Ecovillages worldwide are playing a crucial role in ecosystem restoration. Many ecovillages aim to drastically reduce their CO2 footprint, and live in a more harmonious way with nature. But ecovillages also actively restore local water cycles, local soils and even local ecosystems such as forests. With the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration set to start in 2021, this is a good time to shine a light on the significant beneficial impact that ecovillages around the world are having on local biodiversity and ecosystem health.
What is an ecovillage?
Ecovillages are holistic human settlements, that aim to regenerate social and economic systems as well, but I will focus only on ecological regeneration. Many people have only a general idea of what an ecovillage is, so let me begin with a clarification. In the definition of the Global Ecovillage Network;
“An ecovillage is an intentional or traditional community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes to regenerate their social and natural environments.”
Notice that ecovillages can both be traditional and new intentional communities. And that they are consciously designed, which happens through holistic design processes such as permaculture, or regenerative design processes. The processes of an ecovillage are locally owned and participatory, ideally involving the whole community. And their aim is to regenerate their social and natural environment. Here I will focus on the aspect of natural regeneration, in particular the role of ecovillages in ecosystem restoration. Which, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is the “process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed.
The recently launched documentary Communities of Hope, featuring ecovillages in Europe, gives an inspiring impression on what is possible.
You can watch the full documentary here.
A short history of ecovillages
1987 the Gaia Trust was founded by Hildur and Ross Jackson, who were inspired by living in cohousing in Denmark, and wanted to advance their vision of a balanced and sustainable lifestyle.
1991 the Gaia Trust commissioned an international study of sustainable communities, and the word ‘ecovillage’ was first defined.
1995 the first international meeting of sustainable communities takes place at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. The major outcomes of this meeting were; the launch of the Global Ecovillage Network, and a definition of the ecovillage model (Jackson, 1998).
The Global Ecovillage Network
The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) started with 2 goals; the building of global and regional networks, and supporting ecovillages through education. Today, 25 years later, the global ecovillage network counts 5 regions; GEN Europe, GEN North America, Casa Latina in Latin America, GEN Africa and GENOA for Oceania and Asia. In addition, there is a NextGen Youth Network. There is a total of 42 national networks and there are ecovillages in 114 countries. The main curriculum for ecovillages today – and anyone interested in learning tools for regenerative community design – is the Ecovillage Design Education Curriculum (EDE). This curriculum was launched in 2006, with the aim to increase the success rate of new ecovillages. It is a 4-week program usually offered at an ecovillage or traditional community, for example at Findhorn Community. Today there have been over 350 EDE programs that reached 22,000 students in 54 countries.
The four dimensions of the ecovillage model
The ecovillage model consists of four dimensions. The first dimension is worldview or culture. This means an ecovillage is based on a holistic and communitarian paradigm. The second dimension is ecology, which refers to the use of material and energy resources in a sustainable and regenerative way, based on principles of permaculture. The economical dimension refers to the management of common pooled resources, and the establishment of bioregional supply chains. And the social dimension consists of tools for participatory decision-making and community-building (Joubert and Alfred 2014 in Esteves, 2019)
How ecovillages contribute to ecosystem restoration
Referring back to the ecological dimension, ecovillages aim to restore local water cycles and use sustainable water technologies, such as rainwater harvesting, compost toilets, and biological wastewater treatment. They work on sustainable local food systems and often grow at least a part of their food on their own land using permaculture design, organic or biodynamic farming. In terms of energy, ecovillages usually adopt sustainable energy systems, ranging from wind power to solar power, renewable biomass, hydroelectric, or geothermal energy systems. And last, ecovillages aim at using green building techniques, focused on high energy efficiency, green roofs, and the use of local and natural materials.Discover 4 ecovillages that restore water cycles, local soils, and entire forests. Click To Tweet
An impact assessment by the Global Ecovillage Network in 2017, gathered data from 30 ecovillages on 5 continents via questionnaires. It found that of these ecovillages; 90% work actively to sequester carbon in soil or biomass 97% restore or replenish water in their ecosystems, and 85% compost all their food waste (GEN Annual Report, 2018). There have also been various ecological footprint studies, that show that ecovillages have some of the lowest carbon footprints in the industrial world (Bocco et al., 2019; Tinsley and George, 2006). In the GEN impact assessment, 97% of the 30 ecovillages state that they work actively to restore damaged or degraded ecosystems. However, it is not defined what techniques they use, and what the measured changes have been in terms of ecosystem health and biodiversity.
