Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen / Christophe Kotanyi

Smallholdings in town and country: a women's economy

In July 2000, scientists and non-scientists met for five days at Berlin's Humboldt University to discuss the prospects of smallholdings and allotments in town and country worldwide. The hundred and fifty smallholders, gardeners and sympathetic scientists came from around fifteen countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Japan, India, Russia, Poland, England, USA, France, Austria, and others.

Conference participants demanded that local authorities and governments go on making provision for smallholdings and allotments. In real terms this means access to land and the security to work on it, long-term, for all gardeners and would-be gardeners, whether in Harlem or Göttingen, Berlin or Nairobi. It also means smallholders and gardeners being guaranteed the possibility of producing their own seed crops. It is important that seed crops do not become the private property of multinationals: they belong to everyone, and they should remain available to everyone.

Reports from the field
The last part of the conference was impressive, when field reports were given and, later, an excursion took place. On Sunday morning the organic farmer Christian Hiss from Eichstätten explained how he was able to set up a system of direct marketing to Freiburg, working with other farmers in the village. He manages his farm according to the modern 'enterprise within an enterprise' principle, everyone being personally responsible for fulfilling their own tasks, like, for example, a processor of their produce who provides school meals in the locality. In co-operation with the local non-organic farmers, he was able to start a seed crop initiative committed to not using any genetically-modified seed in and around the village.

Nursing was the first profession of part-time farmer Wolfgang Eisenberg from Wendland. When he started farming twenty-five years ago, his objectives were to become self-sufficient instead of being totally dependent on the money-led system. Today he practises subsistence agriculture, mainly alone, whilst also looking after his children as a house-husband. Andrea Heistinger, a graduate of the University of Soil Science in Vienna, did research on the cultivation of seed crops by women farmers in South Tyrol (Italy). During her work, and because of its connection to women's studies, Andrea met the chairperson of the Tyrol Farmers Women's Association, Martina Lintner. Martina had just successfully put together a book called the Women Farmers' Handbook (Baeuerinnenhandbuch)1, in co-operation with the 'Alpine Women' (Alpenweiber) organisation.

And then there was Peter Gerber from St Martin de Crau in Provence, Southern France a member of the European co-operative Longo Maï. This consists of two hundred people living and working in ten different locations all over Europe. Women and men from Austria, Switzerland, Germany and France founded the co-operative in 1973. At first, they were met with hostility in Limans (near Forcalquier) but then gained the support of the village in quite an unorthodox way - by staging sit-ins in the village school and succeeding in keeping it open. Peter talked about their methods of agricultural production, processing and marketing. This 'three-legged economy' was deliberately set up as a form of regional micro-economy. Although the group initially considered organic farming naive and non-political, they now belong to a network of European initiatives which oppose, in theory and praxis, the seed-crop monopoly of big multinationals.

Finally, Sigrid Fronius gave a slide-show on her two-hectare gardens in Bolivia's subtropical rainforest. Her project, founded eighteen years ago as a subsistence commune of women, has transformed naturally over the years into an alternative low-budget hotel. Sigrid's guests stay in straw or mud huts and enjoy sun, rain, silence, views, and the beauty of nature2.

First, we visited green projects in Berlin. Martin Wedder and other inhabitants of Dackelmanstrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg succeeded in turning a derelict wilderness into a beautiful landscaped shared courtyard. They created an imaginative child-friendly area with grass and trees, goats and ducks, and they installed barbecues and play equipment. The most difficult aspect of the project was to retain the area as a green space, a twenty-year-long struggle against vandalism and the hostility of the local authority.

On the very fringes of Berlin, we had a guided tour around the historical allotments Kleingartenanlage Kaulsdorf Busch e.V. founded in 1939. We were led around a rain-drenched paradise filled with mallow, dahlias, flowering borders and enormous, beautiful walnut trees (which according to official regulations shouldn't be there).

We experienced a very different tour led by a member of the initiative: The Gleisdreieck Interest Group (Interessengruppe Gleisdreieck), landscape architect Matthias Bauer. The Gleisdreieck is a typical area of derelict railway sidings behind the Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin. The area belonging to the former railway goods depot Anhalter Güterbahnhof and the postal railway station stretches over sixty-seven hectares and was famous all over Europe even before re-unification for its wild grasses and rare plant species. Since re-unification, the German railway has been trying to sell the land to the highest bidder, ignoring the fact that the local government designated this area as a green space to counteract dense building developments on Potsdamer Platz. Without the years of campaigning, protests and actions by the area's residents, this area wouldn't be designated as a green space - not even on paper.

