Gender, Utilitarianism & Poland: 100 Years of Women and Urban Agriculture

By Bellows, Anne Camilla | WE International, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Gender, Utilitarianism & Poland: 100 Years of Women and Urban Agriculture


Bellows, Anne Camilla, WE International


Gender, UTILITARIANISM & POLAND: 100 Years of Women and Urban Agriculture

by Anne Camilla Bellows

Metropolitan and state interests in Poland manipulate their public's food access and food labor in part through a calculated social marginalization of women's labour.

Through a study of the garden allotments program in Poland, we gain a brief introduction to the complex and formalized practice of Polish urban agriculture. Gendered assumptions about relations of urban food production assign the non-paid, subsistence, and economically invisible labour of "gardens" predominantly to women of all ages and sometimes also to marginalized retiree and unemployed males.

In the past, the low-profile accorded to small plot food production has furthered official disregard for regional protests over city-based pollution that severely contaminates crops from industrial and transportation sources. The capacity to depreciate urban food production labour and disparage the significance of its output lends in turn a very tangible service to metropolitan interests that have sought, for private and public development interests, to dissolve urban agricultural space. The losses of short and long term food sustenance security, green spaces or "urban lungs" to clean local air pollution, and urban recreational space is the cost to all city residents for marginalizing women's labour and agricultural production.

In 1997, Poland celebrated 100 years of urban allotment gardening. 100 years began with the age of partition in Poland when the country was divided between German, Austrian, and Russian powers, and a vacillation, from capitalist industrialism, through 40 years of centralized communism, and back to western capitalism since 1989, was begun. Within this 100 year tangle of reform, revolution, and attempted revitalization, urban agriculture has maintained a fixed presence: low-cost urban food production and supply has contributed to social stability and malleable labour. It has garnered from its origins -- in the industrial urbanization of rural indigenous Polishethnic peasants (eg: Schrebergartens, an urban garden allotment program) -- its original and continuous importance. It was a model of paid (visible) mining males attached to unpaid (invisible) gardening family women or sometimes retired men, and has been the seed from which all subsequent urban agriculture sprang. With a minimum of investment, the gardens served to pacify industrialists' paid and unpaid labour supply, to keep it from starvation, and even to keep it hostage.

Early industrialization exploited land as flagrantly as it did labour. The scientific management policies of mid-century bureaucratic government gave no thought to the pollution residues of industrial development. Autocratic governments suppressed environmentalists' early organizing to demonstrate the links between pollution and human health. In the most industrialized part of Poland exists also the highest pollution and human mortality rates. The local food production that provides subsistence security also lodges toxic levels of heavy metals and other contaminants (Sokolowska and Migurska, 1993).

The contradictions between political and economic promises of supply and social expectations of ersatz production (i.e. local food production) become more extreme in cases where urban pollution levels literally contaminate local food production. Forbidding local production exacerbates the inherent inability of the market and the state to guarantee secure food access over time. Women, with the social responsibility as family healers and food providers, are trapped between compromising family food provision and family health.

Under the post-World War II communist state in Poland, along with the industrial base, including re-acquired Silesian lands, the gardens too passed to state ownership, to be administered through factories and other sites of paid work (Lenkiewiez, 1971).

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