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The Scarlet & Black

Caleb’s Communes: A Winning Battle at France’s ZAD Occupation

La Poudriere, ZAD-de-Notre-Dames-de-Landes. Photo by Caleb Forbes.

The ZAD is a well-known anarcho-environmentalist occupation. It is infamous for its conflict with the government over an airport construction project that, if built, would destroy a vast area of environmental significance. ZAD itself stands for “zone to defend,” an ironic take on the French term for “deferred development area.”

I arrived in Nantes, France, 36 km south of the ZAD, after an all-night bus ride from Brussels. My confused wandering led me to come across a young woman casually smoking in her car, who insisted on driving me to wherever I needed.

She explained to me on our way to the ZAD that she was headed back to Paris from Morocco, where she had once again discovered herself. My generous driver had felt it was destiny to help a stranger make it to their destination that day, so she was more or less ecstatic to go out of her way to help. She even had prepared croissants ahead of time. The young woman dropped me off at the ZAD and spoke with a Georgian refugee in that country’s native tongue before continuing her journey home.

I was lucky enough to end up staying with someone at the ZAD who knew English; everyone else spoke French. I helped with barn raising, and I explored some of the 4,000-acre land, marveling at ruins from previous police raids.

And there was the mud. Lots of mud. The area is an important watershed. The ground is a hard clay, and water does not sink down. The occupants of the ZAD proudly call themselves the people of the mud. It is an old saying in French, and it is literally true for them.

There are several communal operations at the ZAD, such as a bakery, cheese making shop and a bar. It was during a visit at the latter where, to my surprise, I met an American whom I happily conversed with about our perceptions of this out-of-the-way place.

The location of the ZAD is historic because of its small farmsteads and hedges which have been left relatively undisturbed for hundreds of years because of the low desirability of this wetland. Protests and squatting have been happening here since the 60s, when plans for an airport began. Things ramped up in 2012, when the government announced a renewed effort at construction. Protests escalated to a point where hundreds of tractors were driven, along with thousands of people, into Nantes to blockade the main bridge.

The squatters eventually seized the main road that went through the ZAD, and the building towers and gates in the middle of it. Police evictions happened multiple times and thousands of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were used to harass squatters in an attempt to evict them. Hundreds of people were injured. The protesters fought off these raids tirelessly, chain-sawing down trees to slow the police in their attack.

Government officials gave up on the building project in 2019, declaring the ZAD occupation legal. The ZAD now faces the new struggle of finding a way to navigate legalization. The people have a right to the land but only as a conservation area. They can farm but are not allowed to live there or build anything new.

Of course, people of the ZAD will continue to squat the area and live as they want, and the government will have to decide how to respond. There were meetings, while I was there, to create a legal document arguing for their right to exist on the ZAD.

The ZAD is not without its struggles. I did not ask about self-governance while I was there, as the ZAD is notorious for their extreme conflict over leadership and a cohesive vision. Some of the beauty lies in the diversity, however. There are sections of the ZAD where people pirate electricity from the grid, and where others abstain from use of electricity or machinery. Another spot houses the homeless and those with substance issues. The ZAD is a mix of people who work together to preserve their collective but separate right to exist outside of the government’s control. It is an inspiration for a life that can be lived in an environmentally conscious manner. They are nearly free. I hope they win their fight.

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