Rooftop gardening in the Dominican republic
When Jan Kees (Casey) Vanderbeek joined the Peace Corps in 1990, he seemed the typical Volunteer. He was 23 years old, and two years out of college. A liberal arts student who was working temporarily as a salesman while his Peace Corps application was being processed, he had all the earmarks of a "generalist," albeit with a few special skills. Having grown up in a Latino neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his Spanish was excellent; also, his interim employment had given him some business experience. Approved for Peace Corps service, he was assigned to the Dominican Republic as a Business Development Volunteer.
Wanting to work in an urban setting, Vanderbeek was given the task of working with "Canillitas con Don Bosco," an organization belonging to the Salesian order of the Catholic Church, located in the capital city of Santo Domingo. He was to help prepare teaching materials for vocational workshops that were to be part of "La Casa de Canillita," a residential/ community center attached to the Salesian trade school, where poor boys from nearby "barrios," working as shoeshine boys, street vendors, and the like, could be trained for permanent employment. Unfortunately, skyrocketing costs because of inflation delayed the center's construction, so Vanderbeek began to look for other ways he could work with these boys.
A tall blond youth, with an easygoing manner and a natural gift for the Dominican dialect, Vanderbeek had no trouble relating to these street kids. Impressed with his height, the boys were eager to join him on the basketball court, and he encouraged them to participate in the school's sports program, compete in rap and breakdance sessions he organized, and just generally hang out with him.
He was also able to help some of the boys earn more money. Five brothers in the group, for example, were working as peanut vendors, but wanted to set up a hot dog stand, which they were sure would bring them more income. Speaking before the Chamber of Commerce, the local American school and other organizations, Vanderbeek was able to raise $5,000, which went towards financing the center as well as the brothers' small business.
Vanderbeek's efforts on behalf of the boys brought him in touch with another organization working with at-risk youth in Santo Domingo - "Ninos en Marcha" - sponsored by the Dominican YMCA. He was so impressed with the dedication and creativeness of the three men who ran the program that he decided to work with them.
The organization had well-equipped woodworking and welding shops in which boys learned vocational skills, but it lacked operating funds to include the number of youths who wanted training. Rather than soliciting funds, the staff and Vanderbeek agreed that the preferable alternative would be to use the workshops to fabricate items that could be sold in nearby stores. The boys would be trained in vocational skills, while at the same time generating income for the program.
They soon ran into problems, however. For one thing, Santo Domingo was suffering from regular power failures, and without electricity, they could not maintain production. For another, their products were such cheap items that they would have to operate virtually on sweatshop labor in order to make any money, which wasn't exactly the message they were trying to get across to these boys.
But one good result did come from this experience. In the process of fabricating their wooden products, a lot of sawdust had accumulated, which was being stored behind a low cinderblock wall on the building's roof. In the warm, humid climate, a large part of the sawdust had decomposed into a material resembling soil. One of the staff members, Franklin Tamayo, had planted a small papaya tree, some sugar cane and a local herb called "oregano poleo" in this sawdust, and they seemed to be flourishing.
Invited to Tamayo's house for dinner, the PCV saw other examples of Tamayo's rooftop gardening. The Dominican had just added a second floor to his house. On the roof, he had built cement planters, in which he was growing lettuce, teak choi, radishes, and even a watermelon plant. He also had installed a 55-gallon barrel on the roof for growing a large cassava plant. Tamayo said he had gotten the idea and the technical know-how for starting this rooftop garden from a UN-sponsored Hydroponic Agriculture Cooperative that was operating nearby.
Tamayo's garden stirred Vanderbeek's imagination. He remembered how his mother had started a family garden, and how he and his brothers had each been responsible for their own plots, growing whatever they wanted, watering, weeding, and cultivating.
Through his own experience, Vanderbeek realized that "successful gardening requires a certain selfdiscipline and stability that are very positive traits in many other aspects of life. In addition the gardener is regularly rewarded for individual efforts. This makes a tremendous impression on a kid with an individual garden plot."
Vanderbeek also thought gardening could be a way of teaching the boys about proper nutrition and sanitation, and believed they'd take to the idea. They might be urban street kids, but like most people living in Third World slums, they're "no more than one generation from the land," and predisposed to farming, even in this miniature form. Discussing with Tamayo the potential of rooftop gardening, Vanderbeek decided it would be the perfect money-raising project for his boys.
