(Originally posted on TransitionNetwork.org/stories)
It all began with Emilio. He’s a Transition film maker from Andalucia, living in Totnes, and ever since we met, it seems, the conversation has inevitably turned to building bridges between these two cultures – Transition cultures and, ojala, cultures in transition. After many, many such conversations – over coffees, over beers and breakfasts, long walks to Sharpham, patatas bravas in our kitchen – a vision began to take shape and take hold of our imaginations.
While these conversations were developing, we were beginning our collaboration on a workshop based on the work of Manfred Max-Neef‘s Human Scale Development (HSD). We met working with Hal Gillmore and Big Green Canoe, helping to facilitate study tours of university groups and government policymakers who come to Totnes looking for insights into Transition, deep ecology and resilience. With Inez delivering pieces on human needs and gift economy, Jay would walk through the relocalisation arguments and exemplar community-led projects. It soon became clear that there is loads of potential in applying the HSD theoretical framework to the practical work activists could, and should, be pursuing in their communities to rebalance local economies away from global corporate dominance toward local independence, self-reliance, and resilience.
After hundreds of hours, we had a two-day workshop we call Human Scale Economics & Enterprise. And eventually we would call our work the Well & Good Project. But months and months ago, before we had even finished outlining this course, (and none of us really remembers – was it over a coffee at the Barrel House or the Curator Cafe?), Emilio popped up with “You should do this course in Spain, I know some people who would like to host it.”
We began dreaming. Who wouldn’t want to go to Spain to lead a workshop? For one Californian (Jay) it would be a chance to reconnect with arid landscapes, blue skies, heat, and a language and culture that have left their marks there. It would be work, but surely there would be some time to relax, no? And to make it more feasible, perhaps another workshop could be organised nearby. And if we’re dreaming, why not Portalegre, where they had just organised Ajudada, a ‘gift culture’ convergence of community organisers, Transicionistas, permaculturalists, thinkers and doers. Portugal and Spain…magic
But why are we doing this? For a holiday? Are our motivations in the right place? Both communities – though quite different in essence – are in countries struggling with real economic crises, living with realities that for most relatively well-off UK Transitioners are mere abstractions. What could we possibly teach them? We decided that we would not go to teach, rather, we would simply share the HSD concepts and our experience in the spirit of solidarity. We would go to learn as much from them and their experience, and bring their stories back to share with our community. We would look to cover our costs and trust that a ‘gift economy’ approach would make this possible. Our intention would also be to lay the foundation for long-term relationships between our different communities, hoping this would lead to more collaborations, and strengthen each of our communities and the wider movement.
After making arrangements with Filipa, Luis, and Rui in Portalegre, and with Alejandro in Marbella, – all of whom are dedicated activists and organisers, working hard to inspire positive change, as well as mindblowingly generous and attentive hosts – we somewhat unbelievably found ourselves heading to Lisbon.
After a brief stopover in Lisbon where we were received with overwhelming hospitality by Rui and his wife, we travelled to Portalegre. Driving inland towards the mountains we passed miles and miles of cork plantations, once the foundation of a thriving industry. But pressured by falling prices and the drive to maximise profits, much of the cork industry is focused on lower quality, faster growing cork varieties that can be harvested more frequently.
For the past several decades Portugal has faced the problem of ‘desertification‘: the depopulation of towns and villages, as young people head to Lisbon for education and a city life, or increasingly off to Brasil and other places abroad promising opportunity and a steady paycheck. Towns and cities are left to young families too strapped to leave, the elderly with no place else to go, and those too committed to home and community who will stay and fight for their future. A national government led by children of a 20th century dictatorship are imposing austerity and advising the young to ‘head for the colonies.’
In Portalegre we were greeted by Filipa and Luis. Bad news, they told us, the building where we were to deliver the workshop was not serviceable. Alternatives would be too hot and stuffy during the 30C days. We will have to work outside. “Come,” Filipa said, leading us through the crooked streets of the town to the municipal park. “We can work here, under this tree. It will be perfect,” And indeed it was. It was magical. Far better than any indoor space we could have imagined. We soon learnt that people here have a knack for turning bad news into good news.
There were 23 of us – about half a dozen people from Portalegre itself, and most everyone else travelled from Lisboa, Porto, Castello Branco, and Valencia de Alacantara, Spain. Most were activists, and perhaps a few became activists over the weekend. So, much of our activities were organised around where people came from, since they would be producing tools and plans that would be useful in advancing their work at home. We led them around that great plane tree which became our home for two days, discussing fundamental needs, synergistic satisfiers, and local multipliers, mapping assets and allies, and designing plans for projects in a charrette process. All the while a currency comprising magic rocks circulated, growing a local economy of favours, generosity, and ear-to-ear grins.
They, in turn, shared their dreams –visions of a car free Lisbon, of local organic food networks, riverside culture shift, new identities. Despite the hardships of daily life there was no shortage of vision and fierce creative energy to make stuff happen.
