by Daniel Nemser
Published by: CIEPAC
Not only people migrate from Mexico to the United States every day–ideas cross the border as well. In California, many collectives inspired by the Zapatistas’ Sexta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona (Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle) and the Otra Campaña (Other Campaign) have tried to incorporate the message of autonomy “from below and to the left” into their everyday practice. One organization in particular that has faced struggles similar to those faced by members of the Otra Campaña in Mexico is the South Central Farm, an urban garden in one of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods.
On May 28, I stood in a small crowd of about 100 people listening a group of female rappers, who call themselves Cihuatl Tonali, perform their politically conscious lyrics. The show took place in the middle of fourteen acres of land under cultivation by 350 (mostly Latino, many immigrant) families-one of the largest (if not the largest) urban gardens in the United States. Overhead, from time to time, a helicopter flew by, pausing-so it seemed from the ground-to observe the event below. Indeed, several people in the audience recounted to me what had happened a few days earlier, when a helicopter had arrived in the middle of the night and hovered above the farm, shining a spotlight around, to collect information and intimidate the community. This police presence emphasized the point made on a banner behind the stage that read, “Repudio total a la represión en Atenco. Castigo a los asesinos y violadores: la otra del otro lado” [Total repudiation of the repression in Atenco. Punishment for the murderers and rapists: the other [campaign] on the other side]. The transnational flow of ideas, language, knowledge, and identities is clear from the start.
On June 13, about two weeks after the concert, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in riot gear, along with crews of private security guards and bulldozers, moved in to forcibly evict the farmers and destroy the farm itself. Community members, activists, and even celebrities sought, as they have been doing for months, to stop the invasion, using tactics of civil disobedience like chaining themselves to trees to keep the police from cutting them down. Today, the community has officially been evicted. A number of farmers have apparently moved to a new plot of land provided by the city and begun farming. But at 7.8 acres, just over half the size of the original farm, the new land cannot hope to provide for the entire community. How did this come about? Why such hostility towards such a tranquil, productive space? According to the South Central Farmers website, the story goes something like this: In the late 1980s, the Los Angeles city government appropriated a city block under eminent domain from a group of private owners composed in large part by a company belonging to Ralph Horowitz. The city intended to use the land to build a trash incinerator (in one of Los Angeles’ poorest and already most polluted neighborhoods), but in the face of a protest organized by the community was forced to back down. Thus, the land was still empty in 1992, when, following the so-called Rodney King riots, the city decided to allow the land to be turned into a community garden. The low-income residents of South Central succeeded in changing this industrial wasteland into a series of fertile, verdant, and productive plots, and have been farming there for the last 14 years. Horowitz, however, wanted the property back and sued the city for the land. In 2003, after years of legal battles, the city finally approved a settlement-behind closed doors-to sell the land back to Horowitz for about $5 million.(1) Laura Palomares, who works with the farm and with the L.A.-based El Puente, an organization that promotes just economics, argues that this price, way below market value, was practically a giveaway and attributes it to corruption backroom dealings. We might dismiss this as rumor or conspiracy theory, but in fact the city’s own auditors had valued the land at $13 million in 1994, more than double the price it was sold for a decade later.(2) What happened to inflation?
Immediately, the South Central farmers organized themselves and went into action. They initiated a legal struggle and built community support, in addition to running events to generate attention and support and to raise funds. Last week’s concert falls into this category, but the timing is becoming increasingly urgent as threats from the sheriff’s office-and “red alerts” called by the farmers-become increasingly frequent. They have already succeeded in incorporating Hollywood. During my visit, renowned environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill continued her hunger strike in an old walnut tree overlooking the tents of activists and concerned citizens who came out in solidarity to protect the farm with their presence. Joan Baez, Daryl Hannah, Leonardo di Caprio, and Alicia Silverstone number among the stars voicing their support for the farmers.(3) The results? Approximately $7 million raised. While astounding, of course, the sum falls short of what Horowitz is now asking to sell the lot back to the South Central Farmers, e.g., US$16 million. Furthermore, both Palomares and Roberto Flores, who also collaborates with the farm and helped found the East Side Café community center in East L.A., assert that the office of mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promised to match any funds raised by the South Central farmers-which would have put the farmers within reach of their financial goal. But Villaraigosa decided that there was no money to contribute. So the farmers ran out of time to pay Horowitz off, while the city invested $800 million in a new football stadium instead.(4)
At the South Central Farm, all cultivation was organic. According to Flores, many of the farmers were using techniques that they had previously employed in their home countries-Mexico, the countries of Central America, even Venezuela. Organic farming, of course, already represents a progressive step, considering that the vast majority of farmers in the United States (and Latin America as well) use conventional, chemical- and petroleum-based techniques. But urban farming in an industrial area of south central requires even more innovation. The farmers ripped up the concrete, cleaned away the trash littering this city block, and restored fertility to the earth below. They had to build the soil quality up from scratch, slowly contributing to its organic matter content and transforming it into usable land. Not only did the farm succeed in producing healthy, cheap, and local vegetables, it also created a surprisingly high level of biodiversity. Devon Peña, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, estimates that 10050 different species were present in the farm’s ecosystem.(5) Compared with the stark industrial backdrop, replete with concrete, warehouses, and industrial train tracks, it represented an ecological haven, a veritable urban jungle. Tezozomoc, one of the farm’s elected representatives, argued that the farm’s lush greenery ameliorates the neighborhood’s environmental degradation and countering air pollution.(6) The community recognizes the benefits of its methods and hopes to create a school to disseminate these agricultural alternative and urban farming practices to a wider audience.
