Bruce Mackenzie – smiling as he leaflets for Wandsworth Stop the War at Southfields station.

 

In the flurry of a Tuesday afternoon, I receive an unexpected e-mail from Vicki Carroll. The header has your name in it Bruce, and I know instinctively within an instant what the message holds. I hover a while and then open the text to read the inevitable.

You have stepped over, passed through the thin membrane that is stretched between this breathing life and that other space. I am not shocked by the news. Just calm and full of light. You always lived so close to that membrane that your passing does not come as a surprise. When I later talk with Vicki and share stories of you – we both loved you – I sense that she too is not surprised.

To feel full of light is just as you would wish me to feel. You yourself have always been a radiant being. Our paths intertwined for perhaps twenty-five years. It is strange to reflect that you were younger than me now when we met. You must have been in your late forties in 1992. Yet throughout quarter of a century it seemed that you remained true, and constant – the same figure, tall, thin, with long coat and big boots, a deep mellifluous voice and always so gentle.

We in Platform came into your orbit through our first work on the River Wandle. I never knew how long you had already lived in Wandsworth in those days, it felt that you had been there always. You were so benign and welcoming to us young, nervous, and at times abrasive, incomers. Alongside Steve Parry – that Superkings-smoking, Guinness-drinking hurricane of a community activist – you were a pillar of all that Platform tried to do in Wandsworth and Merton.

I remember you participating in our Tides & Tributes project with the eight-year old pupils of St Joseph’s School – standing on a street corner, patiently allowing them to cross-question you as a ‘Citizen of Wandsworth’.

I remember you in that upstairs room in The Crane pub on Armoury Way, a regular attender to the meetings of the Wandle Delta Network that Steve chaired in bearded majesty.

Without you, your delight and encouragement, we would never have been able to maintain the fifteen-year struggle to sing up the Wandle and call for the RENUE network of solar and wind-powered community buildings to be established along that South London valley. You were always calm and thoughtful, in endless planning meetings, in constant efforts to lobby Wandsworth Borough Council and Merton Borough Council, and in cajoling the Millennium Commission to support that pioneering vision. Alongside Vicki, Steve, Su Assinen, Gavin Killip and Tuija Halonen, you were central to that determined adventure.

And you were so much more. A pianist, a song writer, a performer in the pubs of Balham and Tooting. An utterly tireless campaigner for the Green Party, for Wandsworth Environment Forum, for the Miners’ Support Network, for Wandsworth Anti-Austerity Campaign, Wandsworth Stand Up to Racism and Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees. You were pivotal to the local branch of the Stop the War Coalition, often to be seen on peace demonstrations in Westminster, and a campaigner for the release of Shaker Aamer from Guantanamo Bay prison.

I remember that you were there when, following in the wake of Steve and Ernest Rodker, we drove through the night to rural Northamptonshire and started digging up the lawn of Michael Heseltine MP, in protest at his Ministry’s support of open cast coal mining.

 I remember you as central to ‘The Land is Ours’ action on the banks of the Thames in Wandsworth – the squatting and holding of the ‘Pure Genius’ site.

You were always committed to the same ideals, always constant in your loyalty to Wandsworth in spite of the stubborn recalcitrance of an unchanging bloc of Tory councillors. Whilst others – and Platform was among them – slowly drifted away from the Wandle Valley, you remained true to it.

As Vicki and I talk over our memories we realise that despite your pure and constant presence, you remained an enigma to us. We try and sketch out something of a biography – you were born in perhaps 1945 or 1947. It seems that, though you came from a Scots family, you did not grow up in those northern lands, nor in London. (I think now of your soft voice, and it is hard to place a trace of accent in it). We think that you once said you had lived and worked in Africa. Certainly from the early 1990s you were in the flat that you rented in Trinity Road, Wandsworth – living a life of powerful frugality, recycling all that you could, taking such care to consider your material impact on the world. As we jetted and trained around the globe, I only remember you travelling once or twice – and I think both of those were to Scotland. At some point you became a Buddhist, certainly in seemed that way, even if you were not formally ‘of that faith’. Your annual cards at winter solstice – in careful and clear handwriting – shone with your burning desire for a more peaceful future.

As I write this, I miss you already. But you are not gone. You are still there just the other side of that thin membrane. We know that, like the rest of us, you are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Stansted 15 trial. We know that you too are hoping that some future Red/Green government might defend the NHS and renounce nuclear defence. We know that you too are anxious about the seeming impossibility of averting climate chaos.

We should no more exile you to oblivion, than ban the entry of children into our lives. ‘The dead only die when the living cease to remember them.’ We keep your memory close because we need your calm assistance, as we try to maintain this carnival of resistance against destruction, and this celebration of the humane and all living beings.

Thank you Bruce for everything you’ve done with us all thus far. There will be more memories together.

(With thanks to Vicki Carroll and Pat Sheerin)

Akeim Toussaint Buck performs Sai Murray’s poem ‘Stop Signs’

We watch in wonder as dancer Akeim Toussaint Buck[1] moves his body as fluid as water across the black box of the stage. Our eyes are transfixed as the voice of activist Max Farrar intones the words of Sai Murray’s[2] poem ‘Stop Signs’ over the sound system.

And in Lane number 1 from Nigeria, wearing 1969, and now running out of Leeds, David Oluwale.

Lane number 2, hailing from Hornsey, Andre Savvas, 1971

Lane number 3, Aseta Simms, Stoke Newington, 1971

Lane number 4, Lil’ Douza, Oxford, 1972

Lane number 5, Horace Bailey, Ashford, 1973

Lane number 6, Stephen Bernard, Ladywell, 1974

Lane number 7, Joseph Lawrence, Brixton, 1974

Lane number 8, John Lamaletie, Hornsey, 1974

Lane number 9, Adeenarain Neelayya, Chatham, 1977

Lane number 10, Basil Brown, Albany, 1977…

A list of people of colour who have been killed in police custody in England since 1969. The verse, as so often with Sai’s work, is bittersweet. There’s a brutal humour in the way he has set this list as the names of runners in some unholy race. This is a roll call of the dead. Their names should be remembered by us all, eternally.

We are at the London launch of the ‘Black Cultural Activism Map[3]’, a youth-led project initiated by Stuart Hall Foundation, curated by Farzana Khan. The launch showcases the commissions created by the Nawi Collective[4] choir, Voices that Shake![5], Globe Poets[6], Skin Deep[7] magazine (all London-based), and RECLAIM[8] from Manchester. This sophisticated afternoon of dance, song, film, poetry and speeches unfolds seamlessly in front of a rapt audience, MC’d by Rotimi Skyers, in the impressive venue of Central St Martin’s[9] ‘Platform Theatre’.  The event unfolds seamlessly thanks to the support and expertise of the technicians.

Place, ownership, alienation, and resistance come up repeatedly this afternoon. Seated in this well-appointed venue, once warehouses in the industrial underbelly of 19th century  London, I am struck by the work of  filmmaker Dhelia Snoussi. She shot it on the streets around Ladbroke Grove using her phone camera. Such gentle and deft beauty mesmerizingly draws us into the pre-gentrification spirit of the place and her experience of growing up there. She startles us by setting this against a clip from an excruciating promotional video created by the estate agent Savilles to attract foreign capital to buy property in the neighbourhood. As one of the residents in the film describes, the extraordinary vibrancy of the communities of this part of West London, symbolised by the Notting Hill Carnival, is now being used to market the houses of these streets as investments. The influx of overseas capital drives up property prices, and drives out the very people who since the 1950’s have made this part of London come alive. The film perfectly encapsulates the brutality of gentrification, through which a tsunami of capital pushes out long established families and erases collective memory. So many of the young people in the Shake! family are impacted by gentrification, as their lives are made more precarious or they are forced out of London. Capital erases people. It erases the history even of a place such as the buildings which this theatre sits within.

*

The members of the amazing Nawi collective

Later, our eyes stream with tears as the almost unbearable beauty of the songs performed by Nawi Collective flow into our ears.

When we ask them they say ‘Rise up!’

When we ask them they say ‘Don’t stop!’

When we ask them they say ‘Take your time, You are gold’.

Such an extraordinary evocation of the presence of the ancestors. The sense that we all have elders that we can honour and be guided by.

A speaker from the RECLAIM team comes to the podium and quotes Maya Angelou “When you enter the room, be accompanied by your people”. Our eyes are glued to the film of young RECLAIM activists exploring Manchester, uncovering its Black history – from the pivotal 1945 Pan-African Conference held in All Saints, to a meeting with Erinma Bel[10]l, a Black peace activist who led a campaign against gun violence on Moss Side and a visit to the People’s History Museum[11]. One of the activists says, as she learnt about great black orators, writers intellectuals and trade unionists: “We all deserve to know our history”.

Under the theatre, part of the massive redevelopment of Kings Cross for private profit, lies a radical history as David A Bailey, who grew up nearby, reminds us. “This is where Gay’s the Word started”, he says. And here was a fulcrum of Black activism in the 1970s, the Keskidee Centre on Gifford Street which featured in Bob Marley’s film for ‘Is this love?’. The erasure that comes with redevelopment and gentrification is not merely accidental is has a function, it helps keep power (white and patriarchal) in place.

Bob Marley performing at the Keskidee Center on Gifford Street

To close the event our dazzling Platform comrade and flame of Shake!, Farzana Khan, takes the podium. She beautifully unfolds how we should each ‘take responsibility for our society’ and do so ‘not at some point in the future but right now’, and that as we do so we should strive to ‘become more human humans’. Our souls lift and are charged with the energy to maintain the resistance, to assert our history, uncover buried histories, and assert that our experience is ‘knowledge’ – knowledge that can act as our guide and be a lever for change.

