Eco-villages in Catalonia: the rise of new green models in times of crisis

An increasing number of people are fed up with living in concrete jungles. Many think of the countryside as a solution to problems such as stress, a low-paying job and pollution. Due to the start of the economic crisis, this phenomenon boomed, with people beginning to look for an 'alternative way of life' or, at least, new opportunities. Catalonia and the whole of Spain are no exception to this. Here, moving (back) to the countryside nowadays looks like an attractive option to many, especially to young unemployed graduates. However, sustainable agriculture initiatives and the like are the 'junior division' compared to more complex social, cultural and ecological experiments: the eco-villages. Coming in different shapes and sizes, their members share resources and spaces, grow their own food and cover in a sustainable way the energy demand of the buildings they live in. With different missions and features, many eco-villages can be traced back to one or two decades ago and could teach a lot to newcomers.

The Amalurra's tipi and stone laberynth (by Amalurra Comunidad)
The Amalurra's tipi and stone laberynth (by Amalurra Comunidad) / Valentina Marconi

Valentina Marconi

June 19, 2015 04:57 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- An increasing number of people are fed up with living in concrete jungles. Many think of the countryside as a solution to problems such as stress, a low-paying job and pollution. Due to the start of the economic crisis, this phenomenon boomed, with people beginning to look for an 'alternative way of life' or, at least, new opportunities. Catalonia and the whole of Spain are no exception to this. Here, moving (back) to the countryside nowadays looks like an attractive option to many, especially to young unemployed graduates. However, sustainable agriculture initiatives and the like are the 'junior division' compared to more complex social, cultural and ecological experiments: the eco-villages. Coming in different shapes and sizes, their members share resources and spaces, grow their own food and cover in a sustainable way the energy demand of the buildings they live in. With different missions and features, many eco-villages can be traced back to one or two decades ago and could teach a lot to newcomers.

In Catalonia, people started thinking of the countryside as an alternative between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, when the first sustainable agriculture initiatives began, explains University of Barcelona's Professor Maria Àngels Alió. "Nowadays, many young people born in small villages move to big cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, London or Paris. When some of them complete their degrees, they realise the city has few opportunities to offer them and decide to go back to their places of origin", she states. "As opposed to their parents – who went to the city to study and remained there after finding a stable job – they go back to the countryside. Some of them do it in an alternative way, as being a traditional farmer in the current context of industrial agriculture is not interesting to them", Professor Alió concludes.

According to Elvira Fafián, Manager of the webpage, a real estate agency specialised in rural properties, "with the economic crisis, the number of people interested in selling and buying this kind of housing unit increased". "Most villages are bought to be converted into sustainable agriculture projects, especially by young people who mostly want to live and work there, embracing a new way of life", she says. "Not everyone who goes to live in a rural village aims to retire. On the contrary, most people are provided with entrepreneurial spirit and want to live off agriculture, creating wealth both for them and the surrounding area", she stresses.

"At the moment in Catalonia we have this new generation of young peasantry committed to alternative projects often halfway between sustainability and alternative economy", Alió explains. We are not speaking of eco-villages though, which are a more structured way of self-organising as a collectivity. However, what these young people are doing is of great relevance", she says.

Moreover, as Geographer Montserrat Mercadé, a member of the Catalan Society for Territorial Planning notes, the great development of telecommunications has made it possible to perform many kinds of activities and jobs unrelated to the agricultural world, while living in the countryside.

The Catalan countryside attracts foreigners as well

Catalonia's countryside seems to attract many foreigners as well, who buy properties there. "Four or five years ago, mostly Swiss, German and, to a lesser extent, Argentineans. Currently, Americans, French and Mexicans lead", the Manager of explains. According to Elvira Fafián, "the majority want to settle down. They bring their family and then they surround themselves with friends. Many buy a village so that people from their community can come. There are villages where only English is spoken", she highlights.

The current availability of villages that both locals and foreigners can buy is due to the process of depopulation of rural areas that historically took place all over Spain, but that completely emptied some villages in the last few decades. "In Catalonia, the most affected areas were the ones on high and medium sized mountains, as well as rainfed areas, which experienced steady depopulation, almost up until the 1990s", Montserrat Mercadé explains.

