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Our ‘Lad in the ZAD’, valiantly defending the rural community

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Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 14.27.14IN AN OCCASIONAL series, The Herald tracks down West Wales people who are living, working and doing extraordinary or even extraordinarily ordinary things abroad.

For more than seven years, Yoann Le Guen was a popular figure in activist circles in West Wales, always busy organising. Originally from France, Yoann worked as an engineer on renewable energy projects in Wales and more widely. And he certainly brought a lot of energy to local and national groups campaigning on climate change and social justice. Having learned Welsh fluently, Yoann was active in the Climate Camp Cymru mobilisation that saw more than 500 people from all over Wales and beyond joining a protest camp against Ffos y Frân opencast coalmine near Merthyr Tydfil in 2009.

More recently, Yoann was a prime mover in the network Ceredigion Against the Cuts, that organised local actions and buses to take people to national demonstrations. As part of Ceredigion Against the Cuts, he was also involved in supporting campaigns to save Park Avenue Day Centre and Bodlondeb residential home. So, with Ceredigion People’s Assembly in full swing, climate breakdown hard upon us, and various local groups, including Aberaid, taking action to help refugees held in wretched camps in France and elsewhere, where is Yoann when we so badly need his commitment, hard work and skills?

AGAINST THE AIRPORT AND ITS WORLD

The Herald visited Yoann at a remarkable experiment in protest action at an autonomous community set up in the Loire-Atlantique department in western France: La ZAD. The ‘zone à defender’ – the defended area – is an occupation of land to stop the development of a second Nantes airport near the village of Notre- Dame-des-Landes. But it’s become much more than a negative protest, because La ZAD is also saying a resounding yes to a different society with a very different economy. Putting the principles of ‘degrowth’ into practice means living within ecological limits, with open, localised economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institution. La ZAD has become a living alternative to the outdated model of development which the airport project represents. For instance, all trade on La ZAD is by donation and there is a weekly free market to distribute any surplus, some of which then goes to homeless people in the nearby city of Nantes. The slogan runs that La ZAD is ‘a struggle against the airport and its world’.

Unlike the case of Heathrow in London, a second international airport near Nantes is not being justified by citing a high volume of air traffic. On the contrary, the proposed airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes is intended to stimulate economic growth in the region that will, in turn, increase air traffic to increase airport profits. However, Yoann agrees that ‘ for more and more people , the airport seems to be just a way to line the pockets of the bosses of the public works and construction industry’.

The airport plan dates all the way back to the 1970s and opposition to it has been mounting for the last 40 years. Clearly, the logic of the plan is sorely outdated, not least when the impact of the aviation industry on the climate is considered. Nevertheless, lobbied by the developers, Vinci, a mega-corporation which has operations in over 100 countries including the UK, the French authorities seem determined to go ahead and evict the more than 300 people who have settled in La ZAD to fight alongside local farmers and the community. The latest deadline for eviction to hang like a sword of Damocles over La ZAD is October this year. Undaunted, the community of La ZAD, some 60 dwelling places occupied by collectives engaged in a wide variety of activities, continues to build for a future. La ZAD is thoroughly imbued with a never-say-die spirit: “Our first victory is that we defend ourselves despite the fact that nothing enables us to foresee victory. “

As well as numerous horticultural ventures, there are two bakeries on La ZAD, a cheese making enterprise, a mechanical engineering workshop looking after the tractors used both in farming and to obstruct the police, a forge, a pottery, a cinema, a bicycle workshop, a radio station… The list goes on and on. Dear to this Herald reporter’s heart , there is both a weekly newspaper – ZAD News – and a brewery.

CALLING ASTERIX AND OBELIX!

