Welcome to La ZAD

The ZAD (Zone A Defendre or Zone to Defend) in France is variously described as an occupation, a no-go area of radical militants, a resistance community, and the proposed second airport for Nantes.  During my first visit to La ZAD I explored some of the reasons that people have made this beautiful place their home.

Cycling or driving into La ZAD you may be unaware that you have entered it but after a time you may come to a signpost which no longer has a place name, but instead has ‘ZAD’ spray painted pointing in each direction. Or you may come across a road with artistic barricades, a burnt out car with plants growing through it, or damaged tarmac. Whilst now, all is peaceful farmland, gardens and communities of hand-built houses, it’s clear that something big happened here a few years ago. If you want to orientate yourself and begin to explore this special place, the best place to start is La Rolandiere.

ZAD map

 

The approximately 1600 Ha of the zone is a place of creativity and independence, of living on the margins and finding a way to make it work. People build knowing that in the future the police and airport will try to tear it down, to build an airport next to another one which is only at 30% capacity. Some of the farms use machinery whilst others use only hand tools. Some choose the way they live for ideological reasons and others out of necessity. Police don’t visit the zone, but there seems little or no crime – people leave their doors unlocked and one woman told me that social disputes are discussed quickly (and at length). You won’t find a supermarket, but you can still buy your food. You can buy local vegetables, bread made with flour from La ZAD, or patisseries made with butter from the zone. If you need clothes you can go to one of the ‘free shops’ or ‘swap shops’ where unwanted clothes and objects have been carefully hung and stacked, waiting to be found by a new owner. On a Friday you can read La ZAD news about what’s been happening and upcoming events, and attend the no-market. The no-market is where people donate things and other people pay what they feel for them. The money is then used as a community fund. One of the functions of the weekly resident’s meeting is to decide on the spending of the community fund.

Each weekly resident’s meeting is attended by around 50 residents and can take anything from one hour to four, including times of silence. “I hated them at first,” Koen from Rolandiere told me, “I was really frustrated, but now I really like them. You have to get used to it, it’s a very different meeting style, it can feel very slow and like nothing has been decided. But it is important. The silences give space for people who would not normally speak to say something. And decisions can be revoked later in extreme cases if people were not present.”

To finish the week off, after building, farming or making, you can find residents swimming in the large beautiful lake (it is warm and wonderful, I checked) and playing on the salvaged pedal-lo. Yep, don’t ask, I have NO idea how they got that one.

I’ll be posting more blogs about La ZAD over the next few months as I revisit, but in the meantime you can find out more from their website.

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A hive of possibilities in Manchester

b5mNext to a canal in Manchester is a five story building, converted from a mill, where lots of different environmentally minded organisations live. It’s called Bridge 5 Mill, it”s run by MERCi and it’s a hive of possibilities. I’d like to share with you a little of the story of this building and a couple of the groups who use it, from hydrogen fuel to peace campaigns.

Back in 1995 two friends in their twenties dreamed of making a sustainability hub for Manchester.  After 6 months of consultation, gathering a team, and years of searching they succeeded in finding a building and gaining funding, purchasing the building in 1999. The old mill was renovated using trainees and volunteers as part of courses using reclaimed and recycled materials and won an award for it’s energy efficiency. It now has offices, conference space and a garden. Tenants include the International Coalition to ban uranium weapons, Black Environment Network, as well as bee keeping cooperative soap makers Three Bees, and Planet Hydrogen.acfdcd_5d91d7dcaf9743fd8657f26f0d1819d1.jpg_srz_p_435_301_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srz I interviewed Tom from Three Bees last year and a year on they are now planning to add soap making courses to their services.

With hydrogen we can store renewable energy by separating water into hydrogen and oxygen. When you want electricity they can recombine to form water again. Mike from Planet Hydrogen kindly demonstrated a hydrogen cell in action for me in a transparent container so we could watch the gases form.

Over the years spaces like MERCi provide so many positive groups with the basics they need to function. When a town has such a hub for a long time you can almost forget the importance of it. Once it’s built, everything slows down, it stops being so exciting, the four walls become a new norm. But most towns have no such space where groups can meet, grow and collaborate. It’s hard to imagine all the meetings, all the events, all the projects that have happened in that building so far. To speed up the social change we wish to see, one of the first things we need is to take care of the basics, to shelter these groups and give them a home. Long may MERCi continue to do so.

