How are ecovillages affected by the economic crisis in Southern Europe? From the answers of initiatives and ecovillages in Spain, Portugal and Greece it seems that the crisis actually empowers and accelerates the ecovillage movement. As old securities fall apart, people start to look for alternatives. And so, ecovillages face a challenge to demonstrate their knowledge and to develop into best practice models, ecovillage ‘midwives’, and training places to foster regional autonomy. By Leila Dregger
What if the economic recession that we see in Portugal, Spain, Greece today is not a mere crisis but the beginning of the collapse of the globalized system? Of a system that has alienated and exploited people and nature in every region and on every continent? More and more people are positive that we don´t just need a different financial system to overcome the crisis but a different way to live on this planet.
Many landscapes in Southern Europe demonstrate that the economic crisis is connected to an ecological and social disaster. Villages are deserted and forests have been cut down. Vast areas are covered by monocultures of pine trees or eucalyptus leading to frequent forest fires. The winter rainfall erodes the soils, and during the summer the land becomes dry and brown – almost like a desert. Every day farmers give up and leave behind a barren, dying land with food having to be imported into countries that are abundant in rainfall, soils and sunshine!
While politicians try to fight the crisis by “more of the same” – more competition, more investment into large industry, more centralization and privatization – many groups are trying to develop and build alternatives.
They look for different ways to live together, to communicate and share, to be less dependent on money and the state, to cooperate with nature and become autonomous in the basic needs.
In their search they find initiatives that have been working on the ground for quite some time: it is ecovillages that know that a crisis can be overcome when you join together as community. Ecovillages show that one can live with less money and more happiness. They demonstrate that desertification can be reversed when you learn to cooperate with nature; that the water balance can be restored; that monocultures can be replaced by fruit forests and edible landscapes, and that decentralized solar power systems and biogas can make the dependency on big power stations obsolete. Permaculture design says that every region has the potential to provide its inhabitants with enough food, water and energy.
More and more people in the crisis stricken countries feel that ecovillages can become models for regional autonomies. If they succeed in this crisis they will be the pioneers of a new worldwide development and role models for the future – also for the countries where the crisis has not yet been felt.
I spoke with activists and ecovillage representatives from Greece, Portugal and Spain.
“Two or three years ago we could not expect how fast this system would collapse”, says Anna Fillipou, founder of a community in the area of Thessaloniki. “All kind of securities – money, education, health, work, consumption – have fallen apart. Most people have lost confidence in the system and do not believe that it will become better again.”
The crisis has changed all parts of life, as Ioannis Mastoris, initiator of an ecovillage to be built in Evoia, observes: “The families come closer together, but we lost contact with friends who are living farther away, as most people cannot afford to travel anymore. Many people become more egoistic and try to protect their closest family no matter what, as they are fearful of the future. Some other people are opening their minds to new possibilities of living and co-existing.”
This is also what Anna hopes: “This is the time for alternatives! Since we don´t have the securities anymore, we have nothing to lose. We finally can invest all our work into what we always wanted to do. It is amazing how many people now are interested in ecovillages and all kinds of solidarity campaigns.”
Greece is one of the very few countries in Europe where ecovillages have not yet emerged. This is possibly due to the effects of dictatorship and orthodox religion which opposed communities and collectives for a long time.
Anna: “On a certain level we always had community life in Greece, we dance and sing together a lot. However, the lifestyle of consumption has torn society apart. If we want to overcome the crisis we definitely have to learn to cooperate and to share in a deeper way about what really moves us.”
Anna and her husband Nikiforos have started a community experiment 40 km outside of Thessaloniki, inviting friends and allies to take part. They already have the first adobe house and solar energy systems. With a group of 9-10 adults and 3 children they have started to develop and share tools for community building and non-violent communication as well as practical means to become autonomous.
