by Yali Banton-Heath

Graffitied in swirly red French handwriting, on the wide concrete track that leads through the camp, is the motto: ‘Nous sommes toutes des enfantes du Carnet!’: we are all children of the Carnet. The Carnet is a stretch of land on the Loire Estuary, next to the Saint-Nazaire seaport and downstream of France’s sixth largest city, Nantes. The 110 hectare area which incorporates 51 hectares of wetland and is home to hundreds of species of wildlife, many of which are endangered and on the brink of local extinction, is under threat of development. With a nationwide shift towards supporting green energy projects, and the Saint-Nazaire seaport earmarked as a prime location for offshore wind farms, the Carnet has been chosen as the site for a new ‘green energy industrial park. 

Local campaign groups have been rallying against several new developments in the area, which has been designated a ‘turnkey‘ site by the French government, aimed at speeding up investment without the requirements for further surveys or consultations. Despite the new industrial zone being branded as ‘green’, campaigners argue that this form of green capitalism is a myth, and that new development will irreversibly damage this precious ecosystem.

So, since the beginning of September in order to defend the Carnet from bulldozers, the site has been seized by activists and occupied as a ZAD – a Zone à Défendre. The success of these French occupation sites in the past has been famous: most notably the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes which began in 2009 and has so far succeeded in halting plans for the construction of a new airport north of Nantes. 

In spite of its infancy, behind the barricade of pallets, signs, fallen tree branches, flags, and banners lies a group of ZADists – campaign veterans, students, and locals alike – brewing with passion, determination and radical ideas. They’re challenging the ideology of capitalism, they’re acting local, and they’re acting now. 

The main barricade at ZAD du Carnet (author’s own image)

Progress is a myth

One of ZADists is Yoann, a local market-gardener who spent time as a young boy with his father defending the Carnet from a nuclear power station many years ago: a fight they won. Under renewed threat, Yoann is adamant that it is not the symptoms of development which need addressing, it’s the ideology itself. 

“For me, what we call ‘civilization’ or ‘progress’, is fake. In the west, we think we’re on the right track, that we understand natural evolution and progress” he tells me, “but I think we’ve made a mistake – we’ve chosen the wrong path.” He knows there are alternatives though, “It is in fact other cultures, the ones that our nations exploit and crush, who actually manage to live for many years as part of their ecosystem without disturbing or destroying it. They chose a sustainable path.” 

“We need to question the foundations of our civilisation.”

For Yoann, it’s not enough for a government to switch to renewable energy sources and draw up shiny new green policies, it’s about reevaluating where we stand as a society, how we got here, and how best to go forward. “We need to question the foundations of our civilisation. It’s not about changing just a few little things, no, we need to change more than a small thing.” For him, it’s about comprehensive system change. 

Capitalism is the root problem

As a small group of us embark on a cycle-tour of the site, Yoann reminds us of the real issue at hand. “For us at the ZAD, the destruction of the biodiversity, global warming, pollution, they’re all symptoms of a dysfunctional system that can currently only be remedied, but not rectified” he explains, “If we really want to fight against extinction, the climate crisis and environmental degradation, then we need to recognise what it is we are fighting; the capitalist system.”

I suggest that some might argue the case that it’s counterproductive to be an environmental activist and campaign against green energy projects. Indeed, the seaport (who own the Carnet site) also recognise the value in environmentalism and have allocated more than half of the site to become a nature conservation zone. But Yoann sees straight through the greenwash: “For me, it’s a bourgeois ecology, it’s not really ecology” he tells me. “Green energy is not ecology, it’s a technological answer for technological problems; it belongs in Orwellian Newspeak.”

Riverbank of the Loire Estuary on the Carnet wetland (author’s own image)

Everything is connected, but we need to act where it matters

We leave our bikes on the track, and reach the riverbank on foot. It’s a silty expanse laced with reed beds and gnarled trees, an oasis of wildlife and interconnectedness, with a view of the domineering Saint-Nazaire concrete monolith in the near distance. 

“I think it’s a fallacy that we rank environmental problems one on top of another, as though addressing symptoms of the climate crisis is more important than social justice and local biodiversity conservation, this only leads us to distinguishing issues from one another, but they’re all linked, they’re all important.” Yoann’s looking out across the estuary, “It’s convenient to just play the climate card and forget about the rest.”

“It’s here we need to be, it’s here we need to act.”

In this ZAD, there is an understanding that power resides in the local, and that meaningful change comes about through direct action and occupation of space. “When I see the Extinction Rebellion and Youth for Climate protests, it’s great” Yoann tells me, “but change doesn’t happen in cities, it doesn’t happen online by signing petitions for the Amazon rainforest, it happens right here, where we can physically act.”

Even though the actions of the ZADists in the Carnet are highly localised, the fact that our world is deeply interconnected means that their actions hold the potential to have much wider implications. “The industrial seaport here for example, was the first port in France to import Soya from South America, which is linked to deforestation” says Yoann, “It also imports shale gas from the USA and tropical hardwood from Asia and Africa.” 

“If we fight against this project and the corporations behind it, we can make a stand against deforestation in the Amazon, shale gas production in the States, it’s all linked.” he explains. “It’s here we need to be, it’s here we need to act.”

We are all children of the Carnet (author’s own image)

Capitalism, neo-colonialism and extractivism mould a world driven by profit, and their activities continue to wreak havoc globally. They perpetuate a deep-rooted system of oppression, but one which in turn bears the fruits of resistance. Although separate struggles may vary in their inception and direction, I can’t help but think how the graffiti on the track sums it up perfectly: “Nous sommes toutes des enfantes du Carnet”. Every fight for environmental and social justice must be fought locally and with sensitivity to context, but we’re all children of the same revolution, we are all children of the Carnet. 

Many thanks to Marie-Julie Bedja for helping with the translation.

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