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Occupy Philippi

Cape Town is unusual in that half of the fresh produce consumed by its residents is grown within the boundaries of the city. Cauliflower, lettuce, beetroot, onions, tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables have been grown in the sandy soil of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) since the end of the nineteenth century.

Today, the area encompasses about 2,370 hectares, and is split between smallholdings and larger commercial farms, which produce around 100,000 tonnes of produce every year. Some of these have embraced sustainable, organic farming. While most of the produce goes to supermarkets, a portion of it is sold to the surrounding, desperately poor communities who live in Philippi – to people who would not otherwise have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. In other words, the PHA is absolutely essential to ensuring that these households remain food secure:

According to a survey of 1 060 low-income households [in Cape Town] conducted by the African Food Security Urban Network in 2008, 80% of respondents were food insecure. The study looked at various indicators of food insecurity, such as whether respondents went to sleep hungry, or whether there were times when there was no food in the house.

A 2012 study by Rooftops Canada-Abri International and the African Food Security Network that examined the horticultural area’s significance in sustaining food security within the Cape Town municipality found that without it the city would be ‘place[d] in extreme risk’ of food insecurity, with low-income households suffering the most. A 2009 report commissioned by the city had similar findings.

As Rob Small of the respected urban farming project Abalimi Bezekhaya notes, Cape Town is ‘a farm with a city in it.’

A vegetable box packed at Harvest of Hope's shed in Philippi.

A vegetable box packed at Harvest of Hope’s shed in Philippi.

As I wrote a while ago, this farm is under threat. Last month, Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee (Mayco) approved an application from the private property developer MSP Planners to have 280 hectares of the PHA rezoned for housing. This isn’t the first time that parts of the PHA have been identified for rezoning: in 2011, an application from Rapicorp to develop 472 hectares of the PHA was also approved, but nothing came of this because the company soon went into administration.

There are compelling reasons to oppose this development. Two studies have demonstrated not only that local people depend on the produce grown in the PHA, but that farmers are keen to extend the area under cultivation. Investing in the PHA – helping to increase the number and size of farms instead of reducing or threatening them – would create jobs and attract business to the area. As a group of academics at the University of Cape Town’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Geomatics argue:

The decision to allow development represents the not-so-thin edge of the wedge. There are three aspects to this. First, remaining farmers are unlikely to invest in the land if there is a sense that they may have to move. Second, it will become increasingly difficult, on the ground of administrative fairness, to reject future speculative applications if this one is approved. Third, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the provision of extensive urban infrastructure in the area will attract further development, both formal and informal. Infrastructure has a strong ‘lock-in’ dimension. In short, it’s a poor, short-sighted and dangerous decision.

What are Captonians doing about this? There is an Avaaz petition – and it’s worth signing it. But other than lobbying from NGOs and some PHA farmers, the lack of interest from Cape Town’s bloggers and foodies is palpable.

I wonder why? I mean, after all, these are the people who profess to love local produce, and who argue that their interest in food and cooking has the potential to do good in the world. These are people with clout: who appear on television programmes, who write for newspapers and magazines with large circulations. These are the people who have the power to shame Patricia de Lille and other members of the Mayco into rethinking their decision. They have, I would argue, a moral duty to use their position to save the region that produces the vegetables they cook with, and which they eat at restaurants.

And what are they doing? Is their lack of interest in the PHA to do with the fact that it’s in a poor part of Cape Town? That there aren’t any high-end chefs with restaurants in Philippi? That they can’t find the same sort of meaning in the PHA as they do in baking brownies? If they’re really serious about supporting small agriculture in Cape Town, then, surely, they’ll pay as much attention to the PHA as they would to the garden at Babylonstoren.

So. Foodies and food bloggers of Cape Town. What are you going to do to save the PHA?

For more information on the Save the PHA Campaign, see here.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Save the PHA! And plant cabbages on Newlands! 🙂

    August 11, 2013
  2. teatrayinthesky #

    Thank you for writing for this.

    August 11, 2013
  3. Mario #

    I have sources that the PHA was in fact in use since the seventeenth century. A doctoral thesis was done, on the area, by Lizette Rabie mentioning that it was a sandy desert before the farmers moved in and that the area would eventually, inevitably be closed down for agriculture. I did not agree with her argument that the growing population would be the cause for closing the area to agriculture,but it was worth taking note of the pressure on the area. The Role of metropolitan agriculture can never be underestimated as we see in cities such as Havanna, Paris and London. All these cities have vast agricultural area set aside for vegetable farming.

