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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Kindling social change

In Hulme Community Garden Centre in Manchester I wander in the sun amongst vegetables, families and education projects to meet Helen. Helen was one of the founders of MERCi (see A hive of possibilities) and founders of Kindling. I asked her what had lead her to become so active and to create these groups.

Kindling in Manchester runs practical projects to increase food sustainability and campaign for social change. Their projects include FarmStart which is an incubator farm to help new growers get started and scale up, Forgotten Fields a project about the history of Manchester’s food growing, as well as organising many events and resources to support local growers.

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.

What bees like

11752093_686502058149249_6071243100509987930_nVanessa has some fascinating insights about bees. A natural beekeeper for many years, Vanessa focuses on the natural ecology and well being of the bees and encourages not just honeybees but many other species including solitary bees. She does not prevent her honeybees from swarming as she views it as an important part of their life cycle for maintaining their health. Instead she anticipates where bees may swarm to and provides lots of baited hives for them to move to.

When a swarm leaves a hive, interestingly they take almost no varroa mites with them. When bees are stressed by the use of chemicals, frequent hive opening or being fed sugar syrup instead of eating their own honey, they can become unhealthy and susceptible to disease. When they do get ill the hive can become dirty and attract varroa mites. Vanessa’s latest hive, a sun hive,  is intended to mimic the natural preferred habitat for honeybees.

“Bees like to be up high,” Vanessa told me, “if you see a swarm naturally they’ll almost always be much higher up in a tree where it’s less damp, rather than on the ground for our convenience.” Then there is the shape – honeybees prefer round spaces and the queen will naturally gravitate towards the top of the hive, so the sun hive allows that to happen by not using a queen excluder.

“If you make a bee hotel with cardboard tubes for solitary bees, they like it to be somewhere fairly shaded and not too damp,” said Vanessa. “The thing to remember is that this is where eggs will be.”

Vanessa was dismayed that beekeeping clothing on the market is very expensive and made in sweatshops so she also now runs a business, Buzz, selling beekeeping supplies which she has carefully sourced herself.

An ACE share offer and an aquaponics tour

11705206_686502154815906_2939721522165209860_nA year on from when I first interviewed the Avalon Community Energy (ACE) group, they’ve made some great progress. Their proposal for a local renewable energy park now has a site, which will have an anaerobic digester, and this weekend they launched their share offer so local people can now invest in the project. Starting with solar panels, the group will be gradually expanding and installing different renewable technologies and food production so that they compliment each other and form a resilient and diverse range of energy generation for the local area. 11742694_686502898149165_5809825283601924136_n

As part of the future plans for ACE, the group is considering aquaponics so I joined Maddy from ACE on a tour of bioaqua farm, where co-founder Antonio was generous enough to share his time and advice with us. I asked Antonio about the difference in nutrient content between hydroponics (plants in a water based system) and aquaponics where the plant nutrients in the water system come from fish which are farmed on the site. 
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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.