*

(With thanks to Sai Murray and Jane Trowell)

[12]

Endnotes:
  1. Akeim Toussaint Buck: http://toussainttomove.com/
  2. Sai Murray’s: https://saimurai.wordpress.com/about/
  3. Black Cultural Activism Map: http://stuarthallfoundation.org/what-we-do/black-cultural-activism-map/
  4. Nawi Collective: https://twitter.com/nawicollective?lang=en
  5. Voices that Shake!: https://www.voicesthatshake.org/
  6. Globe Poets: https://twitter.com/globepoets?lang=en
  7. Skin Deep: http://www.skindeepmag.com/
  8. RECLAIM: http://www.reclaim.org.uk
  9. Central St Martin’s: https://www.arts.ac.uk/colleges/central-saint-martins
  10. Erinma Bel: https://twitter.com/ErinmaBell?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor
  11. People’s History Museum: https://phm.org.uk/
  12. : #_ftnref1

News just in: the UK is spending its official development aid funds to promote fracking abroad. The Foreign Office financed two projects in China to “export UK expertise in shale gas development”, aiming to create “an improved business environment” for UK companies. Our research, released today in collaboration with Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid,[1] also shows that the Foreign Office funded 14 more projects to promote oil and gas drilling in India, Myanmar, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Protestors blockading fracking drill rig supplier PR Marriott in Derbyshire. Credit: Reclaim the Power

 

Endnotes:
  1. Our research, released today in collaboration with Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid,: https://platformlondon.org/p-publications/prosperity-fund-foreign-office-aid-fracking

The beach at Mersea Island, Essex

 

Quite suddenly the light has gone. We are left to complete our voyage in the growing dark. The sea charts cease to become legible, the OS map strains the eyes. The words of that fount of all Thames Estuary sailing advice, Charlie Stock, are ringing in our ears

‘When night sailing, do not use a torch.’

There’s a steady south-westerly wind, strong enough to make against the ebbing tide and, despite it being the end of Summer, it is still warm. The prow of the boat ploughs the waves pushing us closer to our destination of mooring and sleep.

We stare at the dark forms of the land. The lights from the distant houses of West Mersea grow in strength, some piercing sharp white, others soft smudging sodium yellow. The profile of the island of Mersea becomes more pronounced against the paler sky, but it is a dark night of cloud through which no stars or moon penetrate.

We have to use our eyes, not to see the land, but to feel it. To caress its shape with our gaze. Finger tips moving across its body in the twilight. We strive to determine the channels that weave into the land. Is this Bessom Fleet? Is that Cobmarsh Island? Is Mersea Fleet really over there?

We drink in the world through the eyes. Staring so hard into the gloom, as though looking into the face of a new born child. Trying to determine the character of the land.

There is the white navigation light of where The Nass beacon should be. Flashing four times and then a pause. We count the beats. They match and we have a clear location. That then must be the entrance to the Mersea Fleet, with the buoys marking the channel into the land. Lower buoy lights flashing weaker green or red. These yachts must be on the line of mooring buoys. Ahead is the silhouette of the shed for packing oysters on Packing House Island. We have reached the sheltered water to which we were sailing. We make fast and raise the tent for the night. Curlews and Oystercatchers call in the dark.

The waters around Mersea Island, Essex

This is an island – Mersea Island – that we have sailed by on several occasions, but never tried to explore. In these past six hours we have completed almost a circumnavigation. Round the north-eastern end, along the shallow Pyefleet channel on its western side up to the Strood causeway that rushes with cars coming on and off the island. Back down the Pyefleet, along the eastern coast of the island facing out into the North Sea, and now around the south-western tip, up the Blackwater estuary, coming to rest in the Mersea Fleet.

I think of all the peoples who’ve lived on the seven square miles of this muddy isle. The hunter gatherers and first farmers whose names and languages are lost to us. (What words did they use to describe Mersea Fleet?) Then those that spoke Celtic and Latin, ploughing the fields, fishing the waters. For this was an epicentre of Roman colony of Britannia, close to the city of Colchester and the towns of Chelmsford and Kelvedon, and protected by the massive fort of Othona. (What names did these people give to the villages on the island?) Then the Angles. Their settling irradicated all the words that proceeded them and they left us the names for Mersea – Mer-sig – ‘The Island in the Sea’

To settle the land. To become settled. To become un-settled. To become restless.

We are caught between these forces, attracted and repelled. But the petrol exploding in the pistons of the engines in the cars on The Strood road fuels that restlessness. We rush everywhere because we do not feel at home. We do not feel at home so we rush everywhere. We are un-settled.

Ordnance Survey map of Mersea Island in 1896

Earlier in the summer I had gazed down on Mersea Island. I was squeezed close between my mother and father in the tight seats of a Lufthansa Airbus A60 hurtling through the sky from Frankfurt to Heathrow. I was helping my infirm parents go on holiday and having the unfamiliar experience of flying. That strange miracle of looking at the surface of the Earth. As in a dream I could see Mersea Island, noiseless at the mouths of the River Blackwater and River Colne. I tried to point out the features of the Estuary to my mother, the towns of Colchester and Maldon. But the land shuttled by like so much television.

We settle down. We settle upon. We settle up. We are settlers in the land.

With each new settlement comes a destruction of language. An epistimicide. Franz Fanon describes with searing articulacy the fight against the settlers in the lands of Algeria. The intensity of violence at the heart of the struggle for survival. I wonder what kind of struggle took place here between the hunter gatherers and the first farmers? Between the first famers and the Celts? Between the Celts and the Romans? Between the Romano-British and the Angles?

Cars crossing The Strood to Mersea Island flooded by an especially high tide

Is there a similar struggle now – to understand a new way to settle the land and sea? A new way to describe it. A new web of words and stories. A veil of understanding stretching over the land as we battle against the explosions in the car engines and the roar of the jet engines overhead?

We are trying to find a new settlement out the other side of the petroleum world. We stare at the land about us. We look at it anew.

I’m reminded of the banner that Platform once stretched across an old abandoned goodsyard at the mouth of the River Wandle in London:

The Measure of the New Days is a love of the Surface of the Earth like the Skin of a Lover.

 

 

 

(Thanks to Jane Trowell, skipper)

A light projection onto the famous Leith Hill Tower celebrating the victory to stop fracking around this beautiful Surrey Hill

This piece was written before the news of the draconian jail sentences passed on those opposing fracking in Preston, Lancashire … but that bitter ruling does not destroy the reality that shortly before that decision we celebrated a Victory! The News of an Amazing Victory! We wrote of it as follows …

The permission to continue work at the Bury Hill Wood fracking site at Leith Hill near Dorking has been refused to Europa Oil & Gas! A ten-year epic struggle to prevent drilling on this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Surrey Hills has been won! This is an incredible achievement by an incredible campaign to defend these hills and the springs of the Black Brook that feeds the River Mole which flows on into the Thames. The news was celebrated on Saturday 8th September by Dorking being one of the myriad locations where 350.org’s Rise for Climate[1] took place around the world.

The victory is testament to the Protectors that maintained the Save Leith Hill[2] camp for 16 months through a harsh winter, eviction and intense aggression from the private security forces hired by the fracking companies. It is testament to Leith Hill Action Group, Voice for Leith Hill, some local councillors, Friends of the Earth[3], the Green Party[4] and most of all the thousands of others who blockaded the drill site, lobbied politicians locally and nationally, petitioned the companies and built networks of solidarity across Britain and internationally. We are inspired by our long term Platform friends, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey[5] who live in Dorking and have given so much time and imagination to this fight, making it part of their ever provoking artwork.[6] We salute you!

Poster for Ackroyd & Harvey’s ‘The Lark Descending’ artwork around Leith Hill – May 2018

The victory at Leith Hill, which came with an announcement from the Minister for Environment, Michael Gove, that Europa Oil & Gas would not have a lease enabling drilling on Forestry Commission land renewed, is galvanizing not only in Surrey but also across the UK. Europa’s project was a joint venture with Egdon Resources, Angus Energy, Union Jack Oil and UK Oil & Gas, and this partnership will consider drilling the Holmwood Oil Prospect from another location, but this does appear to be the end for the project. Patrick Nolan of Leith Hill Action Group[7] wrote to members:

Over the last ten years, we at the Leith Hill Action Group have been told by many people in many circumstances that we were just fighting the inevitable.  It has been put to me in radio interviews that it was pointless to keep going and that we should just let Europa get on with it.  We have faced attitudes from public officials that we were just delaying the unavoidable.  However, today’s announcement shows the value of continuing the fight.”

Whilst Lucy Barford, of Voice for Leith Hill[8], said:

“There will be other battles ahead, oil drilling is still planned for other sites across the Weald, but for now we will be celebrating the fantastic news that there will be no oil drilling at Leith Hill.”

She is correct of course, for the battle against fracking continues to rage across the country, with iconic fights at Balcombe in Sussex, Rydale in North Yorkshire and, most infamously, at Preston New Road in Lancashire.

Protest against INEOS’s injunction against those opposing their plans to frack – May 2018

The Leith Hill victory came in the same week that Platform, in collaboration with Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Earth Scotland and 350.org, published a powerful new report – ‘Divest Fracking – How UK councils are banking on dirty gas’[9]

These two key events allow a chance to review the situation for fracking in Britain and ask some basic questions including: Why is the oil & gas industry doing this? And why now? Who is driving this?