They’ve made it in Stroud

I2015-07-17 13.43.14t’s comforting when things you love are stable, and in Stroud it was mostly the things that hadn’t changed which caused a contented smile on my lips.

The shop Made in Stroud is still thriving (but with a few more awards), still selling locally made goods and making positive influences everyday.

The Stroud Valley’s Project is still promoting conservation and offering educational courses. They recently ran a scything workshop after seeing it done wrong on Poldark! Scything is less damaging to the environment than mowing and also helps you to easily leave rare species. The day I visited they were about to run a bat ecology course and head out with bat detectors. 2015-07-17 14.23.11

Those creating positive change in Stroud had a higher average age than people I met in other towns, and had been in the town for longer. As Julie, the fundraising manager for Stroud Valleys Project says, “Who would want to move once you’ve landed here?” The town has a more stable, developed feel to the community than other places I visit. In the Stroud Valley’s Project office they have a reciprocal arrangement for work or rent with the Car Club and Transition Stroud. Transition Stroud have been running open eco-home event and open garden tours with about 1000 house visits. A new addition by Transition Stroud at the back of a closed pub is a pop-up “rain garden” to make efficient use of rainwater runoff from roofs. So simple it makes you wonder why on earth we normally pipe it all down the drain.

Stroud Against the Cuts has had a great turnout at its events and Stroud Co has become a thriving hub for selling home grown food surplus.

It feels like there are lots of people steadily making improvements in Stroud and the cumulative effect of that over many years is to have made a very special place and a very special community.

 

 

Cam and Dursley in Transition

To return to projects and visit people again has a wonderful relaxing deja vu. The memories from last year are often so clear – the places and people having been captured in my notebook, on camera and as unusual special memories. So to see the progress at the community garden in Dursley was a lovely experience. Last year the garden was a concrete pad with rubble, and a whole series of dreams and diagrams.

Now there are planter boxes made from recycled crates, a shed, a polytunnel, fruit trees, flower beds and poles for a performance stage area to be built.

Frome and an iron age month

Although last year’s Buzz Tour did not pass through Frome, I made a visit there this year because it is a place where a lot of environmental activity seems to be happening. I’ve heard Frome described as being in the same family of towns as Brighton, Totnes and Bristol, and interestingly there seems to be a certain movement of people between them.

In 2011 Independents For Frome formed, aiming to transcend party political disputes and reengage democracy by fielding independent candidates for all wards. The independents had a landslide victory and the council is still independent-led now, with the Green Party stepping down last election in order not to divide the vote.

welsh mill hubAt the Welsh Mill Hub I discovered Edventure Frome, a school for community enterprise, helping young people to get projects off the ground. To top the day off, after showing the documentary I met Jane at the pub who was preparing to live for a month by iron age technology. This will be the second time Jane has undertaken such a project with a group. They tan their own leather, make tools, light fire by friction and live using only technology available during the iron age.

“The hardest part was leaving,” Jane told me, “I can’t wait to get back!” Jane does not have a website for the project as she believes in face to face verbal communication, but later this year she will be doing a TED talk in Totnes, at which point I will grab it off the internet and share it with you!

Changes in Ashington

Ashington used to be a coal mining town and the large sudden scale loss of work left a deep scar in the population, just as the coal mines left scars in the land. Where a mine used to be there is now a nature area, pond and several wind turbines. Rebuilding the community is taking longer, with many people feeling a lack of hope. I met the new cafe owners at The Bistro who’ve been making a success of their new venture for the last 6 months.

Changing the course of a stream

Scotswood Natural Community Garden sits within one of the most deprived areas in Newcastle. They frequently suffer vandalism and theft yet for twenty years they have relentlessly worked to alter the course of peoples lives in Scotswood for the better. The vegetables get dug up, they replant them, the solar panel gets stolen, they lock things away out of hours, but all the time the garden grows, groups come, and lives are changed.

Walking around the two and a half acre site with permaculture gardens, a pond, bee hives, shelters and woodland it’s incredible to learn that originally it was a bare grass playing field. Over the decades the series of people involved with the land have created, enhanced and maintained a beautiful heart of energy for the community, despite all the flow of sadness around. Children, unemployed and refugees have all found another choice here, a flow going in a different direction that they have a chance to join.

It takes a lot of energy and strength to maintain a course against a bigger flow. The path that all those involved with at  Scotswood have carved over the years is truly beautiful. Long may it flow.