The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

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DEC 14-JAN 15 Issue
Field Notes

Ecological Activism in France

Not far from Toulouse and Albi in the Tarn (south central France), the ingredients were assembled for a new ecological and political scandal: local government and agricultural industry came together, with the support of the Socialist government, to construct a dam in the midst of a forest; opposition to this project was met by high levels of violence by police and private militias. On the night of October 26 – 27, when approximately 7,000 people gathered to protest the planned resumption of work on the dam on the following Monday, the police killed one of the protesters, Rémi Fraisse—the first killing of a political activist under the current Socialist government—apparently with a stun grenade.

On October 10, Clémence Durand and Ferdinand Cazalis, of the journal Jef Klak interviewed two activists in the Zone à Défendre (ZAD)—protected area—fighting the dam. What follows is an edited translation of that interview.

Gendarnes vs. Tree Huggers in the Sivens Forest
Gendarnes vs. Tree Huggers in the Sivens Forest

Can you give us a little background on the dam project at Sivens?

In the Tarn, between Gaillac and Montauban, a stream called the Tescou crosses the Sivens forest and the wetlands of Testet. This is a tranquil valley where people come to stroll or take a break, hunt or gather mushrooms—everyday, non-commercial activities, which are even in a way vectors of autonomy. In short, it was a typical “useless” piece of land, from the political and technocratic point of view; for 60 years the latter played with the idea of getting some “use” out of this area by way of economic development. Official reports followed the dance of pointless projects—a lake, an amusement park, a waste dump—all the kinds of projects that require ravaging a territory preserved up until now, to put it to the service of other territories already destroyed by intensive agriculture, urbanization, or tourism.

In 2001, a study on “reinforcing the Tescou water resources” laid the ground for a dam to be built in the river valley. In 2009, a second study was intended to update the earlier one, but the data were hardly different, although in nine years the river’s rate of flow was changed and irrigation and pollution abatement requirements had altered, along with the number of agriculturists requiring irrigation. In addition, up to the present, the project has received unfavorable reports from official bodies concerned with the national territory and the environment.

Why did they decide to carry out this project here? Are there particular reasons why this particular portion of the country should have been looked at for 30 years?

Industrial agriculture is at the center of this struggle. The local administrative council hammers away at the theme that the “small dam” will be dedicated 70 percent for irrigation and 30 percent to “support the low-water mark” of the Tescou. That is to say, they need the dam for corn farming (which consumes a lot of water) but also—this is the cherry on the cake—to dilute the pollution produced by an industrial cooperative dairy farm (Sodiaal, the fifth largest dairy cooperative in the world) and by a water purification station. “Support the low-water mark” of the Tescou means ensuring a water level sufficient for these purposes in a stream that tends to dry out, concentrating the pollutants.

Who is behind the dam project?

The initiative came from a mixed (public-private) company, involving two companies that regulate the hydraulic potential of the whole basin of the Garonne River around Toulouse, down- and up-stream. One of them has constructed many dams and small dams, for different reasons: some were built for the nuclear power plant at Golfech and others to serve agriculture. This company has 17 other dams planned for years to come. Its board of directors includes many public figures, such as local politicians and bankers. The project is supported by the local administrative councils of the Tarn and the Tarn-et-Garonne, with the support of the European Union.

Opposition to the dam began in 2013, when work was scheduled to begin. A small group occupied the forest, beginning on October 23, 2013. A cycle of occupation-eviction-reoccupation-eviction began, accompanied by violence not always the work of the police or the gendarmerie. Small pro-dam, anti-ZAD militias formed in the region. For example, 20 or so people invaded a farm occupied by dam opponents, arriving in five cars with covered license plates, masked, and using chainsaws to cover the sound of their activities, and beat the two or three people there to the ground. They then smashed up the farmhouse, breaking the doors and windows, and put a powerful animal repellent inside. This act of violence aroused a lot of emotion in the region, with the result that the number of people staying at the farm grew from four or five to twenty. At the end of August, a lot more people arrived, and the farm was not only reoccupied but camps were set up in different parts of the forest.

This started the dance of eviction orders directed both at the camps installed in areas open to such orders—which were reoccupied the day after the expulsion—and at encampments in areas untouchable by such orders since they were private property (for instance, a family of peasants, opposed to the dam, put land at the disposition of the activists). Activists made a point of their presence in such places by parking a camper equipped with a mailbox, which led to a month of legal proceedings until a legal order of expulsion was issued. Dam opponents stayed in their campers and tents throughout the day, because when they left they were threatened, attacked, or arrested without cause by the police, in the middle of the construction site. This one half-hectare parcel, once very beautiful, is now just a desert: there is not a single tree standing, only campers and tents, with gendarme violence 24 hours a day waging a war of nerves with the ZADists.

Concretely, how did the deforestation and the resistance to it proceed?

