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Issue #1755      November 2, 2016

Europe’s biggest anti-airport protest

This summer I was lying on the runway at London City airport protesting its expansion. I felt honoured to be part of a group who were prepared to risk their freedom and privilege to make change happen.

The same desire to support those putting their lives on the line for a cause led me to travel to la Zad (Zone a Defendre, or “Zone to defend”) In France, Europe’s biggest anti-airport protest.

La Zad sprang up in 2008, soon after the Loire-Atlantique prefecture approved plans for a new airport – the Aéroport du Grand Ouest in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, north of Nantes. Their 4,000-acre-land quickly became a state-free autonomous zone, populated by protesters as well as traditional farmers who refuse to leave the land as squatters. In 2012, the French government tried to clear the area and evict everyone, but the operation failed, and la Zad lived on.

Going there, I discovered the place had evolved from a resistance camp against a planned airport into a creation of community and flourishing biodiversity. The landscape is dotted with buildings made from cast-offs; wooden pallets, straw bales or corrugated iron. Chalets, cabins, and tree houses suspended in the tops of woodlands abound. There are bakeries, a brewery, bike workshops and beehives, commercial farms and communal kitchens.

But recent news says that France is to launch a new eviction drive directly after the evictions of migrants in Calais this autumn. I won’t draw inappropriate parallels – those at la Zad have more choice to leave than those at Calais – but at both la Zad and Calais the powers that be will not tackle the root causes of the issues, preferring rather to bury their heads in the sand and send in the bulldozers.

Perhaps it was because I was there with the threat of eviction and destruction hanging overhead, but when there I was struck by just how peaceful and beautiful this threatened landscape is. The plateaued expanse that is home to la Zad was originally created by ancient forest clearings which left moorland, which was in turn gradually infringed upon by fields. The land was greatly celebrated as common land with common usage, successfully resisted inclusion in enclosures in the 1700s and then split into individually owned plots in the 1800s.

The land acts as a vital wetland habitat for the area, perfect for amphibians and water voles and is home to many protected species including the Marbled Newt. It is unique in that it does not suffer from the presence of invasive species (such as crayfish), unlike most other major wetlands in France. This abundance of insects and wild creatures is aided by the fact that 30 percent of the land is left uncultivated; having the land free from agricultural machinery and insecticide is benefiting the environment. As is the natural approach to farming taken by the Zad-ists and by many of the farmers on the territory.

This abundance of wildlife is, in turn, helping the communities there: official investigations into the flora, reptiles and amphibians on the land resulted in a delay of evictions. In 2014, the ministry of ecology issued a clear statement that there was no confidence in the re-location plans for these species and advised against the construction of the airport. But plans for Nantes’s second airport proceeded.

On October 16, 2012, under the instruction of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, then Home Secretary, 1,200 police swarmed into la Zad. Road blocks, riot police and bulldozers overran the site, and the authorities razed 75 percent of the buildings to the ground in just two days. However, the resistance fuelled sympathies across the nation and support grew. In the months leading up to the eviction a group had planned a re-occupation of la Zad.

And on the November 17, 2012, a month after the beginning of the eviction attempts 40,000 people joined the re-occupation of la Zad. The evictions ended.

Since re-occupation, French police have not been back into la Zad. It’s a state-free space, where there is land to grow enough food for its inhabitants to sustain themselves. It has widespread support from the people in the region and around France. Over recent months hundreds of people from all over Europe have been trained in how to resist eviction attempts. On the weekend that I travelled to la Zad around 20,000 people came to show their support, planting sticks in the soil as a declaration of their intent to return and defend the site if necessary.

Common land lies at the heart of this community but, contrary to the assertions of ecologist Garrett Hardin in his famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, the people at la Zad do not use the land for short-term gain, letting it deteriorate. The land has provided home for the Zad-ists and, in return, people of la Zad have become its guardians. The biosystem and the celebration of its mutual dependence with people goes back centuries in Notre-dame-des-landes. It’s something that the people of the region value along with the 40,000 men and women who came to protect it in 2012, and if we value it and want it to flourish it is something that we will need to fight for.

New Internationalist

Next article – Corporate profits over public health

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