In 1964 the Tory government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home began to license areas of the UK North Sea for oil and gas exploration. Initially interest from the oil industry was half-hearted, but when gas was discovered at West Sole in September 1965 the pace picked up, and when oil was found at the Forties Field in October 1970, the gold rush was on. The UK sector of the North Sea became, alongside the Norwegian sector, a ‘site of speculation’, a place where money could be made, where capital could be invested and profit generated. The UK North Sea became a ‘profit centre’ for the western oil corporations and remains so today. To make this possible a new infrastructure had to be created.

In order for oil to be extracted from 11,000 feet beneath the seabed and transported through hundreds of miles of pipeline, as in the case of the Forties Field, the physical infrastructure had to be built. In order for this to happen the financial infrastructure had to be constructed, with government financing of everything from ports to air-sea rescue teams, with the world’s lowest oil taxes topped up with tax breaks, and with grants for a myriad of manufacturing processes. In order for the oil rigs and Treasury rules to become ‘common sense’ a political infrastructure was necessary, the active support for North Sea oil came from every  corner of the House of Commons and the engine of Whitehall was put to work. Finally, there had to be the infrastructure of culture, a sense in the general population of the UK that ‘developing’ North Sea oil was a ‘good thing’ and that this resource would miraculously ‘save Britain from economic ruin’ in the 1970s. I have been searching for any evidence of British civil society opposition to exploiting the oil & gas in its opening decades, and until the 1980s there appears to have been none.

*

The intention of the fracking companies presently at work across England, such as Europa and Union Jack Oil in Surrey, Cuadrilla in Lancaster, UK Oil & Gas in Sussex or INEOS in South Yorkshire, is that these fields and woods, these villages and hills, should become ‘sites of speculation.’ All of these companies are interested only in one thing, making money. This is not about carbon this is about cash.

The PR departments of these companies spout the line that fracking will make the UK secure in energy, that the UK’s ‘energy security’ becomes evermore important with Brexit and the unreliability of Russia as a source of gas. They point to the ‘fracking revolution’ in the US, which has apparently reversed the inevitable decline in American oil & gas production and altered the geopolitical map of the world. Despite some national politicians mouthing this rhetoric, the idea that fracking could do what it has done in the US is blatant nonsense. About as nonsensical as the argument that gas from fracking will ‘help the UK address climate change.’

Fracking in the UK is not about ‘keeping the lights on’ or ‘saving the planet’, rather the bogeymen of ‘energy insecurity’ and the ‘environment’ are used by the oil companies to help create the political and financial conditions that make it possible to remake the UK onshore as a ‘site of speculation’.

But there is something different in the way that the UK North Sea was exploited in the 1960s and 1970s and the way the industry is trying the exploit onshore Britain in the 2000s and 2010s. Fifty years ago the charge into offshore drilling was led by massive corporations – BP, Shell, Esso (todays ExxonMobil), RTZ, Texaco and a few smaller US companies such as Amarada, Hamilton Oil and Occidental. Today the big companies are nowhere to be seen in the UK.

Famously Bob Dudley CEO of BP said in 2014, when asked why the company was not pursuing fracking in Britain, “We think we would attract the wrong kind of attention.” However he did promote the industry by saying “It does look like there is shale in the UK … It would seem right for the country to see whether there is shale gas.” Meanwhile BP gets ever deeper into fracking for both oil and gas around the world, in Argentina, in Oman, in Canada, in China and Russia, as the ‘Divest Fracking’ report elaborates.

It is important to remember that when BP finds it profitable to pursue fracking gas in Oman, or Shell does similarly in Argentina, this is not because those countries have booming markets in gas consumption, for the gas exploited in these lands is not largely for domestic use but for export. As the LNG ships that traverse the oceans bear testament, there is an international market for gas. In theory, gas fracked in the UK is the same as gas in Oman or Argentina, and it would be perfectly possible for it compete on the global market with these products.

Why is this not possible? Why does Bob Dudley say BP is not drilling because it would “attract the wrong kind of attention”? Of course he’s trying to avoid adverse publicity, but if BP really wanted to frack in the UK it would set about determinedly trying to do so, despite the bad press. Dudley doesn’t want BP to frack in Britain because the cost of production is still so much higher in the UK than elsewhere. And this is because of the opposition to fracking and the fact that the industry has failed to build the infrastructure of speculation – the physical, political, financial and cultural infrastructure. This is not the 1960s and 70s, the construction of the infrastructure is proving far harder, for resistance is strong.

As ‘Divest Fracking’ explains, in the UK public support for fracking is low, only 18% of the population say they do so. This stands in stark contrast to the public’s support for renewables which is strong at 85%. A Scottish Government consultation on fracking last year attracted more than 65,000 responses, of which 99% of respondents opposed fracking. The cultural infrastructure necessary for fracking to work is not being easily constructed in Britain.

The oil industry privately admits that carrying out a ‘fracking revolution’ in the UK equivalent to the US is likely to be impossible. This is not because the geology is unfavourable, but rather the human geography is challenging. As many say ‘this is a small and crowded country, this is not Texas or North Dakota’. Fracking in the US has depended upon the ability of drillers to rapidly move rigs and support facilities, but there is simply not the same network of roads nor the same vast blocks of single landholding in the UK. In tight country lanes and with a patchwork of myriad landowners, combined with lack of support in the wider culture, the fracking process can be constantly obstructed as the history of Leith Hill shows.

Political support is not unequivocally behind fracking. The UK government supports it and Whitehall machine assists it. (Although the decision by Gove and Defra could indicate a change of tack in some sections of the Tory Party?) However, the Scottish Government has instituted a moratorium, and similar halts are in place in Wales and Northern Ireland. The Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and Labour are largely opposed or at best ambivalent. If this is the case at the national level, then it is far more so at the local level. The battle over Leith Hill was powerfully assisted by Liberal Democrat local councillor Hazel Watson, for Dorking Hills ward of Surrey County Council.

The financial infrastructure of fracking is complex. Much of the money behind the likes of Europa, INEOS and Cuadrilla is from private equity funds who see fracking as a high-risk investment, in which there is a good chance that companies and projects will fold but the possibility of high returns if they succeed. However the security for private investors is decreased if institutional investors go cold on fracking. This is part of the importance of the campaign to make local authorities divest their pension funds from companies that conduct fracking.

This campaign took a major step forward with the release of the ‘Divest Fracking’ report and the powerful media response that covered it.[10] BP and Shell may not be fracking in the UK but if local authorities divest themselves of shares in these companies because of fracking, then it sends a powerful signal to the capital markets that the risk of investing in UK fracking grows higher as opposition grows. Divestment also undermines the political support for fracking.

As the report points out, Surrey County Council Pension Fund has £256,604,881 invested in fossil fuels and 4.29% of its portfolio is held in companies that frack. There is a strong campaign led by Divest Surrey[11] to push the council to divest its pension funds. The sustained pressure is making progress but there is further to go. However this is the council that oversees parts of the planning process for projects such as Europa’s Holmwood Oil Prospect. If the council divests this helps undermine the political support for oil exploration projects in the county.

Why then does the pressure to frack continue? Partly it is a manifestation of the fragmentation of the oil industry in the UK. The presence of the oil majors in the Britain’s industrial economy has been in rapid decline. BP and Shell have closed down or sold on all their petrochemicals plants, their refineries, their lubricants factories, all but a fraction of their petrol stations and most of their offshore fields.  Largely these oil corporations that have dominated swathes of British society for a century are ‘leaving Britain behind’. Despite this seismic shift they remain among the largest companies by capitalisation on the London Stock Exchange and so have a substantial presence in the UK’s finance sector.

In their wake come a myriad of small companies to run the offshore fields, the oil & gas terminals, the refineries, the road tanker fleets, the pipelines, the service stations and the fracking projects. Many of these small companies are privately owned, or not listed on the London Stock Exchange, or are registered for tax abroad. All of this despite having patriotic names like Union Jack Oil or UK Oil & Gas and using slogans on their website home pages such as ‘Energy for Britain’ or ‘Meeting the Energy Demands of the United Kingdom’. INEOS is a fine example, led by Jim Ratcliffe who has just shifted his base to Monaco, it is also  an ardent Brexit supporter.

These smaller companies are addicted to risk, for the private equity funds that finance them need high-risk high-return investments to add spice and appeal to their portfolios. While interest rates remain historically low, there’s plenty of private equity around the world that can be lured by the outside chance that money might be made from drilling in Surrey or Lancashire.

For the companies, this is not about carbon, it is about cash. So the fight against fracking is a fight against a model of finance – a model that fuels other ‘sites of speculation’ such as housing in London – which constantly seeks out places of risk. It does so cocooned from the world – insulated with its private income, its private education, its private healthcare, its houses and villas, its jet travel – wilfully ignoring the greater risk that speculating on fossil fuels poses to the Earth’s climate and the myriad of other species and peoples of the world.

Midas is blind.

But the resistance to Midas is strong, growing stronger.

 

(Many thanks to Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey, and Sakina Sheikh)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Endnotes:
  1. 350.org’s Rise for Climate: https://riseforclimate.org/
  2. Save Leith Hill: https://saveleithhill.com/
  3. Friends of the Earth: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/
  4. Green Party: https://campaigns.greenparty.org.uk/
  5. Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey: https://www.ackroydandharvey.com/
  6. making it part of their ever provoking artwork.: https://www.ackroydandharvey.com/the-great-big-story-leith-hill/
  7. Leith Hill Action Group: https://www.surreycommunity.info/lhag/
  8. Voice for Leith Hill: https://www.voiceforleithhill.co.uk/
  9. ‘Divest Fracking – How UK councils are banking on dirty gas’: https://gofossilfree.org/uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2018/09/03_09_18_FINAL-VERSION-divest-fracking-report-.pdf
  10. covered it.: https://www.ft.com/content/fdbfe85a-609f-3ec5-b20e-12dc873e6f74
  11. Divest Surrey: https://www.facebook.com/divestsurrey/

[1]Heads up everybody interested in powerful political art and graphics.

