Above the dusty, busy streets in Samut Sakhon, a concrete space that before had done little except radiate heat is now a little oasis. A sprinkler gently sprays water across beds of leafy plants and herbs and flowers. This rooftop garden has become a place of function and purpose for those who tend it. The building is home to the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), an organisation that provides legal and social assistance to vulnerable overseas workers.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, migrant workers were among those who lost their livelihoods and were unable to return to their home countries due to ongoing border restrictions. Suthasinee Keawleklai, MWRN’s coordinator, soon saw a growing problem – these workers were going hungry.
“I noticed that people were starving because they had to cut their living expenses because they were furloughed and had lost their jobs. They had to do whatever it took to save money. They came to ask us for vegetable cuttings,” she said.
Instead of trying to find ways to donate food, she looked up. “A friend of mine who’s into organic farming suggested that we should grow more vegetables. I told my friend that there’s no space. My friend said ‘if you have a rooftop, it can be done’,” she recounted.
A few months on, about 30 migrants – mostly workers from Myanmar and their families – care for the garden themselves in their free time, transferring seeds, cleaning and watering the transformed space. And the vegetables have become a daily food staple during uncertain times.
Rooftop gardens like this are not designed to be relied upon for food, but they can play an important role in filling gaps during times of crisis. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked interest in urban farming over the past few months.
In Thailand, looming concerns about food insecurity driven by climate change also means that urban farming is poised to be a crucial long-term resilience tool. The Thai City Farm project at the Sustainable Agriculture Foundation Thailand helps oversee more than 450 community projects, a number which has accelerated quickly in recent times with 210 new projects being launched during the COVID-19 period.
“There are so many people who fell through the crack because they have no food of their own and never learn how to grow. When they are out of a job, they have no money to buy food. They have to wait for donations,” said Varangkanang Nimhatta, the head of the project.
She says that the basic skills to grow food have largely disappeared from Bangkok’s urban fabric. It is expected to be a growing problem with the United Nations predicting that about 70 per cent of the global population will live in cities by 2050.
Apart from that, we think that learning to become a producer will make people understand the true origin of the food, and become a consumer who supports sustainable, organic, and natural agriculture, as well as agriculture that supports small farmers to be able to make a living, agriculture that does not destroy the environment and our surroundings,” she said.
In Rangsit, a campus for Thammasat University, has given birth to Asia’s biggest rooftop garden. The 22,000 sq m space recreates a rice terrace, includes micro-watersheds from its cascading roof and has expansive areas for students to grow organic vegetables and herbs.
Beyond these purpose-built green zones like at Thammasat, Withoon of Biothai wants unused space, which can be precious in crowded cities like Bangkok, to be unlocked for communities to farm.
“There are so many emptied lands. So, the government should change the law to facilitate urban farming ideas so that poor people can grow their food,” he said, giving the examples of district offices and temples as areas that could easily be converted for use, especially by poorer city residents.
Varangkanang of Thai City Farm added: “I think it’s been proven that if there’s space, whether it’s land or concrete or whatever it is, every place has the potential to produce food.” “People just need to start to do it.”