PEDAL: 100 Days to Palestine
| Adam Payne |
Part 1: An introduction to PEDAL and a few stories about food autonomy.
On the 21st of March 2011, a motley group of eighteen cyclists broke away from London’s edges and headed south, through the spring sunshine and soft shadows of Kent. It was the first day of a four month bicycle caravan that was to link projects and communities fighting for social and environmental justice from the UK to Palestine. The project had been many months in the making; the result of countless late night discussions, and early morning dreams.
We were a self-organised collective, working by consensus decision-making, and powered by a desire to support grassroots social movements and make explicit the threads that draw seemingly diverse struggles together. There were three broad narratives that guided our journey:
The first was to respond to the call out from Palestinian civil society in 2005 for a programme of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against companies who profit from or are complicit in the occupation of Palestine. The second was to work with groups who are organising around community control of food systems and fighting for access to land, seed and water. The third was to link communities fighting for social and environmental justice against corporate control and corrupt governments, sharing their stories and tactics across contexts. We sought to use our journey to celebrate the arts and cultures of resistance by sharing stories, skills and strategies for radical social change along our route. By building meta-national relationships of living and breathing solidarity we hoped to mutually support and strengthen grassroots social movements through Europe and into the Middle East.
The bicycle was an obvious tool for such a journey. It allowed us to move seamlessly through the landscape and visit communities whilst interacting with the cultures that flowed between them. The other tools we carried with us were our ‘seeds of solidarity’ seedbank and our methods of democratic group organising.
These tools came in useful time and time again. In each of the places we visited we held public seed swaps. These were not just practical acts of solidarity but also a form of resistance against the privatisation of seeds by corporations around the world. In each case they were popular events and ways to begin conversations about food growing, the state of agriculture, and why we were cycling so far from home. Within the group we also stuck to models of consensus organising to ensure that our decisions remained democratic. The diversity of opinions and experiences that constituted the group directly enabled our capacity to be a force of social change.
From Kent we cycled south, sleeping in fields and woodland, eating food we skipped or bought from farmers along the way. The journey would take us over 4000 miles and through 27 communities. In each of the communities we stayed with we worked together to organise public discussions, creative direct actions and celebrations of the arts and cultures of resistance.
The places we visited where incredibly diverse but subtly united by a multitude of threads. We stayed in a multicultural social centre built by antifascist youth groups amid the shattered buildings of Mostar; in a collective farming project where people grow and live together using their space to organise political theatre projects; and in a Bedouin community where people spent every night rebuilding their homes despite constant harassment and home demolitions by the Israeli military. We worked with an anarchist collective organising frontline migrant solidarity work against the daily brutality of the French police; with a Roma community setting up self-managed schooling despite 97% unemployment and repressive political corruption; and with a Turkish feminist collective who create safe spaces to discuss and act on the issues of gender, sexuality and femininity in the contemporary world.
One observation that comes overwhelmingly through the diversity of experiences and contexts is that is that the journey dispels the illusion of isolated struggles. In moving constantly and slowly I realised how widely spread the seeds of social change are sown, and how much these different places have in common.
In each of these places, and many more besides, we shared stories of struggles, creative projects and the power that sustains grassroots movements for social justice. The fruits of this river of conversations and events are too abundant to express fully in writing like this. For this reason we have chosen to publish a collection of short reflective essays covering the main threads of the project in the coming issues of STIR magazine.
In this piece I will delve into a few of the lessons in food autonomy that we learnt from communities fighting for control over land, seed and water, in their own diverse ways. Look out for further pieces by other members of the PEDAL collective in future editions of Stir. We hope these reflections are useful to you and welcome debate on the issues they raise.
Lessons in solidarity from Jayyous, Palestine
Jayyous is a village in the Qualquilia district of Palestine. It is prime agricultural land, sculpted into a mosaic of small fields between olive and citrus groves by generations of farmers. In 2003 the Israeli military stole most of its land by building the segregation wall through the villages fields. In this land grab the district lost over 3800 acres, and 19 wells. The farmers of Jayyous lost all their agricultural wells and most of the land save the olive groves and kitchen gardens immediately surrounding the village. 19 farmers lost all they owned, and the remaining 57 lost considerable plots.
The people of the village resisted the building of the wall with non-violent direct action. They chained themselves to olive trees, used their bodies to block bulldozers and protested everyday against the construction. The military responded with violent repression; they beat and arrested protesters, shot holes the water storage tanks that families rely upon, filled chicken sheds with tear gas, destroyed crops and massacred herds.
