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Students dig in to secure future of communal garden

UVic students dig flower beds in front of a campus library, in part to protest the university?s inaction on a communal agriculture project.

geoff howe The Globe and Mail

For the second straight week, University of Victoria students armed with garden implements, potted seedlings and pails of compost dug up a patch of lawn and planted gardens in front of the McPherson Library as part of an ongoing turf war with the administration over communal gardening on campus.

As many as four dozen guerrilla gardeners took part in Wednesday's protest, using plastic garbage bags full of topsoil to build raised beds and erecting two-foot-high chicken wire fences to keep the campus's voracious bunny population at bay.

As they planted, another dozen protesters beat drums, played trombones and danced while several hundred spectators looked on.

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Protester Matt Loewen said students are concerned about the future of a well-used 1,500-square-metre communal garden on campus and upset at UVic's inaction on a 12-hectare communal agriculture project that was proposed for vacant land near the campus borders more than a decade ago.

"There's a long waiting list to get a plot in the communal garden and the lease is up and right now it's slated to be built on," Mr. Loewen said. "What we have now is just not cutting it as far as the demand."

But yesterday's protest was also meant to highlight student concerns about global food security and corporate control of the world's food supply, he said. "We're concerned about alienation from how our food is produced overseas and the social and environmental ills of the global industrial agricultural system we are situated in," Mr. Loewen said.

"We should be growing food on these huge expanses of lawn and instead we're importing most of our food and causing a lot of CO2 emissions."

University of Victoria spokesman Bruce Kilpatrick confirmed that the school is renegotiating the lease on the existing community garden, but said there are "absolutely no plans" to shut it down, although the project could be relocated if the land is needed for other purposes.

The proposed 30-hectare project, envisioned as an ethno-botanical garden and a learning centre, is under discussion as part of the school's "sustainability action plan," he said.

There were no arrests and minimal police presence at yesterday's protest. Mr. Kilpatrick said the school has a long tradition of "taking a measured approach" to on-campus demonstrations. However, he said UVic has not ruled out vandalism charges based on this week's action, noting that Saanich police are also investigating.

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Last Wednesday, school officials were caught by surprise when the same group of students constructed a series of raised flowerbeds in front of the library, using stones from a decorative rock garden behind the building.

School officials allowed the protest to happen, then went in with a bobcat at midnight and repaired the damaged turf.

Mr. Kilpatrick said this time the school will "take a few days to consider" its next course of action. He complained about the protesters' links to local anarchist groups. "It's a group of people who have decided they are going to voice their displeasure with these global issues by focusing on a particular piece of UVic."

The protesters claim to have no leader and refused to meet with university officials prior to yesterday's protest, he said.

History student Marie Wallace said students see a contradiction between what they are learning in school and what's happening in the real world.

"Overwhelmingly students want a place to enact the sustainability and food security lessons they've been learning in class," she said. "We should be able to have a place on campus to grow healthy and affordable food."

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