This way of cultivating is not only good for the environment but also makes good economic sense for these small-scale growers. On the most basic level, it provides poor families with a significant amount of food self-sufficiency. Furthermore, at the farmers’ market held every Sunday, they could sell their produce without having to transport it or sell it through middlemen to large-scale buyers-a difficult proposition anyway, as the scale of these local producers would be inadequate for most grocery stores. Which brings added environmental benefits, since eating local eliminates a major source of fossil fuel consumption. Michael Pollan, an author and professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that the agricultural practices (including tractors, petroleum-based chemical additives, and above all transportation) accounts for 20 percent of the U.S.’s annual fossil fuel consumption, while, surprisingly, personal transport only accounts for 18.(7)
Decisions at the farm were made democratically. The farmers made collective decisions at weekly meetings of their General Assembly. Not only did this allow them to participate in shaping their future (as well as addressing their economic needs), it also served as a form of empowerment. “[W]ithin the democratic process here,” Tezozomoc told L.A. City Beat reporter Dean Kuipers, “part of the work that we do is to develop people with the ability to be leaders in their communities. We had some people here who have come out and become part of the neighborhood councils, and others who advocate on behalf of people… [Our struggle is] not only about saving this project, but to develop people with a conscience so that they can stand up for what they believe.”(8)
La Otra Campaña en el Otro Lado (The Other Campaign on the Other Side)
So the struggle at the South Central farm is a struggle for community and land rights, a post-industrial, urban campesino struggle for existence. It may seem like something of a stretch to link it to the Zapatistas and Atenco, but the similarities are striking. In 2002, for example, Atenco faced the appropriation of their communal lands by the federal government for the construction of a new international airport for Mexico City. The community resisted and with support and solidarity of national and international organizations and outraged individuals forced the Fox administration to back down. Many analysts believe that the recent confrontation between the heavily armed Federal Preventative Police and the machete-wielding community defenders spiraled so quickly and easily out of control, with such deadly consequences, because of not only Atenco’s links with the Zapatistas but also the government’s desire to turn it into a sort of retribution for its earlier defeat. Also notable are the coincidental rumors, seemingly initiated by Subcomandante Marcos, that the flower vendors were kicked out to make room for a new Wal-Mart shopping center. (Wal-Mart Mexico did not answer my repeated requests for verification.) Perhaps this explains the rumors (though there’s no lack of evidence) that Horowitz plans to turn the farm into a warehouse serving Wal-Mart.(9) What is beyond a doubt is that the trains continually passing next to the farm are carrying shipments from Wal-Mart’s sweatshops in China, spewing soot into the local air while at the same time contributing to the ongoing depreciation of living standards around the world.(10)
Of course, the links with Atenco automatically generate conceptual connections with the Zapatistas’ Otra Campaña. Members of the Atenco community had served as Marcos’ personal, machete-wielding guard during the caravan’s journey through Mexico. Likewise, in the wake of the violence in Atenco, the Zapatistas immediately offered their support, putting the “campaign” on hold to put pressure on the Mexican government to release its political prisoners. And the Zapatistas’ connections extend directly to the farm itself. The farmers employ community consensus building and participatory democracy, fill their rhetoric with Zapatista terminology (remember those “red alerts”?), and are official adherents to the Otra Campaña through their association with the Los Angeles-based Autonomous Peoples’ Collective. Which is what Hermann Bellinghausen was referring to when, writing in the Mexico City daily La Jornada, he called the May 28 concert “the first large event of the other campaign on the other side.”(11)
Unlike the atenquenses, who were able to block the government’s destructive intervention, the South Central farmers could not hold off the police forever. But the struggle is far from over. Community supporters continue to maintain a vigil at the farm. In addition, on July 12 lawyers for the farm will launch a lawsuit against Horowitz, alleging backroom corruption in his acquisition of the land. The next few weeks, then, will be critical to challenge the destruction. Fortunately, farmers, community members, and activists continue to mobilize in defense of the farm. Even if their voices are not heard by the city government, there is no question that they have reached the ears of activists everywhere, on both sides of the border.
*Daniel Nemser undertook a volunteer internship at Ciepac several years ago. He is now a doctoral candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
(1)See the whole story at http://www.southcentralfarmers.org/story.html.
(2)Tom Philpott, “Neoliberalism at the Garden Gate,” CounterPunch, 16 March 2006 http://counterpunch.org/philpott03162006.html.
(3)A full list of supporters can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Central_Farm
(4)”South Central Farmers Resist Eviction,” LA-IMC, 24 May 2006,http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/05/159770.php
(5)”Third-Space Farmers,” Vision Magazine (May 2005),http://www.visionmagazine.com/11_05/la.htm
(6)Eric Einem, “Peak Oil and the South Central Farm,” http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/01/144878.php
(7)Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: Penguin Press, 2006); also see the interview with Pollan in The Plain Dealer, 19 April 2006,http://michaelpollan.com/press.php?id=40
(8)”Trouble in the Garden,” L.A. City Beat, 26 January 2005, http://www.lacitybeat.com/article.php?id=3200&IssueNum=138.
(9)Michael Ruppert, “L.A. South Central Farm Receives 3-Day Eviction Notice,” From the Wilderness, 3 March 2006, http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/030306_scf_eviction.shtml
(10)See the entry in the “Save the Garden” blog entitled “Tezozomoc,” 1 June 2006,http://savethegarden.blogspot.com/2006/06/tezozomoc.html
(11)”Inicia en EU movilización internacional del EZLN,” La Jornada, 29 May 2006, http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/05/29/012n1pol.php