Our group consists of five rather diverse organisations and communities whose members are deeply devoted to contributing to the development of their particular rural region. These are:
Embercombe from Devon in South England
Focus Eco Center from Transylvania in Romania
Garden of Generations from Lower Austria
Community of Klein Jasedow from Pomerania in North East Germany
Sluňákov from the Olomouc Region in the Czech Republic.
Embercombe is the name of a valley in a secluded region of county Devon in South West England. It was formerly used by a milloniare for a private airplane runway, so it includes two former hangars which today provide room for workshops, the main kitchen, meeting spaces, and offices for an unconventional social educational project. From a well at the upper part down to a lake at the lowest part numerous gardens, orchards, and meadows stretch across the valley which is surrounded by a large forest; the place is able to provide basically everything needed for a »good life«: fresh water, locally grown food, timber, and firewood. Embercombe offers various workshop-programmes that invite people to find their true purpose and meaning in life through deep experiences in nature. As the valley with its large permaculture gardens and orchards is surrounded by large forests, it is an ideal place for retreats and deep contemplation. The project’s initiators are convinced, that those who are in touch with their own inner potential and are able to clearly see the problems in the world will be ready to take action for the transformation necessary in order to survive on this planet. The programme participants come from various social backgrounds, including large companies, universities, or non-governmental organisations. They live in yurts and use compost-toilets, so the Embercombe experience takes people close to nature right from the beginning.
Only a small number of people are permanently living on site, but groups of 30 volunteers—young people from all over the world—live there for a period of three months to take care of all the practical work in the garden, the kitchen, the workshops, or setting up new and refurbishing existing infrastructure. These volunteers form a temporary community that meets every morning to share their thoughts and feelings in a »morning circle«, and they receive some coaching by Embercombe-residents, making the volunteer programme not only an opportunity to gain work experience but also to take time to reflect and to search for meaning.
Embercombe also offers programmes for children in cooperation with local schools and organises public events. It is managed by a trust.
Focus Eco Center
In the valley of the river Niraj in Transylvania, near the town of Targu Mures, the members of Focus Eco Centre have established a number of pioneering projects to demonstrate that traditional small-scale agriculture is not old-fashioned but ecologically and economically sustainable and should be the general orientation for the future development of rural regions in Romania and other European countries. They show that the human-made landscape of their valley has stayed so rich in biodiversity exactly because of the farming activities that have taken place there for centuries, and that the social climate in the villages is so positive because people are used to helping each other in various areas of agricultural work. This traditional farming culture was threatened by the collectivisation enforced by the Ceausescu dictatorship during Communist times and after the revolution in 1989 by the introduction of capitalistic consumer culture.
Focus Eco Centre aims at connecting with the positive, surviving aspects of the past while adapting them to the requirements of modern life, i. e., establishing new methods of direct trade as community supported agriculture and ecological agrotourism. This shows that a network of small, cooperating ecological farms is truly avantgarde—not the agricultural industry which is about to destroy the beautiful landscape and the social culture in the villages of Transylvania. Various educational activities try to promote this new paradigm for rural spaces. Focus Eco Center is based in a former school house in the village of Adrianu Mic. This is the starting point of a »path of agro-biodiversity«, leading through various biotopes, such as streams, wetlands, meadows, pastures, orchards, woodlands, or swamps, ending at a small farmhouse. Focus Eco Centre mainly assists young locals in finding a job perspective in their rural area, but also connects city dwellers with local farmers as well as young people from all over Europe who want to experience the benefits of traditional subsistence farming and a lively village culture which has been lost in so many of the more »developed« European countries.
Garden of Generations
Garden of Generations is an emerging community in Lower Austria. On a beautiful piece of land on the outskirts of the small town Herzogenburg, a pioneering project of multigenerational co-housing, ecological building activities, participative organisation, ecosocial entrepreneurship, gardening as well as care for the youngest and oldest is about to start. Together with an innovative architect the group of initiators has worked out a plan for apartment houses, offices, and communal spaces according to the planning principles of Christopher Alexander’s pattern language. The group organises itself by the method of sociocracy, so that overlapping circles of responsible people work on decisionmaking in different fields, such as »multigenerational cooperation«, »housing«, or »business«. By working with various tools for community building and reflecting on the vision to create a place, where people from all generations live and learn together peacefully, practice new cooperative economic ways, and develop a degree of subsistence to lower their ecological footprint, Garden of Generations will become a centre of learning how to realise a »good live«—in the sense of »buen vivir«—a low-impact way of life that is not harmful to the planet, leaving it behind in a better state for coming generations. The learning takes place in the everyday life of the inhabitants as well as in workshops and seminars. As a branch of the nearby alternative school »Lernwerkstatt« Garden of Generations will also enable its children to form a learning group on site, within the community, so that their education will not be seperated from real life as is the case in classrooms.