Every interested person is invited to take part and help during the public times – either from Easter 28th for ten days or from June 15 to July 15. Anna: “This is the biggest support that you can give us.” Contact to Anna: [email protected]
Ioannis Mastoris belongs to a group of young people that is endeavouring to set up “Eftopia” – an ecovillage in the north of the island Evoia. Ioannis describes how “the name Eftopia has spawned from the word Utopia – having the same high principles and values, but more feasibility.”
The property where they want to start the ecovillage includes 330 hectares of forest and 87 hectares of agricultural land.
Ioannis: “Due to a new Greek “crisis law” targeted mainly for tourist complexes there is the possibility of using 10% of the forest for buildings and cultivation. It is the perfect place – due to the elevation differences and the variety of soil types – for creating lakes, natural habitats for wild animals and applying permaculture principles.
The community will have an immediate income. By law you can thin the forest by 2% every year. This is less than the estimated average growth of the forest. The are a lot of herbs and plants in the forest that can produce excellent quality honey and a lot of wild fruit like strawberry trees.”
The group wants to finance the price of the property with crowd funding. Ioannis invites people from Greece and also from abroad to start the ecovillage – from fundraising to Permaculture and community building. Contact to Ioannis: [email protected]
A third project is Ecovillage AGNANDI, started by Irini and Lefteris Kurdaki in Northern Greece. (More: http://maniakinaturalfarming.blogspot.gr/)
Irini: “It will be a transition project, a cooperative with elements of the traditional village, and connected to the Global Ecovillage Movement.”
On their site they have already planted 200 trees. They intend to develop ecological buildings, rainwater harvesting and permaculture gardens in a community based on non-violent communication principles.
Irini and Lefteris have been great networkers all over Greece especially in the environmental movement, integrating all kind of groups and initiatives that are in opposition to nature destruction, privatization of water, exploitation of nature, and monocultures. Now, in the time of crisis they feel that right wing groups also feel called to the objective of autonomy – obviously another symptom of the economical crisis.
Irini: “This is quite a challenge. We are not a party and not a monoculture, so we try not to exclude anybody. We have to be clear to express our vision and aims, and of course never tolerate fascism and racism. Up to now we have done everything with our own money, but we hope to be integrated into one of the development programs.”
Irini and Lefteris invite every interested and committed person to join and become part of the eco-community movement. The next “Workshop on Networking about Eco-Communities” is on April 6 and 7 in Asklipiou 183, Athens.
In Spain every second young person has no job. They urgently need alternatives. Alfonso Carreras, member of the GEN council: “There are hundreds of people looking for a place in an ecovillage at this moment. RIE, the network of ecovillages in Spain, is almost over flooded by the increasing necessity of both aspects, the youth exodus from villages to cities and the longing from others to leave the cities.”
Matavenero in Spain is situated high in the lonely hills of Bierzo in North West Spain.
It has a long tradition of dealing with the crisis as the unemployment here has always been higher than in the rest of the country. Many villages are deserted.
Jörn Ickes was a longterm member of Matavenero who only moved out recently: “Matavenero is doing well in the crisis, although it has become more difficult to find the small jobs we have been used to, and it takes longer to obtain the salaries. However, the money lasts longer, as consumption in the village is low, and we use a lot more food from the gardens and wild fruits – for instance wild chestnuts – and we bake our bread.
We don´t spend much money on clothes and other goods, we exchange them and help each other with what we need. And obviously we don´t pay for rents, water, garbage. Most people in Matavenero don´t have health insurance, and we own very few cars. With the solar system and the firewood we are nearly autonomous in our energy costs. We have our own school, the teachers live in the village and are paid by donation. In general we prefer to trade without money – we use barter or the gift economy.”
Matavenero has been established for 23 years. Until today, guests of the village don´t have to pay for their stay. With its basically anarchistic worldview the inhabitants are reluctant to receive any kind of income, social support or rents from the state.
Valle de Sensaciones is another ecovillage in Andalucia. Longterm member Achim Burkard sees that since the crisis less people are attending seminars that cost money, which reduces the income of the ecovillage. “However there is an increasing number of people wanting to come and learn without paying and many more people who want to join, which is understandable. There are a lot of people without money or a job, who need the knowledge about alternatives.”
