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About 30km north-west of the French city of Nantes lies the sleepy little commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. This small, sleepy town is surrounded by tiny farms, fields and hedgerows – a throwback to the ancient field patterns which once covered most of France before falling en masse to agricultural modernization in the 1960s. Just south of the town lies the proposed site of the Aéroport du Grand Ouest, which for about forty years now has been the subject of locals’ protests. Seemingly defeated in the 80s, the idea was recently revived as a “gateway to Western France” with support from some of the highest officials in the French government (yes, even the “Socialists”).
Construction on this reviled megaproject was to begin last year. It didn’t.
For years residents had attempted to fight the proposal through community groups like ACIPA, to little effect. With numbers starting to dwindle as neighbours gave in and sold their land, those who remained decided to try something different. In 2009, the area was chosen for a “Climate Camp”, a convergence of activists like those which had protested airports across the UK. As usual, activists busied themselves pitching tents, holding workshops and disrupting the local airport (Nantes already has one, by the way), but instead of packing up at the end, the locals invited them for an extended stay. Taking an old bureaucratic acronym for the site from the 1970s, meaning “Deferred Development Zone”, it was renamed the “Zone À Défendre”, and the ZAD was born.
Over the next three years a steady stream of dreamers, outcasts, activists and anarchists arrived to make the ZAD their home. They moved into farmhouses abandoned by families who sold, built their own off-grid homes or took up residence in Rohanne Forest. Though relations weren’t always easy, farmers and squatters managed to work together and created a 4000-acre autonomous zone on the threatened lands. In the spirit of anarchist and mystic Hakim Bey’s classic essay about Temporary Autonomous Zones, they carved out a free space large enough for a self-sustaining community, right in the middle of Western France. What emerged was a mix of traditional French country life and radical experiments in sustainable living, from dirt-cheap eco-building styles to permaculture farming – a present-day, post-apocalyptic utopia, of sorts.
Obviously, such blatant disobedience couldn’t be tolerated, and the French government eventually ran out of patience. On October 16th of last year an army of 1200 riot police converged on the ZAD, hoping to “cleanse” the area in time to begin surveys the next month. With bulldozers and tear-gas, they drove inhabitants back and began to demolish their homes and gardens. At one point they reportedly fired at least 250 cans of tear gas into Le Sabot, the market garden which had fed 100 “ZADists” a week, seemingly in an attempt to contaminate it. Defenders responded by building barricades and digging in. Nine of the twelve squatted homes were razed and numbers reportedly dropped to a few hundred at best. All seemed lost, were it not for a year-old, half-cocked plan to “re-occupy the Zone” four weeks after the first evictions.
Four weeks later, the “re-occupation” arrived. A massive convoy with an estimated forty thousand demonstrators and four hundred tractors arrived bearing mountains of supplies. Human chains of people delivered stacks of lumber as effortlessly as ants carrying away a picnic, and the farmer’s union encircled the remaining encampment with their tractors to protect it from police bulldozers. They filled the Zone with a whole new generation of inhabitants and began the rebuilding process. When police attempted to expel them, masked youth fought back by slinging rocks, mud and occasionally worse. They managed to drive the police out of the zone, who fortified at “checkpoints” on major roads, though they still return regularly to menace the ZADists.
In the months since, the ZAD has endured in an uneasy standoff behind police blockades with the occasional exchange of rocks, tear gas and concussion grenades. The government is still pledging to get work under way, but behind the barricades, the occupation lives on.
This struggle has seen almost no attention in the English-speaking world, even in social media, which is really unfortunate. As far as environmental struggles go, this one is right out of Tolkein, complete with hobbit-homes and medieval siege warfare. It’s the largest squatted community in Western Europe, and represents a whole host of crucial experiments in off-grid living. The massive scale of the ZAD allows them to be largely self-sufficient economically and nearly impossible to fully evict, something which most European squats or even squatted neighbourhoods like Copenhagen’s Christiania haven’t been able to manage. Thus, the ZAD grew into more than protest, an occupation or a squat – a living, breathing microcosm of a different world – and one without airports, governments or capitalism.
ZAD.nadir.org – ZAD Homepage (English)
Rural Rebels and Useless Airports: La ZAD, Europe’s Largest Postcapitalist Occupation (Part 1, and Part 2)
Against the Airport and Its World – A collection of translated texts from the struggle.