Rural depopulation started in the early 20th century

According to Maria Àngels Alió, in Catalonia the process of abandonment of rural villages started in 1910-1920 when the first large migratory movements towards the manufacturing areas of Greater Barcelona took place. Then, after the Civil War and especially in the 1950s and 1960s, this phenomenon continued. Overall, the depopulation of rural Catalan villages is not recent, having been around for a century and a half. "The reasons why these people left the countryside were not strictly economic", she explains. "Life opportunities in the city were much better at that moment. The villages these people left were very small with a population ranging from 100 to 115 people", Professor Alió concludes.

For Montserrat Mercadé, people first moved to larger villages close to their place of origin. Then, middle-size cities became the main centres of attraction. Finally, with the improvement of transport and communications, the biggest Catalan urban areas came to be the top destinations. "Anyhow, Barcelona always had a leading role in this", she says.

According to Professor Alió, nowadays, the opposite migratory movement seems – to a certain extent – to happen. "Currently, small villages keep losing population in absolute numbers. However, new people are flowing in as well, including young people. If it was not for them, these villages would suffer an even greater population decline", she says. With an increasing number of people looking for better life opportunities in the countryside, those who transform their 'green' intuition into reality set up a vast and truly diverse range of alternative and sustainable projects. Eco-villages represent only the furthest end of this spectrum of experiences.

"No two eco-villages are the same", says Alfonso Flaquer from La Base in Girona

In Spain, the Iberic Eco-villages Network brings together many projects and experiences of this kind. "Some are stable and older while others are more recent and fragile", says Kevin Lluch Head of Communication for their website. "Some focus on ecology, others on socio-political activism or spiritual and personal growth. It is difficult to say how many are operating at the moment in Spain", he says. "I think that the number of consolidated experiences is approximately 30 but many more are currently striving to get there", he concludes.

"Pacifist, ecologist, animal-rights activist, communist, religious or posh person. Everyone has their own ideology or mission. All have to find their own equilibrium", says Alfonso Flaquer, one of the founders of La Base, an eco-village located in the Province of Girona (between the municipalities of Masarac and Peralada). It occupies one hectare of flat sandy soil, surrounded by vineyards on three sides and with a dry river to the North. Its members grow some terraces with different methods; lately especially using EM (Effective Micro-organisms, a technology purported to support sustainable practices in farming).

His project kicked off in 2001 when he and his then partner Elena Vazquez purchased a small private aerodrome and then converted it in a space for meetings, lodging and spreading alternative technologies. "We started as a family settlement and, over the years, more and more people got closer. Finally, we decided to open up our space to people from the outside community as well", he says. Currently up to 9 people live there and since 2005 La Base is a member of The Iberic Ecovillage Network (RIE) and The Global Ecovillage Network – Europe (GEN).

According to their website, since the very beginning they became interested in straw-bale construction and super adobe (sandbag and barbed wire) and became the first to build and live in a straw-bale building in Spain. They cover up to 80% of their energy demand through wind and solar energy and have a small butane gas generator for the water pump and the winter. They also organise workshops on permaculture and bio-construction, providing intensive courses on specific materials such as super adobe, straw-bales, wood and bamboo.

Rules of entry and leaving, and fees

Workshops are a collective activity that many eco-villages carry out, mostly making them open to the public. They represent a way in which the eco-community reaches out to the external word, sharing knowledge on a vast array of themes. According to GEN's definition, an eco-village uses local participatory processes to integrate ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainability. Nothing further from a lawless and chaotic community, on the contrary a space where participation and consensus are central.

"For a would-be member, the length of the entry process usually depends on the size of the eco-village, ranging from 3 months to 3 years", Flaquer explains. In addition, "in some communities, you have to pay a sum of money in order to compensate for the expenses that previous members had to bear", he adds. Indeed, not only does the entrance have to be soundly thought through, but also the exit process must be planned carefully. "People can be asked to give 'a-some-month notice' in order not to damage the communal economy", explains La Base's founder. Besides, "expulsions for disagreements on daily issues are rare, they just happen if conflict resolution measures are not functioning", Flaquer concludes.

According to him, a new form of decision-making is currently very fashionable within the "eco-villagers' tribe". Named 'sociocracy', it represents "a collaborative governance method based on self-organisation, distributed authority, and inclusive decision-making. It implements democracy without majority rule and better ensures freedom and equality", according to the website Its central feature is respect of the principle of consent, meaning that each member’s concerns and objections about a specific policy with a direct impact on them must be resolved before final implementation.

