Conflict in The Community Garden
Anyone who read my last post about the community garden ¡Esta es Una Plaza!, a community garden in Madrid, may have come away with an idealistic view of a utopian community in the city full of like-minded people, working together for the common good of all and transforming the city in the process.
Whilst this image is indeed accurate in many ways, it would be naive to think that there wasn’t some shadow lurking in the background somewhere. As inspiring as ¡Esta es Una Plaza! is, it is not without its problems.
As with all relationships, conflict always occurs at some point, and La Plaza is no exception.
These problems were very apparent to me when I first started to get more involved in the community garden back in 2019 and early 2020 before the quarantine. I would go to help out in the vegetable garden and hear people complaining about the behaviour of others in the community. Each time I would go, I would hear a different side of the story or a different complaint.
Weeds amongst The Flowers
It soon became clear that there were different fractions that were at loggerheads with the other side. Listening to these complaints about ‘the others’ became a burden and I felt that the atmosphere was one that I didn’t want to be around.
I went to the garden to connect with the plants, feel inspired and contribute to my community, and the negativity dampened my enjoyment. This problem continued even post quarantine, to the extent that I even considered basing my design project on a different garden, just to avoid this uncomfortable atmosphere.
But in the end, I love ¡Esta es Una Plaza! too much to abandon it in its hour of need.
As a stranger in a foreign country, La Plaza is like an old friend, a link to the beginning of my journey in Madrid when I discovered it for the first time all those years ago. There are not many places or people that have been with me since the beginning. I felt like it was a great opportunity to give something back and realise an old dream of being involved in a community such as this one.
So I took a deep breath, rolled up my sleeves and began to speak to people about what was happening. It didn’t take long to see where the problems lay.
One of the ideas that the garden is based on is using ecological materials that respect the Earth and don’t pollute. So you can imagine the uproar when a few well-intentioned people decided to fix a crumbling wall with cement.
As one person said: “The world already has enough cement! Why use cement when there are other viable alternatives?”.
Yet the people who were responsible for this intervention couldn’t understand the problem. They thought that they were doing everyone a favour by helping to maintain the physical structures in the garden. However, for others, cement is inorganic, non-eco-friendly and is a form of pollution.
The other side of the debate was that “the alternatives don’t last”.
“Why give yourself more work to do in the future?”, they said. “It isn’t labour or time efficient”.
As petty as it sounds, this small detail of using cement or not is enough to generate a lot of problems. For many, this represented a breach of the original principles that the garden was founded on and this isn’t something they take lightly.
Clearly, this incident with the cement hinted that there was a conflict of values at play. However, that wasn’t the only problem.
A Threat to Democracy
People also objected to the fact that the collective hadn’t been consulted before a decision was made on the best way to fix the wall. Usually all decisions such as these are debated together in the assembly or via email and the different options voted on.
This was the hardest pill for people to swallow, as they felt like the integrity of the community garden was being threatened. However, the concrete-culprit’s response was simple:
“They are not the ones who are here everyday working! We are here every morning for hours. We can’t consult the collective every time I need to fix something!”
“They are all theory and no work!”, another said. “If it was left to them, this place would be a rundown mess”.
This wasn’t the first time I had heard this. When I began to get more involved in the garden late 2019, eager to get stuck in and get my hands dirty, I was told: “Here, nobody works. You can do what you want! No one else is going to do anything”.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this at the time. It was true that I only ever saw the same few people working in the vegetable garden and doing maintenance, but I did feel a little bit uneasy about suddenly doing my own thing. This was meant to be a collective effort after all, wasn’t it?
I thought it was better to proceed with caution and see how things played out.
The Great Cactus Garden Divide
Over time, another course of conflict became apparent: The cactus garden. Some people feel that there are too many cactuses!
“Why do we need so many?”, people ask, “They have taken over the space entirely with cactuses!”.
But these complaints fall on deaf ears, for the person who created the cactus garden is a President of the Cactus Association in Spain. As you can imagine, he loves cactuses and can’t see the problem!
