GEN Conference, 7-12 July, 2013: Celebrating a Worldwide Movement

Three hundred participants from fifty-one countries came together for five days at Schweibenalp Centre of Unity, Switzerland, to celebrate and share, present projects and ideas, and explore new strategies of collaboration. It was a remarkable meeting of minds and hearts that revealed, in many ways, the new level that the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) has reached in its eighteenth year of existence. Never have the international connections, mutual support, and love between the ecovillages of the Global South and the Global North been so visible and palpable.
The growing trust and friendship, developed over the years between the older ecovillages, has prepared the ground for the overwhelming enthusiasm of the large group of young committed people who now form NextGEN.
GEN has proven to be an organization capable of linking numerous grass-roots projects with large social movements, other global actors, and governments. With the support and assistance of GEN, the ecovillages of the world have developed from being a network to a movement that generates hope on a global level.
By Leila Dregger - GEN Newsletter editor

'What will happen, when the capitalist system falls apart?' asked Jakob von Uexkull in his opening speech. 'Will there be pure barbarism, or will there be a reliable humane power on which we can found the renaissance of the planet?' Uexkull, initiator of the renowned Right Livelihood Award (often described as the equivalent to the Nobel Prize), and of the World Future Council, shared the high-profile lobbying that his organization does toward creating just and humane laws worldwide. Collaboration between a top-down lobby such as Jakob's, and bottom-up initiatives such as the ecovillages and social movements, forms a reliable power to inspire humanity in present deconstruction and future reconstruction work.

GEN President, Kosha Joubert, gave a stirring opening speech about the achievements of GEN in the last year, and her thoughts about the strategic future of the movement. It is apparent that the network is growing on every level. New ecovillages are being seeded everywhere and existing ones are growing in membership. New regional networks are forming, and more education and training initiatives are taking place.

In the European Union, Africa, and Latin America, national governments are showing interest in ecovillage strategies for sustainable development. Governments are understanding that for a true transition to resilience of societies, they need to work hand in hand with civil society actors and organisations. In the concept of ecovillage strategies for the transition of traditional villages and urban neighbourhoods to ecovillages, botton-up and top-down approaches can intertwine to become a truly powerful formula for change. For example, the government in Senegal, Africa, inspired by a network of forty-five already existing ecovillages, has decided to support every second traditional village of the country (14.000 in total) with the skills and means to become ecovillages. GEN will assist in this process at all levels of development.

Similarly, the example of the 'Let´s Do It - Cleanup' initiative reveals how many people can be reached through the GEN network. After having spread through a GEN-Conference 5 years ago from Estonia to other European countries, in the past few years more than twenty million people around the world took part in regional clean-up activities.

Many new online tools are helping to build a network of integrity between the ecovillages, related movements, and those who are looking for answers and solutions. However, Kosha noted the areas where there is still work to be done, in particular: creating more "plug-ins" for individuals and organisations who are longing to contribute to the work of GEN; developing clear agreements for increased collaboration with like-minded organisations and movements; and creating a fundraising platform that is able to channel the revenue provided by donors and charities worldwide to the projects that need them most.

There can be no doubt that the ecovillage movement is gaining momentum, providing a viable alternative to existing globalized inhumane structures, exploring decentralized solutions on a community level, and connecting traditional and contemporary knowledge for a peaceful and sustainable future.

This process is celebrated by the founders, Ross and Hildur Jackson, the living roots of the Ecovillage network, and the Gaia Trust Foundation, whose generosity has helped to fund GEN for eighteen years. The Conference reconnected with the Jacksons via Skype, and they shared their founding thoughts as well as their delight in the way that the network has developed over the last years. 'Keep Going', was their final piece of advice to conference participants.

Representatives of the older ecovillages - Findhorn, Tamera, ZEGG, and Damanhur - shared their 'lessons learned'. Falco, the founder of Damanhur, passed away only some days before the conference, so the question of leadership is very relevant. After many of the original founders of ecovillages have passed way, the next generation of leaders explore ways to lead the communities in participatory processes that also give space for the visionary power and enthusiasm that the charismatic founders had. This is fascinating research work for new social structures, and there is a lot of mutual learning to be shared from the different ecovillages.

