Gill Tract occupation follows international strategy for land reclamation

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On April 22, hundreds of activists, community members, students and local farmers occupied a portion of the Gill Tract, the five-acre piece of land directly across from the University Village in Albany. This occupation was not spontaneous; it took months of planning that ranged from organizing community support for the action, to growing over 15,000 starter plants that could be planted on the land once occupied. The location of the land occupation was not random; it was deliberately chosen because of its high quality agricultural soil and the long history of attempts by community organizations to turn this piece of land into an urban farm. Furthermore, the date of the action was also not arbitrary; the activists chose this day in solidarity with Via Campesina’s International Day of Peasant Resistance, a day of action for hundreds of peasants, small farmers, landless people, migrants and agricultural workers around the world.

Via Campesina is an international movement of about 150 local and national organizations in around 70 countries, which support small-scale sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty, and oppose corporate control of the food system. I recently returned from 15 months in Brazil doing research with one of the largest social movements in the Via Campesina network, the Movimento Sem Terra (MST, Brazilian Landless Workers Movement). The International Day of Peasant Resistance began because of a massacre of MST activists that occurred on April 17, 1996, when Brazilian military police opened fire on a MST march, killing 19 landless workers. None of the 155 soldiers who participated in this massacre were ever convicted, and the Colonel and Major that were convicted for life sentences remain free due to court appeals. The entire month of April is now known as Red April in Brazil, and hundreds of land occupations occur across the country every year in memory of these deaths.

These international movements and events might seem very distant from the recent events on the Gill Tract. However, it is important to recognize that the Gill Tract Occupation happened simultaneously with dozens of other land occupations across Brazil. Furthermore, the goals of this local Bay Area land occupation — to keep farmland for farming and support community-led urban agriculture — resonate with the goals of these international organizations. The day after the Gill Tract land occupation, an article about the action appeared in both Spanish and English on the Via Campesina website. The MST also wrote a solidarity statement for the Gill Tract Occupation a few days before it occurred, which was read in front of the hundreds of Bay Area community members, students, and activists after they started farming the Gill Tract. An article in Portuguese was published on the MST’s website about the Gill Tract, and one of the national leaders of the MST, João Paulo Rodrigues, also tweeted about the action. Internationally, people seem excited about the potential the Gill Tract Occupation holds for inspiring other land occupations across the United States.

I want to be clear: the Gill Tract land occupation is not the same as a MST land occupation. The MST is an organization of primarily poor, peasant workers, who have either been wage laborers for generations or were small farmers who got pushed off their land. The Gill Tract occupation was organized by a group of relatively privileged food sovereignty activists, students and local urban farmers. The MST leads land occupations to redistribute large unproductive land estates to landless families who participate in the occupations. The organizers of the Gill Tract Occupation are struggling against attempts to turn this land into “open recreational space,” such as a baseball field, and instead, use this Class One soil for urban agriculture, which could eventually offer local organic produce to the many neighborhoods where fresh, healthy food is not readily available.

The goals, as well as the class and racial compositions of these two “movements” are a world apart; yet they seem to resonate with each other precisely because of the similar tactic they employ: land occupation.

Believe it or not, the idea of “occupation” was not born with the recent United States Occupy movement — it has a very important history in Latin America. Over the past 28 years the MST has organized thousands of land occupations winning about 35 to 50 acres of land for each of over 350,000 families. The MST’s legal claim to this land is based on a clause in the Brazilian constitution that says land has to “serve its social function.” However, in my months working with MST activists in Brazil they were very clear: the government has never redistributed land based on this law, without an actual land occupation to pressure the government to act.

A parallel situation appears here at the Gill Tract. The University of California’s public mission as a Land Grant institution is to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture. Nonetheless, institutional attempts to ensure the university fulfills this promise have not been successful. It is only with the recent land occupation that the University has proposed to hold a series of workshops to explore the possibilities for “metropolitan agricultural initiatives” on the Gill Tract. Therefore, the question arises: should we believe the UC administration’s promises? From personal experience I know that MST activists never believe government promises and will often stay on the occupied land for four to eight years until the government actually follows through with land redistribution.

A major concern in the current Gill Tract debate has been academic freedom. As an aspiring professor, I recognize the importance of ensuring the academic freedom to pursue various research initiatives. However, I think that in the case of the Gill Tract Occupation, this focus on academic freedom does not embrace a long-term perspective. The argument in support of Gill Tract researchers’ academic freedom does not recognize that the researchers themselves are on short-term precarious contracts to use this land and that the UC has redesignated this space in its latest Master Plan from “academic reserve” to “recreation and open space.” That said, in the short-term, this concern with academic freedom is indeed legitimate, and the organizers of the Gill Tract Occupation have issued open letters to all of the researchers supporting their plans to initiate and carry-on their research this season.

Returning to the purpose of this op-ed, which is to put the Gill Tract Occupation in an international perspective, I simply want to emphasize once again that land occupation is an internationally legitimate and historically proven strategy for land reclamation. No matter what happens over the next few weeks, the seeds have been sown (literally, on the Tract) for opening up a new discussion about the future of this land. This would never have happened through institutional channels — in fact, the history of the Gill Tract struggle illustrates that 15 years of institutional struggle was not enough.

The Gill Tract Occupation is a very localized action, organized around the important history of a particular piece of land. Nonetheless, the occupation also represents an attempt to construct international solidarity with other organizations around the world employing land occupation as a grass-roots tactic to enable communities to meet their basic food and livelihood needs because the market and government have otherwise failed. The idea is simple: think globally, act locally.

If you are interested in discussing this issue further, come to the Open Forum being held by the Gill Tract Farming Collective on Tuesday, May 8, 6:30-8 p.m. in 114 Morgan Hall.

Rebecca Tarlau is a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education.