Column: Putting the Gill Tract Occupation in an International Context

Rebecca Tarlau, PhD Candidate, in the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, shared this op-ed with Albany Patch. Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic.

On April 22, hundreds of activists, community members, students and local farmers occupied a portion of the Gill Tract, the 5-acre piece of land directly across from the in Albany. This occupation was not spontaneous; it took months of planning that ranged from organizing community support for the action, to growing over 15,000 starter plants that could be planted on the land once occupied.

The location of the land occupation was not random; it was deliberately chosen because of its high quality agricultural soil and the long history of attempts by community organizations to turn this piece of land into an urban farm (see Jeff Romm’s ). Furthermore, the date of the action was also not arbitrary; the activists chose this day in solidarity with Via Campesina’s International Day of Peasant Resistance, a week of action for hundreds of peasants, small farmers, landless people, migrants and agricultural workers around the world.

Via Campesina is an international movement of 150 local and national organizations

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

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

I want to be clear: the Gill Tract land occupation is not the same as a MST land occupation. The MST is an organization of primarily poor, peasant workers, who have either been wage laborers for generations or were small farmers who got pushed off their land. The Gill Tract occupation was organized by a group of relatively privileged food sovereignty activists, students and local urban farmers. The MST leads land occupations to redistribute large unproductive land estates to landless families who participate in the occupations. The organizers of the Gill Tract Occupation are struggling against attempts to turn this land into “open recreational space,” such as a baseball field, and instead, use this Class 1 soil for urban agriculture, which could eventually offer local organic produce to the many neighborhoods where fresh, healthy food is not readily available.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic. Read more on Albany Patch about the Gill Tract occupation.

