Occupy the Farm (OTF), a collective of direct action organizers from the San Francisco Bay Area, raises its voice against unsustainable development and the corporate take-over of our public resources. OTF continues to fight against the UC’s plans for a commercial development on the last 20 acres of a historic farm and nursery known as the “Gill Tract”. This land was previously dedicated to cutting-edge ecologically-based biocontrol research, but the program was dismantled by the UC, and the land itself has been paved over, parcel by parcel, over the last hundred years. In 2012, and 2013, OTF led occupations of the land that planted hundreds of pounds of food, encouraged Whole Foods to pull out of the development plan, and saw the north 10 acres transferred off the chopping block of Capital Projects to the supportive College of Natural Resources. The ongoing fight for the remaining land has become an important battleground in the struggle for land and food sovereignty in the Bay Area.

‘Food sovereignty’, a term coined by members of La Via Campesina in 1996, asserts the right of people to define their own food systems. Advocates of food sovereignty put the individuals who produce, distribute and consume food at the center of decisions on food systems and policies, rather than the corporations and market institutions they believe have come to dominate the global food system.

– Wikipedia

Since the idea of food sovereignty emerged from the peasant struggles of the “Global South”, how can the concept of “food sovereignty” be meaningfully applied to those of us in the industrialized “Global North”? Our populations are so often divorced from basic understandings of the natural world, and of agricultural human-nature relations. Likewise, we are so often detached from democracy; we may say we like it, but do we know what it takes to practice it? Do we have the skills of debating, deliberating, and deciding amongst many difficult trade-offs between economy, ecology, and human equality? This is a tall order, especially when those who would theoretically do the deciding are largely removed from the conditions of the issue they would be debating. Such is the case with agriculture in the United States. Just think: where did your breakfast come from? How many decisions were made on its way to you?

In the process of adopting food sovereignty as a goal, OTF has been in dialogue with social movements from the South, namely Brazil’s Landless Peasants Movement (MST). The MST organizes hundreds of thousands of dispossessed peasants, occupying and taking land from rich and neglectful landlords. After mutual letters of support over the course of OTF’s occupation, OTF organizers were invited to be a part of an international delegation to the MST’s National Congress this year, to learn and exchange experiences.

The recent experience of OTF shows that the occupation tactic, along with a suite of accompanying tactics, values, and approaches, can actually do something for the movement towards food sovereignty, even if its effects radically differ from those of movements in the South, like MST. In a political moment (Occupy Wall Street) conducive to rule breaking, and a historical situation where the land-managing UC lacked legitimacy in the eyes of locals, OTF was well positioned to try something different; civil disobedience wasn’t just a tactic pulled out of a hat. OTF critiqued all sorts of issues pertaining to food sovereignty by occupying ostensibly “public” land that was off limits to the public, and combining this action with legal, political, and media campaigns (members also filed EIR lawsuits and ran for Albany council). The protests highlighted the development of farmland; biotechnology; lack of democracy in the UC; misallocation of research and extension resources; and lack of opportunities for participation in local, public, or commons land management. OTF even used the platform of their successful action to highlight the dispossession of indigenous people from the very land they were “occupying”.

Urban agriculture combined with radical political analysis and organization can help reconstitute peasant understandings and democratic skills within the urban Global North. They can, in certain cases of direct action to reclaim space, actually secure land to further this project. Thanks to OTF’s actions and longtime organizing from other folks in the community and within the College of Natural Resources, the UC transferred control of about half the land from Capital Projects, the real estate division of the University, to the College of Natural Resources for 10 years (8 years remain). CNR has stepped up to meet student and community demands in innovative ways, and is collaborating on a pilot project on 1.5 acres of the land, featuring community-based research in agroecology and food sovereignty. The new Gill Tract Community Farm project has received strong support from CNR and UC Cooperative Extension specialists, who have contributed substantial time and funding to this new and path-breaking initiative. This project is complete separate from OTF’s continued organizing against the development on the Gill Tract’s southern half, but is an inspiring example of what can happen when a Public University and community are given space to forge meaningful collaboration. While the long-term tenure of the land is still tenuous, a transformation of the land, and the people who can work it, has begun.