Despite passionate resistance the village was forced to change tactics by the damage that the military inflicted. Now the wall is almost complete and farmers who are lucky enough to get permits to visit their land use every opportunity they can to cultivate their fields. In these times existence is resistance. Farmers have changed crops to ones that need less irrigation, and farm each others’ land to ensure that as much as possible is kept in active cultivation. Despite the obstacles they face, many in the village are positive about the future and believe that one day they, or their children, will be reunited with their ancestral lands. They love the land that they are separated from and refuse to let their memories be extinguished. In a proud and determined fashion they struggle to keep their rights to land and freedom alive. Through celebrating this fundamentally land-based identity they generate a source of long term power.
When we visited the farmers in Jayyous we asked what people in the UK can do to support their struggle. They replied that helping farmers means ending the occupation, and the only way to do that is to hold your own leaders accountable for supporting the violence that happens here. They advocated community rooted mechanisms for doing this. The most common response to the question of ‘how’ was ‘tell our stories as widely as you can’. As one man said to us, ‘through meetings like this solidarity will live in your lives, in your children, your actions and your relationships’.
The struggle in Palestine is most fundamentally one over land rights, and it is incredible to see how deeply connected people are to the land and how tenaciously they will fight to maintain their rights to it. The stories people in Jayyous told us about this struggle held a few profound lessons for me. One was the importance of celebrating land based traditions and cultures to keep a rooted community identity; another was that solidarity is an active commitment. It is a force that must be cultivated through meetings, that sustains our ability as grassroots movements to be meta-national, to support one another.
Direct action on land in Ljubljana, Slovenia
In Slovenia we stayed with the Anarchist infoshop; a self described laboratory for the theory and practice of anarchism. The infoshop was set up in an old army barracks that was squatted in 1993 by a group of activists and artists. The space now thrives as a centre for autonomous culture and the celebration of creativity.
During the days we went with an urban gardening collective to a park where they had set up a community garden. To our surprise, a few acres of the park had been turned into an incredible mosaic of unofficial allotments. It was explained to us that thousands of people throughout the city cultivate unused public space like this. The people in Ljubljana still consider themselves to hold rights to land that is not otherwise used. Everywhere railway embankments, park corners, any empty spaces in the urban sprawl are brought into cultivation.
It is interesting to see how a subtle but widespread belief in the right to cultivate unused public space has been practiced so much that it has become normal. It is an acceptable and expected element of life in urban public space. The lesson here is that the borders of ‘normality’ are defined by the repetition of seemly mundane actions. By repeatedly asserting rights the field is opened and the domain of the normal is slowly changed. Counter cultures become cultures through persistence; audacious acts become accepted acts with repetition.
A community garden in Brussels, Belgium
In Brussels we visited a derelict allotment site that was being taken over by a self-organised group from a neighbouring tenement block for use as a community garden. Most of the people working on the site were first generation immigrants to Belgium and had little employment or community beyond the relationships that were forged in the block and the garden. People told us that the garden quickly became a focal point for a diverse group of people.
Talking over a mid-work snack of homemade Iranian cakes and Moroccan tea, a few of the people who were working on clearing the land told us that setting up the garden was an important part of their social lives. They pointed out to us how much common ground is created between people from a range of cultures, with diverse histories, experiences and languages, just by working together and growing together.
This project, like so many of the best community gardens, had no funding or government support. It was created by people organising themselves and cultivating unused land together. The example of these gardens is to show the amazing role that self organisation and collective cultivation can play in the creation of identities, communities and new homes.
Heading home: Lessons for today and tomorrow?
In these short stories and reflection are a few observations that may be usefully employed in the slow and complicated work of building a politically conscious food movement here in the UK.
Throughout the journey we were given countless opportunities to see that our struggles are not isolated, and allies are usually close at hand. Old farmers in Jayyous told us that solidarity is an active commitment and that we must celebrate land based identities; the quietly rebellious gardeners of Ljubljana showed us that by nibbling the edges of the normal you can slowly take the ground from beneath its feet; and the tea pourers of a small community garden in Brussels community showed us that relationships are built through working and growing together. These are small stories that sit among many others in the cathedral of things we learnt through Pedal, but they seem to hold some relevance to what we are trying to do here in the UK.
Look out in the coming issues of STIR for more analysis of the PEDAL journey.
Adam Payne is a member of PEDAL and also a member of the workers’ cooperative OrganicLea.