There’s no hiding Rangoon’s trash problem. The streets of Burma’s biggest city are often the scene of overflowing garbage bins and rubbish chucked carelessly into gutters. But behind apartments downtown, the problem skyrockets when one peers into the alleyways.
Enter a community group that views the trash-clogged alleys from a different perspective, eyeing these spaces as holding great potential. When social enterprise Doh Eain’s founder Emilie Röell suggested to her neighbours that she wanted to build a garden in their shared laneway, she was met with bewilderment and a wall of blank expressions.
“The idea of doing something in the trash alleyways is a bit alien,” says Röell. “They didn’t really understand what this was about and they thought it was quite a crazy idea.”
Röell was ready to take the time and let residents ponder the idea. She is passionate about community-led projects, which is the approach that she applies in directing the organisation Doh Eain, which translates as “our home.” They apply a bottom-up approach to urban renewal and heritage building restoration for private homes, but as a side project, Röell wanted to build a community garden. “We were looking for a space where we could start a city farm, because I think food safety and food sustainability are issues not getting a lot of attention here.”
After running into roadblocks with securing any available space, she put the idea on hold. But when she began to renovate a building on downtown’s 27th Street as a co-working space, she had an epiphany while looking out at the unused space behind the building.
“There are so many of these trash alleys downtown, so if there could be a bit of a movement to ‘green-space’ it, there would be a lot of space.”
Rangoon residents have developed the nasty less-than-green habit of throwing trash out the window into alleyways for years, and breaking that cycle was never going to be easy. But once Doh Eain started to clear the rubbish and build garden beds, people grew interested and motivated to help. The tipping point was when a mural workshop was held one Sunday earlier this month and schoolchildren were invited to paint the walls.
The ward administrator, U Kyaw Lin Aung, attended the event and was elated by the transformation. He told DVB, “This project is very good; now people need to change their mindset and work together.”
“We will make this place as an example for others to see how we can use this place. Our children can play in the shade, and the elderly can sit here in the evening if the place is well cleaned.”
Doh Eain has since launched a crowd-funding campaign and wants to build one kilometre of alleyway garden, stretching the full length of their block, where they have piloted the first garden plot. Speaking to DVB the day after the campaign launched, Röell said they had received close to $7,000 in the first 24 hours. A week later, the figure had more than doubled to $14,687. Their target is $50,000, which they have calculated is the amount needed to convert the one-kilometre stretch.
Röell is hopeful they will reach their target but also adds that the success of this project rests upon the community’s willingness to upkeep the space. The other challenge is the rainy season — to combat the flooding that the monsoons sometimes bring, most of the garden beds are elevated and the gardening collective Yangon City Growers also worked with Doh Eain to help design sturdy, easy-to-maintain bamboo trellises, hanging flower pots and raised vegetable garden boxes.
“We are focused on making a connection with the community and encouraging and incentivising projects that make the city nicer,” says Röell.
The idea grows
May Hla San and Kalayar, two National League for Democracy members from Kyauktada Township, first visited the pioneering laneway garden during the mural-painting workshop and soon after sparked a conversation in their own township about building a garden in their alley too.
Kalayar said, “There are a lot of children in our township and they have only the road to play on — no garden or playground — so we want to build something for them.”
When they spoke to local lawmaker Nay Myo Htet, he immediately set up a meeting to organise the planning and construction of a garden. “So many people stay indoors as they have nowhere to play. So if we build this playground close to the primary school, then they can have somewhere to play in their free time.”
“Everyone can enjoy the space,” he said just before a township meeting last week where members of the community discussed how to organise the project.
Some of the challenges May Hla San pointed out when visiting the proposed site off 30th Street was the piping and drainage — and of course, the trash.
In Sanchaung Township, a community has also started the ball rolling to create an alleyway project of their own.
Röell says it is encouraging to see the idea striking a chord with others: “It’s great to see people wanting to unlock the value in these spaces rather than see them as a problem.”
Past attempts to clean up the trash
A sustainable waste-management solution is desperately needed in the growing city of more than 5 million, says Theingi Lynn from Yangon Heritage Trust.
“People throw trash out of the car, or people just leave it on the ground. There are a lot of campaigns but they don’t seem to be effective,” says Theingi Lynn. Among young people, she believes the most effective strategy to combat this is to take a novel approach.
“Young people like creative and solid examples with a fun idea,” says Theingi Lynn, so she thinks novel approaches to regular community clean-ups could be a solution to build on the laneway garden idea’s momentum.
iNature Environmental Group leader Phyo Su Aye agrees and says the youth need to be involved at an early age to create a wave of change. She’s passionate about raising awareness of recycling and the environment, and works with a group of youth volunteers who lead mass annual clean-up days on World Environment Day, as well as other community initiatives. Although she admits these once-per-year occasions and related efforts are not a sustainable solution and are more about raising awareness, the 22-year-old said the Doh Eain laneway project is inspiring, adding that she would like to expand on it and work with similar projects in future with youth groups.
“We need to do awareness in the public and in schools … [to] show creative recycling stories and join with other environment groups,” Phyo Su Aye told DVB.
Although the message was clear when then-MP Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in 2015 picking up trash with some of her constituents in Kawhmu Township, where she was re-elected in November of that year, the morning event was merely a moment and stopped short of a follow-up initiative.
Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) has tried to deter littering by imposing fines for people caught in the act, but the mentality of local communities is difficult to change. When YCDC heard about the alleyway project, they also volunteered labourers to help clear the laneway behind the garden.
While such approaches are well-intentioned, follow-through is often lacking. Again, says Röell, it boils down to community buy-in. In the laneway-turned-garden only a week after YCDC cleaned away the trash, those in the apartment above it fell back into old habits. But setbacks like this should be weighed against the massive opportunity that the clean-up initiative presents, Röell believes, particularly because there is an abundance of these forgotten trash laneways: “If these spaces could be used in a different way, it could have a big impact.”