    August 11, 2013
  4. Brad Lee #

    This is excellent and raises questions the DA need to answer. I have forwarded this to Annette Lovemore of the DA. She is a member of parliament and currently Shadow minister of Home Affairs (so possible not the right person to comment) and hopefully she can point me in the right direction as to where to get some answers. On the surface, it sounds like an appalling zoning decision. I look forward to the DA’s response!

    August 12, 2013
    • Thanks so much! I look forward to their response too. It’s an incredible short-sighted decision.

      August 12, 2013
      • Brad Lee #

        Annette has put me in contact with Pieter van Dalen. He is also an MP and a councillor of the City of Cape Town…

        August 12, 2013
  5. As my Uncle always says “They’re not making any new land.” Once ag land is built on there is no reclaiming it. What is more important than food production.

    August 12, 2013
  6. Steve from Beep Bank #

    Lots of stretches in this post. While I don’t agree with the building plans, this sort of solely political, desperately antagonistic approach does the case no favours.
    Also, that Harvest of Hope basket is akin to the pictures of McDonald’s burgers above the counter: far better than anything you’ll actually ever get from them.

    August 13, 2013
    • Thanks so much for your kind, constructive comments, Steve.

      Firstly, the decision to develop the PHA is entirely political. Two studies, including one done by the City of Cape Town, have recommended that the area be protected from development, and that the city invest in agriculture in the area. Mayco’s decision to approve the development only makes sense in political terms.

      Secondly, softly-softly approaches have neither stopped the development, nor alerted the wider public to the plans for the PHA. As my experience with the Right2Know Campaign attests, action can have positive, constructive results. I think many of us agree that the time for action as regarding the PHA has come. And considering the response this post has had, calling out food bloggers for hypocrisy seems to be bearing fruit.

      Thirdly, I’m not sure why you think that attacking Harvest of Hope is a good idea. The photo is of one of the many – identical – boxes I saw being packed in Philippi. Considering Harvest of Hope’s very, very long waiting list, I don’t think many people share your opinions. (And no, I’m not on their payroll.)


      August 13, 2013
  7. Sam #

    I think this is an important issue for anyone, not only foodies and food bloggers. Big business (retailers), environmental organisations and activists are probably in a better position to lobby local government on this very political issue, affecting all of us.

    We can all do our bit to create awareness.

    August 14, 2013
    • I agree that this is an issue that involves all Capetonians, but I disagree that some people are in a better position than others to lobby about the PHA. Some food bloggers have high profiles, media-wise, that they could use to raise awareness of the development. I hope you’ll be doing this too.

      ALL issues around food are political. I’ve always assumed that food bloggers feel so strongly about all people being able to eat well, that they’d be willing to make the fairly uncontroversial point that developing farmland for housing is a very bad idea.

      August 14, 2013
  8. Audrey #

    Sarah Emily, although I am not technically a foodie or a blogger, I have been following this PHA story with alarm. I have a bookshop on the Southern Peninsula and we would be very keen to host a talk around this issue, hopefully get more people informed about it. Please email me if you’re interested.

    August 14, 2013
    • Oh Audrey, you legend! That’s completely brilliant of you. Alas, I’ve now moved to Joburg, but I’ll email to put you in touch with Rob Small and Nazeer Sonday, who are organising opposition to the development of the PHA, and who know absolutely everything that there is about the issue. Thank you so much!

      August 14, 2013
      • Audrey #

        You’re welcome. Let’s see what we can put together.

        August 14, 2013
  9. sharon fehlmann #

    we are farmers on Gumtree producing only organic veggies and the land development is real and rather awful…this is prime veggie growing soil…the food basket of the Cape. I love living in this green belt and eating the best nourishment from this land…It is sad to have no clout and to see those who have so little understanding about where their food comes from allow the rezoning of this area in the heart of the cape peninsula. Every few months more land is gobbled up by another warehouse, by cement brick factories etc…thanks for the article

    November 21, 2013
  10. Recent peer reviewed studies in Cuba indicate that small farmers using agroecological farming methods would be the correct way to go in Philippi….. Cuba’s achievements in urban agriculture are truly remarkable: 383,000 urban farms, covering 50 thousand hectares of otherwise unused land and producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables (top urban farms reach a yield of 20 kgs per square meter of edible plant material using no synthetic chemicals) enough to supply 70% or more of all the fresh vegetables in cities such as Havana, Villa Clara and others. No other country in the world has achieved this level of success with a form of agriculture that reduces food miles, energy use, and effectively closes local production and consumption cycles.

    November 23, 2013

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