Part of my internship with the ISC has involved participating in community externships with three community organizations affiliated with the ISC. From September – December, I volunteered with each organization one time every month. This experience has been helpful in helping me meet more members of the Korean social movement, to learn more about different sectors of Korean-centered progressive political work (since the ISC’s focus is international solidarity movements), and to above all get a sense of what being in and part of the activist community is like here in Korea.
The 영등포구도시농업네트워크, or the Yongdeungpo-gu Urban Agriculture Network, is a community organization located in Yondeungpo-gu, Seoul dedicated to urban farming and agricultural initiatives. If you’re a newcomer to the concept of urban agriculture, like me, then that might not mean much. Generally, urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing produce within a city (as opposed to importing it from the countryside, which is where produce is typically grown before being sent to city centers for distribution and selling). The idea is a popular one that’s spread to many metropolitan cities, but in Seoul, which has the highest population density among the world’s large developed cities, this idea seems especially intriguing.
The Urban Agriculture Network was originally founded through the union of two groups of people. The first group simply had an interest in farming and cultivation, and so wanted to experiment with it as a hobby. The second group saw urban agriculture as a way to reinvigorate the idea of community and to combat the negative effects of urbanization, such as urban isolation and urban violence. Their hope was that, through farming and the collective responsibility of farming, they could in effect re-communalize the city and decrease these problems. The latter group approached the former, and five years ago, they came together to form a network in order to share ideas, both about transforming society and practical knowledge related to cultivating and growing, all of which they continue to do today.
Because Seoul is such a large city, the network is divided into sub-networks by “-gu”s (districts), – so because I live in Yongdeungpo, I meet with the Yongdeungpo Network. The group consists of 30-some odd members, although I’ve only met the core group, which consists of about 7 members. Their activities mainly include:
- Education through a reading group focused on learning about alternative agriculture, farming, and sustainability, as well as holding education programs on such topics for the general public
- Community events such as marketplaces and movie screenings at their garden, and participating in community events with other similar organizations
- Farming: although I wasn’t able to participate in any farming last year (and it’s now wintertime which unfortunately means a hiatus until the spring), when the season’s right the group typically gets together to farm their community garden on the weekend, growing everything from lettuce and peppers to peanuts and strawberries. The garden, which they share with others, is the only one of its kind in Yongdeungpo, so they are also looking for additional plottable land.
So far, I have only met with them twice. The first time, I attended the Yongdeungpo Community Festival to help staff the Urban Agriculture Network’s booth with other members. Throughout the day, we taught festivalgoers how to create organic eggshell fertilizer and held three sessions for children on how to make handmade soaps (during which I learned that “teaching” kids hands-on activities frequently means “doing it for them and then getting them to approve the final product”). It was an exhausting day (set-up was at 9am and takedown at 4pm, and no one spoke English so it was a language-intensive day indeed), but it was fun, and I really enjoyed getting to know the other members, who were incredibly friendly and welcoming to me despite the language barrier and my frequent confusion about what was going on. The second time I met with them I attended their end-of-the-year party (which I felt somewhat bad about since I had only really met with them the one time and it seemed as if I was taking credit for their hard work during the year, although I enjoyed seeing them once again). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the year’s events and also to provide feedback on how the year had gone for them as an organization, which I couldn’t contribute much to (or, again, understand -_-;;;). However, it turned out that one of the members runs a culinary experience business, and she invited me to make 메주/maeju, which is the giant blocks of crushed soybeans that are left to ferment for a year and which eventually make 된장/doenjang, the Korean soybean paste. So I spent the following day at her kitchen with her and some of her friends helping her boil soybeans, crush the boiled beans, shape them into bricks, and tying them with twine to be hung up to dry.
As someone who’s never been that into ‘green’ causes, I had very little idea going in what urban agriculture was, or what its purpose was. But through the organization, I’ve come to appreciate it both physically and ideologically. On the physical side, there’s something fun and immediate about learning how to make things and inheriting practical knowledge. It kind of reminds me of being a kid and how everyone wanted to try the hands-on activities, before we were taught to prioritize efficiency, that automation, mechanization, and mass-production can solve everything, and that more always means better. On the ideological side, I’m impressed by the way that urban agriculture links interests in the welfare of both people and the planet in an organic and fun way that transforms our relationship to both. One of the organization’s inspirations that one of the members cited to me was the success of organoponicós, or urban organic agriculture in Cuba. Urban agriculture and alternative agricultural methods gained popularity in Cuba in 1989 due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (and thus, Cuba’s source of petroleum, which is required for large-scale agriculture). Without fuel imports, domestic agriculture fell by half, and problems with food scarcity developed. In response, the Cuban people began growing their own food through small farms, developing farmer cooperatives and markets, as well as organizations to train others in urban agriculture, which became a crucial aspect of realigning Cuba’s system of food production. Although the success and efficiency of Cuba’s system remains somewhat contested, the country’s rapid turnaround in production is undeniably impressive, not just with regards to creativity and innovation, but in terms of the nation’s food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. Given Korea’s own issues with food sovereignty, the urban agriculture network holds clear ties to larger questions about production, consumption, and a way of life that balances both and prioritizes an equitable relationship between the two.