An entrepreneurial approach to mending the Tijuana deportee crisis
Each year over sixty thousand deportees are practically dumped in the city of Tijuana, ending up without opportunities or infrastructure to support their arrival. This phenomenon has developed into a humanitarian crisis concentrated in Tijuana’s dry concrete river — an area known as “El Bordo”. It is in El Bordo where thousands of Mexican deportees from the US end up living in the most of extreme conditions — inside sewers, gutters and under bridge. Here, drug consumption and disease prevail in a low morale environment.
The Tijuana Global Shapers Community (a diverse group of young leaders affiliated to World Economic Forum), proposed a project focused on building technology based vertical farms along the edge of the Tijuana River — a project similar to the New York highline but with a productive twist. The idea was inspired by an experience of mine with Angel Ventures Mexico, where we invested in Home Town Farms, a startup doing vertical farming in the neighboring San Diego area.
We simply brought a for-profit business model to a social issue and the project jump-started as with any lean startup, by creating a presentation and business plan through “ESTUDIO”, an architectural firm specialized in urbanism and the social impact it has on communities. The goal was to create a center for transitional migration and urban farming on the edge of the Tijuana River area (“El Bordo”) and named the project “Bordofarms”.
Soon after, we began lobbying with CONAGUA, the national water authority in Mexico, for land authorization. After three months of effort, to no avail, we decided to launch a “Guerilla Farming” movement primarily inspired by Ron Finley in his TED Talk “A guerrilla gardener in South Central LA”. To accelerate this further, in December 2014 we partnered with Transicion Tijuana, the leading urban farming group of the city, where we worked on a pilot project to be launched on the 17th of January 2015.
On our Bordofarms Launch Day we hit the ground running. Media outlets reported, “It was an act of civil disobedience, carried out on federal land off a busy Tijuana thoroughfare in broad daylight. For hours on Saturday, volunteers built boxes, carted dirt and planted seedlings in what organizers say is the first step in an urban farming project aimed at addressing the issue of homeless U.S. deportees.”… “The vision is to build vertical urban farms that would create jobs for the deportees, revitalize a blighted area, and serve as a source of food for the city.” This pilot project pilot consisted of thirty raised beds planted with kale, beets, chard and lettuce, to be cared for by ten temporarily hired homeless deportees living in the “Bordo” area. These were our “BordoFarmers”.
Ten weeks into the project, five of our BordoFarmers found full-time jobs through our social incubation program, which included developing their social skills, providing psychological support and hosting workshops; another returned to his home town of Michoacan after nineteen years living in the Tijuana slums; another decided to voluntarily check in to rehab; and one of them is leading a small piñata co-op he started with the rest of the group.
Over fifteen hundred people visited BordoFarms, and over three hundred local, national and international articles were published. This pilot project was a market test, and it proved that there is a strong need to provide transitional support to these eager and willing communities.
We started the pilot project without government permission to get off the ground, but always aimed to abide by the law, and show the government through results the positive impact “Bordofarms” had on the vulnerable Tijuana deportee community. From January through March, we restarted our lobbying efforts with CONAGUA, and the Baja California State Government, through the Migrant Attention Council.
On the 13th of March 2015, after intense rains, an evacuation of almost two thousand homeless people was conducted by the local authorities in the “Bordo” area. Since then, there has been heavy Mexican military and municipal police presence to impede the access by any civilians in the area.
This aggressive government strategy led BordoFarms to be the last group standing at “El Bordo”. In an effort to remove us, the Mayor’s office opened a line of communication and offered to relocate to a place called “Ave. Baja California”, an abandoned park created by the previous Mayor with little success in an area where gangs and crime rates are high, and with a very unsupportive neighboring community.
Given that this offer did not fall in line with the focus of Bordofarms, which has always been to create opportunities for deportees, we made a counteroffer to rehabilitate the old tourist pedestrian corridor of Tijuana, called “Puente Mexico”. An area that used to welcome thousands of annual visitors from the U.S., that became abandoned and dilapidated due to decreased tourism. Our proposal was to rehabilitate this important gateway by donating the thirty farm beds, and line the corridor. This second phase would have had the primary goal of rehabilitating an abandoned area, engage tourists, and integrate the nearby deportee community with the possibility of productive jobs through potential partnerships with newly created local small businesses catering to conscious tourists.
With the support of the Tijuana City Council, we initiated the bureaucratic process for “public space adoption” and submitted the documents to City Hall. That same day, our submission was rejected and we were told that the only offer was to go to the Ave. Baja California park, and that there would be no further room for discussion.
One week after that, the Mayor had a meeting with President Peña Nieto where one of the topics was the status of “El Bordo”. I received a call from Tijuana’s Secretary of Social Development offering support to relocate the thirty farm beds and in an effort to minimize further tensions, we decided to developed a “farm adoption program” to the many supporters of this pilot effort.
These supporters will continue promoting urban farming and opportunities for the deportee community. The farm beds are now being housed in twenty diverse locations across the city, including popular restaurants, The Culinary Art School, co-working spaces, community centers and a rehab center.
The pilot project is now over, and the propagation of BordoFarms throughout the city will continue to generate consciousness of the current issues affecting our deportee community and how to mend this crisis, with the added bonus of fostering a culture of urban farming and sustainability.
The pilot phase generated so many unique ideas that we will continue to explore, such as the creation of what we have labeled a “Mobile Bordofarm”— a street car with a small garden and workshop area that can temporarily migrate to different places in the city to generate awareness in schools, businesses, public spaces, and just about anywhere. In the long term, we will continue to aim toward building the “Center for Transitional Migration and Urban Farming” as close to the epicenter of deportation that we can.
After this intense immersion into the social fabric of our city’s deportee community, we have learned that there are many creative ways to to approach social issues where we can not mend humanitarian problems but also spur economic vitality and growth. Through projects like these, we are challenging and disrupting the status quo in order to inspire communities to take control of their localities and foster change. BordoFarms has taught us that if we plant the ideas, we can grow a community.
Miguel is an entrepreneur/investor focused on integrating the technology industries of Latin America and California by using Tijuana as a platform for human talent and access to market. He is also the Founding Curator of the Tijuana Global Shapers HUB and the Founder of Bordofarms.