From December 10-14, 120 people from 40 countries met for the first International Ecovillage Summit in Senegal – sponsored by the German Foreign Ministry, and organized by GEN International. The choice of Senegal as hosting country was no coincidence: the Senegalese government has equipped 100 traditional villages with techniques learned from ecovillages.
This is only the beginning: Senegal´s aim to create 14.000 ecovillages could become a model for governments who want to adapt a promising strategy in times of climate change, rural exodus and deforestation. The conference was very much determined by the approaches of two different strategies: bottom-up and top-down. Leila Dregger reports.
On the way to the conference venue, participants found the GEN logo on huge posters on the main roads: The Ecovillage Summit was advertised widely throughout the country, and covered by major papers and TV channels of the West African state. However, the meeting began like any other GEN conference: in a ceremony, two elders from all five directions invoked support and blessings for the conference, from all beings: visible and invisible.
The first day was spent sharing about the progress, challenges and success stories of single ecovillages around the world. We defined, from many different perspectives, what an ecovillage is, and celebrated the diversity of the movement. For the first time we had true elders of the movement with us: Alberto Ruz, called Coyote, from Mexico, is the founder of the legendary Caravanas, a traveling community that spent 13 years on the road, visiting and sharing with remote traditional communities all over Latin America. Pracha Hutanuwatr from Thailand had previously been a Marxist and then a monk, before he founded the Wongsanit Ashram, modeled on the ashrams for non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi. Today he inspires villages all over Thailand, Burma, and Southern China to become ecovillages. Mama Visolela from Namibia was a resistance fighter, and became a member of parliament in her country; today she runs a women’s house for feminine wisdom and alternative initiation into womanhood. The wisdom of the elder generation met with many precious young ecovillage projects from Africa who sent their representatives to the summit: from Egypt to South Africa, from Gambia to Congo, Ghana, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, and also with experiences from Palestine and Israel, from the Americas and Europe. Additionally international observers, as well as experts of all four ecovillage dimensions, were invited in the areas of ecology, economy, world view and social. The knowledge transmission of the many ecovillages from different regions was deepened during work groups: in responsible tourism, fundraising and economical sustainability, traditional cultural heritages, holistic education, renewable decentralized energies, and many more.
On the second day, the whole summit was invited by the Senegalese government to a reception and exchange with Prime Minister, Mohammed Dionne, as well as members of the Ministry for the Environment and Sustainability, and the National Agency for Ecovillages (ANEV):
“This is a special day for GEN”, President Kosha Joubert stated, “GEN already reaches about 10 000 villages. However, the time has come to support many more. In order to do so, GEN is building bridges between ecovillages, the UN, governments, corporations, and universities”.
In Senegal, 100 villages have already been equipped with ecovillage techniques, and 500 ecovillages are planned by 2018, with the goal being to transform every second village of the country into an ecovillage.
The Prime Minister declared himself a full supporter of the ecovillage vision: “The concept of ecovillages is based on the cultural values of our nation, and supports, at the same time, social progress and the conservation of environment. By creating ecovillages, Senegal is at the forefront of sustainable development, as was first demanded in the UN summit in 1992. We are going further now: 14 000 ecovillages all over Senegal will create thousands of green jobs and reverse the rural migration.”
Ousmane Pame, President of GEN Africa declared that: “Ecovillages, with their promotion of organic agriculture, renewable energies, traditional skills, and food sovereignty, are a solution for climate change and deforestation.”
During the day, many challenges were also discussed. Senegal faces severe desertification, loss of water supplies, and soil degradation. As in all African countries, forests are being cut down for firewood. Thousands of young people leave the country to look for better life conditions in Europe.
The strategy that ANEV has taken consists of strengthening good local governance, food security, use of biogas and solar energy, and environmental education. “Ecovillages are the pillar for sustainability”, Col. Dembou Mamadou, head of the ANEV stated.
“Sustainability is not enough”, Kosha Joubert commented. “The state of the planet requires more of us: it’s about regeneration of Nature and healing of the relationships within communities. Globally, we have the knowledge to do so, and now it is about coming together as a global community to create our own pathway to the future; differing from the suggested way of modernization and centralization. Coming together is a beautiful, but not always easy, path.”
On one of the conference days, some of the delegates had the chance to visit Mbackombel, a pilot model for the ecovillages, supported by ANEV. We saw a village of 500 families with many youth, receiving us with local music and dance, who have light and energy through solar power and biogas, using rocket stoves, compost, and permaculture methods, and having a school, and village library.
It was easy to see how immensely their standards of living have changed using ecovillage techniques. Every family has enough to live, the stresses on the surrounding trees and soils have abated, and the community seems to be unified in their support of one another.
Although the biogas system looked suspiciously clean and unused, and the adobe barn had collapsed because of construction mistakes, it was promising that the population created their own system of maintaining the solar technology, community gardens, and the tree nursery.
The following days of the conference saw deep and controversial discussions about how to open up for cooperation with governments and corporations, while at the same time not losing the depth and evolutionary power of the ecovillage experience, which has grown out of the grassroots movements.
Questions such as “Can bottom-up strategies really meet top-down strategies?” or “Isn´t the ecovillage approach of the government another approach of the development and colonization concept – technologies applied from the outside?” were discussed, as well as “How can we empower and encourage traditional villages to, not only, apply ready-made concepts, but also connect with their unique identity and knowledge, becoming strong and autonomous partners of the ecovillage approach?”
To develop a common solution, participants worked together in groups to write a common strategy paper of how to scale-up the ecovillage transition process: a paper that can be presented to local authorities, mayors, national governments, and all cooperation partners, to transition existing villages, regions, and cities into ecovillages, ecoregions and ecocities.
We expect to identify many willing partners regarding the situation of climate change and rural exodus. Spain is just one example of a country that sells whole villages for a nominal price, as long as the buyer can show a meaningful proposal for revitalization and sustainability.
In just two days, the first draft of a twenty page strategy paper was written. It will be discussed in other GEN working groups, and presented at the GEN +20 Summit taking place in Findhorn in July 2015.
Sometimes, the simplest words can be the deepest, as a participant from Mauritania shared: “What are Ecovillages? They are about providing each other with food and with all that we need. They are about caring for the water, the plants, and the animals. To say it in one word: Ecovillage is love.”