From megacity to ecovillage

Learning Brazilian style, with a little bit of song and dance thrown in for good measure

Very exciting developments in the ecovillage movement in Brasil. As part of an Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course I am here in Sao Paolo teaching sustainable economy to around one hundred eager participants. This is a programme of Gaia Education, whose director, May East, herself a Brazilian, lives in Findhorn.

It is already very encouraging that 100 urbanites from one of the world’s great megacities should be so interested in the ecovillage model (in fact, far more were turned away than could be accepted – there were over 430 applications for the course).

Even more striking is the fact that it is the municipal administration that is hosting the course, in the recently established University of the Environment and Peace Culture (UMAPAZ) in conjunction with several nascent ecovillage developments in the city. The city administration is also paying expenses and airfares for the teaching staff, including three of us who have come from Findhorn.

The truth is that the ecovillage concept appears to be striking a deep chord here. It does not take long to get a sense of why this should be so. This is a culture that is unashamedly expressive and fun-loving. Singing and dancing come easily and men and women alike hug freely.

One gets the impression that Brazilians have a healthy understanding of the limitations of the technical dimensions of sustainability – the kind of stuff that we northern Europeans tend to be so focused on, like wind turbines, hybrid cars and the like.

For sure, these things are important. But without a vibrant human community at the centre, these machines begin to look like little more than a lifeless shell. Who wants to belong to any revolution that does not dance? – samba, by preference. The participants in the Sao Paulo EDE are in search of a path with heart and the ecovillage model is providing just that.

This is not to say that these are not serious students. Classes are generally in the evenings and the bulk of the students roll in from their day jobs hungry for engagement. Attention is focused and questions intelligent, right up until the final song and dance at 10.30pm.

This is applied learning: periodically, we break into 10 working groups where the participants explore how course concepts can be applied to their case studies. These are real life projects working with the landless, creating community schools and other sustainability initiatives in and around the city that many of the participants are personally engaged with.

Further confirmation of the easy marriage between the Brazilian way of being and the creative, holistic ecovillage model comes from another recent initiative.

La Caravana is a ‘mobile ecovillage’, an itinerant community of dancers, singers, poets and assorted performers that has been travelling around Latin America in a small fleet of multi-coloured trucks for the last decade.

Its core work, dressed up in the outfit of a clown, is the serious business of teaching about permaculture and sustainability through the medium of the arts.

Two years ago, Brazil’s minister of culture, the internationally-acclaimed singer, Gilberto Gil, described La Caravana as "the most original socio-cultural project in Latin America". Today, La Caravana is funded by the Ministry of Culture to travel the country, mobilising and empowering a network of more than 500 ‘Living Culture’ projects (community-based cultural organisations) established by the Ministry in 2003.

At the heart of the ecovillage concept is the truth that the journey towards sustainability is at least as much about creative expression within human-scale communities as it is about technical fixes. Is it really any surprise that the Brazilians are finding this so easy to grasp?

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Collaboration is the key to coalfields regeneration

When the last shift ended at Kellingley Colliery, North Yorkshire, in December 2015, it marked the end of deep coal mining in Britain. Since the early 1980s, over 250,000 jobs were lost in the industry and whilst regeneration efforts over the last 30 years have reclaimed sites, creating new housing and the infrastructure for new businesses and jobs, the scale of these losses was huge, and deep-seated social and economic problems remain.

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust was established in 1999. When we launched our first grant programme we were overwhelmed by the demand, however, this was simply a reflection of the need out there in the coalfields. Our name resonated with people who were incredibly proud of their communities and the contribution made by the coal industry to Britain’s prosperity.

Our independence meant we could be more flexible and responsive, and this helped us direct resources into communities where other funders struggled. Over the last 17 years our programmes have evolved and we have achieved some fantastic results for the 2,000,000 people who have benefited from our support. We have also gained a better understanding of the underlying issues that still impact on the quality of life in the coalfields. There are 5,500,000 million people living in Britain’s former mining communities and many do not enjoy the opportunities afforded in non-coalfield communities. While this inequity exists, we still have a job to do.