However, the real crux of the matter goes beyond people’s like or dislike for cactus. What really caused the conflict was that the person who created the cactus garden (who just happens to be one of the people involved in the cement drama), yet again failed to consult the collective and went about planting cactuses, slowly taking over one side of the space.
There have always been some cactuses in the garden, which people never objected to. But over time more and more started to appear until the landscape of the garden had been changed beyond recognition.
Yet, our cactus lover maintains the same line of defense: No one else does anything here; everyone is all talk and no action. If you aren’t going to come and do something to maintain the space yourself, don’t complain about it when other people do.
Who is right here and who is wrong? Maybe these questions are wrong-headed and only result in more divide and separation. I could see both sides of the argument.
In permaculture we value diversity yet seek to connect and bring people together. Yet I asked myself, with such different perspectives, how can this conflict be overcome?
The general mood of the collective was pessimistic. People had had enough.
My Way or the Highway?
In fact, two members of the collective had already told me that they were thinking of leaving and not coming back. They seemed to be pretty serious about the prospect and saw it as the only option. Some were secretly welcoming this idea and saw it as the only way forward.
As much as I could understand why these two members had ruffled people’s feathers, the prospect of them leaving filled me with sadness, since they had given so much to the community garden and helped me out tremendously with my project by providing me with a lot of information and giving me a lot of their time. Surely there must be a way to get through this, together?
I felt like I was in the middle, and this weighed heavily on my shoulders. I valued all points of view and liked all the people involved. It was clear to me that nothing has been done with bad intentions, it was just a case of different ways of working and different values.
One of those in question told me; “I am l like un burro (a donkey). I just keep working and working. When I see work to be done I just do it. I keep my eyes on the ground and keep on going”.
Clearly, for this person, work ethic is important. They feel frustrated by people who are “all theory and philosophy but no action”. Whereas for other people, the principles of the community garden are the heart of the whole project, without which you have nothing.
With all of these challenges, I found myself in the middle of a battle ground and I began to regret my choice of space for my permaculture design project. Maybe I should have used a different space for my design project after all. Was it too late to change?
Things also got more complicated after a freak snowstorm we had in January 2020. All the parks were closed for months afterwards, including all the self-governed spaces by order for the state. This meant that most communication happened over email: the most toxic battlefield of all!
Both sides took to the fight. Every day new emails were hurled, many with insults and aggressive language. Whilst it was uncomfortable to read, it made the dynamics and protagonists clearer to observe. I may not have been able to visit the garden to do my observations for my project, but observing via email seemed to be just as important and useful.
Our cactus enthusiast launched into a defence of their work in the cactus garden, sending before and after pictures of all of his work in the space over the last four years. Others also chimed in with their grievances.
Another bitter and long-standing issue was raised and used as ammunition: an olive tree planted amongst the cactuses that was having its growth capped by the plastic sheets that was used as roof to protect the cactuses from too much rain in winter.
“When will the olive tree be set free?”, they wrote, sardonically.
From my observer’s position, this seemed like petty school-kid behaviour. Many agreed with me and weren’t slow in pointing out that this seemed to be a testosterone-filled conflict lacking any kind of wisdom whatsoever. Some people asked to be unsubscribed from the email thread because they didn’t want to have these unpleasant emails fill their inboxes anymore.
Up until this point I had been quite silent in the email thread, observing without intervening. Who likes to be involved in this kind of hostility and who was I to get involved anyway?
But in the end, I just couldn’t put up with it any longer and wrote an email explaining my point of view. I felt that there was truth in both sides of the argument and that we had to see things from a higher perspective if we were to heal this conflict. I didn’t want the only solution to be that people leave the project after contributing so much, even if they hadn’t always gone the right way about it. Could we not find a way of being inclusive of our diversity of perspectives whilst maintaining our boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn’t?
I felt a little bit vulnerable and exposed speaking up. Maybe they would think that I was getting too philosophical and I would lose my credibility. Yet, I felt a call to add my own voice into the dynamics and see if I could add a different energy into the mix.
