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Starting from the Roof Top – Agriculture in Hong Kong!

by Rahel Wyss

Louisa was one of this year’s Student Reporters 2013 at the Tropentag 2013 in Stuttgart and the Science Forum 2013 in Bonn and was talking to me about the issue of agriculture in Hong Kong.

Starting from the roof top

“Sometimes people think it is weird that I am interested in agriculture and even study agriculture - me as a Hong Kong city girl. They think that Hong Kong is a place without any agriculture, what is absolutely not true, we do have agriculture!”

Hong Kong continuum

Hong Kong has Urban and Peri-urban farming. However, there are big structural changes going on. In the 50’s and 60’s, many farmers still had their own paddy-fields, producing rice for own consumption; it was a tradition. Nowadays the land becomes more and more scarce in Hong Kong and 97% of the consumed vegetables are imported from China.

Peaceful fights for land

Louisa is telling me about a farm outside of the city centre, whose land was sold to a private company through the government. Thus the local villagers farming on that land can never be sure when they have to leave. Campaigns and peaceful demonstrations are going on regularly, trying to keep the land. If they are not successful, the land will be taken away to build residential houses. Right outside of the centre, you can see empty houses from people whose land was taken away and who might try to find their luck in the city-centre, tells Louisa. Landscapes are changing much between centre and Peri-urban area.

Scarce lands

Louisa is doing her Master program in Sustainable Resource Management, majoring in agriculture and soil management at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Before, she has worked for two years for a Hong Kong NGO as a project coordinator in the “green village” project, which promotes green roofs on top of hotels and other buildings. And also herbal gardening was one of their projects. They started on a roof top to plant in pots. But fast there was not enough space for all the herbs and they ended up in a larger Peri-urban area, where they built up a program which works for people who are mentally handicapped. There they provide vocational training, and organic farming is one part of the training. Louisa supported the manager in coordinating the farming.

Out of the mainstream

In Hong Kong, a group of passionate young farmers tries to convert the farming land into land for organic production. Social media are used to promote organic farming and to raise peoples’ awareness about organic agriculture and peoples’ common rights for farming. “Yes, it is possible to do farming in Hong Kong!” Louisa repeats enthusiastically. To prevent bees from dying out in Hong Kong, some young initiators started to keep bees on factory roof tops. “Peoples try to do things out of the mainstream, to do something nobody has done before”, tells Louisa. There are many more examples and initiatives in organic farming and in eco-tourism going on in Hong Kong. It started about 15 years ago and is evolving like a trend, states Louisa. In June 2013, 464 organic farms are found in Hong Kong, including traditional family-operated farms, enterprise-operated farms and hobby-farms.

The remaining or returning

Hardly any young people are working in agriculture anymore. Only a few idealistic types would stop studying, go back to the village sites and start farming from scratch, having no idea about agriculture. Becky, another Hong Kong city girl, is one of them. Having grown up in the city and used to work as an office employee, some when she decided to move back to the village and start farm project for organic farming, called Mapopo (see here). She didn’t have any idea about organic practices at the beginning. She had to build up the necessary knowledge and is running it now for three years - very successful.

Social benefits are more important than financial benefits

“The special thing about these young initiators in agriculture is that they can motivate a lot of young people through their activities. It is like a social movement”, remarks Louisa. Many volunteers come over the weekends to work on the farm. Market places for Peri-urban farmers exist in the city-centre or in so called “new towns”, which evolved through urbanization. The farms are places around these new towns. For special plants or seeds, e.g. Lotus flower, they can sell it to a good price for festivals for making moon-cakes. And as it is organic, they can sell it also to special restaurants. They organize workshops for bread making, making soups, for family events, sightseeing tours, making pottery or invite local artist for giving inputs.

Being respected as a farmer

“Being a farmer in Hong Kong means that you have a respected job; you are proud about yourself and feel respected by the others,” finds Louisa. From time to time the magazine or media would come to interview, as you are doing something good for the environment and the society. Nowadays the Hong Kong society is, not least due to the food safety scandals in China coming from excessive pesticides used in vegetable production, more aware about the importance of healthy and safe food and would favour organic produced food. The living standard in Hong Kong is quite high, compared to other big cities in China and compared to whole China we can say that people are more aware about environmental and health issues. People know here about sustainable production systems.

From cars to cows

Currently, Louisa is writing her Master Thesis at the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (see here) in Frick, Switzerland. In the shared apartment where she lives in the Frick valley, she can watch cows passing by her window – peaceful, she finds it. It is giving a very strong contrast to Louisa’s’ life in Hong Kong, where she grew up in a flat in a building that has 40 floors, with small windows, only showing cars in the street. In these flats, it is absolutely impossible to grow plants and there is no balcony. Louisa tried to plant in plots, but her Mum didn’t like her completely messing up the place with soil. There exist only a few 1m2 plots around the blocks, which are allotted newly each season. “Compared to Hong Kong, there are many possibilities in Switzerland to be creative with land,” Louisa thinks. Local people told her that Frick is very boring with only a few shops, one bakery, a few pubs and no party-places to be found. But she enjoys herself in the village, seeing cows passing by her window.

My last question to Louisa was whether she intends to go back to Hong Kong to do agriculture one day. “I would prefer to work in a more international organization rather than localizing too much. I worked already in this kind of environment in Hong Kong and would like to make new experiences also in other developing countries, working somehow, somewhere for rural development.”