The work began on September 1, 2013. Gendarmes arrived along with naturalists tasked with picking species to be moved to “compensatory-mini-zones.” The authorities quickly came to see that there was opposition: the preparatory work was sabotaged, barricades appeared, a bridge was damaged. Seventy or 80 people were living on the site, supported morally, materially, and physically by several hundred area residents. Some of them visited at 5 a.m., but most of the locals came at the beginning of every week or in the afternoons, after working hours, to bring food, materials, clothes, anything that could help the ZADists in their occupation.

Nevertheless, massive deforestation began at the end of the month. The work began by cutting down large trees with chainsaws. Very quickly, some of the opponents tried to booby-trap the forest by putting nails in the tree trucks to force the sawyers to change their blades or re-sharpen them regularly, with the idea of making the work more difficult, slower, and more expensive.

Then enormous machines went into action: “choppers” that felled trees as you might pick flowers, seizing them at the base with a pincer, then cutting them with a giant blade and tossing them in a corner in less time than it takes to describe it. Then another machine put the tree in a truck; wood-chippers immediately turned the surrounding undergrowth and thickets into a desert of shavings. In different proportions, these are nearly the same methods used to deforest the Amazon.

In the face of this violence, the anti-dam forces continued to booby-trap the forest by nailing iron bars on tree trunks and tying the tops of trees together (to make toppling them more dangerous). People also constructed huts in the trees, climbing into them at different heights at dawn, to hinder the work of the chainsaws and force the intervention of gendarmes with specialized equipment. But it was obviously too late to prevent the deforestation.

Nonetheless, there was a little country guerilla warfare, with Molotov cocktails thrown in response to police aggression. On September 8, people buried themselves in the ground up to their shoulders to delay the work of the machines. So long as there were cameras present, the forces of order couldn’t go after them. But once the journalists left, it was barely a quarter of an hour before mobile gendarmes gassed everyone and stomped on the people in the ground. One woman had to be hospitalized. Then the destruction of the forest recommenced and went on until nightfall. From that day on, the machines remained on the site, guarded every night, making it more difficult to sabotage the work. All this lasted until the end of September. It is almost finished now: there is only a bit of forest left, due to be massacred shortly.

During this period, after August 15, the movement opposing the dam was made up of environmentalist groups along with unaffiliated people and people physically involved with the land—

On the one hand, there was the Testet Collective, which had tried to fight the dam in court, launched a hunger strike, and attempted to negotiate at the highest levels of the government, with the office of the Minister of Ecology. On the other hand, the ZADists occupied the site. These were often younger people, more inclined to physical resistance, peaceful or not. Then there was the local population, which got going after the beginning of September. Some people from nearby villages joined the hunger strike, others supported the ZADists, bringing food, wine, blankets, materials, tents, and other necessities to the occupiers, and participating in operations. Even if everyone did not share the same ideas, it went pretty well, with a few clashes on various points. In any case, the national demonstration called for October 25 was organized by a coordinating committee uniting all the elements of the struggle.

A part of the local population, however, favored the project, as is shown by the militias that attacked the farm you mentioned.

In opposition to the movement there are local decision-makers, the Socialist Party (P.S.) and the Radical Left Party (P.R.G., a small leftwing party connected with local economic interests), who have held the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne areas as political fiefs for decades. There is also the state, by way of its local administrative offices. Finally, there is the European Union, which is financing the project, but which may change its tune because of doubts that the project respects the basic water regulations of the European Commission. Finally, the project is massively supported by the National Federation of Agricultural Associations (F.N.S.E.A.), which favors agricultural productivism, mechanization, and agro-industry. On September 2, the F.N.S.E.A. published a statement insisting on their right to benefit from the project and denouncing those who “keep France from moving forward.”

It was after this that the militias began appearing in the zone, attacking passing vehicles, denting their fenders with baseball bats, throwing stones, beating up the activists, shooting in the air. At first, they were thought to be peasants or hunters; eventually people realized that the Sivens hunting club was from the start hostile to the project—which makes sense, because the forest was a hunting ground. It may be wrong to think of the militias as made up of “pro-dam” people, because there are probably some who have nothing
to gain from the dam, and who are neither hunters nor peasants, but simply get off on beating up young people with dreadlocks or a punk look. It’s really a fascistic phenomenon.

Is there any solidarity with the resisters from outside the area?

Yes—we receive expressions of solidarity from different parts of France; there have been support actions in Brittany, in Nantes, in Auxerre, a little everywhere. Links are developing: the call for the October 25 demonstration made clear reference to Notre-Dame-des-Landes [a big airport project near Nantes, also contested by a strong opposition] and to the Val de Suze [an energetically opposed project to build a high-speed rail tunnel from Italy to France]. But here what’s at stake is not an airport or a high-speed line but a dam intended to serve industrial agriculture. We’re trying to keep in mind the issues specific to this area, fighting on our level and insisting on the particularities of the Sivens project and its problems.

How would you describe the media coverage of the movement, in terms both of extent and of content?