The exhibition From Nope To Hope – Art vs Arms, Oil and Injustice is running for an extra week, in Brixton Rec, London.

Come and get inspired by the artwork of political artists, designers and activists who demanded their works were withdrawn from the Design Museum’s recent show H[2]ope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008 – 2018, and what’s more, set up this exhibition to show the withdrawn work and more.

There’s a long history of artists rejecting institutions’ values and making an alternative. The artists and activists now calling themselves the Nope to Arms Collective[3] have transformed the massive bowling green of the much-loved Brixton Rec into a people’s exhibition space. All kinds of random Brixtonians walk through on their way to squash or whatever and get engaged, as well as deliberate audience. As I walked in from the covert side entrance last weekend, my spine tingled and a huge smile spread over my face: could this be a riff on the infamous Salon des Réfusés – the Exhibition of the Refused? In Paris in 1863, a group of white male artists had had enough of their work bring rejected by the (white male) jury of the official ‘Paris Salon’. The artists decided to set up their own Exhibition of the Refused which ran in parallel to the main exhibition. Their move was unheard of in the fashionable, influential and hierarchical world of Parisian art at that time. Every day 1000s of people came to see the work, many openly laughing at the pieces on show. It was popularly and critically ridiculed as bad art or not art at all. However, history had the last laugh: many of these ‘refused’ would become the world renowned and now much-loved Impressionists painters.

[4]

Posters from anonymous Syrian art collective Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh.

In Brixton Rec we don’t have ‘the Refused’ but the Refusers, and in another crucial difference, these Refusers are a diverse and international group whose very work is to challenge inequity.

The question is, how could these refusing artists have acted otherwise? What on earth was the Design Museum thinking would happen when artist-activists discovered that it had hosted a shindig for the arms trade during the exhibition’s run?

Can either the curators or the museum directors really have been surprised at what happened next?

After the news of the arms trade jolly broke, 40 artists who had lent work to the exhibition got organised, linked up with Campaign Against the Arms Trade, published an open letter[5] to the Design Museum, and demanded their work be removed.

The result? An astounding one third of exhibits were removed, the walls left blank with signs explaining the absence. This was such a loss that the Design Museum decided to make the exhibition free to the public to compensate. Free exhibition? Nice work #1.

The clue to the museum’s misteps lies in how the Museum co-directors later rationalised the exhibition. On 30th July, the museum’s co-directors Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black published their own letter[6] about the furore, stating that the exhibition ‘tells the story of political protest in the last ten years, assessing the role of social media on political activism and how graphic design has evolved in this context… It presents a range of views, from across the political spectrum. Our objective was never to side with any party or world view, but to show how different sides have expressed their beliefs, through design.’

As the artists had pointed out, this is totally naive.

No cultural production is free from politics. It may be hidden, it may be overt, but absolutely nothing is neutral. From the funding that paid for it, to the aesthetics of the building and environs it takes place in, to the backgrounds and politics of those who have gained the power to make choices over what is displayed and how things are interpreted, to other events that go on in that space, nothing is neutral.

The naivety gets worse: in the same letter from the co-directors, they write ‘On Tuesday 17 July the Design Museum atrium was hired by a company in the aerospace and defence industry for a private event.’

This choice of wording makes it seem as if not one single person at the Design Museum had any say in the hire.

[7]

Jill Gibbons’ secret sketches inside arms fairs. Photo by Russell Warfield

Did the booking happen by some online booking form? I think not. Nobody can be unaware of how controvertial the arms trade is.

So we ask, as the artists asked, what policies do the Design Museum have in place to decide the ethical boundaries over who it will and will not get into bed with?

The museum’s directors later write in the same letter ‘We have committed to not having such private hires while we take time to discuss the issues with our peers in the sector and review if any of our policies need to be updated.’

Which peers are they consulting, and what answers do the Design Museum want to hear?

Finally, there’s naivety that shows up internal incoherence in the Design Museum. The curators created a groundbreaking show that was dominated by artists’, designers’ and activists’ critiques of Right-wing politics, state oppression, gentrification, climate injustice, war, and hyper-capitalism, with only a few works from other political positions. The artists they invited are not Saatchi and Saatchi. They are not creatives and sloganeers for hire.

Museums and galleries: if you invite political artists into your space – or any artists, or any people, for that matter –  this does not mean they have left their critical faculties at the door. It does not mean you have bought them off or gagged them through the flattery of ‘being included’ or the fear of loss of work if they dissent.

Meanwhile, get yourselves over to the exciting huge space that is filled with amazing art, design, banners, photography, from UK and beyond, not forgetting some bonus items such as BP or Not BP’s giant kraken and viking longship. The whole episode is an object lesson in art activism. Nice work #2.

A last thought: if the Design Museum had any sense they would be thrilled that this has increased the impact, relevance and outreach of their work, although clearly not in the way they originally intended. : )

Brixton Rec is 5 mins from Brixton tube, Victoria Line, London.

The exhibition runs this week 12-8pm Tues-Sat

LAST DAY 12-5pm Sun 30th September

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/09/25/fromnopetohope/42547912_2074512892611596_3379069243864645632_n/
  2. H: https://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/hope-to-nope-graphics-and-politics-2008-18
  3. Nope to Arms Collective: https://nopetoarms.org
  4. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/09/25/fromnopetohope/42203285_2067959113266974_7423257453900333056_n/
  5. open letter: https://www.caat.org.uk/campaigns/arms-trade-out/design-museum
  6. their own letter: https://designmuseum.org/press-office/a-letter-about-hope-to-nope-graphics-and-politics-2008-18
  7. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/09/25/fromnopetohope/42199138_2066763773386508_4961541869537329152_n/
  8. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/09/25/fromnopetohope/41925194_2064481386948080_7494506558999494656_n/
  9. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/09/25/fromnopetohope/41925230_2064414103621475_5122493406722916352_o/
  10. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/09/25/fromnopetohope/42448898_2074357862627099_4846446448335650816_n/
[1]

Photo: Sarah Shoraka

Two years ago, the Nigerian Government officially launched a clean-up programme of Shell’s oil pollution in Ogoniland. But today communities are still waiting for emergency measures on drinking water and health protection and the clean-up to begin.

Here’s what Godwin Uyi Ojo, Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria had to say about it:

’Seven years is too long for any people to have to wait for their air, land and water to be free from toxic oil pollution. After decades of suffering it’s time the people of Ogoniland to live free of the oil industry’s negligence. It’s time to implement the clean-up now.’’

Platform, along with many international, African and Nigerian organisations (Environmental Rights Action, Amnesty International, Milieudefensie, Friends of the Earth Europe, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development, and Face Initiative) has released this statement, demanding the immediate start of the long overdue clean-up of oil pollution in Ogoniland in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Today, Nigerian and international civil society organisations repeated their call for the immediate start
of the long overdue clean-up of oil pollution in Ogoniland in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. This should be
undertaken in line with recommendations made by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
in its landmark 2011 study of the region. The conclusion of the UNEP report was that Shell had, for
years, not cleaned up oil pollution properly. As a result of the oil industry pollution, hundreds of
thousands of children, men and women have been exposed to a sustained assault on their human rights
to food, water, health and work.

Shockingly, despite UNEP’s 2011 recommendations, communities affected by decades of oil spills
continue to live amongst severe contamination. The Nigerian Government officially launched a clean-up
programme in Ogoniland two years ago; however, communities are still waiting for emergency
measures to be taken and clean-up to begin. The emergency measures identified by UNEP warranted
immediate action on drinking water and health protection.

The Nigerian Government has taken administrative steps such as putting in place the governing
structures required for carrying out activities on the clean-up project and has appointed a coordinator to
lead the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), the implementation agency. The
government also advertised for contractors to deliver projects that would ensure the clean-up and
remediation of oil impacted sites in Ogoniland and of the widespread contamination of Ogale’s
groundwater, water sources and drinking water. But seven years after publication of UNEP’s report,
very little meaningful progress has been made to improve the situation on the ground, either by the
Nigerian Government or by Shell, the main operating company, in the area. Particular concerns include:

1. Failure to establish a billion-dollar fund
UNEP called for an initial billion dollar fund to begin the clean-up which may take up to 25 to 30 years.
Despite the promises of the Nigerian Government, Shell and the other oil companies, this has yet to be
delivered. HYPREP has set up the ‘Ogoni Trust Fund Account’ so there is no reason to delay the transfer
of the money any further. In addition, the companies appear to be trying to cap their contribution to
this initial billion. The government needs to pressure Shell and the other oil companies to commit to
fund the full clean-up of Ogoniland.

2. Failure to deliver emergency action
UNEP called for emergency action to ensure communities have access to clean drinking water. Action in
the community of Ogale has been included as a separate emergency measure, as the Ogale people have
been consuming water with benzene over 900 times the WHO guideline. Seven years later communities
are still waiting for clean and safe drinking water supplies. The Nigerian Government and the oil companies must now immediately ensure sustainable access to clean water and address the situation in Ogale with full urgency.

3. Inadequate health assessment
UNEP recommended a comprehensive medical examination of everyone who has consumed
contaminated water by physicians knowledgeable about the possible adverse health effects of
hydrocarbons.The recent health outreach programme in the region, while welcome, is far too limited in
scope and does not make mention of including these health experts. It is unclear what is done with the
additional recommendation to track the health of the Ogoni community over their lifetimes and to
ensure swift action if health impacts are identified.