As an international ecovillage, Valle de Sensaciones also has income from other countries, so the crisis does not hit them too hard. Additionally, costs for food are low and the Vale is autonomous in energy. More: http://www.sensaciones.de/en
La Base, a community of 7 people in north Spain, started one year ago and has had similar experiences. Co-founder Alfonso Carreras: “Since the crisis, many more people want to join or to visit ecovillages. That gives us the opportunity for sharing our experience more widely and to finance some aspects of the project.”
La Base is self-sustainable in water and a 50% electricity and 30% in basic food.
Contact to La Base: http://labase2001.blogspot.pt/
Alfonso: “I strongly believe we face an opportunity through the misdeeds of this crisis. Actually, we are trying to develop in the RIE an extraordinary social tool, the “Ecovillages (Communities) Incubator” to channel this new and growing flow of people searching for an alternative.”
Achim: “The most important thing is that we as ecovillages start to teach those people who need it most – and these are mostly the ones who cannot pay.”
In Portugal, young jobless people either leave the country or go back to the countryside to try make a living in the villages of their parents or grandparents. This is not easy due to the results of desertification in the southern part of the land. The new settlers have to be landscape healers, fruit cultivators and communication experts, all at the same time.
It is obvious that to overcome the crisis in Portugal, popular education and models for regional autonomy are needed.
Two years ago, the movement “March 12” emerged, triggered by a Facebook campaign. Hundreds of thousands of young people have called themselves the “Generacao a rasca”: a lost generation without perspective.
Several times, more than 1 million people have marched in the streets of the main cities – ten percent of the Portuguese population – to protest against the Troika and the government.
Meanwhile, the movement´s initiator Joao Labrincha realized that protest is not enough. He started a “Academia Cidadã”, a Citizenship Academy, based on transition town initiatives, communities and ecovillages all over the country. “It needs knowledge to live independently from the Troika – skills in community building, regional currencies, decentralized energy, food and water systems.”
The “Aldeias Sustentável Amoreiras” is an initiative in the Alentejo composed of older people who have remained in the village, and of well educated young people that came from Lisbon.
After many years, the sounds of playing children can be heard once again in the neighborhood. Initiator André Vizinho sees their initiative as a transition town movement…in a village. “It is not so much about what we as city people think a sustainable village is. We came to live here to explore what our common dreams are for a sustainable village – and to help manifest them.”
Village celebrations, English classes, neighborhood help, permaculture gardens, seed markets and rainwater harvesting are some of the activities they have started so far. The initiative is one of many that will undoubtedly pop up all over Portugal now.
The biggest ecovillage of Portugal is Tamera. The “Healing Biotope 1” tries to help neighbours directly and on a more sustainable way by sharing social and ecological knowledge. With its water retentive landscape, Tamera has found a way to prevent desertification and to create food abundance in a deserted landscape. This knowledge can help to create regional autonomy in many places. Tamera cooperates with transition town movements, the Academia Cidada and other networks in Portugal to train groups and initiatives from throughout the country.
At the “3rd Water Symposium” from June 7-9, 2013, Tamera will present the Water Retention Landscape and, above all, elaborate to specialists and decision makers how autonomous regions can be created on the basis of alternative water management, food autonomy and community tools.
Bernd Müller, head of the ecology department of Tamera: “The Water Retention Landscape of Tamera shows how to become resilient in times of a global crisis. The next concrete step will be to plan a regional model, “Alentejo,” through which the ongoing desertification in the south of Portugal can be halted, and a sustainable food autonomy can be established. In this way Portugal could be a model for the world. We offer this knowledge to all those who work on alternatives. And we invite everybody who has knowledge in those fields to come and help to develop this model.”
More about Tamera: www.tamera.org
When I look at these developments in Southern Europe, an old saying springs to mind: “What for the caterpillar is the end of the world, is for the butterfly a new beginning.”
The crisis can become a trigger of this new beginning to unfold. Let us work together to manifest this dream.