Four ecovillages around the world
I want to briefly highlight 4 ecovillages across the world, to illustrate the tremendous impact they can have on ecosystem restoration.
Tamera in Portugal
Tamera was founded in 1995, and today counts over 170 community members. Located in “Monte Cerro”, a rural estate in the Portuguese region of Alentejo, Tamera identifies itself as a “Peace Research and Education Center”. Tamera generates nearly 50% of its energy needs through solar energy and biogas. Twenty percent of its food is grown on its own premises and 60% is purchased from local organic farmers (in 2015), supporting bioregional food production.
They worked successfully on local ecosystem restoration through something they call water retention landscapes. This is a permaculture-based horticultural strategy of ecological land management and food production. As a result of increased rainwater infiltration, they managed to recharge depleted aquifers. They planted thousands of forest trees, fruit trees, and shrubs since 1995. Wild animals like boars, badgers, foxes, genets, forest owls, and many other birds have returned to inhabit the forests.
Sekem in Egypt
The sustainable community Sekem was founded in the desert north of Cairo in 1977, following a vision of Ibrahim Abouleish. Today the community not only has a biodynamic farm, but also a kindergarten, a school, a university, and a medical center. Even though Sekem has residents, it is perhaps more an agricultural project than an ecovillage.
In Sekem 2,800 hectares of desert converted to farmland through biodynamic agriculture. Five wells were dug on the farm to a depth of about 100 meters and accompanied by a huge underground irrigation system. Compost on the farm is made from organic materials and organic seeds and seedlings are produced on-site. Today 850 farmers from all over Egypt are members of the “Egyptian Biodynamic Association” founded by Sekem. The project has won numerous prices, such as the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2003 and the Business for Peace Award in 2012 (Leach, 2015).
Findhorn Foundation in Scotland
Founded in 1962, today Findhorn Community counts over 400 community members. The Findhorn Foundation also receives guests for almost 200 week-long courses every year. They feature a large variety of eco-houses, four wind turbines supply 100% of energy needs, there is a biological sewage treatment plant and organic and biodynamic farming provides for the communal kitchen and over 100 households. Residents of the Findhorn Community have the lowest ecological footprint of any community measured so far in the industrialised world (2.71 gha per person), half of the UK average (5.4 gha per person). They received the United Nations (UN)-HABITAT Best Practice Award and are an NGO with consultative status at the UN (Tinsley and George, 2006).
Las Gaviotas in Colombia
Las Gaviotas is an ecovillage in Colombia. It was founded in the early 1970s by a development specialist named Paolo Lugari in the inhospitable eastern plains of Llanos, Colombia. Today 200 community members live here. Las Gaviotas is a self-sufficient sustainable community that was founded in a tropical desert. Mr. Lugari said that “The only deserts that exist in this world are deserts of the imagination”. They have been generating their energy through creative experiments with windmills and solar energy, and use hydroponic farming techniques. One impressive undertaking is the regeneration of an indigenous rainforest of 8000 hectares. The regeneration was done with the help of a specific mycorrhizal root fungus which allowed the Caribbean pine to grow in the poor soil of the savanna. It led to increased biodiversity and created a cooler climate. The pines produce a resin that is used as biofuel and to generate income for the community members. The United Nations named the village a model of sustainable development
Some of the known challenges in ecovillages are the high rates of failure, which can be up to 90%. Usually, the cause for this is structural issues; a lack of a clear common vision and mission, common agreements, governance model, and so on. Another challenge is a lack of capital, as the development of ecovillages generally needs large scale mobilizations of capital and material resources. Regulatory barriers can also be a block, ecovillages often face significant regulatory and institutional red tape. Privilege and inequality within ecovillages is another issue that has been highlighted (Esteves, 2019).
The untapped potential
Recently, the conservation movement called for more support for indigenous and local communities. The land inhabited by indigenous people worldwide is less degraded and more biodiverse than other terrestrial areas. Both intergovernmental organisations and scientists worldwide now want to empower indigenous peoples to continue to protect their lands (Díaz, 2019; Dinerstein et al., 2019). With increasing insight into the beneficial impact of ecovillages on their local environment, can we extend that support to ecovillages worldwide? How can we benefit from the knowledge of ecovillage inhabitants as holders of their Local Ecological Knowledge? And can ecovillages perhaps play a role in monitoring biodiversity health? One thing is certain, increased awareness is needed about the ecosystem restoration practices and impact of ecovillages. With more research, funding, and collaboration, we can start to scale up the proven regenerative practices of ecovillages to communities worldwide.
This article is adapted from a presentation for my current Ethnobotany MSc at the School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, England.
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