4. Failure to require companies to step-up and properly clean-up
With the continued use by the oil companies of the discredited RENA method of clean-up we are concerned that the people of Ogoniland will be left with oil pollution even after any clean up. The clean-up must be carried out to the highest international standards and be overseen by credible, independent, international experts with no conflict of interest.

[2]

Photo: Martin Le Santo-Smith

We call on the Nigerian Government to take immediate action. HYPREP announced that they would begin the clean-up with 26 polluted sites in August this year. As several announcements have been made in the past, it is only when works begin that we will be confident that clean-up has begun.

It is also crucial that HYPREP involves all relevant stakeholders in the steps they take and guarantee a
flow of up to date information to the public published on a dedicated website. The work plan and other
key documents should be made public so that stakeholders can assess all the planned activities,
progress, milestones, effectiveness, efficiency and successes. The justification for and selection of sites
for clean-up should also be transparent. Full transparency will be vital for the confidence of all
stakeholders in the process.

After decades of living with oil pollution, ceremonies are not enough. It’s time for clean-up.

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2014/02/18/new-law-in-nigeria-could-hold-polluters-to-account/img_0267/
  2. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2014/05/22/20-years-since-ken-saro-wiwas-arrest-20-years-of-shells-inaction/_mg_3707/

Today I attended BP’s annual shareholder meeting alongside Fernando Cabrera from OPSur (Argentina).

Fernando came to challenge BP’s board on the dangers from their fracking operations. BP’s Argentinian arm Pan American Energy is using fracking frighteningly close to Patagonia’s freshwater supplies and fruit orchards (see our report “BP’s Fracking Secrets”[1] for more on this). Here’s BP’s response…

BP Chairman: fracking is a great opportunity but don’t ask us about the risks

According to BP’s chairman Carl Eric Svanberg, fracking “is a great opportunity for Argentina”, as well as being a safe, “accepted technology”.

But Svanberg tried to absolve BP’s board of any responsibility, saying that if we had any concerns about the company’s plans, we should address them to the management of Pan American or the Argentinian government.

Just a few years ago BP CEO Bob Dudley conceded that the company wouldn’t frack in the UK because this would bring them “the wrong kind of attention”. This attention is needed now more than ever, with BP attempting to break open one of the world’s biggest shale gas reserves.

 

Legacy of violence in Colombia

BP’s board was also asked if it would disclose documents from the time it allegedly funded Colombia’s military and paramilitary group violence against trade unionists and community activists, and how it would repair the legacy of violence and poverty.

BP’s board confirmed that they would answer questions from the truth and reconciliation commission in Colombia. But on the second point…

Hear more from Fernando Cabrera and Fabian Laverde in this video by BP Or Not BP:

BP can’t get away with its ridiculous pretense of planning for a low carbon future – while continuing to devastate communities and pushing to burn one of the world’s biggest reserves of carbon.

Endnotes:
  1. “BP’s Fracking Secrets”: https://platformlondon.org/p-publications/bp-fracking-argentina/
  2. @BP_plc: https://twitter.com/BP_plc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  3. #fracking: https://twitter.com/hashtag/fracking?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  4. #OOTT: https://twitter.com/hashtag/OOTT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  5. https://t.co/sk7OdeA72J: https://t.co/sk7OdeA72J
  6. May 21, 2018: https://twitter.com/PlatformLondon/status/998533674932023296?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  7. #BP: https://twitter.com/hashtag/BP?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  8. #BPAGM: https://twitter.com/hashtag/BPAGM?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  9. https://t.co/77NnqeBhry: https://t.co/77NnqeBhry
  10. May 21, 2018: https://twitter.com/WarOnWant/status/998540659152904192?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  11. https://t.co/K2lrlHCyCZ: https://t.co/K2lrlHCyCZ
  12. May 21, 2018: https://twitter.com/rouselouise/status/998547168389672960?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  13. @op_sur: https://twitter.com/op_sur?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  14. @cospacc: https://twitter.com/cospacc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  15. @britishmuseum: https://twitter.com/britishmuseum?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  16. #Fracking: https://twitter.com/hashtag/Fracking?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  17. #HumanRights: https://twitter.com/hashtag/HumanRights?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  18. #ClimateChange: https://twitter.com/hashtag/ClimateChange?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  19. pic.twitter.com/5cUHSY80uo: https://t.co/5cUHSY80uo
  20. May 21, 2018: https://twitter.com/ReclaimOurBard/status/998511108922146816?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  21. @FossilFreeGM: https://twitter.com/FossilFreeGM?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
  22. https://t.co/VZusKlSmbY: https://t.co/VZusKlSmbY
  23. pic.twitter.com/ZYLpptjFG7: https://t.co/ZYLpptjFG7
  24. May 21, 2018: https://twitter.com/FossilFree_UK/status/998531111977398272?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
[1]

Celestine AkpoBari addressing the vigil for the Ogoni 9, Nigeria, 2013. Photo: Patrick Kane

Here is the latest on the campaign to pressurise Nigeria Customs release the Living Memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9 known as the Bus. Customs seized the Bus in 2015 and has refused to release it despite the huge efforts and directives described below.
The guest blog is written by Celestine AkpoBari, National Coordinator for Ogoni Solidarity Forum-Nigeria.  Celestine has been at the forefront of pushing for the memorial’s release, and we honour his labour and this testimony. 

“On the 8th of September 2015, Nigeria Customs seized a sculpted art Bus, presented as a gift to the Ogoni people. This Bus which is a “Living Memorial” to Ken Saro-Wiwa was donated by Platform  – friends and colleagues in the United Kingdom – and made by British-Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp.

[2]

The Bus, at Hale Village, Tottenham in 2015

The memorial is a sculpture of a bus made in remembrance of the struggles of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 other Ogoni environmental rights activists who were sentenced and killed by a military tribunal in November 1995. The Bus calls attention to the environmental degradation and economic deprivation in which the Ogoni people live, despite being naturally blessed with enormous deposits of crude oil.

 

The people of Ogoniland continue to fight for remediation and restoration of their lands and compensation after the devastation caused by oil multinationals led by sHELL.

After being on display at various places in the United Kingdom for 9 years, at the request of Ogoni Solidarity Forum-Nigeria and a few other Civil Society groups, the Bus was shipped from Tilbury Port outside London to Nigeria via Lagos Port. On arrival in Lagos, it was impounded by Custom officials who claimed that it had ‘political value’ which is capable of threatening national peace in Nigeria. They said this was due to Saro-Wiwa’s words which are inscribed on the side: ‘I accuse the oil companies of practising Genocide against the Ogoni’.

The Bus also displays the name of Ken Saro-Wiwa on a white steel banner, and the names of the other eight Ogoni men on sculptural barrels, currently stowed inside the Bus for transportation purposes.

Since 2015, every attempt to get the Bus released to the Ogoni people has proved abortive. No further reason has been given for the continued seizure of the gift to the Ogoni people.

[3]

Banner by Jon Daniel

Similarly, a box of flyers and reports that would have been used to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa, sent by friends Platform in the United Kingdom through DHL, was also seized for no justifiable reason by the State Security Service. To date the box has not been returned. The current Comptroller General of the Nigeria Custom Service, Colonel Hammed Ali, was the only military member of the kangaroo tribunal set up by former Nigeria dictator Sanni Abachi. This tribunal eventually sentenced Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 other Ogonis to death by hanging in 1995.

The current aggression expressed by the seizure of the Bus – the property of the Ogoni people – clearly seems an attempt to continue the repression which began over 20 years ago. It seems a clear effort to ensure that the struggles of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eventual murder is blotted out for ever.

[4]

The Bus, Peckham Square, London. Photo: Sam Roberts

PETITION AND HEARING AT THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

Stripped of options but determined to seek justice, we were compelled irresistibly to petition the Public Complaints Committee of the Federal House of Representatives on the 11th November 2015 and hearing commenced on the 19th November 2015. After several sittings, the case came to a close on 16 March 2016.

During the House plenary session on Tuesday, 19th July 2016, approval was given to the committee report which directed Nigeria Customs to release the confiscated Memorial Bus to the Ogoni Solidarity Forum-Nigeria unconditionally.

Still, Col Hammed Ali failed to obey this simple directive from the National Assembly in Nigeria.

LITIGATION

On 21 March 2017, a pre-action notice was served on Nigeria Customs and when they failed to respond, a suit against them was formally filed at the Federal High Court in Lagos, Nigeria, on the 20 April 2017 with first and second hearing on 2 May 2017 and 12 June 2017 respectively. Since filing, the court has sat over ten times on this matter, and on the 29 November 2017, the Court awarded a fine of twenty thousand Naira {N20,000} against the Customs for actions that tend to delay the wheel of justice. The next hearing is slated for 30 May 2018.

[5]

Banner by Jon Daniel

CONCLUSION

Although it has not been easy for Ogoni Solidarity Forum-Nigeria to prosecute this matter and have the burden of flying from our base in Port Harcourt and accommodating lawyers in Lagos, we are hopeful that the Bus will surely return to us. This is one struggle we must pursue to a successful conclusion.

We appreciate Comrades at Platform {Sarah Shoraka, Jane Trowell, James Marriott etc}, our friend Rev Nnimmo Bassey and others we may not know for their continuous support and concern. We look forward to a day when we shall all escort and celebrate the historic Bus into Ogoni land.

THANK YOU.”

