“We are not in the least afraid of ruins”: Food Autonomy in the Weelaunee Forest

A banner for the Weelaunee Food Autonomy Festival hangs from a pavilion that forest defenders built in the parking lot of Weelaunee People’s Park. It is accompanied by another banner that declares “We are not in the least afraid of ruins,” a quote from Buenaventura Durruti.

On Friday March 10th, the first annual Weelaunee Food Autonomy Festival began in the Weelaunee (South River) Forest. The festival was a practical experiment in food production and distribution outside of, and against, the forms of state and market control that dominate industrial agriculture. Attendees came from all over the continent for the four-day event, including small farmers from northern Mexico who utilize indigenous water management practices as well as university professors from the Midwest.

The Food Autonomy Festival partially coincided with the fifth Week of Action to Stop Cop City and Defend the Atlanta Forest. Hundreds of people camped in the Weelaunee Forest despite the intensification of police violence and repression during the South River Music Festival the previous weekend. The Week of Action thus created a space in which the festival — complete with workshops, skillshares, and theoretical discussions — could take place with broad and vibrant participation. 

Creating Chimera

Organizers and attendees of the Weelaunee Food Autonomy Festival brought hundreds of saplings to plant in the forest and distribute throughout the city and beyond.

On the first day of the Food Autonomy Festival, festival organizers and participants hiked into a relatively sparse area of the forest where conditions are suitable for planting fig, persimmon, and pawpaw saplings. They collectively dug small holes for the trees’ roots and then nestled hundreds of saplings into the soil. 

Foraging and mycology tours gave attendees a better sense of the ecology of the forest, from the mycelia that sprawl under the forest floor to the edible fruits and leaves that grow in shrubs and trees. At night, attendees could be found sitting around bonfires alongside forest defenders. The festival followed a loose schedule of practical workshops in the morning and afternoon, with more conceptual and historical discussions in the evening. 

On Sunday, March 11th, dozens of people gathered around a table in the “Living Room,” an area of the forest near the bike path’s 12-mile marker that is known as a casual gathering space, for a tree grafting workshop. The Weelaunee Forest has an abundance of Bradford pear trees, native to East Asia and introduced in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Bradford pears thrive in many soil conditions and are well adapted to harsh droughts. Because of their tenacity and rapid growth, they tend to disrupt local ecosystems. 

“Sticks,” the organizer of the grafting workshop, explained the circulatory function of trees, the tools used for grafting, and the whip-and-tongue grafting process as they stitched together two pieces of privet as a demonstration. Edible pear tree scions were handed out as the group marched deep into the forest to graft the scions onto Bradford pear trees. As people practiced grafting, some trying their hand at it for the first time, Sticks walked around and observed the participants’ methods, ensuring good cambium contact, proper cuts, and adequate sealing measures. 

If the grafting is successful, hundreds of yoinashi, shinseiki, moonglow, and ayers pears will hang from the branches of the forest’s Bradford pear trees in the years to come.

“It’s like creating chimera,” one attendee noted.

No Cop City Anywhere, Food Autonomy Everywhere

Food Autonomy Festival participants hosted workshops in the “Living Room” of the Weelaunee Forest, where many also camped alongside attendees of the fifth Week of Action to Stop Cop City.

By Sunday evening, participants could be found eating Jamaican curry together in the lawn of the Weelaunee Forest parking lot while listening to a talk on urban food autonomy in Mexico. The presentor drew on the example of the local, open-air market system in Mexico City, which is decentralized and informal, to create a shared sense of what greater food autonomy could look like in the U.S. He contrasted the markets of Mexico City, and their relative autonomy, with the high degree of centralization and consolidation characteristic of food systems in the U.S.

Bridging urban food autonomy in Mexico to a long tradition of Mexican and indigenous social movements, the speaker asked the crowd if anyone knew any figures from Mexican revolutionary history. The crowd shouted “the Zapatistas!” and “Flores Magon!” The talk proceeded with a brief history of land and subsistence struggles in Mexico and the ways in which the modernization of the country changed peasants’ relationship to land and the form that these struggles took. 

Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico underwent massive economic restructuring, favoring foreign investment and land reform that served the interests of large estates and private ownership. Land that was held collectively during pre-colonization and early colonization was parceled, then sold or transferred to private owners. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were dispossessed of their land and subsequently their means of subsistence. The economic policies of the Porfiriato and the centralized political apparatus that enforced them contributed to major technical developments in extractive sectors such as mining, industrial agriculture, and railroad infrastructure. This process created widespread wealth inequality and the political crisis that resulted in the Mexican Revolution.

The speaker moved into a discussion of chinampa, a method of farming common among indigenous communities in Mexico that uses hyper fertile parcels of mud along waterways to grow crops. The presenter spent 9 months living on the periphery of Mexico City with the Organización Popular Francisco Villa de Izquierda Independiente, or simply, the “Panchos,” where he learned about these practices. He walked the crowd through the Panchos’ organizational framework. Since their founding in 1989, the Panchos have elaborated a communal form of life focused on the emancipation of everyday life. 

The Panchos take over vast swaths of vacant land and organize themselves to address their needs directly, without state mediation and with minimal reliance on the capitalist economy. The presenter closed with a discussion of consumer cooperatives in Mexico City, the possibilities they can offer to an autonomous vision of life, and their reproducibility in the United States.

“We are not in the least afraid of ruins”

Participants in the first annual Weelaunee Food Autonomy Festival plant fruit and nut tree saplings in Weelaunee Forest.

On December 12, 2022 Shadowbox (previously Blackhall) Studios founder Ryan Millsap entered Weelaunee People’s Park and began clearing large swaths of trees. Plaintiffs in an ongoing legal battle against Blackhall, known as the “Stop the Swap” lawsuit, filed a an emergency motion to stop the clearing. In Blackhall’s memorandum of opposition to the motion, the company states that it was clearing undergrowth and trees at the request of the GBI and Dekalb SWAT to inhibit the ability of “anarchists” to traverse the forest under the cover of its canopy. 

On Monday, March 13th, the last day of the Food Autonomy Festival, dozens of participants planted willow and long leaf pine trees throughout these clearings. 

“Willow trees grow relatively quickly and propagate easily, so they’re good for holding the soil in the short term,” an attendee told ACPC. Another attendee stated that there are also plans to plant oak trees in the clearings.

As forest defenders poured in and out of the forest for a clean-up event, a booth hosting a herbal medicine workshop was set up in the parking lot. The person standing behind it happily answered questions about different ailments affecting forest defenders, as well as different herbal approaches to treating them. Young children stood behind the booth, too, showing off the herb identification booklets they made earlier in the day. 

As the sun set, the remaining attendees gathered around the fire in the parking lot for a closing discussion.

With the end of the Food Autonomy Festival came the end, too, of 10 days of mass mobilization in the forest. As the movement grows and mobilizes new kinds of engagement, more possibilities open up for the Weelaunee Forest and those who choose to protect it. Alongside the student organizations, faith leaders, and Black-led organizations catalyzed by the movement, an assortment of farmers and botanists across the continent now have multiple-year investments planted in the forest along with a combative vision to foster them.

Two years into the movement to Stop Cop City, the Atlanta Police Foundation’s vision of a future wrought with violence and ecological destruction continues to be challenged.  People from disparate backgrounds have come together to halt the destruction of the forest utilizing a myriad of different tactics, but all contributing to the creation of a free Weelaunee Forest.

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