This past December 22nd, more than a month before The Warbler began a 65-day occupation of a Ponderosa pine in the southern part of the boggy town of Willits, CA, British forest defenders occupied trees to blockade a roughly nine-mile road through Combe Haven Valley, a lush rural wetlands that lies between the south England towns of Bexhill and Hastings. The Bexill-Hastings Link Road is being sold as a means of reviving the British economy by creating jobs, while alleviating traffic congestion through these small towns.
This campaign, which has significantly delayed construction of the road while sparking a national debate, stands on the shoulders of 1990s nationwide anti-roads campaigns in the United Kingdom. These were in response to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's proposal to undertake the largest road construction campaign since the days of British Rome. These campaigns, based on a general political understanding of “direct action” as a self-empowering and dynamic form of politics from below (and characterized by tree sits, occupation of underground tunnels, and other blockading techinques), helped to cancel or significantly reduce roughly 80 percent of the roads Thatcher initially proposed.
In Berlin, Germany, activists occupied trees this past January 10th to block construction of the A100 road that is slated to be built through the middle of Germany's capital, which they regard as an environmentally destructive waste of public money for which cheaper, equally effective alternatives exist.
This tree sit was inspired, in part, by an occupation of old-growth oak trees in the Hambach Forest outside of Cologne, Germany, that has been sustained since April 2012. This action has been partially blockading development of several new open-cast lignite mines intendeded to fuel five coal-fired power plants throughout Europe, which collectively emanate 100 million tons of CO2 per year. According to a friend from California who visited the area over the summer, the tree sitters are holding out in the trees at great risk to their health, given their exposure to airborne releases of radionuclides from the lignite mining process.
But these power plants are the biggest CO2 emitters in Europe, and CO2 emissions are, in large part, fueling the destruction of life on the planet. Thus, the protesters in the trees remain, willing to personally sacrifice on behalf of a campaign that is igniting greater opposition to fossil fuel energy consumption throughout Europe.
Here in the US, Tar Sands Blockade has taken numerous direct actions against the toxic Keystone XL tar sands pipeline since August 2012. These have included a tree village that re-routed the pipeline, lockdowns to machinery, occupations of construction areas, and more. These actions significantly slowed construction of the Texas-Oklahoma segment of the pipeline and helped radicalize opposition to the pipeline, which had previously been dominated by non-profit organization with all-too-cozy ties to the Democratic Party.
Elsewhere in the United States, opposition to destructive and unnecessary roadways is heating up in southern Arizona, where the Tonoho O’odham and assorted environmental groups are opposing the proposed 22-mile, $2 billion Gila River Loop Road; in northern San Diego and southern Orange counties, where the Acjachemen Nation and United Coalition to Protect Panhe are opposing a three-part plan by the Transportation Corridor Agencies and CalTrans to build a 16-mile expansion of the Highway 241 Toll Road through the sacred site Pahne; and in the Smith River Canyon of far northern California, where a coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit to stop CalTrans' expansion of Highways 197 & 199, which would further degrade the mighty river.
Of course, the most fierce resistance to land destruction — including that which results from road construction — emanates from the Global South. In Bolivia, to take one example of hundreds, indigenous people have stopped the construction of a $415 million superhighway through a 3,860-square-mile reserve in central Bolivia that is collectively owned by the Yuracaré, Moxeño, and Chimáne peoples. In an historic victory for these lowland indigenous groups that, President Evo Morales announced his administration was putting the road on hold earlier this year after roughly 1,000 people marched 360 miles from the Amazon basin to the highland capital of La Paz to protest the highway construction.
Last Saturday, roughly 250 people gathered in north Little Lake Valley under the banner “Take A Stand For The Willits Wetlands!” for a feel-good rally (and I say that in a non-derogatory sense of the term), which served as a culmination of years of opposition to Caltrans' destructive boondoggle, the Willits Bypass. CalTrans District 1 Director Charlie Fielder consented to allowing protesters into the wetlands for a ceremony at the end of the more than five-hour event. It was the largest gathering in the campaign to oppose the Bypass so far.
Unlike in other instances, the event was characterized by harmonious relationships between the protsters, the California Highway Patrol, and CalTrans. Following week-long negotiations with Save Our Little Lake Valley reps, the CHP and Big Orange agreed to give access for a wetlands ceremony. he ceremony was linked with the gathering at Sonoma State University “ A Celebration of Water and Belonging” hosted by the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers.
The water from Little Lake Valley was brought to this ceremony where it was combined with water from many places across the United States and other countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Sweden, India, and Nepal. Rally participants brought water from creeks, ponds and other water sources in Little Lake Valley. All of these waters were poured together during the wetlands healing ceremony (I personally missed the ceremony, having been barred from appearing by a court order).
The direct action phase of the campaign to stop the Bypass kicked off on January 28th, when 24-year-old local goat farmer Amanda Senseman began her tree sit. Direct actions, media scrutiny, widespread community support, and CalTrans legal violations combined to hold off construction of the Bypass until March.
Since then, CalTrans' contractors have felled roughly 2,000 oak trees and many other trees, installed roughly 55,000 wick drains in the Willits wetlands, piled up immense mounds of soil throughout many areas of the six-mile route, and more as part of their stated goal of alleviating traffic congestion in town, creating jobs for construction workers, and facilitating the flow of “inter-regional traffic.”
The fight is everywhere. When destructive political and social forces attempt to destroy a people's homeland in any corner of the globe, whether it be in Willits, or southern Bolivia, the Global South or the Global North, they are invariably met with resistance. By definition, if this resistance is to be effective, it must at times operate outside the legal framework of the system that has condones and enables the destruction of these places.
At issue in the struggle over the CalTrans Bypass of Willits is a fundamental clash, one that is at the crux of all the struggles I've mentioned in this article. On one hand is the unslaked desire for landscape, geography, beauty, embodiment, and the life of the senses, a life yoked ot the service of the slow, the contemplative. A life characterized by streams fed by springs that gurgle up from rocks, cascade down through mountains, and gush into rivers and streams to support — life.
CalTrans, by contrast, in its pursuit of efficiency and “inter-regional traffic flows,” pursues the annihilation of time and space without mercy for the sake of car culture, without misgivings, without deferrence to what might be (and, in fact, already has been) lost.
The resistance to the CalTrans Bypass of Willits has served as an example of a community rising up to defend its homeland that communicates a message that transcends space and time, being that people throughout the world can recognize the dynamics at play. Campaigners against the Bypass have exchanged communication and energy with people from Japan, the United Kingdom, South America, and throughout the Pacific Coast of the United States. Much remains to be seen about the outcome of the campaign, but one thing is clear: the struggle against the Willits Bypass has achieved solidarity with a far greater struggle happening throughout the globe. ¥¥
(Contact Will Parrish at email@example.com.)