Compulsory purchase of farms on La ZAD has already taken place, though the farmers continue to work the land and most refuse to touch the money deposited in their names by the state. With its long history, the drive behind La ZAD resistance almost predates climate change considerations. At the core of the controversy is land, the farmers working on it and the communities who live there. La ZAD is situated on the almost 5,000 acres of wetland earmarked for airport development. With the water-table less than a metre below the surface, through the winter much of the area is a quagmire and is everywhere scarred by deep tractor ruts. Not, you might think, the ideal land on which to build an airport. Rural life is the heartbeat of the struggle and farmers from all over France stand ready to offer their physical support if the government presses ahead with its plans for eviction and developing the airport. Dating back to 2012 and the government’s last attempt to evict La ZAD, there are over 200 support committees across the length and breadth of France.

In October 2012, the government, directed by then Minster of the Interior, now Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, launched ‘Operation Cesar’ to evict La ZAD by force. Two thousand armed and armoured police spent several weeks trying to accomplish this mission, liberally deploying tear gas and demolishing a dozen dwellings in the process, but a reoccupation attracted 40,000 people and Operation Cesar was finally abandoned and the police withdrew. Many people had been injured, however, thirty seriously, mainly by shrapnel from the ‘flashbang’ grenades used by police. In 2014, a young botanist, Rémi Fraisse, was killed by one of these grenades thrown by police at an occupation against the construction of the Sivens Dam in southern France.

Before most of them return to their homes and jobs, the 40,000 people in La ZAD, running on solidarity and the adrenaline of victory, built a small village to replace the homes that the police had destroyed. Farmers protected the new settlement from police incursion by circling their tractors around it and chaining them together. Yoann points out that Operation Cesar may have been a poor choice of name in the region where the indomitable rebel Gauls Asterix and Obelix regularly defeated and embarrassed the Romans Legions which attempted to occupy their land! On the downside perhaps, La ZAD certainly cannot count the humiliated Manuel Valls among its friends and supporters in the future process of political decisionmaking about the land and its people. The communal feeling on La ZAD is that the Prime Minister may be committed to revenge rather than reason.

The idea of La ZAD has spread, and the philosophy and practices as well as the ‘zad’ prefix has been adopted by other occupations. In France, as elsewhere, the widespread rise of the degrowth movement in various forms is clearly worrying for the political establishment. Bruno Retailleau, a member of the Senate of France who represents the Vendée department, has described La ZAD as ‘this territory lost to the republic’. Indeed, the slogan ‘La ZAD partout!‘ – ‘the ZAD everywhere!‘ – has become a rallying call for protesters and social movement worldwide as well as in France.

We end up discussing the possibilities of a zad in Ceredigion, in the wake of the Brexit referendum result that leaves the county so out of tune with much of the rest of the UK and even Wales, particularly some urban areas. In that vein, Niall Griffiths’ letter in the Guardian (Aug 6) protests against commentators who lump rural Wales together with rural England as ‘the bedrock of the Brexit vote’. With the UK facing an extended period of economic recession, and social unrest already evident, the Ceredigion zad idea didn’t seem so daft to Yoann and myself. Mind you, we had sampled the fine produce of the local brewery. That said, the prospect of making degrowth everyday practice did excite the imagination. La ZAD par tout? It’s worth thinking about, at least.

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Minister opens film premiere for port stories

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WALES’ Arts and Sports Deputy Minister has launched a new film charting the histories and life of five port towns in Wales and Ireland.

Premiered at Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth, the series of eight short documentary films and one feature-length film, At the Water’s Edge: Stories of the Irish Sea, aim to promote the ports of Fishguard, Holyhead and Pembroke Dock in Wales, and Dublin Port and Rosslare Harbour in Ireland, as well as the three ferry routes connecting them.

The films were produced as part of Ports, Past and Present, a project which explores the history and cultural heritage of the ports, showcasing stunning views of the landscapes and wildlife of the Irish Sea coast and revealing the human histories of the port communities.

In Fishguard, residents Gary Jones and Jana Davidson talk of invasions by pirates and French armies, while Hedydd Hughes explains how she teaches children about local legends. In Rosslare Harbour, the Todd family from Fishguard meet their Irish in-laws, the Fergusons.

