaruddin said that in 2008, the state government assisted families living on state land to relocate and even provided compensation, however, she was not aware of a case involving private land. “If it’s private land, the owner has the right to chase them out. But with these cases, if they come to my attention, I will come and see — there must be a scheme or plan to resettle them somewhere.”
When a city and its communities grow or develop, some people are left behind. However, these farmers have chosen the path of productivity, which has created a way of life. The role that land, or the lack of it, plays in shaping our communities and cities is huge. What if more landowners came forward to offer up their land for urban farming?
Advocates for Urban Farming
Think City grant recipients and garden builders — Beatrice Yong and Shao-Lyn Low of Eats Shoots & Roots, a social enterprise in Kuala Lumpur that champions growing food in urban communities — is on a mission to create a culture of edible gardening.
“Our work involves building edible gardens and designing landscapes for clients in the city. In our love for urban farming, making things grow and enjoying the fruits of our labour, we noticed two big things about KL,” Co-founder Beatrice Yong said. “One, is that there’s a complete lack of community spaces in the city for people to connect with nature. Two, that the way we’ve been eating has become less and less healthy over the years, with the introduction of chain restaurants and fast food. It’s all very much based on meats and carbs, and there’s very little focus on fresh produce. This hasn’t always been the way; traditional diets included way more vegetables.”
She added: “This inspired us to push edible gardens as an activity that would create more awareness around eating healthy, and which would allow more folks to be closer to nature in a productive way. We also aimed to build a community of urban growers who can meet their vegetable needs with very little cost.”
The duo had a lot of experience in setting up the complexities of urban gardens, from creating sustainable ecosystems to rainwater harvests, amongst others, and realised that if they were able to help restaurants build gardens, it would also help foster the ‘farm to fork’ concept, and reduce the carbon footprint in general.
“Many restaurants already do this overseas, and so we thought, apart from the obvious benefits, it would also be good to encourage more productive use of spaces,” Beatrice said.
As Think City works primarily within the 1km-radius of Masjid Jamek, the team did a survey of the restaurants within that area, hoping to create relationships with restaurants that had landed capacity for building their own gardens, speaking to around 250 restaurants, asking about where they sourced their produce, the costs, and what their most popular vegetable dishes were.
“Out of all those who were interested in building and maintaining edible gardens, the team narrowed that figure down to 10, and eventually down to three. And so we helped build their edible gardens.”
From the survey, they were also able to build and publish a map entitled, Sayur In The City, introducing restaurants in Downtown KL, where people could explore the city and enjoy delicious vegetable dishes to improve their diets. With the map also came information about vegetables that locals have abundant access to, which are easy to grow, plus a how-to section to encourage people to try growing their own vegetables, fruits and herbs.
The duo’s next campaign will have a 2-prong programme: an edible garden school and the other, to provide tools for people to build their own edible gardens.
Beatrice tells us, “With these we are hoping to further raise awareness, extend knowledge and create growing communities.” And in doing what they do best, the team has identified 3 demo sites where they will share know-how and help design edible gardens: the Community Service Centre for the Deaf in Lorong Ampang which operates a social enterprise bakery called Silent Teddies; the Pitstop Community Cafe in Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, another social enterprise with a ‘pay-what-you-feel’ policy, to enable the underprivileged; and Old Malaya, which houses several bars and restaurants in Jalan Raja Chulan.
“Beyond building, we’re also planning some harvest parties because the best part about growing is of course, the eating process and taking pride in what you’ve been able to produce!”