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Occupy v. Whole Foods? Activists Take Over Land Slated for Development and Start a Farm

The Gill Tract is prime agricultural soil that activists hope can feed hundreds. But the UC Berkeley-owned land may be sold to Whole Foods.

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"We got quite far in the process," she says. "But the university thwarted us, and it became just another in a long string of attempts to preserve this land for agriculture, and community education for food sovereignty."  

"UC Berkeley is a land grant institution and this land is being administered by a university for the public. Everything done here is supposed to be done for the public good," she said.  

Kamenskaya became interested in agriculture as a young girl at a farm camp in Mendocino. She recalls learning about the Zapatista uprising in Mexico in 1994. The fact that indigenous people were illegally taking over land to grow food struck her deeply. 

Like many of the Occupy the Farm-ers, Kamenskaya participated in key mobilizations last year, such as the Oakland Port shutdown and General Strike. But this is her first time playing the role of organizer.  

"We're kind of an 'Occupy 2.0' in that we're taking the momentum of the Occupy movement and directing it to something very specific in our community."  

A bearded man in a straw hat and overalls who identifies himself as "just Christoph," also worked the Gill Tract as a UC student. "A new urgency developed around this land when we learned that a chunk of it was slated to be developed for a Whole Foods," Christoph says. "This piece of land is a unique resource that needs to be preserved. When the city council of Albany considered making a permit for the Whole Foods, the developer came back and said they wanted the land 'in perpetuity.' We thought, once this is paved over, it will never be accessible for farming again, or, at best, it will take generations."  

Despite a warning from UC police who maintained a brief presence Sunday afternoon, the first night of the occupation passed without police intervention. But the specter of police clubbing protesters at Sproul Plaza and Wheeler Hall last fall, and the infamous pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis, loomed large.  

I asked Cristoph if he really thought they could hold onto the land in the face of the imperative to develop it, and the UC authorities. "Farming is an unimpeachable offense," he said.  

Occupiers see the effort to sell off the Gill Tract as the latest in a string of privatization schemes by the university. Over the last several decades, the university has increasingly shifted use of the Gill Tract away from sustainable agriculture and toward biotechnology, with funding from corporations such as Novartis and BP.  

"Most of the research being done here is corn genetic isolation," Robbie Zeinstra, another UC alum, tells me. "It could be harmless or it could be used for genetic modification and more of a capitalist approach to agriculture."  

"We don't know if the researchers on this plot are being funded by Novartis, Syngenta or BP," Zeinstra said. "We can assume so. But the trickle-down happens in that what the university is prioritizing. It's not prioritizing growing food for people or creating an agriculture compatible with people and local cultures. It's fostering an agriculture that's only compatible with a large market system."  

Zeinstra seemed eager to finish our talk and get to tilling. But he had a final point: "Regardless of what kind of research is being done here," he said, "this land is under threat of being developed. If the land is developed, no one is going to do any research here or grow any food here. That's really why we're here -- to contest the development of the land."  

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