Beyond Capitalism: Hermione Zhou Talks Land Justice, Local Food, & Community Organizing
Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
“Why do people do that? Why do they waste so much of our Earth’s resources?” These were the questions on Hermione Zhou’s mind when she talked to her classmates about natural resources and how quickly the Amazon was being deforested during a middle-school presentation. The number of soccer fields being cut down per minute was a figure she struggled to conceptualize at the time. Indeed, it is shocking and deeply concerning that in the past 50 years, approximately 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost to deforestation to clear land for cattle ranching.
Hermione grew up in China, in a household where the prevailing doctrine was “do not waste.” She came to Bates College in Lewiston, ME with a passion for nutrition and a strong desire to address environmental issues. This led her to sign up for Life Beyond Capitalism, a first-year seminar taught by Dr. Ethan Miller (author of Reimagining Livelihoods: Life beyond Economy, Society, and Environment). Hermione said that the course and Dr. Miller have critically informed her college experience and led her to actively pursue environmental and food-related opportunities in Maine as well as back home in China.
The Maine Landshare Project
This May, Hermione began working with the Maine Landshare Project, a collaborative initiative launched by Land In Common, Resilience Hub and Presente Maine as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is connecting Mainers who want to grow food with people who have land to share. “I really liked the idea… and I think [the project] has a lot of potential,” Hermione said. In Maine, 1 in 8 people and 1 in 5 children struggle with hunger. With more and more people losing their jobs as a result of a flawed economic system under the pandemic, food insecurity presents even more of a threat, especially among communities of color that face systemic injustices.
As leader of the resource team, Hermione’s role is to match people seeking land with the necessary resources to grow their own food. Hermione said Maine Landshare has made many more matches between people willing to share their land and land seekers than she could have imagined. “I think there are ongoing conversations [to be had] about how we want to incorporate concepts of land justice and how we want to frame the whole project, not just based on sharing the land but also on land justice, equity, social justice,” Hermione said. Essentially, she believes that figuring out where the project is headed is part of a larger and ongoing conversation.
Land Sharing as Land Justice?
Land In Common, one of the Maine-based organizations behind the Maine Landshare Project, was founded to support land access and land justice for historically oppressed and marginalized peoples. It is also a community land trust. Community land trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations that help people set aside land in order to protect that land for future generations. CLTs are an alternative to the capitalist system of land ownership and may be able to enact greater land justice. As discussed in a recent Civil Eats article, land access is crucial to food security and can also help cultivate community. Hermione shared her perspective on CLTs, saying, “Honestly, I like anything that’s shared, [that’s] bypassing the market. I mean, like, why not?” However, scholar and organizer Olivia R. Williams argues that one of the limitations of CLTs is that “they’re not financially self-sustaining.”
“I’ve always believed that we need larger scale, systematic change moving forward, whether it’s how the economy is organized or how people are organized… I like doing this kind of projects [sic] just because they’re doing actual work on the ground that addresses the short term social problems that have to be addressed to make people’s lives more livable,” Hermione said. While she doesn’t see community land trusts or the Maine Landshare Project as a definite solution to any systematic issues, Hermione did emphasize that taking these small steps forward helps to build a foundation and start conversations about alternative ways of living. In short, Hermione argues that “anything local is beneficial in the sense that it brings people together. It provides an alternative view of how the future can be, it expands people’s imagination, [and] it gets things done.”
While Hermione believes in the value of this local-scale work, she made it clear that these community initiatives need to happen in tandem with policy change.
Activism & Community Organizing
“Honestly, I never see myself as an organizer,” Hermione said, when asked about her approach to organizing. “I just happen to be surrounded by the right people at the right time and we happen to be working on the same thing,” she added with a laugh. Hermione doesn’t see organizing as something that’s initiated by one person (although she acknowledges that a leader is likely to emerge in the process). Instead, she considers organizing to be an organic process –– “people coming together for a common goal, building relationships, communicating with each other and just trying things out.”
Capitalism & Local Food in China
When asked what she sees as the biggest issue in our food system right now, Hermione replied, “Basically Capitalism, period,” chuckling as she said so. She believes that capitalism is responsible for the faults in the way our food system is set up, the pressure that small farms face from industrial farms, what (and how much) people consume, the price people are willing to pay for their food and more.
During the summer of her freshman year, Hermione received a Bates grant to research local food trends back home in China. What she found is that local food isn’t trendy in China in the way that it is in the U.S. In fact, Chinese restaurants advertise foods that come from more distant sources while local food sources are poorly advertised and relatively unknown. “Finding that contrast was really interesting,” she said. Hermione also found that consumers perceive imported foods to be of a higher quality, in part due to media reports on local pollution and U.S. and European regulations being regarded as more stringent. “It’s all about consumer perception,” she said.
“Even here [in the U.S.], how you define local is always a question up for debate,”`Hermione pointed out. And since the majority of the population in China lives in cities, “local” usually just means it’s from the same province, which is a huge range to begin with, not to mention food coming from neighboring provinces.
Despite the restaurants’ advertising in China, Hermione has an inkling that most of the foods that restaurants use are actually sourced within the country. For one, China is ranked first in the world in terms of the production of cereals, cotton, fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs and fishery products. Additionally, many people do the majority of their shopping at open-air markets.
While restaurants in the U.S. are happy to capitalize on ‘locavore’ trends, it seems that the Chinese restaurant industry is content to do the same with consumers’ preference for imported foods. “Maybe there’s a possibility of [China] joining the local food movement, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon,” Hermione said.
Plans for the Future
During the past three years, Hermione has engaged in a variety of projects that push at the boundaries of the Capitalist economy. ReHarvest, for example, was a student initiative to address food insecurity and food waste in Maine by improving communication between farmers, volunteers, and emergency food providers. She’s also volunteered at the Lewiston Winter Farmers Market and Nezinscot Farm, and has assisted some of her professors in the Environmental Studies department with summer research projects. “I wish I could have done more,” Hermione said. Yet already, Hermione has made a lasting impact on the Bates community through her strong determination and ability to get things done. Perhaps unwittingly, she’s inspired both her peers and professors to put words into action when it comes to addressing environmental justice.
With just one more year of undergrad to go, Hermione is beginning to think about next steps. She’s currently considering a PhD in Environmental Sociology, which she described as “the social part of Environmental Studies.” In any case, Hermione is set on pursuing something environmental or climate change related.
Hermione strongly recommends A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism by Eric-Holt Giménez. “[He] deconstructs the food system and how it got taken over by capitalism. It also explains many foundational theories like Marxism in a pretty accurate and concise way,” she said. Another book Hermione loved reading is Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America by Alex V. Barnard, which is about dumpster diving and how our food system intentionally creates food waste as a product. “It’s a pretty cool book!” she said. Hermione has also enjoyed the works of theorists and activists such as Malcolm X, Michel Foucault, and Audre Lorde.
- “A Guide to Transformative Land Strategies: Lessons From the Field” a toolkit created by MIT COLAB.
- “Could Putting Farmland in the Commons Support Land Justice and Sustainability?” By Danielle Beurteaux