The value of peri-urban agriculture: beyond productivity

This blog post was originally published in Spanish on the web platform LA. NetworkEste artículo fue publicado en castillano en la plataforma LA.Network.

A study in Sogamoso (Colombia) reveals the importance of peri-urban agriculture for local communities’ sense of purpose, social fabric, and resilience.

Peri-urban agriculture can contribute to food security and nutrition, income generation, and environmental management, for example through the reuse of urban organic waste, the creation of green belts, and the provision of ecosystem services.

However, in many cities in Latin America the imperatives of development are highly pressing and urban agriculture is often seen as a barrier to development. When development is defined in terms of technological and infrastructural ‘progress’, productivity, economic growth, and ‘modern’ and global cultural connections, peri-urban agriculture is often represented as a backwards, localized, low-tech and economically poorly performing activity—a legacy of past underdevelopment that should be abandoned in order to make space (land) for the expansion of a more ‘productive’ economy.

It is especially difficult to measure peri-urban agriculture’s less tangible effects on local communities and cultural identities. Thus, both those who oppose and defend urban agriculture often measure its impacts solely in terms of material or economic productivity, and assessments limited to monetary values have clashed with less easily quantifiable contributions such as the symbolic importance of food self-provisioning and its attachment to and reinvention of new peasant heritages and identities. In turn, challenges in measuring urban agriculture have contributed to its invisibility in planning documents and in the policy-making arena, particularly from a social and cultural perspective.

A study that we recently conducted in the Colombian city of Sogamoso reveals the importance of non-monetary contributions of peri-urban agriculture for local communities’ sense of purpose, social fabric, and resilience. In the city of Sogamoso, the contrast between the urban and rural worlds can be observed in all its contradictions in the peri-urban space. In Sogamoso, peri-urban agriculture has been explicitly framed by planners, developers, and local authorities as a barrier to economic progress.

This study finds a diversity of peri-urban agriculture in the city of Sogamoso. Peri-urban households involved in agriculture depended on this activity for their subsistence to different degrees. Alongside farm households that produced mainly for the market, there was a majority of households for which agriculture was neither the primary occupation nor the main source of income. Therefore, peri-urban agriculture in Sogamoso, as in other cities in the region, is by no means a homogeneous phenomenon. Furthermore, many household engaged with peri-urban agriculture as a widespread ‘normal’ practice in local communities, not because peri-urban agriculture was promoted by policy interventions, or development projects.

This study also found that many peri-urban households produce food for self-consumption (self-provisioning) and exchange food with other households outside of the market. Although not all peri-urban farmers engaged in food self-provisioning and exchange to the same extent and in identical forms, such practices were very widespread and involved vegetables, fruit, and herbs more than livestock or animal products. Food exchange was less widespread than self-provisioning; however, it was practiced by approximately a quarter of this study’s participants.

Peri-urban farmers had an overall strongly positive perception of the role of peri-urban agriculture in Sogamoso. Participants noted its positive contribution as a source of income as well as a source of healthy, clean food, which contributed to their food security. In summary, this study indicates the existence of a lively social network of food exchange and an even stronger practice of growing at least part of one own’s food supply in Sogamoso’s peri-urban space.

Why does this study matters for urban planning and the governance of sustainable development?

Firstly, this research provides evidence that contrasts with the dominant urban development discourses in Sogamoso, which have tended to overlook such diversity in their attempt to portray the urban fringe as an ‘empty’ space in waiting for more productive urban use.

Secondly this study also provides novel arguments for the protection and promotion of peri-urban agriculture in Colombia and across Latin America. Although urban agriculture is often measured in terms of productivity both by those who oppose and defend it, this study provides evidence in support of crucial non-economic and less easily quantifiable impacts of peri-urban agriculture on building local communities’ sense of purpose, social fabric, and resilience.

Thirdly and finally, while peri-urban agriculture is an already existing and widespread ‘normal’ practice that requires no set-up, or steering, local authorities and citizens can provide support to protect peri-urban agriculture against those seeking to eradicate such practices to promote other, more monetary forms of development.

The study cited in this article is a collaboration between the Department of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Reading (United Kingdom), the Copernicus institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University (the Netherlands), and the Fundación Jischana Huitaca (Colombia). The study was funded by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) through the Environment and Sustainability Research Grant 2017/1. The study (in English) can be requested to Dr Giuseppe Feola via email at: g.feola@uu.nl or freely downloaded at this URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2020.04.032

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