Local historian David James shares the extraordinary story of how the son of a Japanese samurai came to plant a ginkgo tree in Pembroke Dock, and local councillor Josh Beynon explores the secret location where the Millennium Falcon was built for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. 

In Dublin and Holyhead, poetry by Gillian Brownson and Gary Brown celebrates the centuries old link of their ports. Historian Gareth Huws explains how traces of Bronze Age settlements can still be seen in the Ynys Môn town.

Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, Dawn Bowden MS, who came to the premiere, said:

“Through showcasing the rich and diverse cultural history of our ports, bringing life and colour through visual arts, literature and film, the Ports, Past and Present project will not only enhance the experience of visitors of all ages and interests, but also encourage more time and money spent in these communities.

“Engaging with local communities and increasing the awareness of port heritage through panel discussions, creative workshops and talks – is an excellent opportunity to gain the support of local residents ensuring there is a careful balance which works for the local communities as well as visitors from across the Irish Sea and beyond.

“I’m delighted to launch the film which will showcase and celebrate the best each community has to offer to prospective visitors and users of the ferry ports, but also capture the multilingual and multicultural nature of the ports and their surrounding areas.”

Professor Peter Merriman, project team leader at Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Sciences said:

“We are delighted that the Minister has officially launched our films, which portray the rich cultural and natural heritage of these Irish and Welsh port towns. They are the result of almost three years of work by the project team and our production partners Mother Goose films, and we hope that they will inspire visitors to spend more time in the ports as they pass through them.”

The films form part of a wider tourism campaign to raise awareness of the rich coastal and maritime heritage of the five selected ports and their communities.

Project leader Professor Claire Connolly from University College Cork said: “It’s a joy to see so many images and stories from Rosslare, Dublin, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock on screen. The lives and cultures of the port towns come to life in the films and together they offer an extended invitation to stop and stay in these storied places.”

Ceredigion Museum is also hosting a travelling art exhibition looking at the rich coastal history and heritage of the port communities.

Over the coming months, the films will have free screenings around Wales and Ireland, and will then be released generally so that the local communities can promote their own areas.

Ports, Past and Present is funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Ireland Wales Co-operation Programme, and operates across four institutions in Ireland and Wales, including University College Cork, Aberystwyth University, the University of Wales Trinity St David and Wexford County Council. The film has been led by a team in the Department for Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University.

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Aberystwyth Town to welcome Knife Angel sculpture

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A HUGE 27-foot sculpture, made from 100,000 confiscated knives, is to be welcomed to Aberystwyth town next month (1 June) as local community groups prepare to come together to promote key prevention, anti-violence and anti-aggression messages.

Police and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn, working alongside Dyfed-Powys Police, Aberystwyth Town Council and Ceredigion County Council is bringing the Knife Angel to Llys y Brenin square, Aberystwyth, where it will stand for four weeks as a physical reminder of the effects of violence and aggression.

The iconic sculpture – commissioned by the British Ironwork Centre in Oswestry, Shropshire and created by artist Alfie Bradley – will be on display in the town until 29 June 2022.

This will be the second time that Police and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn has bought the Knife Angel to the Dyfed Powys Police Force area, with it’s first visit being in Newtown, Powys in January 2020.  Mr Llywelyn has been keen to bring the Knife Angel back to the Force area since then, so that other communities can get involved in the key messages.

Police and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn said; “The Knife Angel is a reminder of the devastating impact of knife crime, and any form of violence and aggression has on families and communities.

“Whilst there has been a 105% increase in knife crime in Wales over the last decade, rest assured that the Knife Angel has not been brought to Aberystwyth because of any major problem with this kind of crime in the area.

“However, we do acknowledge, that knife crimes have taken place here within the last year. Although a proportion of these were domestic, not street based, it is worrying that a small number of these involved suspects under the age of 18. I am pleased to see however that the Police and partners have come together over the last 6-months to put interventions in place to divert children from knife crime.

