Such an incredible five days! Here are the pictures from the second part of this year’s Vegan Permaculture Design Course. Thanks so much again to everyone for making it a great experience.
- meet and exchange information amongst the stars and local groups since last year;
- exchange and debate on themes that matters to us across Europe and beyond;
- to see where we are at with our European Reclaim the Fields constellation: what was decided last year, for what results, what we need to do to continue, and what future plans we have;
- to have fun and build relationships between us!
I had the privilege of being invited to speak (via skype) at the second People’s Harvest Forum in San Francisco, USA. I was asked to speak about Food Sovereignty and Vegan Agroecology.
About the forum:
The People’s Harvest Forum is a grassroots event on working towards food justice and food sovereignty. We speak about the widespread impacts agribusiness has on our society and on the environment, and discuss ways to build alternatives and reclaim our food systems. This forum is unique in that we integrate an animal rights perspective in working towards food sovereignty. It promotes veganic gardening and farming, setting them at the intersection of food justice and animal rights movements.
Food Sovereignty and Vegan Agroecology
Below is a copy of my talk on the day. Please drop me an email if you are keen to connect these struggles too – email@example.com
It’s a privilege to be invited to speak for a second time at the People’s Harvest Forum. I’m super jealous I can’t be there. I hope you’ve had a great weekend. It is really inspiring to know events such as these are taking place, with such a strong intersection of different struggles and movements.
I have been asked to talk about Food Sovereignty and Vegan Agroecology. I hope to talk for about 20 mins and then leave the time open for questions and discussions within the room. Just to set the context of my work and engagement in this field – I am based in Somerset, in the south west of the UK, where I help manage four acres of land that is designed and cared for on agroecological principles. Our site is “vegan organic” in that we don’t use any inputs from farmed animals or pesticides etc. We grow organic salad and food for events that we host – which are mostly educational courses for folks in our area.
Three years ago I helped to start Feed Avalon, which is a workers cooperative set up to to support the establishment of socially-just and ecological food production in our local towns of Glastonbury and Street, and the surrounding areas. There are six of us, all working-class women who survive on low incomes in our community. I am the EAT Project Coordinator, EAT stands for education and training. So I organise courses in food growing and cooking and other related skills (such as community organising and popular education) for low income individuals and families in our area. We also have two community gardens, a hand-built community kitchen and a whole bunch of other projects.
Until I turned 21, I had never even managed a garden and I actually learnt how to grow food during a prison sentence. So for me, food growing has been truly transformational and part of this journey has been politicising my growing work and engaging with struggles for food sovereignty.
So food sovereignty, I believe, is something you’ve already talked about this weekend and many are most likely familiar with the term. But just to recap for folks: Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It was defined in 2007 at a forum in a village called Nyelini in Mali in Africa. It is important to note that the food sovereignty framework has come from the Global South and was birthed by La Via Campesina. LVC is the international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. LVC is made up of over 164 local and national organizations in 73 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Altogether, it represents about 200 million farmers. It is an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural movement, independent from any political, economic or other type of affiliation.
So that’s a super brief intro to food sovereignty… but for me doing this work… It was really clear for me that while I was really enjoying food growing and community food work, there were still so many people without access to land, so many folks in my area without access to decent food because of poverty… or ultimately that myself and others, were being fed by a global food system that is highly exploitative and destroying ecosystems worldwide, accelerating climate change and so forth.
A close friend of mine, Isy who wrote the “Another Dinner is Possible” cookbook wrote that:
“Many of these community food projects present us with amazing opportunities to collectively make our lives better, more sustainable, meaningful & interesting. However without a context of explicitly addressing & challenging the global exploitative food system as a whole they are basically reinforcing privilege. The system will not change because a few of us eat better.”
Therefore I tried to seek allies who were resisting and attempting to dismantle the capitalist food system. And in March 2011, 10 weeks after coming out of prison, I found Reclaim the Fields, who had their first gathering in the UK that month at a site called Grow Heathrow – a squatted land project set up to fight the expansion of Heathrow Airport in London.
Reclaim the Fields is a constellation of people and collective projects across Europe willing to go back to the land and reassume the control over food production. RTF began in 2007 as a kind of youth break-out group at a La Via Campesina gathering. The people that started RTF wanted an alternative to the NGO-dominated, euro-centric, neocolonialist organisations who didn’t think critically about race, class and gender and other issues.
I thought I would read the “Who we are statement” written collectively by stars in the RTF constellation (that’s how we like to think of projects – as part of a constellation, looser than a network but somehow more powerful). So I just wanted to set the scene of the this struggle and one of they key actors in Europe. Ok…
“We are a group of peasants, landless and prospective peasants, as well as people who are taking back control over food production.
We understand “peasants” as people who produce food on a small scale, for themselves or for the community, possibly selling a part of it. This also includes agricultural workers.
We support and encourage people to stay on the land and go back to the countryside. We promote food sovereignty (as defined in the Nyéléni declaration) and peasant agriculture, particularly among young people and urban dwellers, as well as alternative ways of life. In Europe, the concept ‘food sovereignty’ is not very common and could be clarified with ideas such as ‘food autonomy’ and control over food systems by inclusive communities, not only nations or states.
We are determined to create alternatives to capitalism through cooperative, collective, autonomous, real-needs-oriented, small-scale production and initiatives. We are putting theory into practice and linking local practical action with global political struggles.
In order to achieve this, we participate in local actions through activist groups and cooperate with existing initiatives. This is why we choose not to be a homogeneous group, but to open up to the diversity of actors fighting the capitalist food production model. We address the issues of access to land, collective farming, seed rights and seed exchange. We strengthen the impact of our work through cooperation with activists who focus on different tasks but who share the same vision.