Breaking Concrete: Selected Texts From Lèse-Béton – More translated texts from Lèse-Béton, one of the main ZAD publications.
Ok, I’ll admit it. “We” are not invading Mali. I’m not. I should hope anybody who reads this blog isn’t. Our countries, as Canadians, Americans, British and French citizens, are. At least in a support role. So while I have no particular love or allegiance for our government nor it’s imperial misadventures, I can’t exactly pretend I’m not involved. As the people of aggressive “peacekeepers” such as Canada, it’s our job to make these distinctions.
Every time I see, hear or read about this new war in Mali I find myself getting incredibly depressed and discouraged. For all the nightmarish horrors of neocolonialism, I would have liked to believe that another outright military conquest of Africa by Europe was out out of the question. As western forces now do battle with Muslims in the eighth country in four years and our leaders start once-again using bush-style, war-without-end rhetoric, it’s starting to look like “the dark continent” is once again in the crosshairs.
Understanding the conflict in Mali requires a little more context than it’s been given in most of our papers. Mali is a former French colony win West Africa, named after the Empire of Mali which held power in the region staring around a thousand years ago. After gaining independence in 1960, it was run as a one-party state (first socialist, then military) until 1991, when a mass-movement forced the dictator to hand power over to a multi-party democracy. It’s enjoyed decades of good relations with the West, since the days of the military dictatorship (and it’s IMF collusion), and until recently was seen as fairly stable by regional standards.
Serious trouble started about a year ago when a rebellion broke in the north, largely among the Tuareg, the area’s traditionally nomadic indigenous peoples. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), a secular army demanding national autonomy, took over a number of towns and cities including Timbuktu and declared autonomy for the Azawad (“northern Mali”). This rebellion was joined by Islamic insurgents Ansar Dine, but fighting soon broke out between them and the MNLA was routed (they’ve since offered to join the French campaign). Both sides got a tremendous boost as fighters returned from Libya, bringing fresh NATO weapons and battlefield experience with them, as well as a growing sense of solidarity with other rebellions in the region.
While the army battled for control of the north, another threat appeared in the South. Frustrated by the administration’s lack of progress against insurgents, a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré and suspended the constitution last March. This seriously inflamed the situation, leading to an international condemnation from both inside Africa and out, as well as a total loss of control over the north. In response, a “transitional” President, Dioncounda Traore, was sworn in and a civillian Prime Minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, appointed. This didn’t change much – at one point “pro-Sanogo youth” forced their way into the president’s office and beat him so badly he needed a medical evacuation to France. Months later, in December, Diarra was forced from power by a group of soldiers acting on Sonogo’s orders, replacing him with the country’s latest leader, Django Sissoko.
This is the quagmire that French troops are walking into.
That France is taking the lead with this intervention is telling. The UN Security Council did pass a resolution late in December (you can read it here), but it doesn’t even mention France. Instead it authorizes an African-led force, under the supervision of the security council, to assist local authorities in restoring order, but also calls for the restoration of democracy and negotiations with rebels (days ago Ansar Dine reportedly split, with a faction seeking to negotiate). The French justification centres around requests from the Malian “government” for assistance, but it isn’t hard to see why some might doubt the “legitimacy” of their authority. Given the multiple threats and condemnations in this resolution directed toward Sonogo, I certainly do.
Law of Unintended Consequences
The colonial tone of this intervention is of not going unnoticed. Given the horrific legacy of slavery, imperialism and neo-colonialism, this was bound to inflame tensions across the region, and it has. The first response was an attack on a natural gas facility in Algeria which killed dozens, now reports are coming in of a 23 more killed in attacks around north-eastern Nigeria. As we’ve already seen far too many times with the War on Terrorism, the indignation caused by western intervention is more than capable of replacing every insurgent it kills.
Algeria harbours a frightening history of its own (extremely bloody) fight for independence from France, and more recent Islamic insurgencies. These later conflicts literally exploded in the 1990s after the government cancelled elections Islamists were expected to win and are said to have received substantial help from former Mujahideen fighters who’d fought (with CIA help) in the Afghan/Soviet war. Nigeria, a former British colony which has spent most of the time since its independence under various military juntas, has seen increasing unrest over the past two decades, largely in opposition to oil extraction which has taken a horrendous toll on the area’s environment. Initially taking the form of mass, nonviolent actions, Nigeria caught the world’s attention when Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders hung on false charges with suspicious connections to Shell Oil. In the years that followed, disillusionment lead to armed resistance through the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta (MEND), often attacking at foreign oil companies and kidnapping workers. In recent years, they’ve been joined in the conflict by Islamists Boko Haram, who are believed to be behind the recent attacks.