CELESTINE AKPOBARI
NATIONAL COORDINATOR, OGONI SOLIDARITY FORUM-NIGERIA

Platform statement: The overwhelming influence of Shell on the economy, government, and civil society in Nigeria is behind the refusal to release the Bus. If Shell were committed to honouring its responsibilities in Nigeria, they would pressurised Customs to release the Bus, and speed up the clean-up process. Releasing the Bus is a powerful symbol. It would be a sign of truth, reconciliation, and above all justice. However, the Bus continues to do its work, even while incarcerated. 

You can watch part of a discussion on the Bus[6], held on 1st May 2018, at the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, London. Featuring Sokari Douglas Camp, Jane Trowell (Platform), David A Bailey (curator), Gerald Houghton (October Gallery), plus from the floor Lazarus Tamana (President, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Europe).

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2013/11/19/a-cheque-written-in-blood-the-niger-delta-remembers-ken-saro-wiwa/nov9celestine/
  2. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2014/03/06/the-bus-memorial-for-ken-saro-wiwa-is-on-the-move/bus-at-hale-village/
  3. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2016/11/16/we-are-still-feeling-the-aftershocks-of-ken-saro-wiwas-murder-21-years-later/free_the_bus_banner2/
  4. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2015/11/05/release-living-memorial-to-ken-saro-wiwa-seized-by-nigerian-customs/buswallpaper/
  5. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2015/11/05/release-living-memorial-to-ken-saro-wiwa-seized-by-nigerian-customs/free_the_bus_2/
  6. discussion on the Bus: https://www.facebook.com/PublicMonumentsandSculptureAssociation/videos/1904514869581485/
  7. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/05/14/update-the-bus-its-seizure-and-our-story/dchohvxwsamvd7k/
  8. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/05/14/update-the-bus-its-seizure-and-our-story/dcho6hnxcaa4so9/
  9. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/05/14/update-the-bus-its-seizure-and-our-story/dcho8azwsaexaf7/
  10. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2018/05/14/update-the-bus-its-seizure-and-our-story/dchojhgxkaeykdq/

Prime Minister May welcomes President Aliyev to No 10 Downing Street – April 26th 2018

On the evening of Thursday 26th April 2018, it was warm and sunny in London. President Ilham Aliyev strode down Downing Street and was met by Prime Minister Theresa May with smile and a handshake.

They posed for the cameras on the red carpet outside No 10 and then retired inside.

Prime Minister May and President Aliyev have a  fireside chat in No 10 Downing Street – 26th April 2018

A short formal chat over a couple of glasses of water in the shadow of an Azeri national flag and a Union Jack, and then they stepped into an adjoining room to stand behind CEO of BP, Bob Dudley and Rovnag Adbullayev, President of SOCAR. The two businessmen signed a production sharing agreement committing the two companies to the joint exploration of Block D230 which covers 3,200 square kilometres of unexplored seabed in the Azeri Caspian. The agreement is set to run for another 25 years, until 2043.

BP and SOCAR sign a 25 year agreement to explore for oil on the bed of the Caspian Sea – in No 10 Downing Street – 26th April 2018

The official photographer recorded the event again and Aliyev stepped back outside and strode to his limousine.

The entire ritual cannot have taken more than 30 minutes.

In the same half hour dusk was falling after a warm day in the high mountains to the east of Ardahan in northern Turkey. In the village of Calabas snow was in deep mounds at the sides of the muddy roads, but spring had arrived and the cattle had long since been set to graze on the pale brown hillsides. Close to the village were two buried pipelines. The Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan (BTC) pipe that carries oil from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, and the TANAP pipe that carries gas from the offshore Azeri gas fields into the Turkish grid to the west.

There were no photographs to record that day’s events in this community of farmers, but life in the village was intimately intertwined with the ritual between the President, the Prime Minister and the two billionaires. Ever since 2001, when detailed planning for the BTC pipeline (much of it conducted in Hammersmith, London) determined that the route of this oil artery would pass through the grazing lands of Calabas, the village has found itself in a ‘energy corridor’ of strategic importance.

In the intervening 17 years since 2001, two massive steel tubes were laid in deep trenches either side of the village, one carries the gas, the other the oil. As the keeper of the village shop and cultural centre told us almost a decade ago: “We are truly living in an energy corridor – the alley between the energy flows. This is strategic area.”

Being in a strategic area, means that the village, like so many around it along the route of the pipelines, lives effectively under military rule. The villagers, and the citizens of the nearby town of Ardahan, are constantly under police surveillance and at the slightest whim the Turkish military police, the Jandarma, are called in. Turkish state security, as in Azerbaijan and Georgia, is intense all along the 3,573 kilometres of the combined BTC and TANAP oil and gas pipelines, but in North Eastern Turkey security is particularly oppressive for this is an area with a strong Kurdish population.

The Turkish state has effectively been at war with its Kurdish population since the state’s founding in 1923, but there have been periods of stark oppression. On 20th January 2018 the Turkish Army launched a new offensive against the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and as fighting began, security operations against Kurdish populations inside Turkey intensified, and that includes along the route of the oil and gas pipelines.

Immediately our concern for friends in the area grew. However access is hard for foreign visitors, who – past experience tells us – are constantly trailed. It is in the interests of the Turkish state that the area remains invisible to foreign eyes. And it is in the interest of the companies that own and operate the two pipelines, foremost among them BP and SOCAR, that their machine remains invisible.

The UK Prime Minister helps create that cloak of invisibility.

The 30-minute meeting with Aliyev gained no UK coverage for Teresa May. (The Government Press Release was initially so cursory that it had a glaring misspelling in its headline ‘Theresa May met President Aliyez’). But the event was all over the Azeri national press – ‘President of the Republic of Azerbaijan has arrived in the UK for a visit at the invitation of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.

The Azeri President was inaugurated only eight days before the meeting at Downing Street. Except for a state visit to President Erdogan of Turkey, the UK prime minister was the first head of state to receive Aliyev after he won another 7 year term in an election that was widely seen as fraudulent, in which the opposition parties did not stand and in which the most prominent opposition politician, Ilgar Mamadov, did not participate as he is still in jail after five years on dubious charges. (see our previous blog)[1]

Prime Minister Gordon Brown together with Sarah Brown meet President Aliyev and Mehriban Aliyeva – future Vice President – 13th July 2009

It is easy to see why Aliyev was delighted to be received by Teresa May, after all he made a similar visit to May’s predecessor David Cameron in August 2012, and Prime Minister Brown in July 2009.

Prime Minister David Cameron meets President Aliyev on the steps of No.10 – 6th August 2012

And it is not too hard to see why the UK government is eager to fete this autocrat, scion of a family now set to rule Azerbaijan for 54 years. The UK was the first western state to officially recognise independent Azerbaijan – after intense lobbying by BP (we detail this in The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London)[2]. And Aliyev serves a useful purpose for the UK at this juncture of Brexit.

It is not surprising that earlier in the day, in the space of 45 minutes, key actors shuttled into a hotel room to meet President Aliyev.

Alan Duncan MP, Minister of State for Europe & the Americas meets President Aliyev – 26th April 2018

There was Baroness Rona Fairhead, Minister of State for Trade and Export Promotion with her civil servants, then Alan Duncan MP, Minister of State for Europe & the Americas,

A ‘group of British MPs’ – Lord Bob Blackman (Conservative); Lord David Evans (Labour) and David Morris MP (Conservative) meets President Aliyev – in the same room, only 10 minutes later.

and a ‘group of British MPs’ – Lord Bob Blackman (Conservative); Lord David Evans (Labour) and David Morris MP (Conservative).

All of these dignitaries ‘congratulated President Aliyev on his victory’. Although two MP’s went a step further:

‘Lord David Evans and David Morris noted that they monitored the voting process, hailing the excellent organisation of the election’

Bob Dudley, CEO of BP meets President Aliyev – in the same room, earlier in the afternoon of 26th April 2018

Clearly the most important meeting was with CEO of BP, Bob Dudley, head of the largest single foreign investor in Azerbaijan. Aliyev’s official website did not note whether Dudley ‘congratulated President Aliyev on his victory’, but it did announce:

‘They exchanged views on the work carried out under the Shah Deniz (gas) project, as well as the opening on the TANAP project this June.’

In a matter of a few weeks gas will be pumped via the TANAP pipeline from the offshore fields in Azerbaijan to the Turkish city of Eskisehir, west of Ankara. The next section of TANAP, running from Eskisehir to the Turkey-Greek border is under construction. As the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) proceeds across Greece and Albania towards Italy,  the companies behind the entire venture (known as the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline) boldly assert that this machine will pump gas to Western Europe by early 2020.

And the machine moves forward with a seeming relentlessness. As it does so it is largely invisible to the public in Western Europe who will consume the gas that it pumps, as it deliver profit to BP and its sister corporations.

It is invisible in part because the UK public does not see the meetings that Aliyev held with the Prime Minister, Ministers, MPs and CEOs. Meetings that give vital support to the Aliyev regime and the pipelines.

It is invisible because the public of other European states do not see the letters of congratulations for Aliyev on his election coming in the past few days from the heads of the USA, Russia, China, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Greece, Slovenia, Romania, Finland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia,Switzerland, Montenegro, Georgia, Algeria and the President of the European Council, as well as the UN, NATO, UNESCO (and, curiously, Steven Seagal, actor & film director).

And it is invisible because the citizens of the EU, who it is said will gain ‘energy security’ from the Azeri gas fields, do not see how this massive machine makes the lives of those who live in villages such as Calabas far more perilous, as security forces surveil homes and mount checkpoints.

