Fruitful protest... (photo: Emma Stoner)
Living Democracy in London Central
Emma Stoner has been photographing a peace camp that is taking place under the shadow of Big Ben, largely ignored by the mainstream media
On the 1st May a group of people gathered on Parliament Square to occupy the space and demand that 'the war in Afghanistan ends and the troops are brought home with immediate effect'. The peace camp is now running into its 7th week, despite the opposition of the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is pursuing a court injunction against the activists gathered here. The trial is currently underway and looks to wrap up this week.
One of the groups camping at the square are from the Kew Bridge Eco Village, a land rights group with the aim to live sustainably within the urban environment. Activists took over a plot of disused land by Kew Bridge on the 6th June 2009 and formed a community here. The site was evicted in May this year and about 50% of the community shifted to Democracy village. I spent several months documenting the village as it evolved in Kew and have since followed the group to their new home in Parliament Square. Simon Moore, one of the core team who initiated the Kew Bridge Eco Village project, is now based at Democracy village and shared some of his thoughts about the idea behind the urban community in Kew and what their role is here.
Simon believes that you can't be ecologically friendly until you are free to do so and that the option to live sustainably on the land is only available for people with access to capital for the purchase of land and planning permissions. In the UK less than 1% of the population owns 70% of the land, 8% of which is concreted and 90% of people live in these areas. He is calling for the rights to use derelict land for sustainable and environmentally friendly developments "A lot of people do want to live sustainably on the land in a way that is liberating and not damaging to the earth." Although setting up a community outside the city would give it more chance of success, setting one up in London throws the issues into the limelight. The idea was to bring people together in an urban setting in a very open way to set an example of another way of life. After taking over the patch of land by Kew Bridge the group immediately contacted the land owners and neighbours to say that they were caretaking the space and started community projects to involve and inspire local residents.
Every Saturday the village held a permaculture meeting and they were active in greening the space and growing food. Lou Almond, a permaculture student, was a resident here for 3 months and sees the Kew Bridge Eco Village project as a major achievement in empowering people to be self sufficient. Food at the eco village was cooked on a stove heated by wood, which was also used for heating. Wood and solar power were the main sources of energy here. People initially lived in tarp benders and these later developed into small dwellings made from hazelwood poles which were really well insulated with blankets, keeping out the cold during the winter months.
"One of the main motivations of the project was to create an urban centre to educate people about growing food and other practical life-skills which often aren't taught today. A lot of people lack the basic knowledge that our ancestors had of how to survive - building a fire, building a home, growing food etc." Although the open door policy allowed outsiders to get involved and learn, because the here land was reclaimed it limited the scope of how far this community could progress.
Only a small percentage of the food consumed was grown here and the rest was skipped from the waste of nearby supermarkets and shops. All of the allotments created over the time spent here have now been bulldozed. One of the lasting impacts of this eco-village development has been to create a movement of people which has now branched out into two different locations - one at a new eco village site in Hounslow and one which is currently based in Parliament Square.
The Kew Bridge group were central to founding Democracy Village and brought with them a variety of skills and knowledge of communal living which has been applied here. This space is much more temporary than Kew was so people have not been looking at long term sustainability but they have created a garden with an oak tree in the centre and strawberries, beans and flowers are all growing in abundance. Through the peace protest at Democracy Village this land rights group have been able to also draw attention to the issue of land-ownership in the high court. Gareth Newman, from the Kew Bridge movement, explained how, although the protest here is focused on ending the war their presence in the camp serves as an example of how to be independent: "If people learn how to be self-sufficient then we won't need to fight a war for resources. We are here to show that it is possible to live a more peaceful and low impact life."