Family reunion

A community that has succeeded in redefining wealth in terms much broader than money income alone

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.

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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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