Creating archipelagos of autonomous communities: Rural Okupation

What is autonomy and what are autonomous communities, are not simple or innocent questions. 

By “autonomy” we mean both collective life that is self-governed freely and in equality, and forms of life in opposition to currently reigning kinds of economic and political power, as broadly understood as possible, which we may summarise by the term “capitalism”.  But these are only the most general of “guidelines”, if they can even be so described.

In turn, if autonomy calls for community (for “individual” autonomy is illusory), how is “community” to be understood?  Is there a fixed, ideal definition of such a collective form, or is it to be imagined as essentially open, always in the process of becoming?

And what does any of this have to do with revolution, with the overthrow of capitalism?  But this question in turn assumes that we know what revolution or radical social change is all about, when we do not.  If revolution can no longer be conceived of as a storming of the Bastille, and if contemporary “reformist” or”national, social-democratic” projects rest finally upon geographies of exclusion (internal and external) and domination, the creation of autonomous communities, with all of their limitations, offers itself up as a politics of emancipation.  

In some sense, there will never be a final answer to any these questions, for they are answered in the practical attempts to create autonomous communities.  For our part, we can only share modestly the experiences of those who endeavour in this direction, and reflect upon those experiences.

With this in mind, we share an article (very freely translated) published in the portuguese based newspaper Mapa 19 (February-April 2018), which describes the makings of an archipelago of okupied, self-managed villages in the north of spain.

Rural Okupation

On the slopes of the Spanish Pyrenees, for decades, okupations of villages abandoned during the Franco period, have multiplied.

In mid-September of 2017, a more than week-long gathering was held in the Casa Selba, (under the name “Days of resistance and Rural Okupation”) bringing together many who have chosen rural okupation as a way of life.  In the call for the gathering, one can read: “We are increasingly many who feel the need to stop feeding the machine of infinite growth, who want to collaborate to keep abandoned  territories alive, who try to live in a way that is more coherent with ourselves and with what is around us.”

Of the houses of Casa Selba, memory of which reaches back to 1600, most were until recently ruins.  It was in 2010 that a group of people from Barcelona rehabilitated the houses, recuperated the gardens, the fruit orchards and olive trees, and cleaned up the abandoned village.  In April of 2017, they learned that they stood accused of, and were to be tried for, usurpation.  Reactions of solidarity spread throughout the region, leading to the 2017 gathering.

People came together from Lakabe, Sieso de JacaCan Masdeu and dozens of other rural okupations and collectives, the greater part from the province of Huesca.  Information about the event was carried by the Rizoma blog, a virtual network of rural collectives, as well as by the newspaper-bulletin, Llamada del Cuerno.

“We want to make visible this way of living, and everything that we create, so that it may be re-appropriated and transmitted … to make a connection with the city and generate the desire in more people to come to these collective and occupied places in the countryside, to feed this energy.”

Today, in Sieso de Jaca, for example, live some 30 people, adults and children.  It was in 2005 that the okupation-collective was created.  As one of its original members recalls, the initial “work was the most difficult.  We had to take water up in bottles to work, light was provided by a car battery.  We all lived in the same house.  It was all very precarious.”

Despite the uncertainties, they built, projecting themselves into the future.  “There is always the question if they are going to evict you.  But from the moment that we arrived, we immediately began to make real what to do and how to do it – what house to build, what garden to work.  We decided not to build precarious or provisional structures, but to learn and to put into the effort all our strength and knowledge.  There was then an explosion of empowerment, to carry the project forward.”

Slowly, the community grew.  Today, there is a water installation, and electricity is provided from renewable sources.  The sheep graze on the hills and the children play in the woods.  In a weekly assembly, consensuses are sought on matters that touch the community.  Visits are welcome and guests are invited to participate in the collective labour.  “The larger buildings are reserved for common use.  We eat together in the common kitchen.”

If the majority continue to work outside the community, “the evolution is towards an ever stronger common economy”.  For the moment, this includes serigraph printing, the making of honey and liqueurs from what can be harvested in the village, the theatre company Burbuleta [Butterfly], that creates and produces plays for the village and to tour the country, and holiday camps for children and adolescents.  “We have been doing this for six or seven years, and it is very enriching for the village.  Many kids who participated in the camps continue to visit and get involved.”

The same member of the community speaks of his own experience.  “I arrived very young for a project like this – and this is where I did my studies.  I developed myself more, as a person, at the level of emotional intelligence and affectively, through such an intense life.  It’s like taking control of oneself.  I could decide everyday what I did.  If I open the tap, I know where the water comes from.  I know that I need wood for heat in the winter, and I gather it with my companheiras.  I know where my food comes from, I work it, I see it grow.  I slowly became aware of what rural life is.”  The old rural life was one where the inhabitants had learned how to maintain their ecosystem, how to renew it.  “When modernisation begins, when the State enters on the scene to say how things are to be done, when money begins to be used, the decline begins.  With the industrial revolution, the countryside began to die, and now it’s in agony.”

