Green & Black's…and Gold

The Green & Black’s Rainforest Garden has won a Gold award at this year’s Royal Chelsea Flower Show.

Designed by Jane Owen and Ann-Marie Powell, the garden aims to conjure up a rainforest family home and has been in part, by Cameroonian indigenous women to raise awareness about the threats that they and the rainforest are facing.

The story of the Rainforest Garden is about changes hunter gatherers are making as their hunting grounds are destroyed by illegal logging, mining and bush meat hunting. Roughly cleared productive plots planted with crops like maize and cassava are one of the ways that indigenous communities now provide food for themselves.

Here Green & Black’s president Craig Sams talks about the project:

“The Green & Black’s Rainforest Garden won a coveted Gold award at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show on May 25th.  The award was a first-in-a-lifetime achievement by Jane Owen the designer, in collaboration with Ann-Marie Powell, well-known TV garden show presenter.  They were joined by Marguerite Akom, Mathilde Zang and Jeanne Noad, 3 women of the Baka and Bagyeli tribal communities of pygmy hunter-gatherers from Cameroon.  They have seen the Cameroon rainforest in which they live reduced by mining and logging.  With their water polluted there is no fish.  Bushmeat hunters have decimated wildlife.  They have had to settle and grow crops for food – a radical change for tribal people who have formerly lived completely in harmony with the seasons, their only change to the natural environment the ‘mongolu.’    Like the willow stick frame and canvas-covered ‘benders’ of Glastonbury camp fashionistas, the mongolu has a frame of bendy wooden sticks, which the women cut to length  and tied together to make the frame.  They then overlaid it with the leaves of wild banana, leaving a small arched entrance.  By way of contrast, the garden also contained a chainsaw, a miner’s helmet and a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle to symbolise the triple threats of logging, mining and bushmeat hunting.  It was also planted with corn and cassava, the foods that the former hunter-gatherers now grow to replace their traditional foraged food.

The hot weather at the beginning of the week was enough to make strong men wilt, so to chill for a few moments I slipped into the mongolu.  With little slivers of light dappling the interior, it offered a quiet and remarkably cool environment, far from the noise and bustle of the flower show.

We prepared the Cameroonians for the Royal visit to the stand by teaching them how to curtsey.  The Queen showed huge interest in the garden and its plants and took a good look inside the mongolu.  She seemed to be comparing it to her own ‘mongolu’ at the end of the Mall – you could discern the slightest glint of envy in her eyes, a spark of yearning for a simpler life, an awareness that sometimes less can be more.  She noted that the border of the stand was decorated with maps. By mapping the forest and their village locations the indigenous inhabitants show that it is their home, a food source and a reserve of biodiversity.  This makes it harder for governments to give away logging rights by declaring the land as ‘unused’ or ‘uninhabited.’    A similar mapping project by Maya cacao growers in Belize which Green & Black’s supported in 1997 helped to protect 100,000 hectares of rainforest in Belize from logging companies.

BBC presenter Alan Titchmarsh enthusiastically featured the Green & Black’s Rainforest Garden four times during the week of the Chelsea show: once in the preview programme on Sunday evening  featuring Marguerite, Mathilde and Jeanne building the mongolu; again on the Monday, featuring the Queen’s visit; again on Tuesday in the coverage of the Gold award winners; and finally an extended presentation on Friday’s end of the week roundup of the best footage from the show.  Jane Owen, the garden designer, heard the news of the Gold award on an early morning train back from Gatwick after seeing the women off on their plane home to Cameroon.  Her involuntary whoop of joy was met with disapproving looks from her fellow passengers until she announced “I’ve just won gold at Chelsea” at which point the carriage broke out in spontaneous applause.