#BackToCommons: Building new narratives that connect our societies - not separate them

My studies in biology, agriculture and sociology took place in a time where the environmental, social and ethical problems related to the broken food system started becoming visible to more and more people across the world. Since about 10 years ago, food activism raised as our generations Woodstock, something that some of us like to call “Foodstock”. Therefore, the lines between political activism and an academic life started becoming very thin, and in times it felt -indeed- awkward to interact with two environments that hardly communicated to each other. Maybe for a good reason.

In 2007, I travelled to India for the first time, to do my MSc thesis in the Central Indian Himalayan belt, in collaboration with Navdanya, an NGO founded by renowned food and seeds activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva. In 2008, I published my first book on human-plant relations of tribal hill communities on the noble mountains of the Garhwal Himalaya. At the same time, returning to my university in Stuttgart, Germany, I helped found F.R.E.S.H. - the Food Revitalisation & Ecogastronomic Society of Hohenheim.

F.R.E.S.H. was one of the very first student initiatives in Europe, trying to engage young agricultural students in a new, holistic, and self-reflective thinking about the future of the food system. We organised conferences, peaceful protests against unsustainable practices in the university’s canteens, a student garden and we even designed and fundraised for a new academic module on the Ethics of Food & Nutrition Security. Through community work in the campus, a group of young students from more than 15 countries from around the world, started building these much needed bridges between analytical thinking and solving the world’s problems.

Around this time, in 2008, I attended Slow Food’s Terra Madre in Turin. This was a game changer, which allowed my friends and me see the wider picture, and to connect with hundreds of other youth. We saw the rise of the urban gardening movement and the food waste movement. We spoke of the need for intergenerational renewal in the agricultural sector, and we started connecting the dots. For us, good food and good farming almost became an obsession, and a latent hope that maybe we can manage to improving the world, by improving our food and our quality of life.

At the same year, still a student in Germany and doing my ethnobotanical research for my PhD in India, Thailand and China, I founded a Slow Food Convivium in Thrace, my home land in Northern Greece. Well before the financial crisis and the social havoc it evoked hit home, we started discussing about resilience, an organic transition, urban gardens, quality food production/consumption systems. Early days for such ideas in Greece, this action has raised plenty of scepticism, as no-one would expect what was coming. Our actions ranged from organising public social meals in squares in streets, campaigns, food fairs, etc. I have organised three delegations of small Greek producers to Slow Food fairs in Italy and Germany, and as the crisis was unfolding, I wanted to show that a difference Greece exists -other than the one presented by the media and blamed by politicians- and it was here.

In 2012, I produced an award winning short documentary, called “Farming on Crisis?”. This was the untold story of the Greek countryside, unfolding through a man’s journey across the crisis-stricken country, uncovering the stories of young farmers and the prospects of revamping the economy through good farming and sustainable rural development. Building a bridge between the small and the large; the urban and the rural; the local with the global, the film used the case of Greece in order to touch urgent global challenges like food security, the environment and the future of our food. This movie travelled around the world, screened in several film festivals and opened a new dialogue: what future can we hope for, with only 6% of Europe’s farmers under the age of 35? We even got an award in Hollywood.

As my life proceeded into this environment, I started venturing into good food entrepreneurship. From one side, I was launching global petitions for a better agricultural food system, to be presented at Rio+20, on the other hand I started discussing with my parents plans about revamping our family’s traditional olive grove in Northern Greece. At 2012, we created Calypso, a single varietal extra virgin olive oil made inside the ancient grove of my small village, Makri. Our purpose was (and still is), not only to produce a product of the utmost quality, but to champion innovative agroecological practices, trying to invite more farmers of the region in our journey towards sustainable quality. Soon after, I joined forces with another Italian friend from my former Slow Food years, and then we joined by another one, and another one, and we created We Deliver Taste. This is a small consultancy company connecting agriculture with gastronomy, hospitality and marketing. We are consulting good farmers and help them access new markets, while working with restaurant owners and chefs in order to close the loops in the “broken food system” that we all new is a major part of the problem. This is of utmost importance for Greece and its post-crisis future,  since the country has one of the largest per capita agricultural populations in Europe. We are now establishing new partnerships, working with ICT developers and experimenting on open data systems, with the aim of creating tools that bring more transparency and education in food supply chains, and shorten them in terms of communication and enhanced interaction among all peers.

Having experienced these transformation at the personal and social level, I still continue doing a lot of community research in Greece. To me, my country has emerged as a testing ground for a new transformative future, what I like to call the “Plan C”. That is, if the “Plan A” is a Grexit, and “Plan B” is a devastating bankruptcy, then I think there is also space to investigate the possibility for another plant. The “Plan C” has to do with the design of a roadmap for advancing towards a real transition back to the Commons, based on civil engagement for participatory mapping and collective management of the assets that influence what is currently under attack: the everyday lives of the people.

Inspired by the many different communities on the rise throughout the country, and concerned about the lack of resources and the disconnection between them, #BackToCommons is my latest project. This is not an organisation (I don’t think there is a need to be one - there are so many organisations which we work with), but rather an informal network of young researchers who are trying to pull resources for creating systemic infrastructure in Greece. The aim is to give a new hope to a desperate society, but also connect this action with the world, knowing that a lot of people in the ground don’t have access to resources, due to many known barriers. Lack of funds and language are only two of them.

I am not sure where the journey of #BackToCommons is going to end, but I am convinced that it is heading towards the right direction. More and more people in Greece start believing on the power of commons-based action, and what is considered an “alternative” in other, more affluent economies of Europe in the world, over here is pretty much the only way forward. Despite the discontent, this offers a significant opportunity for working out transition solutions that I am sure are going to prove very useful for the international community.

I know that given the political, organisational and financial support, realising this type of transition is  one of the few chances we have in order to achieving the very possibility of realising the Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives mapped out at COP21. More importantly, as extremism is on the rise across the continent, what is needed more than ever before, are new narratives that connect our societies - not separate them. And in the absence of political sense, I think that we the people can still continue building them.

Community land ownership

Hi Pavlos,

‘More power to your arm!’

I found your point about the disconnect between wealthier Northern European countries and the reality of Greece particularly interesting and enlightening. What we consider to be ‘alternative’ approaches to the future should be our only way forward.

i am reminded of the saying “when things seem to be falling apart, perhaps they are falling into place.”

It seems that the Greek community could benefit from something like the Scottish Community Right to Buy scheme (http://www.gov.scot/Topics/farmingrural/Rural/rural-land/right-to-buy/Community) Which would allow communities to invest money, tiem and energy into innovative community practices safe in the knowledge that the land they do this upon will not be taken from under them in the event of a systemic failure.

I do not know how easy it is to create law in Greece (i imagine it’s as difciult as anywhere else!) but is this something that could be advanced at a high level? Just a thought

Alex