Nevertheless, our openness has some limits. We are determined to take back control over our lives and refuse any form of authoritarianism and hierarchy. We respect nature and living beings, but will neither accept nor tolerate any form of discrimination, be it based on race, religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or social status. We refuse and will actively oppose every form of exploitation of other people. With the same force and energy, we act with kindness and conviviality, making solidarity a concrete practice of our daily life.
We support the struggles and visions of la Via Campesina, and work to strengthen them. We wish to share the knowledge and the experience from years of struggle and peasant life and enrich it with the perspectives and strength of those of us who are not peasants, or not yet peasants. We all suffer the consequences of the same policies, and are all part of the same fight.”
Since 2007 RTF has:
- organized several European camps attended by hundreds of people – these tend to be in places seeking solidarity, such as fighting gold mining in Romania, or defending La Zad, a land occupation resisting an airport in France,
- RTF have also participated in global mobilisations with La Vía Campesina,
- took direct actions to fight for the land,
- and held assemblies each year from Sweden to Catalonia and Hungary.
Last summer, we organised a huge international action camp against the building of a mega-prison in Wales. It was hosted at an anti-fracking camp, and bought together people from all different struggles. We blockaded the prison construction site, built new gardens at the camp, and had tens of workshops on subjects like food sovereignty, migrant solidarity, composting gender and more.
So for me as a grower, and as someone seeking to build alternative models to industrial agriculture. As well as someone brought up with no land-based skills or heritage, living in the oldest industrialised country in the world, it was clear there was a lot to learn.
In order to build the food systems we are desiring, to achieve food sovereignty, it’s clear that we need integrated knowledge systems that draw on both traditional and indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, as well as holistic science and ongoing participatory research. This is where agroecology comes into its own.
Agroecology is the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. It is a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences. It has been described as a science, movement and practice.
In a past training I undertook with Miguel Altieri and Clara Nicholls, both Professors of Agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley. They shared the key principles of agroecology, that can be applied to different agroecosystems around the world:
- Enhance the recycling of fertility and optimise nutrient availability without reliance on imported fertiliser
- Create favourable soil conditions for plant growth by managing organic matter, improving soil structure, cultivating ground cover and enhancing soil biotic activity;
- Minimise the loss of resources by way of microclimate management, water harvesting and soil management;
- Promote agricultural biodiversity in time and space;
- Enhance beneficial biological interactions in agricultural systems
As you can see – plant-based systems, without farmed animals, can put all of these principles into practice.
When I teach on the vegan permaculture course, I ask the students, ‘What is your favourite animal in a permaculture system?” They kind of look at me in horror thinking this course was meant to not be about farming animals. But then I ask them what about wildlife, and suddenly the go-round becomes rich – birds, butterflies, bees, moles, worms… and we begin to see that actually plant-based permaculture systems are rich with animals. They are rich with biodiversity. The difference is the animals interacting with the system are not enslaved, they are not exploited, they are self-determining. And this for me is the most beautiful thing about this work.
And while we are transitioning from animal agriculture, attempting to restore ecosystems and build food sovereignty, domesticated animals of course have to have homes and habitats in our landscapes. I’ve done some design work with animal sanctuaries that are planting nut trees, fruit trees and other gardens to help keep their costs down in their work rescuing abused animals, as well as supporting animal health and habitat establishment.
What a vegan agroecology could look like is a beautiful, beautiful vision – community gardens and farms, market gardens with quality living soil nourished by composts and compost teas, mycelium and mulching. Mushroom farms. Agroforestry projects, nut trees and fruit orchards, small-scale grain raising, allotments, medicinal plant sanctuaries… hillsides currently grazed by sheep restored into woodlands rich with wild foods for foraging and habitat for wildlife to return. Restored streams no longer polluted by fish farms and industrial agriculture. Over-fished oceans returning to life with incredible biodiversity and health. If these systems were the outcome of a food sovereignty movement, then we would also see social justice and community self-determination for human communities.
As an animal liberationist, working in this way by building thriving systems, is nourishing and strengthening. I have fought the state so hard (and still am in my work organising against the prison industrial complex). The industries that commodify animals and profit from their bodies are huge and overwhelming. And defeating them through ongoing grassroots resistance, direct action and campaigns is essential. However, part of this work, also needs to be re-designing our food systems – the biggest exploiter of animals on this planet, and the biggest factor determining our landscapes globally right now – therefore, I hope others can see that working to amplify agroecology and food sovereignty is essential in the struggle for animal liberation and to eradicate all forms of oppression.
I was also asked to share a bit about my work so I’ll end with some shameless plugs. I have a website called Empty Cages Design – it aims to bring together threads around permaculture, food sovereignty, veganism and more, as well as struggles against prison and repression. I host an annual vegan permaculture course where participants come together for 10 days in two blocks, to learn about grassroots design methodologies, gain practical skills and experience how it feels in practice. We have a unique bursary system, and unlike many other courses taught in the UK, generally have a much more diverse group coming together to learn permaculture design. I teach with Graham Burnett, who wrote the Vegan Book of Permaculture, who is a fantastic guy committed to using permaculture for liberation.
I have also supported the Vegan Organic Network, more intensely in past years. My current projects are developing a distance learning course that could spread veganic agroecology and plant based permaculture principles and strategies more globally and help plug the gap in this learning provision. We are also preparing for our next Reclaim the Fields assembly in Germany this January and continuing to work on a super local grassroots level with Feed Avalon. I also study and work with an organisation called Gaia University, who I can’t recommend highly enough.
And finally, I’d like to thank Nassim for their hardwork in making this event happen – and all the other people behind the scenes who I haven’t met yet. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you’ve been inspired this weekend to take action to transform our food systems and our world.