Portalegre is a beautiful, charming town in terms of its architecture and position on the landscape, perched in the foothills of a low range of mountains, gateway to a stunning national park. But it has seen major employers close down, such as the Robinson factory which made cork products, and population dwindle, down to 13,000 from 30,000. We saw closed up homes and closed up shops on every street in every part of town. There were few people out day or night. The regional government is following a policy of triage, letting Portalegre go and concentrating regeneration efforts and spending on other towns in the province with greater perceived prospects.
Filipa, Luis, Rui, and others are working hard to overcome very real economic barriers, as well many cultural barriers, in order to create a new narrative and new creative energy among the people who remain here. They launched Portalegre em Transição a couple of years ago, and then in June, they organised Ajudada.
Ajudada was an ambitious undertaking spanning three days with talks, presentations, workshops, projects, skillshares, taking place with dozens of local partners in locations all over the town. It was all based on a gift economy model – those who could pay and pay it forward, did, while all participated in a spirit of co-creation and co-responsibility. The municipal government and local high schools were involved, too. It attracted activists from all over Europe, who for all their solidarity and good intentions, probably failed to see much of the local cultural change this event was catalysing. Because indeed it did, as we heard, and the positive ripples are still reverberating back and forth across the town. While so much of the Transition narrative is about just doing stuff, these leaders are demonstrating that doing stuff also requires skilful means and a deep awareness of the inner change that must accompany a project as grand as ‘transition’. One of the outcomes is that they have been granted a building by the local authority to house their activities going forward.
After many warm good-byes, on Monday Rui generously drove us to Badajoz, where a bus would take us to Sevilla across rolling brown hills dotted with cork, oak, and olive, gently giving way to fields of sunflowers and post-harvest stubble. In Sevilla, we caught another bus for Marbella, arriving late in the night. Alejandro welcomed us with his happy, smiling face, and his rapid fire Argentinian Spanish.
Marbella is as different from Portelegre as one could imagine. Whereas in Portalegre large business is moving out and it is seen as an economic wasteland, Marbella is a playground for the .01%, a colony of regional, national, and multi-national franchises, foreign-owned businesses, and foreigners poaching the euros generated by foreign tourists. Spain’s first Apple store opened here. Though tourism might be down, the economy is thriving – at least the part that serves the rich and the super-rich.
One of the problems for communities like Marbella is that, unlike Portalegre, on the surface there appears to be no crisis and no cause for alarm. If tourism is down, it’s only temporary. Some shops are closing and property prices are sky high. Things will bounce back, they always do with wave after wave of first Germans, then Dutch, then Arabs, then Russians. Somehow, the belief in a dream of greater growth, wealth, and consumption has locals still jostling for a slice of a Marbella pie that tantalises but never really satisfies. Local identity has been colonised, too. What was once a village of fishermen with orchards of lemons and avocados that ran from the hills to the sea is now known as the Costa del Golf. Wealthy tourists arrive in their huge yachts and throw money at the help in restaurants and hotels, money earnestly pursued by locals making their livelihoods in the hospitality and tourism industries. For them, the global economy provides. How, then, to make a case for a more localised economy?
Alejandro told us, “It is difficult to make a case for Transition in a community that on the surface is still thriving. In Marbella it is relatively easy to have a good time – the sun shines 365 days a year, there are 100’s of bars, the beach, the mountains – there is ample opportunity to meet your need for leisure. Though environmental consciousness is increasing, the majority of the people here are not fully aware of the fragility of the system and the need to create a more resilient economy.”
We began our workshop at 1pm on Wednesday, and already it had a different feel. We’re in Spain now and won’t be expected to dine until 10pm, so our days begin late and end late. We’re up early anyway, preparing. The people here are just as lovely and special as in Portalegre, but with different needs and expectations. We adjust accordingly. And Alejandro has arranged press interviews, radio shows, TV news and a journalist from El Sur. He’s savvy that way, having made his mark initiating Spain’s first arboretum.
Many of the workshop participants had come to INtransition Marbella through the arboretum in some way. The Marbella Arboretum was founded in 2011 on 10 acres of vacant land provided by the city of Marbella. Since then 17.972 trees have been planted and about 11.650 people have taken part in the project, from primary school children to the elderly. The Arboretum serves as a focal point for local environmental activism, offering training courses in Education for Sustainability, Permaculture Design and hosting talks, conferences and workshops on all kinds of progressive topics. It offers, perhaps, a slightly more edgy medium for growing radical activism in the area.
Alejandro’s creative energy is boundless and his passion for positive change led him into starting InTransition Marbella in October 2012. In under a year they launched ambitious projects in education, where they are contributing to courses in local schools, and community gardens, where they now have a 3,000 square metre plot in the planning stage. They also have plans in the works for making organic food more accessible, perhaps through a new social enterprise. As a new initiative, they seem to have hit the ground running, with a view toward developing the capacity of the group through courses and workshops.
