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On the way to taking root

The president Colette Lepage (red jumper) surrounded by three Romani women. Photo (CC BY-SA): Ecodrom.

On the way to taking root

Ecodrom93 enables Roma families in the suburbs of Paris to grow their own vegetables and make a home for themselves in the community.

It all began one afternoon in 2009: Colette Lepage, who had been working with female immigrants for years, watched from her home as Roma families set up camp on the embankment of highway A186, not far from her block. The agile violinist of about age 60 went over and started talking to people, her knowledge of Romanian and Romany coming in handy. She has long been convinced that local experiments with new creative practices can foster greater responsibility in people’s interactions with one another and with nature. And so, today, after the highway encounter, she is the president of Ecodrom93, which she founded in 2010.Eco stands for ecology and community-minded business practices; Drom is Greek and Romany for pathway, 93 is the number of the government district of Seine-Saint-Denis, the association’s home being Montreuil, a Parisian suburb of more than 100,000 inhabitants in the 93rd district.

Currently, Ecodrom93 supports ten Roma families, all from the West Romanian province of Arad, a largely agrarian area. This prompted the idea of letting these families apply their horticultural skills here, in the Île-de-France, and grow vegetables for their own use – without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. The city of Montreuil pledged to support the project, and Ecodrom , whose board also includes some Roma, was able to secure lease contracts for the agricultural use of two strips of unused city-owned land. One is Montreuil’s last surviving farm, called Moultoux, which has since been revived by two Roma families. The other is a site on Rue de Rosny, in the immediate vicinity of highway A186. Some families have thus been able to break out of the vicious circle of expulsions and literally take root at a permanent location. Moreover, local vegetable production perfectly ties into the old tradition of community gardens that is still very much alive in Montreuil, despite the aggressive real estate market in the Paris metropolitan area.

Everyday life, self-made and shared

Centuries ago, the city attracted orchard farmers from the countryside who grew peach trees up against stone walls to meet the eager demands of European royalty. Today, it is still possible to spot some of these murs à pêches in Montreuil, for example on the Rue de Rosny site. Six families and their numerous pets live in the settlement that consists of self-made huts. The building materials came from municipal landfills or were donated. Recycling is key: a discarded wooden board is now used as shelving in a large family’s single multi-purpose room. There is much still left to do. During the first couple of years, there was no running water. The latest addition is trash containers. Toilets are to follow soon.

One house offers a special attraction: the Hotel Gelem. Two Swiss artists set up a hotel together with some of the Roma families living here. It completely topples the current notion of almost contactless long-distance tourism. Hotel Gelem invites its guests to share the daily routines of people living in dire poverty, in the middle of Europe. On Rue de Rosny, it is the Roma families, often perceived as nomads or even moochers, who offer shelter to travellers.

  • The head of the Ecodrom slum admires the cabbage that his group cultivated. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Ecodrom Entrance on 170 rue de Rosny. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • A Romani plucks out the weed in between the planted seeds of the greenhouse. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Seed plantation on the Moultoux Farm. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Seed plantation on the Moultoux Farm. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Hotel Gelem on rue de Rosny. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • The greenhouse (in the first year) built by the Romani on 170 rue de Rosny. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • The Romani while watering – Moultoux Farm. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Volunteers clearing the soil before plantation, Moultoux Farm. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Two little girls : Lydia and Maria on 170 rue de Rosny. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Three Romani women. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • The Slum on 170 rue de Rosny. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • Moultoux Farm: The president talks to Romani grandfather Lalo about their plant culture. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • The plantation on Moultoux Farm. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

  • The plantation on Moultoux Farm. Photo (CC): Ecodrom

Access and Community

Besides, the project is not only about a secure place to live or about potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. It also entails support with administrative matters, access to health care, celebrating together , or education for the youngsters. All 12 children go to school, from preschool to middle school. Moreover, Ecodrom also organizes field trips, tutoring, and cooking days at the quarter’s social centre, where Roma children cook meals alongside other children from the neighbourhood—using the vegetables from their own gardens, of course.

In addition, the association has initiated a mentoring system to help with the professional integration of the Roma, if they so wish. As part of an entire network of associations, Ecodrom tries to arrange some initial work experiences for job seekers without any professional training. As part of the cooperative project Vélodrom, for instance, Rémy—a member of biking club Vivre à Vélo en Ville—mentors a 20-year-old who is not to be named here. This oldest of five siblings has some previous experience with bike repair. The program whose name weaves the French word for bike (vélo) into the name of the association, allows him and other teenagers from the quarter to improve their technical skills and help many a Montreuil bike rider to get back on the road.

Imagination for common ground

Today, Rémy is standing in the living room of the family of seven, making a phone call to Pôle Emploi, the official employment agency. When restrictions were lifted in January 2014, the 20-year-old was registered there as a job seeker. In confident French, the siblings chat with architecture majors from a college in Paris. Today is the students' second visit to the settlement, because they want to help the families improve their living quarters. They are part of a project by their college and the Abbé Pierre Foundation, a three-month workshop of ideas with a South-African architect is also planned. For all this, measurements have to be taken, drawings have to be made. The children enjoy it as a welcome diversion, while the settlement elder views the strange visitors as intruders. But that is normalcy at Ecodrom as well: all involved, whether they are volunteers or Roma families, are constantly required to find and then walk on common ground despite their often vastly divergent social realities and cultural norms.

The following day, Rémy and a woman from the settlement will take the children to workshops for the upcoming recycling festival FestiRécup’, the mission of which is to shame throw-away society with its inventiveness. Small and tall inventors and tinkerers will build crazy shacks, pedalling contraptions, and fantasy toys from the rich supply of objects that our consumerist society has discarded as useless. The children from the settlement will surely feel right at home there. Only the adults must pay: the price of admission is a clothespin and a lot of imagination.


    March 2014
    France, Montreuil



    Ines Grau
    is a social scientist and works for the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology as well as in international out-of-school education. Previously, she was responsible for the endeavors of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste in France.

    Translated by

    Kerstin Trimble


    Creative Commons License

    This text and the images are licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Germany License.

    Further Topics

    Food & Drink
    Public Relations
    Rural & Urban Nature
    Space & Housing