At first, there was a lot of media coverage, which interviewed various protagonists of the story, but the articles in the big local paper, La Dépêche du Midi, soonbecame completely partisan, describing the ZADists as violent outsiders invading our peaceful countryside. The head of the administrative council of the Tarn-et-Garonne area, which initiated the project and finances it, is an important politician in the little P.R.G., the only current ally of the P.S. in the French government. (His influence perhaps explains why Prime Minister Manuel Valls, his minister of agriculture, and the government as a whole have supported the project.) He is also president of the regulatory council for the nuclear power plant at Golfech, leader of an irrigation association—and the owner of La Dépêche du Midi.

Meanwhile, the struggle became somewhat spectacular, with tree houses, the rural guerilla, and people in the ground—which attracted the national media (Le Monde, La Croix, L’Express) and a surge of reporting on this “new Notre-Dame-des-Landes.” The articles were less clearly biased and were more open to anti-dam arguments. But at the moment, the national media aren’t covering the story any more: while the work advances and the violence increases, there are no more front-page stories. Libération went so far as to publish a double-page spread gloomily explaining that the cause was lost, that there were only a handful of activists without local support.

There is a classic logic at work in the mass media: they talk about something at full volume for a week, and then suddenly speak of it no more, which gives the impression that it is over. While, seen from here, we could say that everything is beginning again. [This interview took place shortly before Rémi Fraisse was killed, which transformed the story into a national political crisis.]

Construction is due to continue until June 2015. The struggle is expanding, the authorities are panicking, and cost overruns are accumulating. There are also uncertainties regarding the European Union subsidies. If the départment (local administrative area) wants access to the European gold mine, construction must be completed before June 21, 2015. But, according to the administrative council itself, it has become impossible to meet this deadline, and the opposition to the dam is determined to do all they can to keep it impossible, by inserting its struggle into the timeline.

From an ecological perspective focused simply on the preservation of wetlands, the forest, and native species, there is no more reason to fight, or nearly none. The forest is clear-cut, the wetlands devastated, with caterpillar tractors and bulldozers exterminating all the organisms not deported by the naturalists to areas where they will die because they are not their natural environments. In short, if the goal of the struggle was environmental conservation, we have lost.

Nonetheless, the Testet Collective is continuing its struggle. For there are other good reasons, more political ones, to oppose the dam: the idea that there should always be unexploited spaces where people can go to dream and have experiences, the desire to resist arrogant local elites, and in this case also to oppose national policies of land development, concretization, industrialization. Besides, we should remember that there is a swarm of other dams waiting to be built in the years to come: the more expensive this one is, the harder it will be to put the others over.

So yes, the struggle continues—against the local elites, against the violence, and for other uses of the valley: we can imagine a lasting ZAD, a protected area in which trees would be replanted, vegetables grown, as in our dreams. We would try to bring life back to Testet, in every sense of the word, and to renew non-predatory uses of this territory.

Is the idea of the “Zone à defendre,” developed at Notre-Dame-des-Landes and spread to various parts of France, appropriate to the Testet situation, which has a very local dimension?

The expression “major project” is tautological: from the moment there is a “major project” it is imposed by force from far away and far above on the people here, down below. In the face of this, occupation seems completely appropriate as a political weapon in addition to the traditional ones (demos, organizations, public meetings, etc). It clearly expresses the idea that capitalism is predatory, that the imperative of economic growth, the accumulation of capital, implies the gradual erosion of more and more areas. It manifests the fact that land development policies are only the geographical version of the generalized management which dispossesses the workers of all control over their activity—here, the development of the area deprives us of the Sivens valley, on the pretext that its life was “underdeveloped.” Development of the area and management of activity: this is how the system of state and capital attacks our forms of life, our ways of doing things and of working, and the land where these flourish.

This is more often a matter of rural areas, which since the 1970s have become refuges for people opposed to the urban mode of life based on mass consumption and wage labor, who have tried to take refuge in the interstices between the large metropolitan areas. A new front has opened here, taking the form of opposition to development projects, each more absurd than the last: airports, factory farms with a thousand cows, industrial wind farms. We are resisting a capitalism that consists not only in the exploitation of workers but also in the “development” of the land, its destruction on the altar of Progress. The physical occupation and organization of such sites respond to the discontent of a generation that is seeking, sometimes outside of cities, a space liberated from money and the police, unions and parties, the business mentality and the statist passion for management.

Finally, the “ZAD principle,” as you say, has the merit of escaping the sterilizing alternative between, on the one hand, the wish to destroy the system (which can quickly collapse into a suicidal Leninism bringing back all the forms of domination we wish to oppose) and, on the other, the wish to immediately build another world (which can rapidly lead to the creation of niches in which one can sleep well, far from the horror of this world). The ZAD, on the contrary, while concretely opposing the system, allows us to invent new forms of life based on solidarity, sharing, collective discussion, and horizontality.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 14-JAN 15

All Issues