The weekend after next two rad events are happening in my favourite city – Bristol Anarchist Bookfair and the National Permaculture Diploma Gathering. Both are usually two of my favourite events but unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be getting to either due to the ongoing pain in my intercostal muscles. So I thought the least I can do is shamefully promote them both.
This post intends to share my love for both anarchism and permaculture and why the relationship between them keeps me up at night.
I joined the Anarchist Federation and the Anarchist Youth Network as a young teenager (circa 13-14 years old). While a lot of people have a jaunt at socialism or the Green Party and other escapades and find themselves radicalised by increasing dissolution with liberal ideas, I found I dove into the deep end.
And so began a lifelong love affair with ideas and action that questioned the legitimacy and role of a state, the capitalist economic system and all other forms of intersecting oppression, like racism, sexism and human supremacy.
I hungered for an understanding of all the fucked up things I’d seen or gone through.
Anarchism was my first introduction to thinking in systems. For many, permaculture is revelatory because people start to connect dots and see in wholes. While I didn’t gain an informed ecological understanding of these concepts until studying permaculture, anarchism really opened my eyes to seeing the world in the contexts of relationships and interconnectivity.
As a kid you suck things up like a sponge. The books I read, conversations I had with elders, even the music I listened to… I was given the tools to observe social landscapes. To see the flows of power and domination in the world.
Observation is one of the founding principles of permaculture. This skill introduced itself in my life through the encouragement to observe ruthlessly and question critically. Every biased source or comment in every media article, every act of police brutality, every interaction with people surviving domestic abuse… All of these were intense exercises in observation as my anarchist worldview pushed me to try to understand root causes, systemic reasons for things and potential collective responses.
Permaculture is founded on three core ethics, which at times can feel frustratingly weak and unclear. However none of these ethical frameworks are new, when they have been at the core of social struggles for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
While the anarchist movement has its people care failings, especially relating to power and privilege, it’s always been for me the antidote to the brutal atomised dehumanising existence of modern capitalist society. Re-designing the world where people are prioritised over profit is a core goal of both anarchism and permaculture.
Earth care once again is an increasingly apparent frontline for those fighting domination, whether it’s communities fighting fracking, pipelines or nuclear power. I know that many incredibly dedicated anarchists are powerhouse community organisers in these struggles. It was anarchism that introduced me to ideas of human supremacy, animal liberation and radical ecology.
Finally ‘fair shares’ the most nebulous of the permaculture ethics is central to anarchist struggles to redistribute wealth. Anarchist values have inspired the establishment and ongoing experimentation in creating models that more evenly share power and resources, whether these are housing or food cooperatives or horizontal collective’s challenging the division of labour.
Another core principe of permaculture is using and valuing diversity. From its birth, anarchism has been a huge melting pot of ideas and influences, from Russian immigrants into the US to decolonisation struggles in India. Most exciting of all is that anarchism has resisted a platform or manifesto. There is no policed unification of ideas, that X is anarchism and this is the doctrine. While many criticise anarchism for this, I’ve always felt it’s its biggest strength. Anarchists have the political maturity and deep commitment to true liberation to know that there is no “one size fits all” solution. Yes there are patterns, principles and examples we can and must learn from. But we are in no position to be specialists in social change or tell people how to live.
Errico Malatesta was the first anarchist writer I read when I was a kid and it was his trusting of people and their capacity to self organise that really inspired me. He had little concern with proposing detailed descriptions of how we would organise society when we seized the means of production because he trusted that people are completely capable of working it out collectively (as they already do in so many areas of life).
Likewise with permaculture, there is a recognition that every system will be unique while understanding the usefulness of wider patterns. Permaculture embraces that there is health and richness in diversity, just like anarchism does in wider society(s).
The most visible offerings of permaculture to anarchists is a comprehensive toolbox of various practical solutions that can create more liberating ways of life. The most invisible to those less engaged or put off by permaculture’s image, but what I think is the most useful and transformational, is the design process.
The variety of tools and frameworks used to make strategic decisions and the overall design processes, have huge radical application. Imagine if every organiser just thought that little bit smarter about leverage, or if every collective re-designed themselves to integrate better people care to prevent burnout, or if whole social movements focused on re-designing aspects of society rather than just fighting fires. Learning about design and applying design to my life is probably one of the most transformational gifts I’ve ever been given (cheers HMP).
As an agroecologist, what excites me most about permaculture is that it is pioneering a totally different pattern of land use that can directly contest capitalist agriculture. How we get our food is central to upholding so many different pillars of oppression, from slavery and colonialism to wars over petroleum. Changing how we produce food and relate to the land could cascade and bring so many other revolutionary changes to our lives.
But without political literacy, and a commitment to understanding power relationships in our society, permaculture will not achieve its goals no matter how hard it tries. Sowing the seeds of permaculture, of a completely re-designed society and relationship to the land, into the fertile soil of anarchism that has been fed by hundreds of years of resistance in working for social change, maybe, just maybe, something truly revolutionary will grow.
To learn more about anarchism check out Bristol Anarchist Bookfair: http://www.bristolanarchistbookfair.org/
To learn more about permaculture check out my section here, or sites like the Permaculture Association, Permaculture Magazine or radical designers like Graham Burnett who are exploring more critically the politics of permaculture.
I felt really humbled to be asked to present at the People’s Harvest Forum in San Francisco. I gave a talk over skype, which I’ve shared below. I was super inspired by the other speakers that I could hear and all the work they are doing towards food sovereignty and social justice for non humans. I would be really keen to organise a similar event in the UK. For more info about the forum check out: http://pplsharvest.org/
From Animal Liberation to Food Sovereignty: A Personal Story
I’d like to say a huge thank you for being invited, it is an honour to speak and I’m gutted I can’t be physically with you all right now! I’ve been asked to focus on my personal story and introduce some perspectives on food sovereignty/food justice from an animal liberation perspective.