Until the 1960s, these villages of Navarre and Aragon, as everywhere else in the Spanish countryside, stirred with life.  As a member of the Nizibar community puts it, “Under Franco, these villages were emptied, by a politics of the kind, ‘this part of Spain will be for this, that other will be for that’.  Here, everyone was evicted to go work in the factories, pine trees were planted in the fertile terraces of the villages, and dams were built to create water reserves for the agricultural plains of Saragossa.”

Selba is the property of the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro (CHE), that expropriated the village in 1963, for the construction of the Grado dam.  In this region alone, the CHE forced 13,000 people to abandon their villages, leaving behind a vast abandoned territory and endless memories buried beneath the water.

It was in the 1980s that people from the city began to re-appropriate these places and to give them a new life.  From the same member of the Nizibar community: “To re-appropriate a place where those who live there truly decide what they want, to no longer suffer the pressures of a centralised State, that commands from above and that is there only to nourish a capitalist system”;  more than self-sufficiency, what is sought is autonomy in relation to this system and interdependence based on an economy of solidarity.

Going beyond mere criticism and occasional street activism, an occupied community is for many a more holistic form of activism.  Instead of only struggling against the system – it is to live the alternative and to carry the ideals into the practice of everyday life.

Only on the third try did the eviction take place: 20 all-terrain vehicles with an army of military police, arresting 30 people and hurting many others, put an end to the experience of occupation.  It was 1997, in the village of Sasé, in Huesca, where the collective Colores had recuperated houses, stables, windmills and created a school.  The brutal eviction led to months of protests and carried the issue of rural okupation into the streets and to the media.

Since then, and for some 20 years, the occupation of abandoned villages and rural territory has enjoyed a certain tranquility.  These villages are public, property of municipalities or national entities, in some of the least populated areas of the Spanish state (part of a larger, sparsely populated area of central Spain that some have begun to refer to as the country’s Laponia).  Many are far from any road; an isolation that keeps them less visible and accessible to the authorities.

However, in the last year, the pressures and threats have returned, and the Casa Selba was the first to receive them.  In May of 2017, they faced a trial for usurpation.  “The CHE not only wants to expel us, they also want to hit us with fines and penal sanctions”, one can read in their blog.  They were absolved, but the risk of eviction remains.  Meanwhile, under the famous “ley mordaza” [gag law], that arose in response to the 15th of May movement, the government of Huesca passed a fine 0f 500 Euros against the organisation of a solidarity protest that took place outside the court, without incidents.

Further south, another example of this repression fell upon the village of Fraguas, in Guadalajara.  Those who occupied it in 2012 have been, given their proximity to Madrid, a strong source of inspiration for a return to the country and self-management, as well as being welcomed by the former inhabitants, expropriated under the Franco regime in 1968.

In Selba, as in Sieso de Jaca, occupation by direct action happens frequently after contacts – frustrated – with the local administration.  But not always.

In 1986, a group presented to the government of Aragon a project for the reconstruction and re-population of villages in the valley of Solana,  soliciting their legal recognition as the Artiborain Association.  Today it includes the villages of Aineto, Ibort, Artosilla and Solanilla, where 150 people live.  The project promotes the alternative of responsible use, rather than individual or collective ownership, proposing “to realise in the villages a different conviviality, based not on the private ownership of the spaces, but on the shared and solidarity based use of resources”, and the search for a “harmonious relation with nature.”

Legalisation remains a controversial issue.  “All the projects that were legalised quickly became uninteresting.  They continually submitted to the law and regulations, involving ever more money”, stated one activist.

The greater part of the okupations seek some tolerance and recognition on the part of the authorities, so as to lessen the risk of eviction and assure greater security for the future.  But that can mean taxes, inspections of self-made housing, bureaucratic constraints, fines … an institutionalisation and assimilation by the State that compromises the autonomy of the community.

The history of rural okupations in not altogether novel.  To tell its story, we can go back in time 100 years to the Vale de Santiago, in Odemira, Portugal.  The Comuna da Luz was founded there in 1917 by António Gonçalves Correira, the first anarchist community in the country.  With some 15 people, it dedicated itself to agriculture and the making of shoes, practicing vegetarianism and naturalism, experimenting with an educational model inspired by the pedagogue and Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer.  This dream of replacing the bourgeois State by a more just social organisation lasted only two years.  Associated with an outbreak of strikes by rural workers in the Alentejo and the assassination of the country’s president, Sidónio Pais, the Comuna da Luz was made the target of repression and António Gonçalves Correia was imprisoned.

