Once a year, the European ecovillage family meets for a week of networking, policy discussions and fun – this is the GEN-Europe annual General Assembly. This years’ GA, to be held next week, will take place in a small community in the mountains to the east of Rome. We are expecting somewhere in the region of 100 representatives of ecovillage initiatives and other interested individuals from over 20 countries across Europe.
A small group of four of us – three GEN-Europe staffers and a council member – are using the opportunity presented by the GA to visit a number of other ecovillages in Italy. The three we have visited so far provide an illustration of the strength and diversity of the Italian network.
First stop was the Federation of Damanhur, high in the foothills of the Alps to the north of Torino, to participate in the three-yearly conference of the International Communal Studies Association. (Yes, there is a niche of academics devoted to the study of intentional communities. Many of these, unsurprisingly given the historical importance of the kibbutz movement, are from Israel.)
Based on a highly distinctive esoteric belief system, Damanhur is a community of around 1,000 members who live in shared houses of around15 members each that are spread throughout the length of the Valchiusella Valley.
Among the many impressive achievements of the community is the creation of a cooperative economy – complete with a community currency (the Credito), a credit union and many cooperative enterprises. In contrast with most local economies across Europe that are being flattened by the juggernaut of globalisation, Damanhur is flourishing and bringing economic life and employment back into the valley.
In a powerful piece of symbolism, several years ago the community took over a factory that was previously owned by the Olivetti company. This has now been beautifully restored and plays host to many of the community’s small cooperative enterprises.
Next, we moved on to the jewel that is Torri Superiore, a stone village in Ligura that can trace its roots back to the beginning of the fourteenth century. Torri was one of a large number of deserted or near-deserted ancient villages in northern Italy that have suffered from the inexorable drift of population during the twentieth century from the villages to the cities.
A group of 15 ecovillagers, together with their six children, bought the settlement in the late 1980s and have since been retrofitting it using a creative mix of traditional stone-work and modern, energy-efficient and eco-friendly technologies. Perched on a hillside where it appears to defy gravity, the retrofitting still very much a work in progress, the community hosts a guesthouse with a wonderful organic, wholefood restaurant. It has been discussing with the University of Genova the potential for using their experience as a model for repopulating the many other abandoned stone villages in the neighbouring areas.
Last on our Italian ecovillage itinerary was la Comune di Bagnaia located near Sienna in Tuscany. Very much a product of the 1968 student and workers uprising, Bagnaia is a left-leaning commune that has succeeded in maintaining a ‘common purse’ economy in which there is no private property and all earnings are divided equally between the residents. There are 28 of these, eight of whom work the community’s 200 acres. The community is more or less self-reliant in food and derives income from selling its surplus wine, olive oil and honey. It is also an important cultural resource for the surrounding area, hosting choirs, folk-dancing and workshops.
In an increasingly individualistic world, that has seen many other communities abandon their common purse economies in favour of at least part-privatisation, Bagnaia has found a way of maintaining its social cohesion and solidarity. This is a community that has succeeded in redefining wealth in terms much broader than money income alone. By any standards, they are very wealthy.
These various settlements may be small, but they are dense centres of innovation. They represent social end economic experiments that have the potential to provide models for the transformation of our societies in ways that could make them more sustainable, equitable and fun to live in.
Now, as we speed down the Autostrada de Sole, Sienna shimmering over to our left in the golden Tuscan light, we feel deeply nurtured in body and soul and filled with anticipation for the week ahead.