Since every one of these conflicts involves Islamic militants of one form or another, I should be clear about what I mean (and what I don’t). Unlike our leaders or the press, I do not mean to equate any or all Muslims who bear arms or resist governments. Not only would that be appallingly racist, but it would also be totally inaccurate. There are well over a billion Muslims on earth, so it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be involved in a few rebellions. There are certainly groups with abysmal theocratic aims who employ horrific tactics, but so does every other race and religion, and that’s the context they need to be seen in – they’re just like any other fascists. It needs to be noted that 90% of Mali’s population are followers of Islam, and most want nothing to do with Ansar Dine.
Islamophobia isn’t just a crass and obnoxious prejudice, it’s an important part of the ideology of modern warmongering. With Mali, we can see how the (perceived) threat of an Islamic insurrection (or worse, a state!) seemingly justifies any break with international law or UN resolutions. We saw it in Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Palestine and so many others. “Islamic terrorism” is considered so dangerous it must be faced by subverting elections, arming rival insurgents/paramilitaries/tyrants, “pre-emptive” invasions, torture and a global campaign of drone bombings. The mythology behind this, like most racist fantasies, suggests a vast conspiracy interconnecting Muslims around the globe, tying together every nasty thing done by any Muslim anywhere. With this twisted logic, a “foothold” anywhere could lead to a new barrage of attacks everywhere. It’s essentially a 21st century version of the “Domino Theory“, and it’s just as fanciful as the last.
The problem with such racist reasoning isn’t just that it totally ignores the context of any violence that happens, replacing it with cartoonish stereotypes. If this were simply a matter of never, ever believing that any follower of Islam could have a legitimate reason to take up arms, it would at least be consistent. Unfortunately, geopolitics isn’t so simple and there are some situations in which even the Pentagon feels they do. The Afghan-Soviet War is the obvious example, but there are others – the Kosovo Liberation Army, for instance, had Al Qaeda links. So did many of “our rebel allies” in Libya and Syria. Mali’s crisis, as mentioned above, traces right back to Libya, where both Tuareg and Islamist fighters acquired much of their weapons and battlefield experience.
The two-faced strategy practiced by western leaders against “terrorism” has failed twice. First, because of the willingness to embrace “Islamic fundamentalism” when it suits them, which played a large role in creating the modern Jihadi movement. Second, by then over-reacting to the threat and lashing out at entire nations, they galvanized the support base by proving what nasty imperialists they could be. Putting Al Qaeda in the crosshairs for this global war legitimized them in ways they could never have accomplished otherwise, and 12 years later “terrorism” is bigger than ever.
No article about the invasion of Mali would be complete without a picture of its resources, which betrays a slightly different agenda underlying this invasion. Gold-mining has been at the centre of Mali’s economy since the days of the old Empire. Currently it’s the third-largest producer of gold on the continent. The largely undeveloped north is thought to contain large reserves of metals like uranium (this region supplies much of France’s electricity) and possibly oil (Nigeria and Algeria both have considerable oil/gas reserves). Mining interests also explain some of why Canada is so eager to get involved, as there are more than fifteen Canadian mining firms currently active in Mali.
Gold might not have been the most important resource a few years ago, but thanks to a near-chronic fear of another financial collapse, many individuals and investors have started buying gold in the hopes it will hold it’s value. This has led gold prices to skyrocket, attracting speculators and fueling the rise. In recent weeks this trend has started to reverse, leaving many to wonder about it’s sustainability, but still fixate on it’s importance. With Africa (and often the poorest regions) supplying much of the world’s mineral and metal demands, this makes western-friendly governments (democratic or otherwise) a must.
They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Another “intervention” makes me wonder if we’ve learned anything from either the last decade or century. This invasion, like any other, will have long-reaching consequences which will go well beyond Mali’s borders. Even if the French-led forces capture northern Mali, they will never manage to contain all insurgents in the region. The legacies of poverty, repression and ecological destruction caused by debt, land grabs and foreign mining/drilling exploits have consequences of their own, providing a desperate and indignant recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and others. The rise of Islamic militants, like so many other problems the region faces, is deeply rooted in colonialism, and that’s not a problem more colonialism is going to fix.
