The people of Per.ka spent some hours with us last Saturday morning talking about their organic community garden. It is an incredibly inspiring story in itself, and within which there are a fabric of individual’s stories. It all began only 3 years ago when people got together and decided they wanted space to grow things together in the city. They looked around a few places, but the abandoned military camp at Karatasou was the natural choice: it’s vast, it was available straight away and with the support of the cultural club and water was readily available (although not without it’s occasional problems). The cultural club is a local group who promote the use of the park by people and defend the public space against development and so were natural allies.
The first Per.ka group, which came to be know as Per.ka One, started producing vegetables and fruits, medicinal flowers and herbs for themselves and for their families and friends. Legally, the land does not belong to the producers. In fact, the ownership is a topic of internal governmental dispute between ministry of economic and defence ministry. On arriving at the ex-military camp, the Per.ka group informed the municipality about its plans, but they weren’t interested. After more people joined the collective, the army started to use the land, again, for their own activities – this was in fact illegal as there had been a general instruction to evacuate some time before. Since then, the cultural club has taken legal action against the army for violating their order to quit military activity on the land with the hope that people will now be left in peace.
Undeterred by the indimidation, the Per.ka collective grew in strength and number. Now there are six Per.ka’s in total (the last group started up last year) who use the growing space according to the principles of the collective which were set from the very beginning. At the very core is the idea that producers grow organically – no chemical pesticides and fertilisers are used at Per.ka. However, there is no set way to grow things here, plants are cultivated in a variety of natural and experimental ways, and everyone is willing to share their knowledge with others. Learning and passing knowledge on – what could be more natural than that?
Importantly, the space is free for people to use, but the decisions are made together, collectively. Each of the six Per.ka groups holds its own assembly to talk about things concerning just their garden; inviting school groups, for example. Then every month there is a general assembly where issues that concern everyone are discussed: such as the distribution of water or the organising of an eco-festival at Per.ka (these are fairly frequent and a good way for people to hear about the project and get involved). The aim is to function horizontally and deciding things by consensus works well at Per.ka, we are told by members of Per.ka 1 and Per.ka 3. These assemblies are really important as not everyone has email and so it is a chance for all voices to be heard. Some of the Per.ka’s, however, are more active than others and there is a small participation in the general assemblies compared with the total number of people in the collective (roughly 40 out of over 200).
A lot of people hear about the community garden through the festivals and through word of mouth, and when asked whether, if a new group were to form, there be capacity for another Per.ka collective to start growing, the openness of those involved was demonstrated with the answer: it would be hard to find more space, but we would make it so it was possible. There is a waiting list for individuals, who are allocated space as they become empty. Typically the spaces are 30m2 and are shared by families,friends,members of groups, for instance, the Vegans of Thessaloniki. Per.ka has a good relationship with other collectively organised spaces in Thessaloniki, such as Micropolis, and with Granazi, a group who cooks (at least some home grown organic food thanks to Per.ka) for homeless people twice a week in the Migrant Social Centre in the city centre, as well as Vio.Me who we went to visit the following day.
The other thing that is encouraged, but not forced, is the use of open seeds and not hybrids. This topic seemed to be a hot one! When asked where seeds were stored, Betty, a lady whose interest in seed saving preceded her time at Per.ka replied, ‘sto spiti’ – at home. There is no suitable place at Per.ka, for one, but besides this, there are domestic laws prohibiting the distribution of so-called ‘open’ seeds and so using them can be quite controversial. Having a strong link with Peliti a seed sharing group in Greece, means that open seeds are available to producers at Per.ka. Open seeds are seeds which have not been made in a laboratory and which can be sown again and again. They can also be experimented with to produce vegetables and fruits which the producer likes best or best fit the natural environment. Hybrids, on the other hand, are sterile and so year on year have to be purchased (usually from big agribusiness) and are most fruitful when used with fertilizers and pesticides. You can see why these are discouraged! Now in its third year, this is one topic that is being discussed at length and may mean that the principles around seed types are revised, if everyone agrees of course.
Our stay at this community garden was fruitful, not only in terms of learning about how to grow food effectively with more autonomy and solidarity, but also in literal terms – the people of the collective spent a lot of time in the beautiful, sometimes wild looking, gardens, gathering their summer yields and generously contributing to our evening rocket stove cooked meals: tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes and herbs! We talked a lot and heard that people were attracted to Per.ka for many reasons. I was particularly affected by one man who told us how his life had been turned around, without a job and a need for a purpose; suffering from depression, alcoholism, he came to Per.ka and put his energies into gardening and meeting new, warm and supportive people. He told us this with a big smile and twinkling eyes. Others enjoy the freedom to grow what they want and to be self-sufficient….tThis helps especially in a time of financial insecurity for many people. All in all, many of us gained energy and knowledge at Per.ka, a real, working solution to counter the dominance of overpriced, monocultured vegetables we see in supermarkets and to the problem that many people face of not having access to affordable fresh food.