UC Berkeley’s claim that Occupy the Tract — the peaceful takeover of UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract farmland in Albany — lacked support from Cal researchers took a big hit Saturday when several of them showed up for an occupation open house.
Professor Miguel Altieri spoke at an afternoon session, offering his full support for the movement which includes many of his own students.
Altieri is an agroecologist who devotes his research to finding the most effective ways to grow crops without the use of chemicals, a movement which began in its modern form with research at the site.
We counted five other Cal faculty at the site, including two who spoke briefly during the information session held on a bright, sunny day.
Altieri said UC Berkeley faculty have been heavily involved in past efforts to save the land for sustainable urban agriculture, including the 1997 drive by Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture [BACUA], which was endorsed by 45 agricultural and environmental groups including Food First, Urban Habitat Project, and Earth Island Journal.
BACUA came up with a detailed proposal for the site, which is posted online here. The university rejected it.
“We did everything the university asked us to do in developing a plan to convert the Gill Tract to a center for sustainable agriculture,” said Shyaam M. Shabaka, founder and executive director of EcoVillage Farm in nearby Richmond. “The university reneged without explanation on the day the agreement was to be finalized.”
Albany activist Michael Beer helped organize another proposal with the backing of the Albany school board to transform the tract into Village Creek Farm and Garden, a site as a site for interdisciplinary academic research, a teaching center for young people, and as a working farm to provide organic food for local consumers and restaurants.
The proposal is posted online here as a PDF.
The Gill Tract and the global land struggle
Altieri said Occupy the Farm is part of a larger global struggle for land.
Control of the land is essential both for feeding the world sustainably and for the preservation of identities and culture.
Urban farms are critical to the struggle, he said.
“More than 30 percent of the food in the world is grown in cities,” Altieri said. He cited the case of Cuba, where urban agriculture saved the country from famine after the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the supplies of oil and other critical resources.
Now Cuban urban farms produce 15 to 20 kilograms of food per square meter annually, compared to 5 kilograms in the U.S.
Altieri’s ideal would be the transformation of the site into a teaching and outreach center. His own research on the Gill Tract has been halted for the moment since the university shut off water to the site.
A look back at the BACUA plan
Fifteen years after it was proposed, it’s worth looking back at BACUA.
Writing in Earth Island Journal in 1997. Food First Executive Director Peter Rosset described the group’s vision:
BACUA believes that the explosion in urban farming taking place throughout the world is a positive development – people taking control of the resources that they need for their own livelihoods.
In this era of privatizaton, the University’s Agricultural Research Stations are casting about for a new research mission. It is becoming increasingly common throughout the world for public institutions (and universities in particular) to form partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to share resources and promote common survival. Such a partnership at the Gill Tract, would involve university professors, researchers and students with committed NGOs, working together in a new and rapidly expanding field. (Something similar already exists at the UC Santa Cruz Agroecology Program, but this program doesn’t serve an urban region anything like the Bay Area.)
We can imagine a working community farm that would provide good jobs to local youth and quality organic food to local residents. The farm would simultaneously serve as a demonstration training site for young farmers and as a research site for the University. The farm’s greenhouses could support research directed at improving urban farming technologies while the vacant buildings could become offices shared by NGOs (ranging from urban gardening, school, and community groups, to food policy and education organizations and advocacy groups) and by university professors studying the economic, agronomic, nutritional, ecological and sociological aspects of urban agriculture.
If the potential is unlimited, the alternative is appalling. The loss of this precious of urban farmland would forfeit a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create something new, something where the total would clearly be bigger than the sum of the parts.
The creation of a unique working farm/research station would be true to the legacy of the Division of Biological Control, which over the last two decades fought the long good fight against the state’s dominant agribusiness interests and the agrochemical industry.
And for a history of the Gill Tract from its pre-Columbian days to the present, see this essay by Miguel Altieri.