Eco-commune flourishes as Greek economy withers

AGHIOS, Greece Thu Aug 30, 2012 12:46pm EDT

1 of 4. A vegetable garden is seen at an eco-commune in the village of Aghios, Evia island, northeast of Athens July 23, 2012. The self-sufficient eco-commune that lives in yurts and grows its own vegetables is enjoying a surge of interest from crisis-hit Greeks returning to their rural roots. Picture taken July 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Deepa Babington

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AGHIOS, Greece (Reuters) - Web designer Apostolos Sianos and three friends startled Greek villagers when they quit well-paid jobs in Athens to set up a self-sufficient commune that lives in yurts and grows its own vegetables.

In California, or Scandinavia, such a move might have gone unnoticed. But in deeply conservative rural Greece - where green thinking is strictly the domain of urbanites - the project made suspicious locals uneasy, or was laughed off as ridiculous.

But now, two years and a brutal economic crisis later, Sianos and his friends are the ones laughing.

With Greece's economy in freefall, nearly one in four out of work and the desperate jobless turning to the land to survive, the group's focus on growing their own produce and cutting down their reliance on money and a bankrupt state suddenly make practical sense to many Greeks - and some are now turning to the vegan commune for advice.

"Even two years ago, everyone thought we were crazy. But not anymore," says Panos Kantas, 29, a pony-tailed former computer programmer who co-founded the Mount Telethrion Project with Sianos and two others. "The crisis validated a point that was obvious to us and now it's obvious to everyone."

They had a rocky start in 2010, when the former city-dwellers struggled to gather firewood to keep warm in winter and found skeptical villagers asking, in all seriousness, if they were transmitting signals into outer space. But the commune now has about 15 to 20 enthusiasts living there at any time.

As Greece's crisis has deepened over the past year, dozens more have inquired about moving to the commune - perched on a hilly slope on the island of Evia, or Euboea, and looking out to sea, near the village of Aghios. More than 2,500 curious visitors have stopped by, the commune's founders reckon.

In particular, the workshop training sessions they offer on organic farming and building houses with a traditional adobe mix of clay, sand and straw - cheaper than bricks and mortar - have drawn interest from crisis-hit Greeks escaping a dire job market to return to tending land in their villages.

"People come asking, 'How do you get started on cultivating land? What are the first steps for sustainable farming? How can you manage without a pay check?'" said Sianos, 32, as he sat at a table recycled from an abandoned wooden cable drum.

A few feet away, a dozen young Greeks squatted on the floor of the commune's workshop area to pit yellow plums they had gathered from the nearby forest while others laid out slices of tomatoes grown in their garden to dry under the sun.

About 80 percent of the food - all vegan - consumed in the commune is produced in the garden, Sianos says, and the group tries to get the rest by bartering produce with villagers; the residents can offer their sun-dried tomatoes and a vegan chocolate substitute made from carob, tahini and hazelnuts.

The commune's lofty ambitions of cutting money out of the equation altogether still have a long way to go - cash is still needed for electricity and for a new domed structure being built on land nearby as part of plans to expand.

But the group tries to rely on as little cash as possible. The housing in yurts - large, round canvas tents modeled on those of Central Asian nomads - was chosen after it turned out to be the only structure they could put up without having to apply for a costly permit from state planning authorities.

Other necessities like toothpaste - using baking soda, white clay and peppermint - and soap are made at the workshop.

NO LAUGHING MATTER

The commune is one of several ecological initiatives that have benefited as the debt crisis forces Greeks to rethink their way of life - especially the big-spending, consumerist urban lifestyle partly blamed for bringing Greece to the brink.

"As a general trend, the crisis for several people was an opportunity to change the way they think and try to be organized in a different way," said Theocharis Tsoutsos, professor at the Technical University of Crete who has studied sustainable energy projects.

"For instance, doing things on a smaller scale, creating their own garden, or trying to promote ecological issues on a small scale, or promoting low-cost agricultural initiatives."

Greenpeace says the crisis has seen environmental policies popularized by former prime minister George Papandreou - a keen cyclist and believer in "green growth" - pushed off the political agenda. But niche initiatives like the project on Evia are thriving as Greeks to return to their rural roots, it says.

The commune would have found few willing takers among Greeks riding high on an economic boom a decade ago, said the lobby group's Greek campaigns coordinator Dimitris Ibrahim.

"People then were more interested in their welfare, making money, the stock market. These people would have been laughed at - Greek society was not ready to hear this kind of message," he said, adding that other, less developed eco-communes have also sprung up in Greece in recent years.

"Now it's really relevant. It goes to the core - every Greek knows someone who is moving to these practices."

Showing off his commune's cultivation of mushrooms and compost toilets which use worms to turn waste into cheap natural fertilizer, Sianos marvels at the project's fortunate timing.

Raising capital to support the initiative has been a struggle due to the financial crisis, but on the other hand there's no shortage of interest from people eager to leave behind despair in Athens to start afresh on a remote mountain: "Ten years ago we may have easily found the money to build the site," he said.

"But no one would have been here to live in it."

MOANING AND WHINING

For 21-year-old Anna Sofroniou, the laidback vibe and the sense of collective action in the face of a paralyzing national crisis pushed her to return to the commune after unsuccessfully hunting for a job as teacher over the past year.

"Throughout the crisis, you see people moaning and whining without doing anything," said the recent college graduate. "In Athens, everybody just talks about politics and problems."

Instead, at the commune, she found little talk of the crisis and a range of communal chores ranging from foraging for berries and wild herbs to building a wooden shed to fill her time.

Yannis Razakias and Maria Eikosipentaki, a couple from Athens who have lived at the commune for three months, stumbled upon the project on the Internet and were similarly drawn to it as an escape from an urban lifestyle beset with anxieties.

"The crisis definitely affected us psychologically in our decision. Our clients, our employers, everyone talked about the crisis and how they could get through it," said Eikosipentaki, who quit the hairdresser job she had for 14 years to move here.

"In Athens, the only things on our minds were things like how we could make it, how we would get through this or that, how we could find some money to go on a trip."

Indeed, Greece's crippling recession seems a world away this summer as night falls and pasta with herbs is cooked for a communal dinner under a large fig tree.

Only the chirp of cicadas accompanies chatter. The main topics of dinner table conversation across Greece - the crisis, the reviled foreign bailout keeping the country afloat and the much loathed troika of lenders bankrolling Athens - are absent.

The commune still has its challenges, including lingering skepticism and mistrust among some of the local villagers.

"They are very suspicious - like, 'What are these long-haired people from Athens doing here?'" said Sianos. "They don't understand what we're trying to do. If you tell them we're an eco-community they look at you like you're an alien."

Opinion has softened somewhat, Sianos says, but winning over locals remains harder than convincing crisis-hit Athens natives.

In the centre of the village of Aghios, farmers sipping their morning coffee at cafes said they had yet to figure out what the commune was up to its midst and how it got by.

"They can't get be getting by without money and with just a small piece of land," scoffed Stathis Raxiotis, a 65-year-old farmer as he nursed a small cup of strong black coffee:

"We've been farmers for decades," he said. "We have hundreds of trees, lots of land - and, with the crisis, even we can't get by on farming alone."

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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