In this talk I’ll introduce ‘where I’m at’ and what has led me to be organising for food sovereignty. Hopefully it will generate lots of questions for critical thinking and reflection.
So, I’m Nicole. I’m 27 and live over in Somerset in the South West of England. It’s a rural county with a large mix of large/industrial landowners, and more working class communities in the towns. People are increasingly pushed out of the countryside, unable to afford rents or participate in agriculture. The UK is an extremely class stratified society and this has had a huge influence on my life. I was brought up by a single mum on state benefits. We faced most things people face – poverty, domestic violence, poor mental health & lack of access to decent food or land. Before moving to Somerset at 10, I grew up on the outskirts of Bristol where one of the first Asda (walmart) stores was open. My Nan was a key caregiver in my life and as a result, I’d spend lots of time with her where she was from in the countryside. As a result, I had a lot of interactions with animal agriculture from a young age.
When I was 9 she took me to collect eggs from a local farm that was a battery farm. I remember seeing row upon row of hens in cages. The smell overwhelmed me and the emotional impact was intense. I went vegetarian and wrote to animal advocacy organisations asking what I could do to stop this horror. This began a big process of a politicization from a very young age. I started my first animal rights group at school when I was 10 (ironically I also started an amnesty international chapter, so prisoner support has been a huge current of my life for a long time too).
Around this time the SHAC Campaign started – Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty – it was a grassroots campaign to close down Europe’s largest animal testing company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, who kill 200,000 animals a year and mainly test fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural chemicals and so forth. At this time the animal liberation movement was on fire in the UK. Supplier after supplier to animal labs were being closed down through grassroots pressure and direct action. I wrote to SHAC aged 11 after getting their first newsletter, I did street stalls and made prank calls to companies. I went on their first national demonstration. It all kicked off, with riot cops, thousands of people tearing through the streets. People were wearing ALF t-shirts and talking about supporting prisoners. It was electric. It felt very working class, it felt powerful. I realised the feeling of power you can get working with others as part of a movement.
So that was my life for a long time. I worked three nights a week washing up in a pub while I was at school. The weekends I was hunt sabbing, or going to demos or organising with the Anarchist Youth Network. I eventually left home when I was 16 to do organising full time. My first partner got sent to prison when I was 16, and then a different partner when I was 18. Finally at 19, my door came through for the third time as I was raided by the police and arrested for ‘Conspiracy to Blackmail’.
32 homes had been raided, with the police whittling down to 12 of us that were charged. Three people were remanded to prison while the rest of us spent nearly two years on bail awaiting trial. The first six went through a 3 month trial and were found guilty. I later pleaded guilty and entered prison in March 2009. After 19 months on remand I was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison (with two years taken off due to my plea bargain, otherwise I would have done 5.5 years).
I won’t go into details of the case or charge right now for brevity’s sake, but they were basically aiming to link the above-ground work of the SHAC campaign with the underground actions of the animal liberation front. And to these ends, they were fairly successful. They’d spent 2.5 million keeping a handful of us under surveillance for two years. They criminalised us with new laws, and were very effective in their use of repressive tactics to stop the movement in its tracks.
Prison changed my life in untold ways. I’d lived in 21 houses by the time I was 18, being inside actually took away a lot of the poverty related stress I’d experienced growing up, being shifted about and worrying constantly about money. At the time, prison was the longest place I’d lived anywhere. I felt quite grounded and able to focus on my personal development.
Obviously it was also hellish in lots of ways. Abuse/violence/sexual predation from officers was rife. The levels of self harm and suicide attempts are unimaginable, and ultimately your freedom and life is completely controlled. You are quite literally caged.
I was determined to make the most of my sentence. I got a job working in the gardens in the jail. While it was mostly frustrating maintenance work, I finally convinced them to let us grow vegetables. So we started a garden in the main courtyard, and also a large herb & veg garden in the mother and baby unit. I applied for a grant & completed a distance learning certificate in horticulture, which included a permaculture design certificate.
In those walls I learnt about how patterns of land use have shaped societies. I learnt about everything from soil science to seed sovereignty. I devoured over 250 books and started to think even more critically about the world around me. I had always been concerned about agriculture due to my veganism, and also from fighting HLS customers, who were predominantly large agr companies, however for the first time I could actually see a viable alternative to capitalist agriculture.
In the UK you generally do half of your prison sentence inside, and half on probation (like parole in the US). If anything happens you get recalled back to prison. Three days before my release I was given my license conditions – that I couldn’t speak to anyone concerned with animal welfare, or work for animal welfare in anyway. My movements were to be totally controlled, internet access restricted. I had to get permission even to have a relationship with someone. My solicitors were unable to challenge these legally and so began 21 months of my life where I could no longer speak to my closest friends in the world, lovers or comrades.
This was almost harder than prison. In an attempt to politically and socially isolate you, many of my comrades completely dropped out of the movement. My ex-girlfriend had rinsed me of the money I’d saved for my release and probation told me either I live with my mother or I go to a bail hostel (nearly worse than prison). My mum had re-married after I left home. I was nervous of living with her partners, who had a pretty bad track record of being dominating abusive men. Her now current partner, Ian, had built his own house and accumulated some capital. He bought a small house with 4 acres of land, called Brook End, where I would have to live on release.