The Cavalry Arrives
However, I needn’t have worried, because little by little, more people started speaking up. One person politely replied to me and apologised on behalf of the community garden for the unpleasantness of the conflict. They also said “I don’t usually contribute to these emails, but your email inspired me to do so”.
Another person stepped out and offered their coaching and therapy services for free to all those directly involved in the project.
It seemed like people who, like me, had been silently observing this conflict from a far had finally stepped out to help solve the problem. Suddenly, the email seemed like a less hostile place and the battle ground less vicious. The aggressive emails stopped and things felt lighter. Maybe there was hope after all!
From this point on, things seemed to improve. The covid restrictions on meeting people outdoors were lifted and the parks were reopened, which meant that the assembly could once again be held and issues discussed face to face.
Whilst that first assembly after so long wasn’t pretty, it at least allowed all the frustrations and ill feelings to be expressed. Just like an infected wound that needs to be cleaned before it can heal, maybe this ugly encounter served to fully clean under the proverbial carpet once and for all.
Whilst the same problems still remain, it seems like La Plaza is on the road to recovery. My permaculture design project can finally continue without the toxicity and the community garden can once again be a place of inspiration and joy for everyone involved. (For now at least!).
One thing that this process has taught me, is how easy it is to stay on the sidelines and not get involved when we see ugliness play out before us. It is tempting to look the other way and tell ourselves that it isn’t our responsibility. After all, dealing with conflict or problems takes energy. We have to dig deep to find solutions and usually, this involves being uncomfortable in the process.
I wonder whether this could be an example of the passivity that is fostered by our systems that take care of everything for us, leaving us free to consume but feeling powerless to change things. Or could it be a symptom of our throwaway culture, whereby we would prefer to let a relationship go than go to the effort of working through our problems with the other?
Or perhaps it is more a case of simply not knowing what to do to help. Which in turn fuels the “things will never change, it’s hopeless” narrative, we all know too well.
But one thing I have learnt is that even when we are unsure, if we can be in this vulnerable place yet still have the courage to speak up, then we may inspire others to do the same. And before you know it, many others have stepped forward to help and you are no longer alone.
One conversation with one woman in La Plaza showed me this. She told me that when she saw me step forward and introduce my permaculture project in the assembly, she could see that I was a little bit nervous and that I didn’t find it easy. But rather than put her off, this inspired her to also step forward and get more involved in the collective.
“If she can do it, so can I!”, she (rightly!) thought.” I want to do that too!”.
And now she is involved in various different work groups within the community and is helping to bring change to help heal some of the longstanding problems within the collective.
I know that sometimes we have our own personal problems to deal with that often takes away energy and time for community endeavours or solving conflicts in our day-to-day lives.
But what if we could make a difference just by taking a small step into the unknown; a small step out of our comfort zone; a small gesture that could somehow the catalyst to bring about change?
What if we could get comfortable being vulnerable and say “I don’t know what the answers are but I am willing to work with you to discover them”?
Imagine how courageous and fearless we would become if we were able to look conflict in the eye and say “no problem, I am not scared of being uncomfortable and I know we will find a solution. Let’s go through this together and we will come out stronger”.
Or, if we were to say, “I don’t know exactly how to go about this, but I am going to have a go anyway”.
I wonder how empowered we would become as people and what we would become capable of co-creating as a consequence.
For some people ¡Esta es Una Plaza! maybe just a community garden and what goes inside its walls may seem like a world unto itself, without relevance to the rest of the city or world. But really the opposite is true.
It is just a small component of a larger ecosystem: that of our personal lives and our relationships with our family and friends; the city and its connections to the global community. What we learn in a place such as ¡Esta es Una Plaza! can be replicated in our own neighbourhoods, in our workplaces, in our families and friendship circles.
It is a fertile learning ground for some of the situations that can arise when people do come together and dream something different and an opportunity to grow as people in the process.
Such is the power of a small neighbourhood initiative, touching lives beyond its four walls, and contributing, in my opinion, to the creation of a more beautiful and sustainable world.
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