A young participant said, "I am very touched by the friendship and trust that has developed among the older ecovillages. In the past I had the impression that every community first regarded themselves - but now I feel that they place first priority on the synergy that the connection brings, and they dare to also speak about the developments and the questions and challenges they go through."

This experience of growing friendship and trust of the older ecovillages seemed to prepare the ground for highly energetic presentations and discussions over the next days.

Representatives from the networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America shared about their work and reported from some of the areas of conflict and pain on the planet: Congo, Japan, Colombia, and many more. It became clear, however, that even in the most despairing situations, people are coming together, connecting with the land on which they live, connecting with each other, and creating alternatives and ways to sustain the Earth and each other.

Caring for each other, caring for the land, healing the wounds of violence and exploitation, empowering women, and learning techniques to provide food, water and energy - this is the work that many initiatives on the ground are doing. The connection to the Global Ecovillage Network gives the stability of belonging to a planetary movement that does not only talk, but really explores an overall alternative.

Another big joy of the conference was the young people of NextGEN: forty participants of the NextGEN meeting parallel to the conference, sharing their work and finding ways to connect and to cooperate together. The presence and commitment of this highly motivated and educated younger generation were overwhelmingly inspiring. Presentations from Brazil, Canada, USA, Thailand, Zimbabwe and other countries showed the richness and purity of this youthful network, young people who easily see themselves as a planetary family, ready to help each other and the world. NextGEN was awarded with the Ecovillage Excellency Award provided by Gaia Education, an outreach charity created by the Jacksons. For the first time, the vote was made by the conference participants, and the results were greeted with an outburst of joy from all. Ethan Hirsch-Tauber, who did a brilliant job coordinating NextGEN, turned thirty-five during the conference and handed over the coordinating role to three highly committed youth, selected through NextGEN's own Sociocratic process.

Other initiatives were birthed or developed further during the conference:

GEN Elders, a network of older people in ecovillages, want to connect, contribute their experiences, and organise a way of coming together and raising their voices.

A 'Danubia Project' and a 'Mediterranean Project' are planned, following the successful model of the 'Baltic Sea Project' that connects ecovillages around the Baltic Sea, and receives major funding from the EU.

The 'Nile Project' was presented by ecovillage representatives from Africa. Mohammed El Mongy, from Egypt, vice-secretary of the GEN Africa council, shared that "the Nile is in danger. It is the longest river on earth, running through eleven countries. Nevertheless my country sees the river as it’s own and wants to get as much as possible out of it - like the other countries do as well. Over-exploitation and national selfishness leads to destruction. We want to create a collaboration at a village level, seeing the benefit of the river for all those who live beside it, and from it, and show decentralized solutions on how to work with water in a sustainable way."

A major contributor to the fruitful outcomes and serene ambience of the conference was the generosity and beauty of the hosting community - the Centre of Unity, Schweibenalp.
The seminar centre and community is situated in one of the most stunning landscapes of the world, in the heart of Switzerland, beneath snowy mountains and high above the sparkling turquoise lake at Brienz.

The GEN conference was gifted with beautiful sunshine. Early one morning, sixty participants took the chance of hiking before dawn to one of the surrounding mountain summits to watch the sunrise over the Alps. This is the kind of beauty to inspire planetary work.

Following a week of focused presentations, intense workshops, action packed 'home group' processing and networking during the day, and often exuberant celebrations after the evening sessions, participants descended the mountain to spread out into the world again, taking the strong sense of global family and solidarity home to inspire their families and communities.

This December, a GEN-Africa Conference will be held in Kenya. Next Summer, the GEN-Europe Conference will take place in ZEGG, Germany, with a stronger focus on Europe, easoecially Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In December 2014, a Global Ecovillage Summit will take place in Dakar, Senegal, Africa.


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