You’ll be pleased to know it has all worked out. Ian is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. But here I am, having studied permaculture, suddenly with access to four acres of land. It was like a fairytale. So began a massive design process, that is of course ongoing. We observed the land for a year before preparing designs and making decisions. I built huge vegetable beds, where we now grow salad to sell, vegetables for courses and the family, fruit & more. I built a 30m2 medicinal herb garden. It’s a beautiful site with huge biodiversity and we manage it without animal manure or inputs from exploited animals.
I got further grants and completed a Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design and also worked to finish a degree in ecosocial design with Gaia University, a radical alternative education institution.
In March 2011 a call out went out for a group called Reclaim the Fields. I picked it up and edited their description, gave it to my probation officer, got permission and three months after prison I’m organising a national gathering to bring together anti-capitalist food growers.
Reclaim the Fields is a constellation of people and collective projects willing to go back to the land and reassume the control over food production.We are determined to create alternatives to capitalism through cooperative, collective, autonomous, real needs oriented small scale production and initiatives, putting theory into practice and linking local practical action with global political struggles.
I became active in the food sovereignty movement, organising local events and national gatherings. I worked with a local food charity doing food poverty work, teaching food growing & cooking in working class communities. Finally in 2013 I helped to start Feed Avalon, a workers cooperative dedicated to working for food justice in Street, Glastonbury and surrounding villages. Basically everything I’d been doing but in a more intimate area, where relationships can be more resilient and long term.
So beyond my personal story, how does animal liberation connect to food sovereignty? Are these worldviews complementary or conflictual?
I gotta be honest, and that it’s been a hard journey that has really revealed to me the complexities of social change and how to navigate different worldviews. In fighting fracking and unconventional gas exploitation in my local area, I’ve had to work with dairy farmers, do public meetings with large landowners, very aware that people that are opposed to the developments probably hunt foxes at the weekend.
In organising for food sovereignty, I’ve had to give out leaflets that speak of the rights of people to farm animals or fish (such as in the nyeleni declaration that highlights the rights of pastoralists or small scale fisher folk). I’ve had to sit next to farmers on courses that maybe send animals to slaughter. It’s been like political growing pains, emotionally difficult beyond belief. But I really believe, unless animal liberationists become part of defining new food systems in all their aspects – social justice, freedom for animals, ecological defense & restoration – that we will be left out of the conversation. I do believe we face a common threat that is the capitalist food system.
Imagine our power if we work in solidarity more with each other. Like at this gathering now, if we challenge gentrification, resist global corporations like Monsanto or challenge the environmental racism of factory farms for a handful of brief examples. I think the time is over for single issue campaigns or movements. We gotta work together more in every single way. For me, being an anarchist means attempting to eradicate all forms of domination. In a recent book I’ve been reading the author writes how “We don’t want to build an anarchist world. We want to build a free world.”
I believe we need to be present in food sovereignty movements. We need to create beautiful inspiring models of plant based food production, while also being active comrades in struggles for self determining communities, whether that’s tearing down the prison industrial complex, resisting gentrification or fighting GM. While active in these movements we can have an influence with our worldview that animals are not ours to ‘farm’, enslave, control, cage, slaughter, or accumulate wealth from. We can keep returning to the commonly supported idea that multiple forms of oppression intersect and demand an analysis and practice that recognises the totality of different forms of domination. I know from just being consistently involved in the food sovereignty movement in the UK that my presence has ensured vegan food, or the presence of the Vegan Organic Network at events for example. We need to be actively part of all of these events and conversations, for the sake of the nonhumans we are fighting for.
Like Nassim mentioned, we have to challenge the social norms that we have to default back to animal agriculture.
Learning about permaculture has made me really feel like I know what I’m wanting to create not just resist. If you’re unconvinced I’d just say go visit a permaculture farm somewhere that doesn’t farm animals. See the soils full of life. See the amount of birds and wildlife that are free and self-determining. Taste the vegetables. This is how we could be feeding ourselves. Animal oppression isn’t necessary. We can invest our organiser energy in re-designing the world to eradicate all forms of oppression, including the commodification and exploitation of animals. This is what my heart beats for.
Thank you for listening
This is the outline of the Composting Gender workshop I designed. I facilitated this at the Food Sovereignty Gathering in October 2015 in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire.
– Go round, incl. Everyone’s preferred pronouns. What you want out of the workshop.
– Safer spaces
– Origins of workshop e.g. From Reclaim the Fields article & subsequent workshops
– Intro to terms cis and trans
– Reassure everyone that we will all fuck up, and that’s ok – we want to create a supportive workshop culture, not one of fear.
2. Spectrum line of confidence with terms. Split into small groups.
3. Look at the Gender Unicorn Trans-Nonbinary Factsheet in small groups.
– Discuss any terms you are unfamiliar with.
– Answer any clarifying questions.
4. Ask whole group to discuss in small groups: “Where are we still seeing and experiencing homo/queer/transphobia in our groups and movements? Where are we still seeing & experiencing sexism?
5. Feedback into larger group. Ask if people would like to change their group or happy in same places (also observe dynamics before offering the choice)
6. In small groups discuss how we can respond. What ideas and solutions (if possible) do people have.
7. In small groups building on all of the above ask:
– How can this learning feed into the statement
– What should the priorities be for the food sovereignty movement
– What is our key message to the wider world
Nicole Vosper on seeing prisons as “one massive creative design opportunity”
When I went to the recent 2015 International Permaculture Convergence, one workshop I really wanted to go to was about permaculture and prisons. I couldn’t go though, as I had to be somewhere else. So I subsequently got in touch with Nicole Vosper, who led that workshop, and interviewed her instead! Nicole lives in Somerset, and runs a website called emptycagesdesign.org. As an ex-prisoner who is actively involved in permaculture, her work focuses on the bridge between the two. I started out by asking her why she feels that the prison system needs a rethink:
“I did a 3 ½ year prison sentence when I was 21. Twenty one months was in a private prison in Middlesex. That was in a backdrop of long-term organising for different social justice projects and campaigns and struggles.
