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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Garden Grows in Tijuana

Air Date: Week of

Children at an unusual orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico learn environmental ethics and responsibility by tending to their 8-acre urban garden. The project, at the Children's Village, has been an inspiration for other farming projects in Tijuana. Bebe Crouse reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Tijuana, Mexico, is a tough border town, with hillside shanties and plenty of pollution. But some people dream of making it into a green jewel that could serve as an ecological model for the region. That transition may now be starting, on the grounds of an unusual orphanage. Along with care for homeless kids, the Children's Village also teaches nurturance for the Earth. Bebe Crouse has our report from Tijuana.

(Children's and women's voices; running sink water)

CROUSE: Meal time at the Children's Village is pretty much like within a big family. It's noisy and warm, with Mom dishing out the plates almost as fast as her children can shovel it in. The difference is, these children are here because they were orphaned, abused, or abandoned by their natural families. But this is no ordinary orphanage. Instead of warehousing them in big dorms, each child lives in a small house with 8 other kids and a woman they call Mom. They take classes in karate. They're learning to play the flute. And like most kids, they must help take care of the yard, which in this case is a 7-acre landscape of edible plants and fruit trees.

GIRL: I water the plants. I like to do it so they don't die. And also because they give us food, like apples and pears and [oranges?] And we eat all of it.

CROUSE: A giggling gang of 8- to 12-year-olds took me on a tour of the Village, interrupting our interview with the impromptu games of tag. I was asked not to give the names or backgrounds of any children here. But as they veered around clumps of tomatoes and dome-shaped plastic composters, the children wanted to be sure I knew they all helped make this garden grow.

GIRL: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I help, too. I water the plants. And I take the garbage out to the garden.

CROUSE: The kids dutifully cart kitchen scraps and garden clippings out to the composters. They couldn't exactly explain why they were saving garbage, but project co-designer Bill Roley says that will come.

ROLEY: They've got the right idea now, to take the organic material to the composter. Now we've got to have a harvest of the compost to be able to show them that, how useful it is.

CROUSE: Roley and his partner Scott Murray are specialists in experimental agriculture. After the orphanage homes were bought, the foundation supporting the Village called them to landscape the barren grounds. Roley and Murray saw it as an opportunity to put their ideas to work, and they rounded up a team of volunteers from Tijuana and the US. Just beyond the swing set and soccer field, they dug 2 long swails that now channel rain water away from fragile hillsides and foundations and into the garden. And they hope to eventually recycle household water to use for irrigation. It's a landscape that Scott Murray hopes will integrate ecology, economy, and education.

MURRAY: We were motivated by creating an environment that would get richer and richer for the children, both as a place to be, as well as we're interested in expanding the diets of the children, and offering a vocational opportunity: learning about urban agriculture, urban forestry - you know, planting of trees, the growing of vegetables and things like that.

(Cock crows, barking dog)

CROUSE: Murray and Roley are determined to share their holistic ideas of urban agriculture with local residents. They've already enlisted a cadre of volunteers to plant gardens at local schools. They've got some city officials interested. And ultimately, they hope to teach people how to use the techniques around their own homes.

MURRAY: This whole city looks very, very - very scary and very barren. And as it begins to blossom with these simple techniques, through the children, if they learn about growing a tree at their home and growing some vegetables, they can turn their whole city around in their lifetimes.

CROUSE: But their vision of Tijuana as a green jewel is still a few years away. The vistas here are mostly dusty gray. Since 1980, Tijuana's population has quadrupled as people streamed in from the countryside looking for work in its booming assembly plants. Their rickety homes cling precariously to steep slopes, some only a heavy rainfall away from destruction. Sewers and electrical service haven't reached many areas, much less any parks. But Roley believes projects like the Children's Village are an important beginning.

ROLEY: It's little steps, it's not big steps at this point. It's trying to deal with young learning habits before they start accumulating the BTUs that maintain our sort of active lifestyle.

CROUSE: It's a lifestyle that hasn't reached the humble squatter settlement where Yolanda Timoteo is raising 2 children. But soon, one of these gardens will bloom at her kids' school, and Timoteo is delighted.

TIMOTEO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The environment is important, because if we don't keep it clean and take care of the plants, how will we live? In all that filth? We don't want our kids to live like that. So ecology is very important.

(Children playing)

CROUSE: By taking responsibility for the care of these gardens, the children are gaining tools for their physical survival. But they are also discovering the rewards wrought by discipline and care. In that sense, the project is building good citizens and loving parents. And, the organizers hope, helping to break the cycle of poverty and abuse that brought many of the children here in the first place. Some may even translate the skills they develop tending the land into jobs when they're adults. And the garden could one day make the Village self-supporting. At the very least, it's brought peace and harmony to the lives of children that have seen way too much pain.

GIRL: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: I like how it's really peaceful here. We don't step on the plants or treat them badly, because they're really pretty and they give us fruit and food.

CROUSE: For Living on Earth, this is Bebe Crouse in Tijuana, Mexico.



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