We need to be sure that whatever happens in the construction of ECMP, that we maintain our watch. That this machine and the people it impacts are not rendered invisible.

This is why the international campaign against the TAP section of the pipeline is vital. Why the work of our allies such as 350.Org[3], CEE Bankwatch[4], Re: Common[5], Counter Balance[6] and Oil Change International[7] is vital.

Footnote: There’s a long history to the signing of agreements to extract the resources of elsewhere taking place in the rooms of Whitehall. The agreement whereby Shell & APOC (now BP) obtained the right to pump oil out of the Niger Delta was signed in a room in the Foreign Office in 1936. The patterns of empire persist.

 

Thank you to Kerim Yildiz, Jo Ram, Nick Hildyard, Helen Sheehan & Nathalie Losekoot

 

Endnotes:
  1. (see our previous blog): https://platformlondon.org/2018/04/18/aliyev-re-elected-as-president-for-another-7-years-the-chain-of-oil-autocracy-that-binds-azerbaijan/
  2. (we detail this in The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London): https://platformlondon.org/2012/10/30/the-oil-road-reviews-interviews-and-analysis/
  3. 350.Org: https://350.org/
  4. CEE Bankwatch: https://bankwatch.org/
  5. Re: Common: https://www.recommon.org/
  6. Counter Balance: http://www.counter-balance.org
  7. Oil Change International: http://priceofoil.org/

Ilham Aliyev voting in the Azeri Presidential elections 11th April 2018. Behind him stands his daughter Leyla Aliyeva, waiting to vote.

On 18th April Ilham Aliyev will be inaugurated for the fourth time as President of Azerbaijan. His re-election comes as no surprise. It is so predictable that it barely counted as ‘news’ and consequently got next to no coverage in the international media.

Originally the election was scheduled for 17th October, but at nine weeks notice Aliyev announced that it would be brought forward by six months without clear justification. In a similar manipulation of the constitution Aliyev used a plebiscite in September 2016 to lengthen the presidential term from five years to seven years. Earlier limitations on the number of terms in office had already been removed in 2009. Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party (set up by his father Heydar Aliyev) has won all parliamentary elections since 2000.

Without fail the Central Election Committee officially confirmed Ilham Aliyev won 86.02% of the vote on a 74.3 turnout, and rubber stamped by the Constitutional Court on 17 April. Yet, despite Aliyev’s impregnable position, there was still evidence of ballot stuffing and double voting. As with previous elections opposition parties boycotted the election to protest the restrictive legislative and political environment. Azerbaijan’s most prominent opposition politician, Ilgar Mammadov, has been in jail since 2013, alongside over 140 other political prisoners

The first link in the chain that binds Azerbaijan is the Aliyev autocracy; Ilham Aliyev’s complete control of the machinery of government and the constitution, as well as a marginalised political opposition.

 

Heydar Aliyev meets with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1994, shortly after he came to power in a coup

This April’s election confirms Aliyev’s hold on power until 2025. By then he will have been the country’s autocrat for twenty years. He inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar, in 2003. When Ilham completes his new term, the Aliyevs, father and son, will have been in control of Azerbaijan almost continuously for 54 years. A year ago Ilham appointed his wife as Vice President, so the dynasty is set to continue.

Heydar Aliyev had been the communist leader of Azerbaijan when it was a state within the Soviet Union, but he lost his position when charged with corruption by President Gorbachev in 1987. By the end of 1993 Heydar Aliyev had returned to power and, partly through negotiating the ceasefire in the war with Armenia, he oversaw a period of stabilisation. This stability came at a cost: political pluralism. This trend continued under his son’s regime, and has only been meekly contested at international level as Azerbaijan’s oil and gas assets have been of greater interest to consuming nations. (We detail this in our book ‘The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to The City of London’[1].)

Last week, one of the first international figures to congratulate Ilham Aliyev on his election victory was President Putin. Aliyev is an important ally to Russia as well as Turkey; for Azerbaijan is variously seen as a bulwark against Iran, to the south; a secure airborne supply route to US troops in Afghanistan; and an economic bridgehead for the EU into Central Asia.

The second link in the chain that binds Azerbaijan is the support given to the Aliyev clan by foreign powers.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini welcomes President Ilham Aliyev to a bilateral meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, 6th February 2017

Whilst in jail, the opposition politician Illgar Mamadov managed to have a statement published on Open Democracy in January 2017 entitled ‘A letter from an inmate of the Southern Gas Corridor’.[2] In the piece he explained the ‘flawed international attitudes that help keep democrats locked in the prisons of the “clever autocrats” who are, in turn, courted by retrograde forces within today’s democracies’. He wrote:

‘I will tell the story of how plans for a giant pipeline that would suck gas from Azerbaijan to Italy, the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), impacts on Azerbaijan’s political prisoners.’

The Southern Gas Corridor is the string of pipelines, SCPX, TANAP and TAP – better known as the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline[3] – that is currently being constructed across Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy. The plan is that it will carry gas from the Azeri fields offshore in the Caspian Sea to the consumers of Western Europe. The European Commission has decreed that it is vital to the EU’s future energy security and especially as a means of reducing member states’ dependence on gas imports from Russia. (In Azerbaijan, ECMP’s social, economic and environmental impacts are, unsurprisingly, not debated publicly, nor are they even part of any participatory decision-making process).

As has been continuously highlighted by an international campaign involving Re: Common[4], 350.Org[5], Bankwatch[6], Counter Balance[7], Platform and many others, this 3,500 long pipeline will drive climate change by locking the EU into gas consumption until at least 2050. Furthermore, at a time when gas consumption in Europe is falling, this massive construction has been deemed a Project of Common Interest by the EU and recently given loans amounting to €3.1 bn[8] by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB).

So determined were EU Vice President Maros Sefcovic and Climate & Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete that in July last year they wrote to Dr Werner Hoyer Director of the EIB[9], lobbying the supposedly independent bank to give a loan to the pipeline. Their letter declared that the project was “vital and irreplaceable” to diversify gas imports away from Russia, that the pipeline would build a “constructive alliance” with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, and that “Europe’s commitment must not wane.” (This attitude within the EU towards Alivey would explain why its response to the clear fraudulence of last weeks’ election was so weak).

Equally striking is the apparent belief of the EIB in Azerbaijan’s commitment to transparency and access to information. The bank accepted wholesale a confirmation given to the European External Action Service stating that despite its withdrawal  from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)[10] (in the face of likely expulsion), Azerbaijan “will continue to work in line with EITI principles of revenue transparency and disclose all information related to revenues received from the extractive industries to the full extent”. It is clear that assessments by the lenders to the pipeline are knowingly opaque and breach  their own zero-tolerance policy against fraud and corruption.

The third link in chain that binds Azerbaijan is the ECMP gas pipeline and the European Commission’s insistence on gas as being vital to the EU’s future security.

Signing ceremony for the new ACG contract – September 2017 – with President Aliyev and BP centre stage

 

But the corporations that are building ECMP, and own either the pipeline or the gas which it will suck out of Azerbaijan, are not doing so to assist EU security, they are doing so to generate return on capital. These are private profit making companies, ‘responsible to their shareholders’, not to EU ministers. This is the case for BP who is the lead player in ECMP. For BP the pipeline is about securing its position in Azerbaijan over the long term. Whether or not it believes that ECMP, by itself, is profitable, it knows that it is the price to pay for its continuing access to Azeri resources. And Azerbaijan is one of BP’s most important ‘profit centres’.

On 14th September last year a BP led consortium and Ilham Aliyev signed a new production sharing agreement for the offshore ACG oil field. It was 23 years to the month that BP had signed the original agreement, the so-called ‘Contract of the Century’, in 1994 – the deal that cemented Ilham’s father’s grip on power. This new agreement extends to 2050. By that year Ilham will be 88. His father lived to 80, so perhaps he will still be in power? Or perhaps will have passed away and his wife will rule? There are, after all, only three more presidential elections – in 2032, 2039 and 2046 – to go through.

The fourth link in chain that binds Azerbaijan is BP’s support for the Aliyev dynasty. Accepting his election victory Ilham Aliyev said “People voted for stability, security, and development.” These are exactly the reasons why BP assisted Aliyev’s father in coming to power. What the company needs is these three things to ensure a profitable return on its massive investments in Azerbaijan, and that is why they support ‘their autocrat’.

Leyla Aliyeva, the Azeri President’s daughter, opening an exhibition of Azeri contemporary art in London 2012

BP is a lynch pin of the Aliyev regime for it is Azerbaijan’s largest foreign investor and fundamental to the production and export of oil and gas which entirely dominates the economy. The company is perfectly placed to perform the function that Aliyev requires of it, to provide revenues for the state but also to cement international alliances. Despite its name BP is (in terms of shareholders and executives) arguably a US corporation, but it is also inextricably interwoven with Russia, and arguably the Putin regime. And because of being a British institution for a century, it has had seemingly unshakeable support from Westminster, Whitehall and the British Establishment.

This interlinking of a capital concern with Aliyev’s key foreign allies mirrors the behaviour of the Azeri elite. For the Aliyev clan does not stand alone, its grip on power depends upon the support of an array of other Azeri families and individuals who have amassed vast fortunes over the past two decades whilst much of the country, especially beyond Baku, has languished in poverty. Azerbaijani society has evolved along lines similar to that of Russia, becoming what many refer to as an autocratic kleptocracy.

The recent ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’[11] investigation by The Guardian showed the extent to which fraud and corruption has propped up the current Azerbaijani regime. This £2.2bn scheme, centred in the UK and used to pay lobbyists, apologists and European politicians as well as to launder cash, ran between 2012 and 2014. On average $3m was channelled out of Azerbaijan every day.