My perspective on the prison system is that it’s inherently violent. Even with bigger cells or more adequate healthcare or more visits, or more education and training, or gardens in prisons, all these things that people throw around; even with all of those reforms I believe it’s inherently violent, because I believe that act of caging a human being is violent. Prison abolition, which is something I organise for, is about looking at what other solutions are there to the social and economic problems that the prison system is allegedly meant to be solving.
In what ways does the prison system, in your opinion, have unfairness designed into it fundamentally? Is it a fundamentally unfair design?
As a design, the prison system is incredibly effective in the sense of who it’s serving. It’s serving the State, and it’s also serving the hierarchies that exist in our society. Anyone who is engaged in any sort of social change work will probably see prison or repression as a limiting factor or a fear to overcome to push for more change. Prisons are fundamental to maintaining this social order in our society and they’re really essential to maintaining this class-based system that we have, especially in the UK.
There’s an author called Karlene Faith who wrote a book called ‘Unruly Women’ about women in prison, and she describes prisons as places “where all the injustices converge”; so prisons perpetuate inequalities in the sense of race. People of colour are highly criminalised, have totally disproportionate sentences, especially foreign nationals and this new wave of – well it’s not new – racism towards immigrants. Immigrants are increasingly becoming criminalised and filling up our prison system. That’s no accident.
Prisons harm disproportionately queer, gay communities, the homeless, generally just the working class. The war on drugs and all these other things that the state holds as keeping us safe, the ‘us’ being this privileged minority, is actually false, and I feel that prisons are definitely perpetuating more harm than they are preventing or solving.
It’s quite a step from that to the idea of abolishing prisons altogether. Is there not an argument that actually prison keeps most people safe from some really violent, unpleasant characters; that there are some people for whom prison is a necessary thing?
I understand that prison abolition is a challenging perspective, especially if people are new to these issues. When I facilitate workshops around this field, I always ask people “what makes you feel safe?” “What keeps you safe, or your community safe?” The things that come out of those workshops, and these are workshops with all sorts of people: ex-prisoners, different community groups, even permaculture people at these conferences, the same pattern has come up again and again.
Access to healthcare, accountability if someone has experienced harm… If someone has experienced rape or abuse, or murder or violence then they need to feel some level of accountability with the perpetrator of that harm. Indigenous communities all over the world have managed to function without the use of huge state-run prisons. It’s a fallacy that we couldn’t organise our society without them.
I always bring it back to what keeps you safe, and most people say if they’ve experienced harm that they want a supportive group of friends around them. They want to have that communication with the perpetrator eventually. They want to feel immediately safe in their environment. So for me, the link between prisons and permaculture is actually redesigning our society and building communities that can really meet people’s needs so you don’t have people having to commit crime, using that discourse of crime to actually meet their own needs.
Most people in prison are there for economic reasons, or because their communities are criminalised. The criminalised communities that are in prison are the ones that are experiencing the most harm. So you chat to anyone in jail and they’re the ones that have experienced being mugged, being burgled, sexual and financial abuse, everything. It’s not really working for anyone. The people who experience the harm the most are the ones that are filling up our prisons.
You mentioned that you were in a private prison. One of the things that a lot of people listening to this might not be aware of is the extent to which the prison service is now a private commercial operation. Could you say a little bit about that and how that affects who prison serves and what the experience is for people on the inside?
This term the ‘Prison Industrial Complex’ has emerged in the last couple of decades to describe the more complex web of relationships that underpin the prison system. It’s never just been the state that runs prisons, but increasingly it is private companies that are running institutions. For example, all of the immigration detention centres in the UK are run for profit by private companies. What’s problematic about this isn’t just the ethics involved, actually profiting and serving your shareholders through caging certain groups of people; it’s also that the private prison industry have a lot of power and lobbying power so they can actually change our whole criminal justice system because they can put pressure to change different sentences and make reforms and stuff, so it changes the whole landscape of our criminal justice system.
In terms of private prisons, I’m not pro-state prison by any means at all, but there are definitely some differences and patterns. For example, of the top five prisons in the UK with the highest rates of self-harm last year, four of them were private prisons. You have this effect where companies are trying to cut corners because that’s their business interest and that obviously is going to affect prisoners, so that will reduce staffing ratios, making prisoners a lot more generally unsafe, higher levels of abuse between staff. In the prison I was in, 4 or 5 different officers had been sacked after I left for sleeping with women in the prison.
This level of abuse is rife in UK jails. There are obviously contracts with private companies that are directly profiting from the labour of prisoners, companies like Virgin or DHL, they are all making money by paying prisoners a maximum of £25 a week, and that’s a job that could have gone to someone on the outside for minimum wage or more. It’s completely shocking that they’ve created this system to profit from something that is so exploitative and harmful, and it is destroying communities by removing people from those communities. We’ve had horrific things of capitalist exploitation, war, everything else, but I do think there is something really screwed up about making money from actually caging people.
What, for you, would prison abolition look like? If people were guilty of violent crimes or whatever, what would be the ideal way of managing that, or treating that?
The most important thing is that there’s no one solution to anything. What would work for me or maybe my community wouldn’t necessarily work for another. So it’s about having this constellation of alternative strategies to respond to harm, just like indigenous cultures have got all variety of tools and community processes to respond to harm in their communities. We’d have to do that work and that design work and that practice and that development to actually be able to respond to these issues.