There are no angels here, no devils, just people, and while I might sympathize with some groups (MEND) more than others (AQIM), I have to admit that it’s not actually any of my bloody British-descended business. Control over African political affairs needs to belong, once-again, to Africans, whatever I might think of their choices. Without understanding that principle, any attempt to “bring” democracy to the region is doomed from the outset. Until richer nations stop seeing invasions, military aid and “friendly” dictators as acceptable ways to influence affairs in poorer regions, this kind of chaos is going to continue. It’s high time to renounce the role of emperors and accept the status of allies, at least if we care at all for any of the people actually living through this nightmare.
Results are in for the most recent European elections – austerity did not fare well. In France incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated by Francois Hollande, the socialist candidate. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s ruling party suffered losses in regional elections. And of course, the Greek ruling coalition disintegrated in a flurry of protest votes. Today the leading centre-right “New Democracy” announced their failure to form a government, well short of the three days they were allowed. This has plunged the financial world into a panic, causing markets to drop around the globe.
They’re calling it “austerity fatigue“. Forced on nations across Europe and beyond, these cuts were hoped to revitalize Europe’s economies – instead they became both a political and economic disaster. Popular rage against the measures has been simmering for years (particularly in Greece), but lately it’s become very hard to ignore, especially as nations like Spain and Britain slip back into recession. Even large parts of the business press now openly condemn these measures. To quote the Globe and Mail…
Over the past two years, France and Germany have steered Europe through the debt crisis — though not always well. Germany and France declared an end to the flagrant flouting of deficit limits that led Europe into the crisis.
But the crackdown could not have come at a worse time — with the world economy slowing — and propelled Europe into a vicious austerity spiral. Cutting spending — which meant laying off state employees and ending stimulus programs — further slowed nations’ economies and produced less tax revenue, which meant more cuts were needed to meet deficit targets.
The rest of this week should be interesting, and will likely be beyond chaotic. Within the span of a single weekend, any hopes that we’d left the uncertainty and fear of last year behind us have been totally destroyed. Like one year ago, nobody knows if Greece will stay in the EU, whether Europe could survive such an exit or what that would mean to the rest of us.
Looking “across the pond” right now, it’s pretty clear where austerity is taking us. These efforts to loot and pillage entire economies have so far led to social and fiscal disaster. Canada is only starting down this path, but we only need to look at Europe to see where it’s leading. We still have time to stop this, before our cities too are choked with the black smoke of burning skylines, before public suicides become a standard form of protest and before cabals of bankers start replacing our elected officials with “technocrats” of their choosing. Again, I have to ask – what kind of maniac would willingly do this to our country?
All eyes will be on Europe this week, and there’s no telling what the situation could look like by Friday. It’s a complete clusterfucking quagmire, but it may also be the first opportunity to stop this madness before it gets any worse.
As predicted, the protests in France have only gotten far more interesting. Many parts of the country are now paralysed by fuel shortages, road blockades, strikes and riots. Almost 1500 people have been arrested so far. The crisis has resulted in global fuel price spikes and now even solidarity riots in Brooklyn, New York.
Leading the charge are many striking high school students, many very young, willing to battle the police in the streets. Reminiscent of the near-revolution of 1968 – the young are fighting hard in a battle large (and ostensibly) about the rights of their grandparents (pension reforms and raising the retirement age), yet in reality about far larger issues. In the last month we’ve seen a General Strike against these austerity measures in Spain, coupled with massive demos in nations like Greece, Ireland and Belgium. We’ve seen years of prolonged rioting in Athens, as well as Paris, and many other major European cities. Millions of people, at a time, have been marching in the streets.
With all the elections brewing of late, it’s easy to forget the most simple of stone-aged voting technologies; the rock. Consider it the cutting edge of European direct democracy, or simply an angry and frustrated outburst at a sadly unsustainable social system, things are only going to get more intense from here. Even without the temporary collapse of a major European nation, the world’s economy is not in great shape. And the worse things get for ordinary people (through the recession and resulting cuts), while they watch rich corporations get handed trillions in bailout funds, the angrier people are going to become.
P.S. Am I the only person annoyed that it took over a week of serious nationwide action for France to arrest more people than Toronto did during the G20 Weekend?