The key challenges

The greatest challenge is the fact that there are only 50 jobs per 100 workingage people in the coalfields. when you compare this figure to London (79), and the South-East (68), it doesn’t take much to recognise that there is a major problem here. The key factor is the number of businesses; the coalfields have significantly fewer businesses than non-coalfield communities. Unless this fundamental problem is addressed at scale, we will continue to see high levels of unemployment in our communities.

We also need to raise skill levels, or at least align skills to the local labour market. There are significant numbers of people who don’t have a qualification or are low skilled and this is a major barrier to competing for jobs. If new jobs are created we want our communities to be able to access them. For many people, it means an introduction to learning again and to do this they need to be engaged. It takes time to develop these relationships and build this confidence in people and the resources to make this happen are often lacking.

We also have a real issue with health in our communities. We have significant numbers of people experiencing long-term health problems that limit their day-to-day lives. It’s a major barrier for some people in accessing a training course or attending a job club but there are often low-cost solutions, such as ‘social prescribing’, that can make a real difference to the health of a person.

What the Trust can offer the coalfields

Right now we’re delivering an ambitious range of activities across England, Scotland and Wales. Everything from safeguarding community assets, developing community plans, engaging people through sport, helping people into work, supporting community organisations and creating new industrial space. I can’t remember a more exciting time in terms of how we want to work with our communities and we’ve got some fantastic partnerships with the private, public and voluntary sectors in the mix to help us. All our future activities will be geared to address our strategic themes of employment, skills and health and we will continue to collaborate to leverage additional resources into the coalfields.

We know we could do more and welcome the continued support of the Scottish and Welsh governments. We do, however, have a new and compelling proposition. Our aim is to create a £40 million investment fund for the coalfields, and we are inviting the English government to become a partner with us and contribute £30 million to match our commitment of £10 million. This will enable us to build 400,000 square feet of new industrial and commercial space, creating 1,000 jobs. Over 25 years this will generate £50 million in income, which we will invest in social impact projects generating £500 million in wellbeing value. We see this as a real legacy project for a generation to come.

We know this might seem an ambitious proposition in the current climate, but it’s a truly enterprising approach. Collaboration is at the heart of this and is the essential ingredient for all our future work. Without it we will not achieve the results we want for our communities.

About The Coalfields Regeneration Trust

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust is dedicated to supporting and improving the quality of life for the 5.5 million people living in the former mining communities of Britain. We have worked at the heart of many of these communities since 1999 and have a track record of delivering targeted programmes that have reached over two million people helping many thousands; back into work; to develop new skills and participate in activities that have improved their health.

There is compelling evidence that recognises the significant challenges that still remain and shows how coalfield communities lag behind national averages on multiple indices of deprivation. Our enterprising and innovative responses will address these challenges but we need the support of government and regional stakeholders to help us achieve the scale of impact required.

Employment
The employment rate in the largest UK coalfields is consistently lower than the rest of the country. On average, 14 per cent of adults in the coalfields are out of work on benefits, which is 40 per cent higher than the national average and double that of south-east England. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has helped more than 25,500 people into work and created or safeguarded more than 5,500 jobs.

Skills

The proportion of the working-age population with low or no qualifications in the English coalfields is roughly 60 per cent higher than in London and 40 per cent higher than in south-east England. Thanks to the programmes The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has
supported, 1.3m people are now more highly skilled.

Health

A worrying 11.7 per cent of people living in the coalfields report long-term health problems, compared to 8.6 per cent nationally. Incapacity benefit is claimed by 8.4 per cent of adults of working age in the coalfields, which is 35 per cent higher than the national average and almost double south-east England. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has invested in projects that have improved the health of over 250,000 people

The proportion of
the working-age
population with low or
no qualifications in the
English coalfields is roughly 60 per
Employment
The employment rate
in the largest UK
coalfields is consistently
lower than the rest of
the country.
On average, 14 per cent of adults
in the coalfields are out of work on
benefits, which is 40 per cent higher
than the national average and double
that of south-east England.
The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has
helped more than 25,500 people into
work and created or safeguarded more
than 5,500 jobs.

For more information, visit www.coalfields-regen.org.uk