"Eco-village life has advantages and disadvantages", Amalurra Spokesperson states

Establishing a collaborative governance method inside a community means putting a great emphasis in order for the relational aspect of the project to work. The stress on collaborative decision-making and conflict resolution can represent an appealing aspect of eco-villages in the eyes of outsiders. However, the majority of people still think that making the choice of living there is not a feasible option for everyone, considering it utopian or even elitist. “Framing our way of life as elitist is not correct. It is an alternative choice which comes with many advantages and inconveniences", explains Paula Maella, Spokesperson for Amalurra (in Euskera, Mother Earth), a project founded in the 1990s by Irene Goikolea and currently boasting 3 intentional communities: in Artzentales (Basque Country), Caparacena (Andalusia) and Can Cases (Catalonia).

Located in Can Cases (in the province of Barcelona, between Corbera de Llobregat and Castellví de Rosanes), the Catalan Amalurra intentional community is the smallest and the youngest of the three, with a total of 15 participants and 11-12 years of existence. After having bought a country house on a 47 hectare plot of land, its members are currently carrying out renovation work. Their aim is to go and live there permanently, building their own community in the spirit of Amalurra’s principles. In 2013, the summer meeting of The Iberic Ecovillage Network RIE was held there.

"We prefer to be called an intentional community", Paula Maella, says. "I think that within the eco-village movement there are two different sub-groups, which can be distinguished on the basis of the different evolution that the project had. The first sub-group includes those experiences which since the beginning focus on building a physical space for living in a sustainable, energy-efficient, nature-respecting way", she explains. "The second – that comprehends our experience too – is represented by intentional communities which start out as groups of people working on introspection and spiritual-emotional development. For us, it happened firstly with the 'circles of women' organised by our founder Irene Goikolea and that sometime later opened to men as well. Only at a later stage, did we decide to go and live in an eco-village altogether", she highlights.   

The Amalurra intentional community in Bizkaia is the oldest and biggest one of the three. As their website shows, their property has gardens, woods (where they have planted more than 3,000 trees), a small river and vegetables gardens which they take care of and use collectively. They also built and currently manage a rural hotel for visitors, which includes a restaurant, a cafeteria, a spa, a sauna and treatment cabins (all of them open to the public). In addition to outdoor spaces, they have 8 multifunctional rooms, which can be rented to the public and are designated for different kinds of training activities: from tai chi to painting classes, and bio-construction and bio-dance workshops, among many others. One of these multifunctional rooms, called 'Room of the Meetings' can host up to 250 people.

Currently in this Amalurra community, there are 12 family units, some traditional, others single-parent and others formed only by a single adult with no children. Each member lives within their own family unit in individual homes, and families interact with each other and share both outdoor spaces and resources. Moreover, in addition to the 12 families who live inside the eco-village, a number of people living outside regularly take part in its activities, for example, doing voluntary work in the vegetable garden.

Meditation, self-awareness and communication, tools to solve conflicts

"At the beginning, conflicts erupted all the time", explains Maella. "Every day, we held a circle of word or council (a 'practice' facilitated by Irene Goikolea). We sometimes held them even twice per day. Each community member had a very different background and many of us were not used to sharing from the heart", she says. "Thanks to practice, we learnt how to deal with negative emotions which could have damaged both ourselves and the whole group. To mediate conflicts we used other kinds of tools as well: meditation, self-awareness, straight communication and family constellations, among others", the Amalurra Spokesperson concludes.

Although eco-villages are an increasingly known phenomenon, many people still do not realise to what extent an eco-villager's daily life differs from theirs. "Our social life is absolutely normal. We have our families and jobs like before. Just a few people work in commercial activities inside the community (in the rural hotel and restaurant, for example)", Maella says. "What we really wanted was to escape the individualism of contemporary society, creating a collective space where solidarity, teamwork, individual and group development are at the centre", she explains.        

According to her, kids get something really precious from the eco-village experience. Living in this context allows them to develop a different understanding of human relations, where the boundaries of the traditional family are replaced by the much looser ones of the intentional community", Maella explains. "In this sense, growing up inside the community is a gift, something very special", she concludes.

"Partly out of need, partly a personal choice", says Arnau about joining Can Masdeu

While kids 'happen' to grow up in an eco-village, the majority of intentional communities' inhabitants actively decide to make this choice. Their reasons are numerous, differing greatly from each other.