With Tamayo's help, Vanderbeek became familiar with some of the literature on "hydroponics," the process of growing plants without soil. Jorge Zapp's book, Cultivos sin Tierra, Hidroponia Popular, based on the UN project he headed in Bogota and Cali, provided him with excellent and detailed source material. Another important resource was Guia Practica de Cultivos, Hidroponia Popular, written by Gustavo Salazar, an agricultural engineer, who was directing the hydroponic project in the Dominican Republic for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and who became Vanderbeek's principal mentor.
Tamayo drew up the designs for a hydroponic facility on the roof of Ninos en Marcha, which required $2,000 to purchase the necessary lumber, install a water storage tank, and improve the building's plumbing system. Vanderbeek wrote a proposal and presented it to the president of CODETEL, the local telephone company, which had a history of supporting development projects. Within a month, Ninos en Marcha received a grant of $2,400 to initiate its hydroponic gardening project.
The boys under Tamayo's direction spent the next three months getting the facility ready and doing the planting, while Vanderbeek initiated contact with Salazar to get his technical advice. At first, Salazar was reluctant to work with Vanderbeek and the staff at Ninos en Marcha because he felt that their project was too costly, but he eventually agreed and suggested they attend a week-long symposium on hydroponics that was being held at the local university, and which was being co-sponsored by the UNDP. Vanderbeek, Tamayo, and Miguel Robles, also from the staff, enrolled in the symposium, which proved to be a course to train trainers in the various technical aspects of hydroponics, focusing on low-cost methods. The success of this course can be measured by the fact that when Vanderbeek later replicated the rooftop gardening project, using recycled refuse materials at La Yucca, another "Y" facility, 15 kilometers from Santo Domingo, the start-up cost was less than $30.00.
Even though the boys' first harvest, as Vanderbeek reported, "was rather paltry," nevertheless he "had never seen kids so excited over a few pieces of lettuce." Besides the lettuce, they had also planted radishes, tomatoes, bok choi, and cucumbers, which the boys had never seen before, but devoured once they tasted them.
Using a system of seed beds and regular transplanting schedules, they were able to harvest monthly and have some excess produce to sell to a few local restaurants. But they didn't have a real money-making project, because most of their vegetables were either consumed by the people there or were given away free to neighbors.
Vanderbeek had considered raising herbs to sell to the luxury hotels and restaurants in Santo Domingo and had tried planting basil, dill, oregano, and a few others, but they required much more careful cultivation and harvesting than the boys were accustomed to doing. More important, no one wanted to market them.
"The places where we sold these items were run by foreigners or upper- class Dominicans. The normally friendly and outgoing people I worked with turned into shy and timid creatures when in the presence of these people. I literally had to drag them on sales calls."
After a while, however, Vanderbeek noticed that the neighbors were asking to take some of these herbs, particularly the basil and oregano poleo. When he questioned why they were so popular, he was told they were key ingredients for various folk medicines. One old man, for example, who sold used newspapers and magazines on the street corner across from the Ninos en Marcha building, asked if he could use some of the planting beds to raise his own basil, lemon grass and ginger - all to be used for medicinal purposes.
A month or so before Vanderbeek left the country, he came back from a trip to the beach to find Robles and three of the boys furiously planting hundreds of basil cuttings. While the PCV had been at the beach, they had contacted the owner of a local plant nursery and had received an order for 500 basil plants. They would be paid 5 pesos apiece for the plants, and if all went well, they would receive an order for another 500 the following month. It seemed the herb garden was becoming a profitable enterprise.
Vanderbeek's experience with the hydroponic gardening project convinced him that even had it not made any money, its educational and nutritional values alone made it a worthwhile activity, especially for Volunteers working with unemployed urban youth. As a result, he arranged to have a training workshop in Santo Domingo, conducted by Salazar and other technical specialists from the UNDP and Peace Corps' Office of Training and Program Support, for over 30 PCVs and their counterparts on the techniques of popular hydroponics. When Vanderbeek left the Dominican Republic, the Peace Corps assigned another Volunteer to spend a part of her time monitoring the project.
The experience with hydroponics also sparked Vanderbeek's own career. After leaving Peace Corps, he entered graduate school to study plant biology and become an agricultural engineer, a latent dream from childhood that might never have been realized otherwise.
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