Eco-community battles Greek crisis | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 06.12.2013
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Eco-community battles Greek crisis

In light of Greece's economic crisis, a group of city-dwellers has built a self-sufficient eco-community. As many people struggle with growing food security problems, the group produces its own food and electricity.

Rain falls over a vegetable patch on the small Greek island of Evia where Apostolis Sianos, a tall, tanned 32-year-old man with long dark hair, picks vegetables. He will use these tomatoes, green beans, and eggplants for today's lunch.

The gardens here are teeming with life. Bees zip past the herbs and vegetables toward the new apple orchard.

"Natural farming has proven that one acre (4,840 square yards) is more than enough for a single family, as long as there are no animals on it," Sianos said. "We have about 15 acres, so you can imagine how much food we produce."

Sianos is part of the "Free and Real Community," as they call themselves. It's a group of city-dwellers who packed up their lives and moved into the country to build an eco-community off-the-grid. Just as they were breaking earth on their new plot of land, Greece began sinking into the most severe economic depression in living memory.

Hands putting vegetables into a basket Copyright: DW/N. Apostolou

Self-sufficiency, especially with regard to food, is the aim at Free&Real

'Endless consumption'

Some three years ago, Sianos still worked as a web designer in the capital Athens. In the city, he couldn't even keep flowers alive on his balcony, he recalled. Today, he spends much of his time in this garden patch, tending the vegetables.

In Athens, Sianos didn't like the way people around him were living.

"The way we are working the system now, with endless consumption - we are treating the planet as though we have an endless amount of resources, but we have finite resources," he said. "Once you get to the point of realizing this, you have to act. You have to do something differently."

That's why Sianos and his friends Panayiotis and Alexis decided they would build an independent community somewhere in the Greek countryside that would do exactly that.

"We were roaming Greece for six months, meeting people [who were] part of the eco-network, the first ecologists in Greece," Sianos recalled. "Most of them are agriculturalists or herbalists, botanists."

In order to choose the right place, the most important thing to look out for is water, Sianos explained. The area also has to be fruitful - and farmers have to make sure to maintain a variety in nature.

Free&Real team members clean thyme collected from the garden, which will be used or sold at a market Copyright: DW/N. Apostolou

Free&Real team members clean thyme collected from the garden, which is then sold at market

Destructive monocultures

"In most of Greece you have monocultures everywhere these days. Even the forests don't have variety. This is destructive, because with one disease or one fire, or one something, everything is destroyed," Sianos told DW.

The group eventually settled in northern Evia, a region Sianos knows well. His ancestors used to live here. Sianos wants to build an independent eco-community which produces enough food to feed 15 people. They welcome volunteers who come here to learn about country life off the grid.

Next to the gardens, there is a steel-framed building shaped like a dome. This is where the community holds seminars on natural farming and botany and even martial arts. The roof has been fixed with solar panels that provide for this community's electricity needs. All meals are vegetarian and human waste is used to fertilize the gardens.

The main yurt, where the Free&Real team and volunteers sleep Copyright: DW/N. Apostolou

The main yurt, where the Free&Real team and volunteers sleep

"We needed to find a new way to define ourselves, a new way of living, and consuming," Panayitois Kantas said, one of the project's founders. He is an electronic engineer by training. He does most of the woodwork for the community.

"It's a completely different way of living here - a completely different environment, different motivation, different feelings. Of course it has changed me," he said.

Self-sufficient community

Kantas and his two partners were able to leave Athens just before the massive economic crisis hit. These days, it's not uncommon to see people sorting through trash cans for food. But here, no one goes hungry.

The self-sufficient community doesn't feel the bite of unemployment, austerity measures and protest that have rocked most parts of the country. Greece, in its sixth year of recession, has an unemployment rate of about 28 percent. But here at the community, members produce their own electricity and grow their own food, so they are always at work.

Community members take time out out to practice aikido Copyright: DW/N. Apostolou

Community members take time out out to practice aikido

Sharing life

It's almost dinner time and the community is gathering for a meal made from the vegetables Sianos harvested earlier.

The food is simple but very fresh. After dinner, one of the volunteers, 28-year-old Julia Friedrich, goes for a stroll in the garden. She's a psychologist from Berlin, but visits this community whenever she can.

"Before I came here, I was living in a flat in the city, which was nice but I was looking for something else," she said. "This is what makes me happy and this is where I truly feel myself, where I can be in the garden, in the nature, outside and not enclosed in the house."

It's unclear what would happen if the crops failed or were infested by insects or if a storm knocked out power. But this community isn't completely on its own. Last week, they raised more than 4,000 euros ($5,380) in a crowdfunding campaign. They plan to use the money to build an artificial lake and a new yurt.

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