"For me, it was partly out of need, partly out of a personal choice", says Arnau from Can Masdeu, a project located in a forest park on the edge of Barcelona city that started in December 2001 as a result of an occupation. "When I started living here I was 26 years old, I had a 'typical' temporary job. So, I start experimenting with this kind of lifestyle", he continues. "I held on to it as I came to learn that it would allow me to cover some of my basic needs. Then, it turned into something that could provide me with the opportunity to live off an alternative economy", he concludes. 

Can Masdeu currently has 25 adults and 6 children and its members' ages range from 1 to 55. According to their website, in their eco-village many resources are shared (such as vehicles, work tools, telephones, kitchens, washing machines, furniture, PCs, books, etc.) while others remain personal. Most of the people living there have temporary or part-time jobs outside the community. However, Arnau explains that combining a full-time job with the weekly activities of the eco-village is not possible.

People in Can Masdeu cultivate 80% of the vegetables they consume and produce their own bread, honey and oil, while harvesting the fruit they eat. They also prepare medicinal preparations, cultivate olives and make artisanal beer. "But we also buy stuff, of course. For example, the dry food we use comes from a cooperative of organic food", they state on the website.

They heat the water and the air with wood-burning stoves (using wood collected in the forest) and solar panels. Many of the utensils, facilities and tools they use are homemade, mostly from recycled materials. They also build and repair bikes. "We manage the water cycle, which comes from the aquifers of the valley and is channeled with old irrigation systems which we have been recovering", they say. "My life before consisted of travelling, studying and political activism. The only thing I miss is a certain level of security and comfort. But currently we are also reaching it inside our community as well", Arnau says.

Can Masdeu is only one out of five projects currently active in the valley where it is located. "We are the guardians of the territory but not the only promoters", says Arnau. Its members maintain strong links with entities inside 'the city', such as the squatting world and the Civic Platform to defend Collserola Park (an umbrella organisation for the protection of a green area partly surrounding the western side of Barcelona), among many others.

Could the eco-village model be generalised? The opinions of eco-villagers and experts.

However, the real puzzle is assessing whether this incredible model – seemingly reconciling the human being both with nature and himself – can be generalised and extended to a large part of the population. According to Alfonso Flaquer founder of La Base "our model is the only feasible one...and it's not me saying it, science – which is more reliable – affirms it as well". "Only the eco-village or community model ensures that the expectations and guidelines adopted in New York on a global scale in terms of the ecological footprint and control of greenhouse emissions can be met. University researches that highlight it are already too many", he concludes.

"The eco-village model will spread, I hope, exponentially", says Paula Maella. "Sure it is necessary for people to work on it, but the next generations will probably need to make less of an effort than we did. At the end of the day, everyone aspires to a more peaceful and emotionally balanced way of life", she notes.

Finally, Arnau from Can Masdeu says, "the eco-village model is not applicable to the majority of people in its rural aspect. But with regard to the organisational side, for sure it is." "There are urban experiences as well where different levels of sharing are adopted. Creating cooperative relations is the most important aspect", he highlights.

On a slightly different note, according to UB Professor Maria Àngels Alió "the eco-village model can be applied to all kinds of territories, but not to the majority of people because it requires a specific knowledge, commitment and predisposition".

An increasing amount of information on eco-villages is beginning to be available

As eco-villages spread all over the world, an increasing amount of information on this topic is becoming available. The phenomenon is starting to be taken seriously by media and politicians. "To a certain extent, the spreading of this movement is a by-product of today’s society, with all its excesses and distortions", Flaquer underlines. "In the current moment of economic and social crisis, people desire and actively look for alternatives and end up developing their own models", he adds.

"I really cannot understand what the interesting side to a city is. It's dirty, no decent jobs can be found there, it shortens your life almost as much as smoking and is increasingly dangerous", he continues. 'La ciutat és un crim; cal que lluitem contra ella' (in English: 'The city is a crime. We need to fight against it'), "I read it when I was young and it stuck with me for the rest of the life", he concludes.

However, for city lovers it could be interesting to know that urban eco-villages exist as well, where intentional communities of people foster the ecological, economic, social and cultural sustainability of an urban neighbourhood. Whatever the location is, one thing is a fact: in times of economic crisis and shrinking privileges for the majority of the population, people are looking for economic, social and even cultural alternatives. New green models have emerged and eco-villages seem to be one of them.