To buy the property and to enable the construction work the founder of the project developed the innovative tool »wealth pool« which has been approved by the Austrian authorities as a legal method of raising funds: It offers people to transfer an amount of money they currently do not need themselves into an account administered by a custodian of the community’s supporting association. This fund is only used for investments into property that equal the value of the loans. A liquidity-reserve of 10 percent is kept so that a loan can be payed back in appropriate time when it is recalled. Money for this fund is constantly acquired, so that people are encouraged to lend interest-free money they currently do not need even for short periods of time. This concept overcomes the dichotomy of debt and donations—wealth pool is neither nor, it makes financial resources, which are not needed anywhere else at the moment, available for the investments of a meaningful project. Currently, efforts are made to transfer the concept, which is used already by a number of Austrian projects, to other European countries.
The community of Klein Jasedow has existed for more than 40 years. In Germany, it is the longest lasting one of those intentional communities which have formed in the 1970s during the rise of the New Social Movements. Having started in Upper Bavaria with a four-years interphase in Switzerland, the community settled in 1997 in the hamlet of Klein Jasedow, belonging to the municipality of the small town Lassan, close to the Baltic Sea in the far north-east of Germany. Today, 28 persons of four generations are sharing life and work in the form of commoning. They run the »European Academy of Healing Arts«—a non-for-profit educational center for health care professionals and artists, a free Democratic School for children, and several social business—including a publishing house issuing an influential magazine for a sustainable livelihood, and a workshop for crafting musical instruments—, are performing artists and have started a long-term hands-on research project focusing on the question of how—given the present conditions of climate, soil, and lifestyle—a life-fostering, sustainable, subsistence agriculture can be established within the the local region. Since their settling in 1997, the community has initiated other companies and associations which together with their own workplaces have resulted in creating and securing more than 50 sustainable jobs, which is a considerable contribution to solving the huge unemployment problem caused by the social upheavals in Eastern Germany after the fall of the wall. Members of the community are participating in communal affairs, with one person being a long-term member of the town council. The community is well connected with relevant NGOs and political actors throughout Germany and Europe.
Located in Moravia in the south-eastern part of the Czech Republic, Sluňákov is a centre for environmental education founded by the municipality of the town Olomouc and initiated by ecological activists in the years following the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It realises a way of education that does not only convey factual knowledge, but, first and foremost, a profound experience for all senses, enabling individuals to solve problems and create their own ideas—this attitude puts much more emphasis on posing questions than on giving exact answers.
The central building of Sluňákov with its organic architecture and ecological building materials provides accommodation for groups and space for workshops, conferences, and administration, but the main educational work is done outside on excursions to the nearby Litovelské Pomoraví Protected Landscape Area or other destinations, including Sluňákov’s own premises: a large area of low-lying fields close to a stream just behind the main building. Some of Czechia’s most interesting and eminent land-art artists created large installations, such as a »Garden of Eden« hidden behind the brick-stone facade of a life-sized ark or the walk-in »Solar Mountain«, awakening reminiscences of megalithic cairns. This land-art park is part of Sluňákov’s »House of Nature« and is open to the general public, with inhabitants of the nearby village Horka nad Moravou going for walks on the grounds; visitors can also participate in guided tours. House of Nature tries to convey the interconnectedness between natural and cultural processes, it is a place to reflect about the role of humans in the world we share with so many other living beings. In order to inspire theses reflections Sluňákov organises in addition to its everyday work with groups of children public lectures, debates, and events for the general public, such as the Olomouc Ecological Days, the largest festival on ecological issues in Czechia. Sluňákov cooperates closely with Palacký University in Olomouc, and students work as interns in the Sluňákov educational programmes. To put Sluňákov’s work in perspective, it is worth remembering that environmental activism in Eastern European countries still tends to be much more of a dissidents’ task.