In September 2015 the United Nations together with 193 Heads of State and Governments agreed and adopted a new plan for global sustainable development for both people and the planet. With 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets, to be achieved over a 15 year period, it could be easy for local communities to feel that their small changes may not contribute much to this ambitious global plan. However, we met Artist Tonya McMullan, Co-Founder of Infinity Farm, who is keen to show that by making small changes collectively as a community, we can bring about real positive social change to the environment.
Infinity Farm is a community interest company promoting the health and well-being of urban communities by connecting people, organisations, plants and bees in an innovative way in Belfast. Tonya spoke a bit about what inspired her to set up the socially engaged art project, “I’m a visual artist interested in the confines of the environment. In the 90's there was a movement called relational aesthetics where people stopped making art work as something you put on the wall, and started making work that involved the social, political and environmental context of where they were”.
As well as being passionate about the connection between art and the environment, Tonya is a beekeeper and has been keen to bring bees into the project. With the continuing decline of bees globally, an important aspect of her work is on educating the likes of schools and community groups on the fundamental role bees have on the environment, as well as what we can do as a society to contribute to bees’ survival. “In the last 50 years the global population has almost doubled, but there has been a dramatic decline in pollinators – we need pollinators to pollinate all of our crops and food. We wouldn’t have many vegetables and grains without them. Even if you’re living in a built up urban area bees and other pollinators can be encouraged. Infinity Farm plant pollinator friendly plants every time we set up a bee hive, this not only provides food for pollinators but it helps to make Belfast a more beautiful place.”
As well as bringing observational hives into schools and community groups, to show the fascinating way in which a colony of honey bees works up close, young people have been sculpture casting using bees wax, honey tasting and making self-care products such as lip balm and body butter. Tonya then shows people how they can continue to make these eco-friendly products at home using household ingredients. She also delivers workshops on the importance of reducing plastic, showing people how to make re-usable wrap from bees wax, instead of single use plastic film. Feedback from these workshops has shown Infinity Farm the impact they have already made, “We’ve discovered that we have the capacity to do much more than just raise awareness – we are able to change attitudes and encourage people to take ownership of the environment. It’s encouraged people to get together as groups, and initiate their own environmental projects.”
It is through the power of collaboration that Infinity Farm hopes to have an even bigger impact on the environment. Tonya recently spoke of her long-term aim to the Soroptimists society and invited guests at Stormont, to create a bee line across Belfast which is a continuous strip of habitat for bees and other pollinators, with the line starting from the Government building itself. She explains, “In the same way as we would struggle to cross the country without infrastructure, bees and other wildlife including pollinators like birds, bees and beetles; need continuous sources of food and water so they can move around, and survive and flourish.” The project gives local residents, community groups and small businesses the opportunity to create the bee line together as a collective, having their say in how it would look and work. Local artists will be involved in make engaging visual art pieces with residents along the beeline, giving more accessibility to the arts. It is Tonya’s hope that the bee line will be used as a template which can be replicated all over the country, with different councils being involved. This involvement from councils would help to influence wider policy, “Whenever new buildings and developments are built, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be green. There’s lots of things people and businesses can do to help.”
With more and more awareness of our responsibility to the environment, it is good to see passionate individuals like Tonya who believe strongly that we can learn from and encourage each other to make positive social change to the environment. “There is a global movement to reduce plastic and encourage pollinators and that ties in to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We feel that we’re a small local part of that movement.”
You can learn more about Infinity Farm here.
The United Nations have some easy tips about how you can contribute to the sustainable development goals; whether it’s from the comfort of your home, at work or outside. If you are interested, please follow this link.