Forest Struggles: Introduction



Welcome to the 47th issue of The Funambulist. In French, we call a recurrent editorial topic a “marronnier” (chestnut tree), which seems appropriate, as a magazine dedicating this issue to trees and/or forests! It is true that such a topic is not unusual, but as usual, we are hoping to humbly provide a partial yet useful (and internationalist) perspective on the matter.

Forest Struggles Introduction 1
Members of the Indigenous village of Prospérité in so-called “French” Guiana, gathered to protest the uprooting of their forest to make room for an electric plant in November 2022. / Courtesy of Village Prospérité ATOPO WePe.

The issue’s title, “Forest Struggles,” intends to describe the simultaneity of political struggles taking place in forests, and political struggles taking place for the forests.

The massive efforts of deforestation around the world, in particular along the equator (Peru, Brazil, Cameroon, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, West Papua…), although specific to each context’s political climate, are the symptoms of a colonial and capitalist extractivism often connected with a suppression of Indigenous political struggle, or mere existence in their sylvan environment. 

As I am writing these words, the Indigenous village of Prospérité, a couple of kilometers away from the Maroni river in colonized Guiana, is resisting the deforestation of their land where the construction of a privately-owned solar panel power plant has been commissioned by the French authorities. The Kali’na inhabitants of the village have received support from other Indigenous communities in this so-called “overseas prefecture,” and all have been facing arrests and guns pointed at them by the French military police (gendarmerie) in their resistance to this further dispossession of their land. Further south along the Maroni, in the Guianese forest, Indigenous people see their water made toxic by the mercury used by Brazilian gold panners; a deadly practice that has been legalized and encouraged on the other side of the southern border during the Jair Bolsonaro administration.

The Maroni is also the life environment of the Bushinengue, a term regrouping several communities of Maroons, who freed themselves from the chains of slavery and recreated modes of living in the continental forest on both sides of the river colonized respectively by the French and the Dutch in what is now Suriname. Further north in the Caribbean Sea, island forests, in contrast, may be much smaller and, by definition, easier to surround by colonizing armies. They nonetheless have historically embodied what, in her text, Thabisile Giffrin calls “fortresses” for the Maroons, as well as “their pharmacy, their technology, and their space of worship and veneration of the non-living.” On August 14, 1791, a group of Maroons gather in the woods of Bwa Kayiman (“Bois Caïman” in Haitian Creole) in a political and voodoo ceremony that will initiate the Haitian Revolution, leading to the first Black Republic in 1804 on the island of Ayiti (also known through its colonial name, “Hispaniola,” attributed by Christopher Columbus in 1492). The event is central to both the Haitian and Afrocaribbean imaginaries and its countless representations since (with varying degrees of mythification), which has never failed to represent the trees that witnessed and hosted it. 

Forest Struggles Introduction 2
One of the houses occupying the Hambach forest to avoid its destruction to extend a coal mine. / Photo by Tim Wagner (September 2018).

Even smaller than island forests are some of the continental forests that, far from the equator, have been or currently are the sites of activist occupations to protect the sylvan environment from destruction. For instance, between 2012 and 2020, local and visiting activists inhabited the trees of the Hambach forest in western Germany to prevent its uprooting, aiming at the extension of an already massive lignite (coal) mine. In September 2018, the German police launched a brutal eviction plan that led to the deadly fall of journalist Steffen Meyn who was working on documenting the occupation. Evictions were later ruled as illegal by a Cologne court and the occupation of the forest continued. In January 2020, the activists’ political victory was consecrated in forcing the federal government to formally protect the forest from any development. Similar occupations emerged in other places in Europe, in particular in France, Belgium, and Switzerland, where the technocratic acronym “ZAD,” originally signifying “zone d’aménagement différé” (deferred development area), was transformed into “zone à défendre” (zone to defend). The most famous, Notre-Dame-des-Landes, in western France, saw hundreds of people inhabiting a rural environment designated as the construction site for a new airport between 2012 and 2018, resisting successive eviction efforts by the French military police and ultimately leading to the abandonment of the development project.

This notion of “defending” is central to many of such occupations, a term that is in dialog with that of “protection” used by Indigenous activists who call themselves water and/or land protectors. In Atlanta, forest defenders are currently organizing against the uprooting of a part of the Weelaunee Forest, less than ten kilometers from the city center, to build the largest police training facility in the United States, dedicated to urban warfare training. The forest has long been the site of a carceral regime, where the abandoned Atlanta prison farm and a massive youth detention facility are located. On March 8, 2023, members of the Muscogee Nation in solidarity with the movement delivered an eviction notice to the Mayor of Atlanta. In 1834, the Andrew Jackson administration had removed close to 22,000 members of the Creek nation from their ancestral land (present Georgia and Alabama) during the Trail of Tears, which saw a third of them dying in this brutal removal. With this eviction notice and the ceremonialization of a Return, Muscogee activists insisted that the municipal authorities had no legitimacy to destroy the forest on stolen land. In an explicit show of solidarity with Black Atlantans, they also pointed out those who are the most systematically targeted by police programs of surveillance and repression, as well as those who have time and time again resisted against them.

Forest defenders against “Cop City” thus articulate a political platform where prison and police abolition meets with an ecological stewardship of the forest, in a precise understanding of how such a project embodies both a settler colonial and anti-Black political agenda.

