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Whose Woods These Are

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July 14, 2010

Whose Woods These Are

Land defenders celebrate a year since Hanlon Creek occupation

by Matthew Lowell-Pellettier

Photo: Anna Kovler

OCCUPIED NEUTRAL TERRITORY (GUELPH)—The struggle to defend the Hanlon Creek Wetland Complex (HCWC) against developers and the city of Guelph has been ongoing for close to a decade. Last summer, from July 27 to August 15, this struggle culminated in a 19-day defensive land occupation just south of Guelph, and resulted in a $5 million Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit against five people—myself among them. We were charged with conspiracy, interference with economic relations inducing breach of contract, trespass, nuisance, and intimidation. The Court recognized our struggle by awarding us an injunction against development, which strengthened a popular direct-action campaign to stop development and challenge the city's policies of greenfield development (development of a green space ecosystem, as opposed to redevelopment) and sprawl.

What drove people to stand against the city to prevent development around the HCWC forest? Here is a look at some features of the land that have motivated us. Perhaps you will recognize some of these features in the land around you.

Spring floods raise the water table of the Hanlon Creek and bring new life into the woods of the HCWC. These woods are part of a unique bioregion, characterized by the beauty of both southern Carolinian and Northern Coniferous forests, create a habitat for rare and endangered species. Southwestern Ontario has already lost 80 per cent of its forest cover and 99 per cent of its old growth forests.
On May 2 and 3, 2009, Land Is More Important Than Sprawl (LIMITS) organized a campout and walking tours to get the public acquainted with the fields and woods slated for development. Many unique trees, like this large beech, can be found throughout the woods.
This decaying beech, like the one pictured before, is one of many indigenous tree species that contribute to the old growth features of this forest. Dead and decaying trees provide habitats for insects, bugs, mushrooms and mycelium; they open spaces in the canopy for younger trees and nurture the forest floor with nutrients gathered when the trees were alive. Old growth forests like this one have characteristic waves in the ground that hint at where, long ago, trees have fallen.
This Flowering Bloodroot is blooming in early spring on the forest floor. Indigenous plants, local to this region, have a hard time competing with invasive, foreign plants such as manitoba maples and garlic mustard. These woods, like others throughout industrialized Southern Ontario, have kept most foreign plants at bay. This is a remarkable affirmation of their strength.
Tributary A of the Hanlon Creek flows through the contested land. This creek is one of many that feed into Speed River and then into Grand River, eventually meeting Lake Erie. Pollutants upstream, created by industry, agriculture and development—such as the Hanlon Creek Business Park (HCBP)—contaminate the drinking water of communities like the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) community and the city of Brantford. The struggle against development in Guelph is also a struggle for clean drinking water for communities downstream.
These deer tracks were found during the occupation last summer in the road dug for construction on the contested land. Wild animals are constantly threatened by development and sprawl. As hedgerows, fallow fields and forests become scarce, wild animal populations diminish as less land is available to support life.
Tributary A of the Hanlon Creek gets wider here as watercress and tall grasses grow in the shallow water. This area became the base for the 19-day occupation that disrupted development long enough to stop the project for a little under a year.
This photo of the same location was taken just over a month later – after Drexler Construction, a Rockwood-based company, began work on a road crossing for the proposed development. Without tree cover, this fragile cold-water creek was left without shade to cool the river in the hot summer months. During the occuption, local tree farmers donated saplings to plant along the bank of the river to prevent erosion and to return native tree cover.
On the first day of the Hanlon Creek occupation, land defenders hung Guswhenta (two row wampum) flags on construction equipment, and held a grounding ceremony led by a local native singer. The Guswhenta is a treaty in which settlers are to not interfere with the path of Indigenous peoples and their lands, and Indigenous peoples are to do the same for settlers. We saw our struggle to stop the HCBP as our attempt to hold ourselves to this agreement by preventing further harm to Turtle Island. photo by Anna Kovler

The Struggle to defend the HCWC did not end with the May 2009 occupation. On May 7, 2010, a protest and disruption was held outside of Carson Reids Homes, Astrid J. Clos, Van Harten Surveyors and Guelph City Hall. The three companies are major contributors to sprawling developments in and around Guelph. On May 25, 2010, 

City Hall approved a $3 million contract with Capital Paving, a Guelph-based aggregate company, for clearing, grading and servicing one-quarter of the Hanlon Creek site formerly occupied by land defenders. As engines start on the HCWC, a new chapter in the struggle to defend the land and halt the sprawl begins...

Matthew Lowell is rooted in occupied Neutral Territory.

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