A fourth example visited on the excursion was the ecologically-planned garden-project Landschaftspflegehofs e.V. in Berlin's Tempelhof district. The association's chairperson, Elisabeth Hauschildt, led us around the land, leased from the German Church. Plots are given to groups of a minimum of three adults, who must not be related. The groups can consist of friends or single parents and their children. The aim is to reflect the population structure of contemporary society. There are no fences separating the garden plots from one another.

The conference concluded with two day-excursions to Berlin's outlying areas. On the first day the group went to Uckermark, the northern part of Brandenburg. In the Schorfheide Chorin nature reserve in Greifenburg we visited the Association for the Preservation of Traditional Crops in Brandenburg (VERN e.V.), founded in 1994 on the initiative of the Office for Nature Reserves, represented by Rudolf Voegel. The association is able to survive today with the help of volunteers and two ABM placements [similar to New Deal placements for the unemployed in the UK]. The association's objectives are to preserve and look after traditional seed crops. Mr Schulte, formerly head of an LPG (state farm co-operative in the GDR), explained that cultivated seed-crop is given out to gardeners and other interested people, hence involving others in the distribution of the idea and the old crops. Several organic farmers participate in the project by using and reproducing selected local grain types and species.

Another project visited was the school garden in Schwendt, founded in 1971. In the former GDR, 'gardening' was one of the compulsory subjects in school-years 1 to 4 [6 to 10 year-olds]. After re-unification, school gardens progressively disappeared from the formerly-GDR regions. However in Schwendt, biology teacher Hella Seifert succeeded in securing the existence of the bigger of two school gardens. Today it is a community and school garden covering 1700 square metres and is again used by science teachers for demonstrations. Primary school pupils learn gardening on their own plots as part of their science lessons. There are even raised beds for children in wheelchairs.

Following this visit we went to the grounds of Criewen Castle. A woman who is a campaigning self-taught gardener, having been a factory worker until 1989, is almost single-handedly taking care of a model garden in the park despite the local authorities' lack of support. In co-operation with VERN e.V. she conducts experiments with traditional seed potatoes and other vegetables. Projects of this kind do attract at least a few tourists into the area, which depends on tourism since the transformation of the LPGs into agricultural big businesses run on capitalist lines, which led to a sudden and brutal reduction in employment - especially for women.

The next three days were spent visiting three co-operative organic farms east of Berlin. Two were founded after 1989, while the third, a so-called Demeter farm, has existed since 1929. All three are cultivating organic vegetables with increasing success. These are distributed in Berlin, via a box-scheme and wholefood stores. The three farms, the Apfeltraum e.V. (Apple Dream) in Eggersdorf near Muenchberg, the Baeuerinnen GbR (Women Farmers) near Buchholz (close to Fuerstenwalde), and the Marienhoehe anthroposophic farm co-operative (founded in 1927 near Bad Saarow), are more successful now than they were five years ago. However, the struggle goes on because land prices are too high and real-estate situated on it is too expensive.

Theoretical contributions
In the introductory lecture given to the preparatory group, Elisabeth Meyer-Renschausen concluded that agriculture worldwide is mainly small-scale. Most farms throughout the world are subsistence farms, and this subsistence agriculture is an informal model of economy which is mainly dependent on the labour of women. The political world and the general public ignore the reality of the smallholdings of Eastern Europe and Asia, and these are threatened and undermined by huge projects such as dams and international 'Life-industry-multinationals'. In many parts of the world, patents for seed crops destroy small-scale agriculture and leave the women smallholders as wandering beggars.

Farida Akhter is the director of UBINIG, a non-profit-making organisation providing advice and a network for 50,000 smallholders and part-time women farmers in Bangladesh. She reported on the importance of women to small-scale farming and pointed to the breadth of women's knowledge as the reason for their leading role in agriculture. Farida sees the aggressive seed-crop policy of multinationals, the use of chemical fertilizers and resulting destruction of edible non-cultivated plants, and the increase in debts, as the biggest threats to small-scale agriculture. This subsistence agriculture has the potential to feed the majority of the Bangladeshi population.

Next Maria Mies from Cologne reported on women farmers' worldwide protest against globalisation. She started of with the example of recent demonstrations in support of the French smallholder and cheese-maker José Bové, who damaged a partly-built new McDonalds. His arrest and sentencing in summer 2000 caused an incredible wave of protests in France. Heide Inhetveen (Göttingen) and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen (Bielefeld/Vienna) tried to establish the 'female character' of this informal economy. Heide Inhetveen coined the term 'an economy of careful provision' as opposed to the current much-used term 'sustainable economy'. She emphasized the informal nature of this 'caring', people-orientated style of economics focussed on the practical worth of goods; as such, a 'women's' economy. She made clear that 'an economy of careful provision' is to be understood as a theoretical term, whereas the term 'informal economy' describes, in her understanding, an empirical, factual reality. In contrast to the latter, 'an economy of careful provision' indicates moral components incorporated within its social and economic activities. Agricultural historian Teodor Shanin (Moscow/Manchester) emphasised the paradox of people's survival in the former Soviet Union, despite the failure of the formal economy's two 'poles': market-orientated at one end, with the State at the other. The answer to this paradox lies in the existence of an 'informal' economy. Shanin calls this economy 'ex-polar'. This invisible economy, which ensured the survival of ninety per-cent of the Russian population, is not based on the equable exchange of goods, as in a market economy, but on the principle of mutual support.