In the past months, following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, there has been much coverage of the presence of Russian kleptocratic money being harboured and spent in London. The same story can be told of the wealth acquired by the Azeri elite which is spent on art and property in London.

A perfect example of this connection between the UK and the Azeri ruling class is seen in Leyla Aliyeva, the President’s daughter. Educated at Queen’s College for Girls, Harley Street, she now owns a penthouse over looking Hyde Park and is the official editor of ‘Baku’ magazine, covering international art and fashion, and run out of Conde Nast near Oxford Circus in London. And to highlight the importance of culture as a means of garnering international support, her mother, the Vice President Merihban Aliyeva, is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. (We detail these connections in our book ‘All That Glitters – Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan’[12].)

The fifth link in chain that binds Azerbaijan comes from the embedding of the Azeri elite into the world of British finance, property and art.

 

Khadija Ismayilova, Azeri human rights defender

Azeri freedom, the possibility for its citizens to choose the political structures they desire rather than living in an autocracy bolstered by foreign states, is dependent on breaking these five links in the chain. This reality is well known to those who have sought to speak out against the Aliyev regime. Despite on going threats, civil society activists continue their work – they include allies and friends of ours  Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev, Emin Huseynov, Khadija Ismayilova, Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus.

The Aliyev regime is dependent upon the sale of oil and gas. Consequently the Azeri government will do all it can to ensure that it is extracting and exporting hydrocarbons for as long as possible. Legally the ACG oil field and the ECMP gas pipeline are set to remain in place until 2050. But the Earth’s climate cannot sustain carbon emissions at its current level until that date. Something must give, and the closing down of fields such as ACG is essential if we are to slow or halt climate change. These oil & gas fields and the oil & gas pipelines must be forced by civil society to become stranded assets long before they see out their projected legal lifespans. This will not happen while the Aliyev regime remains in power. Curtailing climate change and curtailing the Aliyev regime go hand in hand.

We stand by our allies & friends in the Azerbaijani democracy movement, We stand by our determined opposition to the private corporations who drive the destruction of the climate in their blind pursuit of return on capital.

Together we will break the chain!

By Nathalie Losekoot and James Marriott. With thanks to Emma Hughes

Endnotes:
  1. The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to The City of London’: https://www.versobooks.com/books/1502-the-oil-road
  2. ‘A letter from an inmate of the Southern Gas Corridor’.: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/ilgar-mammadov/open-letter-from-inmate-of-southern-gas-corridor
  3. Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline: https://platformlondon.org/2016/03/08/walking-the-line-new-interactive-documentary/
  4. Re: Common: https://www.recommon.org/
  5. 350.Org: https://350.org/london-home-global-finance-connects-its-dots/
  6. Bankwatch: https://bankwatch.org/
  7. Counter Balance: http://www.counter-balance.org/
  8. €3.1 bn: https://bankwatch.org/project/southern-gas-corridor-euro-caspian-mega-pipeline
  9. wrote to Dr Werner Hoyer Director of the EIB: http://www.climatechangenews.com/2017/11/27/eu-commission-urged-bank-support-azerbaijan-gas-pipeline/
  10. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI): https://platformlondon.org/2017/03/16/azerbaijan-suspended-by-extractive-industries-governance-watchdog/
  11. ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’: https://platformlondon.org/2017/09/07/bribes-bulldozers-and-bp-what-makes-a-gas-mega-pipeline/
  12. ‘All That Glitters – Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan’: https://platformlondon.org/p-publications/all-that-glitters/

French police armoured vehicle on the road into La Zad surrounded by clouds of tear gas, Tuesday 10th April

The police arrived at 03.00 am on the morning of Monday 9th April. The exact number is, of course, unclear but it is said that 2,500 officers in riot equipment, with crash helmets and visors, Perspex shields and plastic body armour were deployed. Two and a half thousand highly trained men appeared out of the dark night with batons, dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, armoured tanks and bulldozers to turn La Zad into rubble. It seemed that the destruction of the wonderful community of La Zad was underway.

The news that Gerard Collomb, the French Minister of Interior, had determined to evict the people of La Zad had spread among friends around Platform over the previous two days. We watched the twitter feed of Defend La Zad[1], we texted with loved ones living on that land, and we helped gather a demonstration outside the French Consulate in London. There have been similar solidarity actions in Nantes, Rennes, Paris, Bruxelles, Munich, New York City, in Gasteiz in the Basque Country, in Chiapas in Mexico, in Lebanon, in Spain, in Palestine and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris went on strike.

 

Demonstration outside the French Consulate in South Kensington, London in solidarity with La Zad on Monday 9th April

There was next to no coverage in the UK press except for a piece in The Guardian[2], which declared ‘French police have used teargas in an attempt to clear anti-capitalist squatters from the site of an abandoned airport project’. The journalist described the inhabitants of La Zad as ‘an eclectic group of anti-capitalists, eco-warriors … squatters, and a handful of farmers’ 

These words bare little or no relationship to the people and communes of La Zad that we know and hold in our hearts. For we know that these people are farmers, carpenters, cheese makers, musicians, artists … For we know that the communities which have evolved on the land of a planned, and now abandoned international airport, are a remarkable source of inspiration, a lighthouse that illuminates what can be done. We have described La Zad in blogs[3] on the Platform website[4] and retold the story of its miraculous existence hundreds of times to friends, lovers and families.

The farmers and carpenters building their houses and barns on La Zad

Over the past two days the French state has been attempting to destroy these homes on La Zad with bulldozers. The police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, many grenades and countless rubber bullets. Yesterday over 30 people were treated for injuries by the La Zad medical team and two people were wounded so badly that they were taken to hospital. Most of the injuries were caused by grenades hitting faces and chests and rubber bullets fired at chest level.

Part of the team of La Zad medics by their first aid caravan by the commune of La Gourbi on La Zad, Tuesday 10th April

Of course many of the images in the French press highlight the violence of the resistance. Film of men and women with catapults and faces masked against the tear gas, photos of barricades and lines of tractors. But what does it mean to be evicted from your home and the land that you have been farming?

The house at Les Vraies Rouges that the French police tried to demolish on Tuesday 10th April

If men clad in plastic armour, with batons, dogs, tear gas and armoured bulldozers came to our houses, would we not fight to prevent their demolition? The press describes the residents of La Zad as ‘squatters’, but we know that these people have come to settle the land, they have made these woods and fields, the farms and workshops their home. Would we not fight to defend our home, a place that we possessed, and which had come to possess us?

Barricades on the La Zad road erected to stop the police vehicles, swathed in tear gas, Tuesday 10th April

The people of La Zad are being evicted from land and houses because of two things.

Firstly, because they do not have legal title to land that for half a century was earmarked by the French state and a private corporation to be turned into runways and car parks.

And secondly, because they are deemed to be ‘undesirable’, because they are described by the press as anarchists and anti-capitalist, individuals who should not be allowed to experiment with living in a manner outside the norms of consumer society.

There is a long history of eviction, but there is also a long history of resistance and reoccupation.  As we write this blog the battle is raging and the Defenders of La Zad are pushing back . The bulldozers and riot shields have made smaller in-roads into the vast area than they surely planned. Perhaps only a fiftieth of the zone has been captured by the police so far.  

Map of La Zad, settled on the land of the planned airport

We pray that the  defenders will win as they did against the police’s Operation Cesar in 2014. That the thousands of police attempting an eviction over several days will fail and have to withdraw. We need to assist the defenders in these coming days and help them seize victory again – not just for La Zad itself but also for what La Zad stands for:  the freedom to live outside the norms of a consumer society.

An international call out for support has just been made.[5]

Or maybe the defenders will ‘fail’ this time? Maybe they will be forced off the land, farm by farm, field by field as homes and communal spaces built by hand out of love and earth are turned into rubble.

Aerial photograph of the ‘bocage’ farmland and woods that was the site of the planned airport and is now La Zad.

However the defenders possession of the land will remain. By living on the land they have come to possess the bocage and the forests, and these places will remain possessed by those that have lived there. The memory will hang like a spectre over whoever tries to take ownership of that land. And this memory will create a continued desire to return.

La Zad exists. It is not some hoped for future, some dream. Nor is not a reality fading into the past. It is an actuality – and like all actualities it has its deep flaws and imperfections – but it is an actuality.

We hold it. Whether we live on that land or we live in this metropolis of London, we are part of the community of La Zad. In these days especially we hold it, stand with it, and continue to declare its existence.

This morning, out of the mist that swaddled the Thames Estuary, the first Swallows appeared! Spring and Summer are rushing ahead.

Surely the Swallows are returning to nest in the barn at the commune of La Rolandiere on La Zad. Perhaps they will have to fly through the clouds of tear gas?

The true inhabitants of this land, those who possess it, will not be easily deterred.

 

By James Marriott and Jo Ram

With thanks and inspiration from John Jordan, Isa Fremeaux and Dom Francis

Endnotes:
  1. Defend La Zad: http://@ZAD_NDDL
  2. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/09/france-notre-dame-des-landes-police-anti-airport-activists-teargas
  3. blogs: https://platformlondon.org/2018/01/25/victory-at-la-zad-inspirational-resistance-through-community/
  4. Platform website: https://platformlondon.org/2018/03/18/la-zad-puts-down-roots-sensing-the-future/
  5. made.: https://zadforever.blog/2018/04/11/a-call-for-intergalactic-solidarity-actions-everywhere-to-end-the-destruction-of-the-zad-of-notre-dame-des-landes/