As our workshop developed over the two days, it became apparent the different ways Transition, as a focal set of concepts, can be pursued in quite different circumstances. And in the case of both Portalegre and in Marbella, it was also clear how useful HSD is as a theoretical framework with which to analyse challenges and identify opportunities for creating alternatives to the default consumerist paradigm. While both groups were different in background, experience, age, gender balance, and expectations, many walked away inspired, with plans in hand for projects they will take forward in the coming weeks. In Marbella, for example, plans for an incubator were developed and the next day vacant building space suddenly became available. A ‘think local campaign’ and local green guide also seemed on the cusp of launching.
But while doing the work and pursuing these projects is important, it is also important to celebrate, not just the work but each other. And this is where we learnt a thing or two from our Southern compadres.
There is a commonly held belief in Western culture that it is good to be organised and efficient. This often means having clear structures and agreements, preferably written down so we can refer to them in case of conflict or confusion. This is the best way to get things done and a way that many of the more ‘developed’ nations like to do business. It is a way of working that in Europe is often associated with the Northern countries, while we joke about the Spanish attitude of ‘mañana, mañana’. It is also a complaint that we heard from many of our Spanish and Portuguese participants themselves. ‘We are so inefficient.’ ‘People are more interested in talking and debating than in getting anything done’. ‘We need to learn how to organise ourselves or we will never make the changes we wish to see.’ On the surface this makes a lot of sense and we took these words seriously, providing useful tools to provide structured ways of working on group projects. At the same time we wanted to hold to the principles at the heart of our work: to recognise the wealth we have in our communities to meet our fundamental human needs. In this case the perceived disorganisation had another side to it. Whereas we as facilitators were sometimes concerned with punctuality and efficiency (leading to a certain degree of stress and no time for ‘frivolities’) it was clear that the Spanish participants always had time to say hello and have a chat. Human connection was never sacrificed at the altar of productivity. Work was never more important than play. So we played – and how!
We were told to keep the Friday night free for ‘a little surprise’ (in fact we were told to keep most days free for many little surprises) At around 8.30 we were taken to the beach to meet the Transition tribe. Grown-ups and children were gathered around a fire where sardines were barbecued, Andalucian style. People had brought home made sangria (of which Inez easily had too much – was that the reason she bit the head off the sardine?) freshly baked bread, salads, roasted peppers, fruit and the best goats cheese in the world, made by Juan the goat farmer.
Juan was a man of many talents and he entertained us with jokes until deep in the night. He told us that every night after dinner his father would tell jokes to the family – it was his tradition. Even without English translation Juan was easily one of the best entertainers we had the privilege to witness. But it wasn’t a one man show. Everyone had a joke or a song to share and at the end of the night we felt like one big family. In standard economic thinking this kind of activity is not productive and does not raise GDP much, bar the few food items purchased and in this case most of these were home-made. But in the new economic paradigm – where our wealth is measured by the degree to which our needs are satisfied – having a party with good friends on the beach becomes the most efficient way to synergistically satisfy almost all your needs.
We had promised ourselves when we took this journey that we would seek to share our understanding rather than impose a worldview, that we would work with the wealth that already existed rather than focus on what was lacking. We gave what we could and in return received a great feast: of motivation and inspiration, of creativity and commitment, of warm companionship and unforgettable laughter. Local economic regeneration never tasted so good.
We’re back in Totnes now, and beginning to think about what’s next. We hope this journey is only the beginning of a whole range of activities we would like to set in motion that might create waves of solidarity energising all communities working on economic and social regeneration. Perhaps it begins with the party we’re hosting at the new Reconomy Centre on the 27th to share our stories and begin to encourage links between us Transitionistas here and our new friends in Portalegre and Andalucia. Maybe this will lead to more study trips and exchanges, too, especially amongst social/cooperative enterprises and schools. We’re nurturing more ambitious ideas, as well, such as “How to Get Rich in 7 Weeks”, an exploration of communities and ways of living supported by an abundance of wealth in the things that matter – hint: money is not one of them. This will make an excellent film project with our friend Emilio. We’d also like to find ways to support more Ajudadas and barn raisings across the growing European Transition network. Perhaps regular convergences of Transtionistas helping Transitionistas across regions and across borders in the spirit of solidarity and mutual aid can become a part of an emerging international Transition culture. Is it time to start twinning Transition Towns? Shall we make 2014 the year of Transition Solidarity?
Images: Inez y Emilio enjoying tapas in Fuengirola; Rui in his kitchen; the magic tree in Portalegre; Luis and Filipa, dois santos; fancy car in Marbella; Inez on camera with Ale and Jay looking on; Alejandro in pensive moment; espetos on the beach; the crew in Portalegre