A lot of those tools already exist, especially in more anarchist subcultures. We have things like ‘safe spaces agreements’ and accountability processes. There’s a model that has come out of North America called ‘Transformative Justice’ which emerged due to the needs of survivors of sexual violence wanting to not endanger the perpetrators of that violence and subject them to the criminal justice system but actually to look at alternatives and to support them to transform their behaviour, so everyone is transformed by that process; it’s not just a case of restorative justice where you’re restoring the same power imbalances that perpetuate the harm.
For me, prison abolition is one massive creative design opportunity of how can we keep our community safe, and what tools and processes can we imagine to respond to harm in a way that doesn’t give power to the state or lock people behind bars. In terms of this violent minority that we’re meant to really fear, that’s a big cultural myth that perpetuates this idea that prisons are natural, normal and necessary. I know there’s a book where the guy had spent time in Broadmoor as a psychiatrist working with five of the top serial killers in the UK. He said not a single one of them hadn’t had the most brutal, traumatic childhood.
So for me in terms of actually dealing with people that have perpetuated that level of harm, I think it needs to look more like a care model. I used to work with autistic adults, for example, that were quite violent and aggressive and it would be about what meets their needs. So I could imagine smaller systems where we actually treat individuals as needing care and support rather than needing more violence inflicted upon them.
Could you say a bit about where the permaculture comes in? Some people would think permaculture and prisons just means making gardens in prisons, but I get a sense from your work that you see it as a much deeper thing than just planting a few apple trees in the yard in the prison.
For sure. For me, permaculture and prisons have always been quite linked. I learnt about permaculture inside – I got a Distance Learning course when I was in prison and studied permaculture in there, worked in the gardens and encouraged the garden officer to let us grow veg rather than just weeding rose bushes. I’ve always seen that they do go together quite well in the sense that I see permaculture as being a way to completely redesign our society that meets human needs while increasing ecosystem health.
I get a lot of emails from people that want to do projects with prisons and plant gardens, but this isn’t really the work that I’m doing, or the work that I’m overly interested in. Being in the gardens in jail really kept me sane and really nourished me while I was there, but it’s a very cosmetic intervention. I feel that the power of permaculture gives us a lot more ability to transform society than we imagine at the moment.
So for me, it’s more about totally redesigning our societies from the ground up, which is obviously what people engaged with the Transition movement are doing and that’s super inspiring.
But I’m not dismissive of projects with prisoners. There are some really inspiring examples, especially in North America. People leaving prison really need support. They really need access to create a new way of life, because most people coming out of jail are landing straight in the same situation: poverty, benefits, drugs, violence, the same sort of patriarchal culture. So creating opportunities for prisoners to come out of jail and actually access land and build livelihoods, to find purpose and meaning, and actually be able to feed themselves, would be super inspiring and necessary.
I’ve met people who have been in and out of prison who actually will often get sent back to prison because it’s some stability. It’s regular meals, you’re warm, and I wonder what does that tell us about how crap stuff is once you get out and how little support there is when you get out, that going in and out and in and out just becomes a pattern for people. How do we break that pattern?
Without a doubt. Something like 65% of offenders – I don’t like the word offender – but of prisoners return within 6 or 12 months. So most people in prison are people that have been there before. There’s a design tool in permaculture, this idea of “a spiral of erosion”, identifying where that erosion is happening and where the leaks are. I feel like we can intervene in that system by looking at why people are returning to prison.
The main reason is getting kicked out of jail with a £46 discharge grant hasn’t changed in the last 4 years. Then you have to wait a month maybe to get your benefits sorted, and the grants from the state like the emergency fund from the Job Centre aren’t available any more. The Salvation Army is completely over-subscribed. You can’t get on the housing register and it’s literally no surprise that people return to prison. No surprise at all.
I could really see the change in the just-under 2 years that I was there, with all the government austerity measures, and how that was really harming people because all the services inside the prison were just getting stripped left, right and centre. The housing team lost their jobs, the group that worked with foreign national women lost their funding and then people were getting out and were completely unable to access support from charities or other bodies that used to exist. So prisons really link with this national impact of the state, and it’s basically class war on working class people in the UK.
Could you paint us a picture of what your vision would be of a fair, just, justice system? If you were to leap forward 20 years and this had happened, could you paint a picture of it for us? What might it be like?
For me, fairness is actual real social justice and a real egalitarian society, and I don’t feel that’s possible in our economic system and I don’t feel that’s possible when we have the existence of the state which is going to protect the people at the top of the hierarchy. So to have fairness would be to totally transform all our social relations and make our society less stratified and less hierarchical. Ideally, in my fantasy head, an anarchist society where we’re addressing our power relationships left, right and centre, where the minority don’t have a monopoly on violence over the majority.
In terms of a more positive, creative vision – it would be communities actually being less atomised and having relationships with each other, and people actually paying attention to things like sexism, racism, so that there aren’t such endemic levels of domestic violence or drug abuse. Most substance abuse comes from people being sexually abused when they were kids so if we actually had a revolutionarily different society that kind of harm hopefully wouldn’t happen, or at least in definitely wouldn’t happen at the levels that we have now.
So I can imagine a constellation of alternatives in communities developing different tools and when we don’t have the haves and the have-nots I’m sure that would definitely stop a lot of the crime as we know it happening.
How might we start to move towards what you’re talking about? We’re so far away from it at the moment.
We need to be investing time and energy into developing ways to respond to harm. Things like Transformative Justice are a lot more common in the US, but we need to really build up those tools and those ways of existing so that we can actually meet our own needs without the state. So I feel like that’s something that if people are interested in People Care or Zone 00 work or Inner Transition, then they could be actually really addressing some of the different forms of oppression that we have in our society like racism, sexism, able-ism and even just thinking about things like class within the Transition movement and the permaculture movement.
