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The ‘Zone À Défendre’ – the zone to be defended – is a 4,000 acre land occupation to stop the development of a new Nantes airport near the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The ZAD has become much more than a negative protest, however, because it is also putting the principles of ‘degrowth’ into practice. Degrowth means living within ecological limits with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institution. The latest government deadline for evicting the ZAD is October and the defenders are calling for ‘une grande mobilisation’ on Saturday 8 October. One ZADist, John Jordan, told me about the occupation. With airport expansion in London imminent, I was also curious about whether the ZAD was relevant to the fight against Heathrow. Could the two struggles support each other?
John: ‘One of the most beautiful slogans of the struggle is ‘against the airport and its world’. I think there’s been an evolution of all these people who began at an eco-protest or a protest about keeping farmers’ land and then start to make the link between more systemic questions of the world, questions of domination and capital. To be able to merge resistance and the creation of alternatives is the most key thing we have to do.’
In October 2012, the government launched its previous manoeuvre to evict the ZAD: ‘Operation Cesar’. Two thousand armed police spent several weeks in the attempt, deploying tear gas and demolishing a dozen dwellings. However, forty thousand people turned up to defend the ZAD and in the face of such massive opposition, Operation Cesar was abandoned. In a region where Asterix and the indomitable Gauls regularly defeated the Roman Legions, Cesar was evidently a poor choice of name.
John: ‘The government announced that in October they will come and expel the zone. And yet, there’s people who’ve just done the harvest and others setting up for making cheese in the winter; there’s a friend building a barn for a pharmacy, others building a place where they’re going to have a brewery and grow hops and wheat, and someone building a new house with solid foundations, saying ‘we’re not confined to building huts’. And I think every one of those acts is an act of resistance, a kind of magic ritual, an act of hope.’
Unlike Heathrow, the justification offered for a new Nantes airport is not high volumes of air traffic. Au contraire, the development is intended to stimulate economic growth in the region that, in turn, increases air traffic to boost airport profits. Opposition dates back to the 1970s and at the core of the controversy is land, the farmers working it and the communities who live there. A militant cadre of farmers from all over France stand ready to provide physical support if the government presses ahead with eviction.
John: (comparing the ZAD with opposition to Heathrow expansion) ‘For some of the earlier people who came here, inspiration came from the anti-roads movement in the UK in the 90s. Then, a climate camp came here, inspired by the British camp. After the climate camp several dozen people stayed to squat the land. There has always been this very nice UK influence. Of course the UK, since the 90s, changed the laws around squatting and direct action. But with fracking camps, something like the ZAD is already happening again. Perhaps they don’t have the villages being destroyed that you could actually build an alternative world in. But around Heathrow, there’s plenty of villages that it could happen in. In Sipson, so much work has been done to open people up to direct action, like climate camp and, of course, the Grow Heathrow occupation. Maybe the terrain is even more prepared than it was here. The mantra here is, ‘no airport here or anywhere else’. There’s always been a resistance to NIMBYISM, which I think is also the case with the community in Heathrow.’
To resist Heathrow expansion, John believes, will mean networking and mobilising grassroots struggles across the UK and beyond.
John: ‘It can become a thing about housing. In the midst of a housing crisis, you’re destroying how many houses?! And to build an airport is going to destroy people’s homes in the global south too because of carbon emissions and climate change.’
Above all, resisting Heathrow expansion may mean mobilising a critical mass in London; the dissenting London that voted to remain in the EU, the London of the Occupy Movement and the Radical Assemblies.
John: ‘If our struggle wins and becomes a big story, then it’s going to inspire people at Heathrow. It doesn’t take a lot of people to start something like this.’