Zone à défendre / zad zone to defend


‘We are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself’: from Indigenous-led environmental justice action to Extinction Rebellion, this sentence resonates as a mission statement for activists for whom human beings are not at the centre of, not apart from, but a part of the environment, and who rise and fight against the ecocidal colonial-capitalist system. As Martin Crowley points out, in ‘identifying themselves as acting not on behalf of but from within a broad ecological continuum’, these human activists are making a powerful claim about the ‘nature and location of political agency’ (2022: 99).

In France, this phrase was put into action by activists who occupied the site of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes in the Loire-Atlantique department, continuing local resistance against plans originating in the 1960s to build a new airport in this bocage area. Designated as a ‘zone d’aménagement différé’ (deferred development area) or ZAD in the administrative language of French state planning, the site became a ‘zone à défendre’ (zone to defend) or zad, turning the language of neo-liberalism against itself as part of socio-political-environmental resistance.

Zad-NDDL (zad Notre-Dame-des-Landes) is part of an eco-cartography of resistance in contemporary France, a network of ‘territoires en lutte’ (territories in struggle), to use activist Joël Demonjoud’s expression in Etienne Davodeau’s documentary comic Le Droit du sol (2021: 185). Demenjoud, who is a militant against the project of building a nuclear waste storage facility in Bure in northeastern France, links Notre-Dame-des-Landes also to the Testet zad against the construction of the Sievens dam near Toulouse in southern France; and, tracing the heritage of 21st-century militant occupations to the 1970s, to the anti-nuclear struggle in Plogoff in Brittany and the Fight for the Larzac in Occitania against the extension of a military base.

Due to its scope, media coverage and national and international resonance (see notably Manuel Rivas’s 2020 book Zona a defendar), Zad-NDDL is in fact often compared with Plogoff and the Fight for the Larzac, two foundational struggles for the French ecological movement, as noted by Tudi Kernalegenn, who also inscribes Zad-NDDL in the history of political ecology in Brittany specifically (2014). The project to build an international airport dates back several decades to the 1960s, during the era of state planning for modernisation in the 1950s-1970s that is known as France’s ‘Trente Glorieuses’ (Thirty Glorious Years) – or perhaps rather ‘Trente Ravageuses’ (Thirty Destructive Years), as suggested by environmental historians Christophe Bonneuil and Stéphane Frioux (2013) who point out its ecological impacts. Mobilisation against the construction of the airport dates back to the 1970s, when the project was made public, and it is in the 21st century that it developed into an organised citizen movement, as the Grand Ouest airport project was reactivated in 2000, and approved in 2008, with construction expected to start in 2014.

Protests against the project developed into a broader critique of ecocidal neoliberalism, and it is in 2008 that the ZAD (deferred development area) became zad (zone to defend), a micro-society that aimed to break away from the capitalist system through self-government and developing other ways of living with the land and biodiversity on the 4000 acres of wetlands, fields and forests that form the zone. As stated on the Zone à Défendre website:

Our goals, in coming to live here on the proposed site of the airport, are many: to live on a protest site, where we can be close to those who’ve been opposing the project for 40 years and to have the power to act when construction happens; to make use of abandoned spaces to learn to live together, to cultivate the land and to be more autonomous from the capitalist system.

State repression and violence followed, with notably Opération César in 2012, when over 2,000 police officers were deployed in the zone, and eviction proceedings in 2016. The airport construction project was shelved in 2018, but the French prime minister ‘vowed to evict the laboratory of commoning that is the zad’, as stated on the collectively authored blog Zad for ever, which gathers ‘dispatches from the Liberated Territory Against an Airport & its World’. This led to a large scale and violent eviction operation and confrontations with the police as the French State attempted to regain control of the zone. Zad-NDDL is still a site for concrete experimentation today, such as for innovative agricultural practices, debates and exchanges (for news and updates see the Zone à Défendre website), and it is on the Zad in 2021 that activists founded the collective Les Soulèvements de la Terre (Uprisings of the Earth) (see this lexicon’s entry on terre), which is a continuation of its project at a larger scale.

The experiment of Zad-NDDL as an alternative mode of collective life with the more-than-human is richly documented across media, in documentaries such as Notre Dames des Luttes!, drawings, songs, photos, posters (for a rich repository of these audio and/or visual resources see the Zone à Défendre website), or the writings of the Mauvaise troupe collective (Défendre la zad, The Zad and NO TAV). Life on the zad in the face of state repression is rendered notably in Alessandro Pignocchi’s La recomposition des mondes. Pignocchi draws and writes of the ways in which, on the zad, people learn to live ‘beyond nature and culture’, in a laboratory that puts into practice a critique of Western hyper-separation (to use feminist environmental philosopher Val Plumwood’s term [1993]) between humans and the environment. Zad-NDDL is part of a broader challenge to ideologies that view the other-than-human as a resource, as developed in France notably by the philosopher Bruno Latour and anthropologist Philippe Descola, echoing, as Pignocchi notes, Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies for instance in the Amazon in which ‘nature doesn’t exist’ (2019: 20-21).

Zone is a commonplace but complex word in French, as discussed by Edward Welch, that speaks to the State’s exploitation of ‘its legislative and discursive power to name, control and produce space, and thereby create the conditions for a new reality’, as ‘in being named a zone, space took on a special status’ (2023: 166). In being named no longer a zone for deferred development but a zone to defend, spaces and places – Notre-Dame-des-Landes, Bure, Testet – take on a special status as sites on and with which to concentrate the fight against an the anthropocentric-capitalist system and experiment with other ways of living with the more-than-human world.

Works cited

Bonneuil, Christophe, and Frioux, Stéphane, ‘Les « Trente Ravageuses » ? : L’impact environnemental et sanitaire des décennies de haute croissance’, in Christophe Bonneuil, Céline Pessis and Sezin Topçu (eds), Une autre histoire des « Trente Glorieuses » : Modernisation, contestations et pollutions dans la France d’après-guerre (Paris, La Découverte : 2013), pp. 41-59.

Crowley, Martin, Accidental Agents: Ecological Politics Beyond the Human (Columbia University Press, 2022).

Davodeau, Etienne, Le Droit du sol: journal d’un vertige (Paris: Futuropolis, 2021).

Kernalegenn, Tudi, Histoire de l’écologie en Bretagne (Rennes: Goater, 2014).

Pignocchi, Alessandro, La recomposition des mondes (Paris: Seuil, 2019).

Plumwood, Val, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993).

Welch, Edward, Making Space in Post-war France: The Dreams, Realities and Aftermath of State Planning (Oxford: Legenda, 2023).