To me these feel like huge elephants in the room that we don’t discuss enough, so really looking at design interventions around them. Practical projects with ex-prisoners, I think is super important. If every permaculture project or community garden in the UK could support a couple of apprentice ex-prisoners, I think we’d definitely make some sort of dent.
But more than anything, it’s this idea of “are we making gardens in this battlefield?” I do feel like we need to politically engage with this and if people are really passionate about permaculture then applying design to grassroots campaigns. They’re building Europe’s second biggest prison right now in North Wales. Six days ago they announced a new prison they want to build in Jamaica funded by the British state. These are all things that are happening right now and I don’t feel like we can be neutral and I don’t feel like we can be passive. We need to organise and we need to resist the growth of the expansion of the prison system while simultaneously developing alternatives and doing more one-to-one work with ex-prisoners.
More information on Nicole’s work linking these issues here. She also suggested, for those interested in learning more, the following links:
From the 28th August to the 2nd September 2015, the Reclaim the Fields International Action Camp drew over 130 people to Wrexham, North Wales, to resist the ‘North Wales Prison Project,’ the construction of Europe’s second largest prison. Held at Borras Community Protection Camp, a site camp established to oppose fracking in the area, the gathering sought to link land struggles with resistance to the prison industrial complex(1) and ongoing mechanisms of state violence and dispossession.
Connecting the dots
From Saturday to Monday, a comprehensive programme of workshops, discussions and practical activities took place. People connected the dots between struggles around the prison system, food sovereignty, borders, and other aspects of the world post-enclosures. Several workshops explored the brutality of the prison system, introducing the P.I.C., ongoing struggles around IPP prisoners, nonhuman prisons and how prisons relate to gender and queer struggles, and over the course of the weekend a permaculture design was developed for the camp and people began work on a herb garden, biochar system and solar panels for the site.
Never alone, Never forgotten
Throughout the camp several actions took place. In the evenings, folk took sound systems, megaphones, and other noise making instruments to local prisons determined to show prisoners they are not forgotten and not alone. HMP Stoke Heath, HMP Drake Hall and HMP Altcourse were all visited, with many prisoners shouting back and banging their doors. Chants like “If you hate the screws, clap your hands” rang out under a full moon.
As part of the International Week of Solidarity for Anarchist Prisoners, children at the camp made a banner for UK anarchist prisoner, Emma Sheppard. Letters were written and prisoner stories shared. Banners were also made for comrades on tag and repressive bail conditions who couldn’t make the physical gathering.
In the Streets
There were also highstreet actions, with folk leafleting Wrexham about the prison and how they can get involved in fighting it. On Monday a protest was staged at P&A Landscaping. They are the prison’s landscapers and have supplied several fences and materials to the jail. In response their public garden centre was visited and customers were informed about their role in prison expansion.
Day-long Blockade of the Prison
On Tuesday 1st September, around 20 people blockaded the three access gates to the Wrexham Mega-Prison’s construction site. This simple action was easy to co-ordinate, and with confused and unprepared police and site staff, had a big effect with very little effort. A queue of trucks were prevented from entering and exiting the site, including a huge cement delivery which had to be turned away before it spoiled. Simon Caron, Project Director for Lend Lease, begged protesters to let it in saying, “We’ve been reasonable letting you protest, please just allow this one to get through”. No one budged and vehicles delivering materials failed to enter. Read about the action in the local newspaper here and here.
Suppliers targeted regionally
As camp participants networked and bonded, regional groups formed to take actions against local targets in their own areas. (Find a list of suppliers in your area here). One group visited the Gloucestershire offices of Precast Erections Ltd, the company supplying concrete blocks used to build the prison. More actions are planned. Contact your local group to find out how you can get involved in Community Action on Prison Expansion
Solidarity Protest at the Court
On Wednesday 2nd, people from Reclaim the Fields supported a local woman, Vanda Gillett who had been charged with assault during the Barton Moss Community Blockade. Following a guilty verdict, anger erupted in her defence. The court was occupied and ‘scuffles’ with the police took place outside. Four people were arrested and people moved to demonstrate at the police stations where they were being held. See a video and mainstream media article on the day here.
Due to the arrests and priority of station support, further actions in Manchester were postponed, however local people motivated by the anti-prison struggle are keen to continue to target local companies and delay the construction of this super prison.
Reclaiming the Fields, Reclaiming our Lives
Reclaim the Fields is a constellation of people and collective projects willing to go back to the land and reassume the control over food production. We are determined to create alternatives to capitalism through cooperative, collective, autonomous, real needs oriented small scale production and initiatives, putting theory into practice and linking local practical action with global political struggles.
This camp is one part of our story (read the UK history here). We are not a ‘campaign’ or ‘coalition’ or a ‘mass movement’. We are diverse people, projects and struggles converging and diverging all over Europe. The manifold of ways in which capitalist economics comes to dominate the land (whether that be through the construction of prisons, drilling for gas or the exploitation of industrial agriculture) implicates and connects us all. While gatherings and action camps can be politically limited, they are not the be-all or end-all of our work. They are points of encounter, a chance for comrades to meet and critically reflect on how these struggles shape our lives. Read more about how RTF organises in our latest bulletin.
The gathering came alive through the work of an incredible group of people working collectively and horizontally. Numerous ex-prisoners and people who have supported loved ones through jail were present and moved by the experience. The passion and the hate for the prison system was very present and very visible. As was the desire for something more, for growing food, reclaiming land and living differently.
We will continue our work to reclaim our lives from the state, from our capitalist economic system and oppressive prison society. Until All Are Free!
– Reclaim the Fields, September 2015
(1) Defined here as the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.