“Prevention of crime and diversion away from crime is essential. We hope that the Knife Angel will greatly assist us in raising critical awareness of knife crime whilst creating a widespread intolerance to violent behaviour within our communities.”

Inspector Andy Williams of Dyfed-Powys Police said: “While Dyfed-Powys Police is one of the safest places to live and work in the country, we still see the devastating effect knife crime has on our communities.

“In July last year we had a murder in Ceredigion involving a knife, when John Bell died after being stabbed in Cardigan.

“That case showed the devastation knives can have, with the loss of a life and the impact that has on Mr Bell’s loved ones, withs the man responsible rightly being sentenced to life in prison.

“The Knife Angel is a very dramatic and powerful sculpture that aims to inspire people not to turn to knife crime or even to carry a knife for protection.

“I would urge anyone to go and see it. Take your children and make a day of it to take in this poignant reminder of the dangers of violence and aggression, particularly when weapons are involved.”

Aberystwyth Town Mayor, Dr Talat Chaudhri, said: “We welcome the Knife Angel to Aberystwyth and stand together with towns and cities where knife crime is a bigger problem than it is here. There is no place for violence of any kind in our community.”

Children and young people from across Aberystwyth and neighbouring areas are being encouraged to get involved as well as community groups and organisations, in visiting the Knife Angel and taking part in engagement activities which focus on the key messages – the impact of violent crime, prevention, and diversion away from violence.

If you would like to find out more about how you, your community, school, college or university groups can get involved, please contact the Commissioner’s Engagement Team on OPCC.Communication@dyfed-powys.police.uk.

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Young person celebrates kickstart job and overcomes several obstacles

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22-YEAR-OLD Lee from rural Ceredigion found it challenging to secure permanent employment. Having no mode of transport as well as his diagnosis of autism and depression meant that Lee has experienced significant barriers with finding and maintaining employment. Communities For Work Plus (CFW+) provided Lee with the right tools and opportunities to find the right role for him. He now has a job at ASN Watson (Savers), with a more positive future ahead.

Lee was struggling financially with increasing debt and although he had been working in the past, the nature and environment of the work was not practical for Lee’s abilities; he was often misunderstood by employers.

After being referred to CFW+ from Job Centre Plus, Aberystwyth, Lee received support with job searches, applications, cover letters, cv writing, and interview skills. He’s now in paid employment, secured through the Kickstart Scheme. The UK Government Kickstart Scheme provides funding to employers to create jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit.

Lee said: “The project helped me a lot as I struggle to know where to start when it comes to finding jobs, but this definitely helped. Communities for Work+ has got you covered!”

Communities For Work Plus is a Welsh Government funded project, delivered by Ceredigion County Council which supports individuals in or at risk of poverty, aged 16 or over, across Ceredigion and throughout Wales. Participants may be experiencing in-work poverty, unemployment, living on minimum wage, or struggling to pay basic monthly outgoings on sporadic zero-hour contracts.

Misha Homayoun-Fekri, CFW+ Mentor said: “Lee has been a pleasure to support. He was always very responsive, and we worked together every step of the way. I am so pleased for Lee that he has found a job that he can be happy in.”

Since starting his new role, Lee has become a lot more independent, his mental health has improved, and has started to save money for the future.

Councillor Wyn Thomas, Ceredigion County Council Cabinet Member for Schools, Lifelong Learning and Skills, said: “One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. A report released by the Office for National Statistics shows that only 21.7% of autistic people are in employment; meaning that businesses are missing out on the opportunity to benefit from the strengths that autistic people can bring to the workplace. So, it’s great to hear that Lee has found an autism-friendly employer through the support provided by CFW+ and I encourage more employers to be more inclusive to all abilities when considering employees.”

If you think the project may be able to help you or if you would like more information, contact the team on 01545 574193 or email TCC-EST@ceredigion.gov.uk.

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