Damon Lisch May 08, 2012 at 01:32 PM
Again, I am deeply saddened by the willingness of some academics at U.C. Berkeley to casually disregard our work in the name of the greater good. Another "broader context" that this author might consider is the long, long history of ideologues using big ideas to justify short sighted, immoral or impractical acts. Think globally indeed.
JimG May 08, 2012 at 03:02 PM
This article is nothing but an attempt to drag our level of cultural advancement (democracy, due process, respect for the law) down to that of what goes on in Brazil and other parts of the world. How dare you? What a load of crap!
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 08, 2012 at 03:10 PM
You say, "The MST’s legal claim to this land is based on a clause in the Brazilian constitution that says land has to 'serve its social function.'" Will you concede that the U.S. constitution, on the other hand, contains no such clause, and that while the UC mission may allude to communities, and to agriculture, it has no charter to remake U.S. laws of land ownership and private property? You also comment that, "The organizers of the Gill Tract Occupation are struggling against attempts to turn this land into 'open recreational space,' such as a baseball field, and instead, use this Class 1 soil for urban agriculture, which could eventually offer local organic produce to the many neighborhoods where fresh, healthy food is not readily available." Given that the Gill Tract is ringed by farmers markets--Berkeley's to the south, Albany's and El Cerrito's to the north and east, among others--are you imagining a food export operation to deliver "people's veggies" into, say, Oakland? How about working with communities in Oakland? And the "Class 1" soil thing... the soil is what it is at the Gill tract more because it's been in continuous use by professional agricultural researchers for many years than that Gaia put it there as sacred soil; lots of other places in the East Bay (including in areas that aren't awash in farmers markets) could be developed for growing... though that would require someone's work, and not just commandeering.
Karen Platt May 08, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Rebecca, thanks so much for writing this. I really appreciate the perspective you contribute and I get it.
Kirsten Schwartz May 08, 2012 at 05:27 PM
An analogy such as is offered here works only if two elements come up to a high enough standard. First, there has to be a point or lesson to be taken from the comparison. Second, the comparison of the two things have to have a reasonable basis of similarity. The first fails if the second does not hold, and that is what has happened for me here. (Note: I am not trying to defame or insult the writer, but her argument, which should be attacked for weakness because it has been offered as a public support for the invasion of the Gill Tract.) That is: UC is not a government; it is not perfect, but it is nowhere near as corrupt as the governments the MST and movements in Central and South America are. The invaders are not peasants who must have land to farm so that they themselves may prosper. The parallel here is very shaky; in fact, I'd say this is a perversion of modern history to justify a mere land-grab. It is a shame that the MST was co-opted (not to mention the entire Occupy movement itself) to justify the Gill Tract invasion.
Ulan McKnight May 08, 2012 at 05:29 PM
We also should remember the long history of immoral, short sighted and impractical practices of large GMO corporations. We should not forget that UC kicked all the local, organic, pest management researchers off Gill Tract after Novartis signed a $25 million dollar 'research' agreement with UC in 1998. The largest single grant for that agreement was given for corn genetics studies on Gill Tract. This switch in land use ended the the world renowned research station that had proven critical to the Californian ecosystem.  http://www.cp.berkeley.edu/CP/PEP/History/Reports_and_Studies/Gill_Tract_Experiment_Station_History.pdf Yes, it would have been possible for both the experimental station and the new genetics researchers to coexist side by side as there was plenty of land for both avenues of study. The same is true today, there is land for community access side by side to the non-GMO genetics research. We can all win.  This is public farmland held in the public trust for the benefit of the public. Its status does not change just because UC decides it is more profitable to cater to the needs of the 1% than to fulfill its mandate to educate the California population. 
ggg May 08, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Wow, talk about comparing apples and oranges....
JimG May 08, 2012 at 07:19 PM
KIrsten S. and ggg - my point(s) exactly. I supposed I was far to succinct.
Kirsten Schwartz May 08, 2012 at 07:26 PM
JimG--Maybe you were too succinct (although ggg was, too), but I was trying for less anger. (It took some time.) I also post to record a voice of dissent; just because one has already said it does not mean another should stay silent.
Madisonian May 08, 2012 at 08:58 PM
Let's talk about this context: the neighborhood directly affected by the takeover of the University's property. This rhetorical call to "act locally" ignores the practicality of how those actions translate into local impacts. I live across the street from the Gill Tract, and now have to struggle to pay my mortage for the pleasure of having a tent city as a neighbor. The failure of the University to evict the trespassers, and of the City to take a stance against the encampment, sends a strong message to the community that illegal activity is welcome, that anything goes here, that mob rule is an appropriate form of decision-making in this town. These were not the values that led my family to put down roots in Albany, yet they are the values being implicitly endorsed today. I find it ironic and disappointing that while my neighbors united last year to block a medical marijuana dispensary from obtaining legal permits to open nearby -- presumably because it would lead to unwelcome visitors to the neighborhood engaging in illegal conduct and exposing their kids to quasi-illegal drugs -- many of the exact same neighbors are opening their arms to the new illegal residents destroying others' property, loitering, openly smoking pot across the street from an elementary school. This is what your local action looks like, and it is ugly. I want to stay civil and allow for "dialogue" etc., but the occupiers have shown no respect for us; I have very little left for them.
James Mink May 08, 2012 at 09:05 PM
How can the author of the piece square her statement that "the organizers of the Gill Tract Occupation have issued open letters to all of the researchers supporting their plans to initiate and carry-on their research this season" with the official statement of consensus of the occupiers (issued yesterday), which says: "When the University presents a concrete proposal that satisfies the following concerns we will break up the camp so that the researchers have access to their plots"?
dgies May 08, 2012 at 09:14 PM
Ms. Tarlau goes on at length about the injustices suffered by third world landless peasants as part of the MST movement. She then explains how the Gill occupation is an action taken in solidarity with MST, in what I can only assume is a rhetorical trick to appropriate the moral legitimacy of impoverished workers on behalf of privileged special interest activists. Further, by defining this as an "us-versus-them" struggle the author disrespects residents of Albany who want the land used for something that would benefit the entire community, not just those with an interest in urban farming.
Lionceau May 08, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Shameful, the first paragraph starts with a big lie: ''it took months of planning that ranged from organizing community support for the action, to ...'' They never reached out for community support, as they were rather trying to keep their coming action unknown.
Jo-Anna Pippen May 08, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Seriously. In other words the occupiers will give researchers access to their own land if the occupiers get their own way. Why the University feels the need to offer any proposals or concessions is beyond me. How is any of this is going to help the people of Brazil? This just seems to be another attempt to once again change the justification of the occupation. Sounds like they are making it up as they go along.
Andrew Day May 08, 2012 at 11:28 PM
How about using a different, more relevant international context? Let's compare the Gill Tract seizure to what happens in countries where such wildcat seizures are common and generally successful, because government accepts the argument that the land seized can be put to better use, according to the definition of those seizing it. Zimbabwe comes to mind. Is that an example anyone wants to emulate?
Andrew Day May 09, 2012 at 12:10 AM
Where are all our comments? Have they been occupied, by someone serving a higher cause?
John Nemeth May 09, 2012 at 04:38 AM
The Albany Patch and Walgreens present...... The First Annual Albany Outdoor Fantasy Role Play Festival This year's presentation: Occupy! the Farm: A Revolutionary Stuggle Synopsis: A group of indiginous, developing world campesinos battle rapacious capital and other structural forces in order to save a local town from starvation Cast - Developing World Campesinos: played by "relatively privileged" UC grad students Rapacious Capital: played by the University of California leadership, UC researchers, the Albany Planning Commission, the 2004 Master Plan, and the the Albany-Berkeley Soccer Club. Disclaimer- Ok, so the casting ain't perfect but its what we got. Work with us here.
Emilie Raguso May 09, 2012 at 07:34 AM
The comments are back. Slight hiccup earlier today -- hopefully not to be repeated!
SY May 09, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Let's have more granularity when we say "graduate students". Plenty of us who are in science and engineering departments know first-hand how difficult it is to obtain grant funding and conduct carefully-controlled experiments. The principal investigators could easily lose grant funding if they are unable to conduct their funded research, and the jobs and livelihoods of countless staff, researchers, and graduate students who depend on the grants for funding could be jeopardized.
Katie May 09, 2012 at 09:17 PM
I think I must be missing something…here in Boise Idaho we have vacant plots of ground that have been donated to the community for people to use for gardening. Many of these gardeners are from the refugee population and they grow all kinds of vegetables many native of their homelands that are not yet available in the states. Some of these vegetables are a main staple in their diets. These community gardens are an opportunity to share the diverse culture, ideals and recipes of the world. We are native Idahoans and have lived here for nearly 60 years and have always gardened, we were taught to pay it forward and share the bounty
Kevin Johnson May 09, 2012 at 09:25 PM
Well Katie, perhaps some of the trespassers will read your post and find their way to Boise


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