The answer from the Atlantan authorities has been ruthless. On January 18, 2023, the Atlanta police, operating alongside a SWAT team, shot 26-year-old forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, aka Tortuguita—fourteen times—and killed them. Between December 2022 and March 2023, over forty activists have been arrested and charged for “domestic terrorism,” in an attempt to deter activists from continuing their occupation to defend the forest, or the broader community in solidarity with them. Under such circumstances and with main press outlets sticking to the police narrative in the killing of Tortuguita, the Weelaunee Forest is more threatened than ever.

Forest Struggles Introduction 3
“Forest Defense Is Self-Defense” banner hung in the encampment of the Defend the Atlanta Forest against “Cop City.” / Image source

In this introduction, I also want to tackle a question that would otherwise be left unasked throughout this issue. Are forests always the epitome of a benevolent nature that only becomes political when it is threatened with destruction by human activity? We know that the answer to this question is no. One paradigmatic example for this answer can be found in the politics of carbon offsetting. This relatively recent development in capitalism’s adaptation to growing consciousness about the environment is conceived as an answer to another debatable concept, that of carbon footprint. It was introduced in the Global North’s mainstream imaginary by none other than BP, which saw in it a good way to individualize responsibility for the climate crisis. Carbon offsetting thus partially consists in the offer by some Western corporations to compensate individual or company-induced carbon emissions by planting forests that would absorb the equivalence of carbon. The practices of many of these corporations in various contexts of the Global South is not so different from the neocolonial predations of other extractivist companies: people are brutalized out of their land to make room for these carbon offsetting forests, while the trees planted are not always appropriate for the local ecosystems…

Forest Struggles Introduction 4
In the former Palestinian village of Kafr Bir’in, in Galilee, a ruin lives under the trees planted by the Jewish National Fund after the Nakba. / Photo by Dmitriy Feldman Svarshik.

There is another place on Earth where trees are planted in opposition to the ecosystem that surrounds them—occupied Palestine. On the Israeli embassies’ website, a paragraph accompanying a map of forests in Palestine and the Jawlan created by the Israeli army reads: “Israel is one of the only nations in the world that entered the 21st century with more trees than it had 100 years ago. Since its inception, Israel has been devoted to sustainable forest management and afforestation, planting trees mostly in areas with arid and semi-arid climates.” There is, of course, something laughable about a 52-year-old state (at the turn of the century) claiming it had anything at all a century earlier. Yet, what is more interesting here is the actualization of the well-known Zionist obsession to “make the desert bloom,” here expressed in the pride of planting trees within “arid and semi-arid climates.” The resulting forests—made up of pine trees that aim to provide a dominant Ashkenazi population with an environment that resembles theirs in Europe—are regularly burning, due to this forced adaptation to aridity and high temperatures. 

Between 1901 and 1948, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a non-governmental organization controlled by the World Zionist Organization, collected money—thanks to small money boxes distributed throughout the worldwide Jewish diaspora—in order to buy as many parcels of land as possible from the Palestinian farmers and landowners. In 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel on 78% of Palestine’s land, the JNF would have found itself obsolete if it did not reorient its function. Consequently, since 1950, the JNF has been allocating its funds to planting forests in 1948 Palestine, from the north of Galilee to deep into the Naqab desert. The “desert” that the JNF is “blooming” is the home of Palestinian Bedouins whose villages are relentlessly reliving the Nakba through systematic evictions and destructions. Yet, this “desert” also marks the Zionist mythification of Palestinian absence prior to 1948. As such, many of the JNF forests have been planted to replace Palestinian villages that were not only evicted and dynamited in the months that preceded and followed the proclamation of the state of Israel, but whose ruins were also bulldozed in the following years. Indeed, the risk of leaving a ruin in place would be to let its damaged architecture tell a double story: the story of its past existence within Palestinian communities in what is now considered as Israel, and the story of its destruction, which challenges Zionist narratives.

Palestinian land is thus made into “deserts” and JNF forests come as one last layering of dissimulation; one that greenwashes the occupation.

Furthermore, in the “arid and semi-arid climates” cited above, the growing of pine tree forests also requires a large quantity of water. Aquifers in historical Palestine, including the annual 320 million cubic meters of water coming from the West Bank’s underground, are appropriated by the colonial state that leaves only minimal quantities for the Palestinian society in Gaza and the West Bank. 

Forest Struggles Introduction 5
Pine forest fire in the immediate outskirts of Haifa in November 2016. / Photo by wideweb.

Whether forest struggles consist in the defense of the forest itself by Indigenous and/or ecological activists, or if these struggles reveal the reality that trees were meant to dissimulate, we mean to showcase a few instances of political movements occurring under the sylvan canopies. Throughout this issue (that counts no less than six texts translated from Hindi, French, Spanish, and Portuguese), the Amazon nut trees (Paulo Tavares, Hannah Meszaros Martin, Uýra) dialog with Gabon’s okoumé (Mbwelili), West Papua’s palms (Sophie Chao), St. Vincent’s Soufrière trees (Thabisile Griffin), Chhattisgarh’s sals (Jacinta Kerketta), and Clichy-Montfermeil’s beech trees (Feda Wardak and Romain Rampillon). I wish you a pleasant time as you listen to them. ■