As in Eastern Europe today, large parts of Africa's urban and rural population depend on vitally necessary small-scale agriculture, carried out mainly by women. Friedhelm Streiffeler gave clear examples of the importance of 'informal' urban agriculture in African cities and towns. He pointed to the important role local government could play if spontaneous farming initiatives were no longer suppressed. Ramesh Agrarwal, a lecturer at the agricultural and gardening faculty of Humboldt University, Berlin, made an impassioned speech in favour of support for small scale farmers in India, for example through loans. He also demonstrated how ecological destruction of the environment is creating continual difficulties for small-scale farmers.

A rather different contribution complemented the socio-political lectures. The Bonn biologist Thomas Gladis made an impassioned speech for the preservation of biodiversity, illustrating the geographical and historical consequences of the accelerating impoverishment of plant societies in Germany. He showed that some varieties of species can only now be found here and there in hidden, isolated niches: road and field margins; tiny forgotten spots on the landscape. On similar lines, the biologist Brigitte Vogl-Lukasser from Eastern Tyrol took the audience by surprise with a contribution about the gardens of the Mayas in the valley of Chiapas in Mexico. These gardens were, in part, living accommodation, and provided nearly everything a Maya household needed: fruit, vegetables, shade, and fuel. Dorothee Jahn (Witzenhausen) also caused astonishment among listeners with her report on vegetable cultivation that is not adapted whatsoever to the semi-arid climate of El Alto (La Paz, Bolivia), 4,000 metres above sea level.

Enormous bulldozers attacking a couple of square metres of green space: the need for collective defence
Most contributions by participants from towns and cities mentioned the importance of local government support, but this, if given, is often half-hearted. Tetsuo Akemine from Tokyo told how urban citizens, office-workers by day, feel excited about their allotments. Civic action groups lease land from farmers who teach them how to grow vegetables.

The situation in New York can be only described as dramatic, with its high rates of unemployment and poverty. Some socially-active female residents initiated the creation of neighbourhood gardens on fallow land between apartment blocks and buildings. This brought about a surprising improvement, but the city government's neo-liberal policy of selling everything off was a real threat to these gardens. Despite constant protests from all sectors of society, huge bulldozers have destroyed what socially active women and young people built up over years.
These powers-that-be call into question the value of informal employment, to which house-work and gardening - traditional women's work - belong. But it is also a question of perception, and discussion as to whether this sector will ever be recognized and acknowledged in the arenas of politics and planning. Throughout history, Romantics and reformers, both male and female, have tried to show that we can't eat money and that life is also, in fact, a day-by-day existence which must be understood as 'female' and 'unplannable'.

Working Group on Urban and Rural Small-scale Agriculture and Gardening (Arbeitsgruppe Kleinstlandwirtschaft und Gärten in Stadt und Land
office address:
c/o Institut für Soziologie der Freien Universität Berlin
Babelsberger Strasse 14-16
D 10715 Berlin-Wilmersdorf
Tel: 0049 (0)30 85002 110/1109 and later 261 22 87. Fax: 0049 (0)30 85002 206

1. See Annemarie Schweighofer, Martina Lintner, eds., Das Bäuerinnenbuch (Edition Löwenzahn, Innsbruck, 1998).
2.  This article and other contributions to the conference have already been published in a collection edited by Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen and Anne Holl, Die Wiederkehr der Gärten - Kleinlandwirtschaft im Zeitalter der Globalisierung (Studienverlag, Innsbruck/Vienna/Munich, 2000).


Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Agriculture and Gardening, Humboldt University, Berlin, and the College of Higher Education in Innsbruck. She is an active member of several women's groups and residents' initiatives. She has written several books on the history of the women's movement and on the social ecology of food. Her latest book, co-edited with Anne Holl, is Die Wiederkehr der Gärten - Kleinlandwirtschaft im Zeitalter der Globalisierung (Studienverlag, Innsbruck/Vienna/Munich, 2000). e-mail:

Christophe Kotanyi holds a PhD in Physics. He is a self-employed astronomer in Berlin and a member of the Working Group on Urban and Rural Small-scale Agriculture.

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