In Spain, some see the roots of rural okupation in the anarchist movement of the beginning of the 20th century, and which was so marked in Spain: during the Spanish war, between 1936 and 39, various anarchist groups put into practice the collectivisation of land.

It was with the 1950s that the Franco dictatorship and modernisation provoked vast migrations from the countryside to the cities.  And it is among these three thousand abandoned villages that various groups in the 1980s began to initiate collective projects.  Between 1990 and 1993, there existed the Federación Anarquista Ibérica de Colectividades de Campo, and with it began the “gatherings of rural okupation”.  Following the 2008 gathering, Rizoma was created.  Its aim is to connect occupations, as well as collectives with purchased or rented land, who have an economy tied to the land and who live in community, and who want “to promote a social transformation, interdependence, self-management and horizontal cooperation.”

Beyond the abandoned villages, the affinity and solidarity extends to occupations that defend places against the construction of large infrastructure projects: the ZAD in Nantes, the No-TAV in the Valle de Susa, the Hambach forest in Cologne, the Anti-MAT in Girona.  “The objectives are shared, the defense of the territory and experimenting with new forms of life, while at the same time searching for ideas of individual and collective emancipation”, can be read in the call for the 2017 gathering.

Today, “we are in a period of considerable self-doubt”, says one activist.  “We are unable to attract new people, nor are we able to do the work necessary to communicate with people from the city.  The places and the local networks are fragile, they have difficulties in lasting through time.”

As happened in the Casa Selba, it is common for a project that begins with a dozen people to end with only one family.  “Many are tired of living so closed in their villages, in very difficult conditions.  It is not the same level of comfort as in the city, and one is isolated from everything, with far fewer social relations”, one activist recalls.

In 2008, the Lakabe community promoted a gathering that was then held in various villages.  Under the slogan of “we don’t only live from our gardens”, and with the awareness that almost all the collective projects fail “not because for want of lettuce, but for lack of understanding within the group”, the focus was on various aspects of community life: emotional sharing, human relations, conflict resolution, gender, power, communication, sexuality.

“We believe that we are doing something different, and we end up using the very same mental schema that pushed us to search for an alternative”, one can read in one number of Llamada del Cuerno.  The okupied villages are first and foremost spaces of learning – they imply self-questioning and not being overly dogmatic about one’s ideals.

They say that freedom is frightening.  To no longer feel it, ever, that frightens me.

La Otra, Contigo

Video …

La Selba Resiste

Jornadas Okupación Rural Casa Selba

The Mapa article focuses on rural okupations in only one part of spain.  However every region in the country is marked by numerous experiments of the same kind.  The Somonte okupation in Andalusia is a notable example.  But there are many, many others.  And if we consider that the divide between the urban and the rural is increasingly a fiction (because the “rural” is not to be defined only by meadows, orchards, woods and the like, but by a way of life that expressed itself in and through these ecologies; a way of life that has been destroyed as “urban” life has conquered and colonised the greater part of the earth’s surface), that city okupations and the networks of mutual aid that develop and/or can develop between some or all of these, then the archipelago of these “temporary autonomous zones” or “ZADs” in the spanish territory is remarkable … and what must be intensified and multiplied if autonomy is to become a permanent possibility. 

La Otra – Contigo (con El Kanka)

Yo no me muero si no estás aquí
Puedo andar bien caminando sin ti
No me haces falta, ni eres mi media naranja en la vida
Voy aprendiendo a curarme yo misma todas mis heridas

Pero contigo
Es cierto que el mundo parece un poco menos feo
Es cierto que a veces romper las cadenas duele un poco menos
Y aprendo contigo
Y contigo camino y
Me encanta todo lo que hemos compartido
Tirando barreras, rompiendo los mitos
Te quiero libre
Y me quiero libre contigo

Dicen que da miedo la libertad
No sentirla nunca más miedo me da
Nadie nos dijo que fuese a ser fácil
Sacarse de dentro los cuentos de un príncipe azul.
La luna me dice que puedo ser bruja
Ser fea y violenta y matar algún rey
Romper los esquemas, quebrar el sistema
Coger una escoba y en vez de barrer
Lanzarme a volar en la noche

Sin miedo de ir sola por un callejón
Sin miedo de hacer lo que me salga del contigo
Es cierto que el mundo parece un poco menos feo
Es cierto que a veces romper las cadenas duele un poco menos
Y aprendo contigo y contigo camino y
Me encanta todo lo que hemos compartido
Tirando barreras, rompiendo los mitos
Te quiero libre
Y me quiero libre contigo
Te quiero libre
Y me quiero libre contigo
Oh oh oh oooh oh oh

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