Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Mountains, lightning and wild horses: tales from the European Permaculture Convergence.

Sandra Campe with the Permaculture Council of Europe poster (Hristo Valchev)
Within minutes of arriving at the convergence – an eco-camping site on the shores of Lake Batak (a reservoir really) – I was greeted with “you're in a meeting in 10 minutes”. I quickly realised that this was going to be another busy and intense permaculture convergence experience.

It already had been for more than a week. The European Permaculture Teachers Partnership – a project funded by the European Union's Life Long Learning Programme had completed its final meeting, with fifty or so participants helping to evaluate the project, put finishing touches to the website and final report, and lay plans for the next stages of the work, post funding. It had been a very busy and productive week for those participants and understandably, there was an interest in passing on some of the convergence facilitation to someone else. Hence the meeting with me in 10 minutes...

So after some discussion, I was part of the new convergence facilitator team, alongside Davie Philip, Peter Cow and Ana Huertas. A decision had already been made use an 'Open Space Technology' approach, which I have used a lot, so the main issue was sorting logistics and formulating the central organising question. A wonderful rich discussion ensued with people around the table from countries across Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Germany, France, Ireland and more. Our final question was “How can we design and co-create the permaculture (r)evolution?” Quite a big question then.

To be honest, if we had said “How can European Permaculture get to Mars by 2020?” many of the open space sessions offered would have been the same. But that's fine. What we got was a wonderful programme that was strategic, practical, local and global. There were sessions on song and deep culture, permaculture consultancy, the gift economy and international research, and about another 70 sessions in just the first 2 days.

But before we go into the programme and content of the EUPC, lets just have a quick look round. I almost forgot to do so – I think I left the campsite once during my stay – but lets not make that mistake again. Lake Batak is stunningly beautiful. Its in the Rhodopian mountain range in southern Bulgaria. Early homo sapiens passed through on their way out of Africa, and quite a few hung around making cool stuff out of stones, so in terms of human history, its truly ancient. Alongside the paleolithic and neo-paleolithic people, Thracians, Romans, Greeks, Bulgars, Ottomans and Russians all spent time here, leaving interesting remains, traditions and a rich agricultural heritage, including a lot of grape vines. The woodlands are lush with tall herbs and huge mushrooms. The markets and roadsides are full of local produce (lots of global too), the fruit and vegetables are truly delicious and the alcohol is strong. There is still a thriving smallholder tradition, most people have land, and many live in the city, and they are also recovering from years of authoritarian rule and corruption. Its messy, complicated and beautiful.

Lake Batak (Gregor Scholtyssek)

And then came the rain. Well actually it had been raining for weeks already, which is very unusual, because in Bulgaria it rains five times in the summer at the most. They had had weeks of it, it was even cold. Lake Batak had swelled and some of the campsite was underwater. Unusual weather, a changing climate. The convergence was set up for warm weather and shade from the sun, not torrential rain. It felt like the International Permaculture Convergence in Cuba all over again. I was worried it might descend into disorganised wet chaos. There was no large covered space for everyone/ So, when after possibly one of the longest overnight spells of torrential rain I can ever remember, it stopped, there was a collective sigh of relief. Rumblings of thunder and distant lightning were present for most of the event, but after the first night's rain, it mostly just taunted us from afar. {Note to self: make sure IPC-UK has a very large covered space for 1000 people... Oh we have – good!}

Before the rain was humour. Mihail Kossev co-organised the event with an incredible crew of friends, family, and a Permaculture Design Course group that had been helping for nearly six months. During the event a small german team, with Jillian Hovey steering, managed to do a lot of on-site support. Many people were busy behind the scenes, but front of house was Mihail. Banjo in hand, hat on head, his smooth crooning and god jokes got us a long way, and calls of “Free ice cream” helped boost numbers at the opening circles too. With Todor on reception, Misha on people care and Mihail on banjo, we had everything we needed for an enjoyable and probably safe five day rollercoaster ride.

So after all the games and regional networking, the hanging out at bars drinking fruit smoothies and very strong rakia, the queues for delicious food and washing up, the awkward “so where are you from” moments, swimming in Lake Bakal, and listening to amazing music every night (including the Formidable Vegetable Sound System, and three troupes of traditional Bulgarian singers and dancers), what did nearly 280 people from 25 countries actually do....?

Well, for me the big learnings, achievements and moments were mainly focussed on the organisation and networking side of things, so my report is biased to that. Many of the workshops looked more at the practice of permaculture, and connections to other initiatives. But for me the highlights were:

  • Learning about an amazing gift economy experiment in Romania, run from the home of Dan and Adela – Casa de Cultura Permanenta ( or Its like 'instant cohousing'. A paradigm shift of sharing that seems to be taking hold in towns across Romania. They are answers to the question: what happens when we really share?

  • ECOLISE was presented – a new european collaboration between Transition, the Global Eco-village Network, organisations tackling climate change, and permaculture. The Permaculture Association is already a member, and it looks like we will now be joined by many other permaculture organisations – a great result.

  • The newly formed Serbian Association and the emerging Bulgarian Association got lots of advice and support and got a huge boost of energy, ideas and motivation for their task of supporting permaculture in their countries.

  • The European Permaculture Council took a big step forwards, with new people getting involved and an agreement to link each national association to it so that it gets more support and achieves its new mission to: “...actively support the ethical and resilient Europe through nurturing an effective permaculture network with strong connections to wider society and the world.”

  • Regional networks formed and made steps forward – a Danube alliance, a South East Europe network / Balkan collaboration, mediterranean clusters.... as well as many regional, project and personal links

  • Researchers met and discussed the opportunities in Europe and how they could engage with the newly-formed Permaculture International Research Network. Lots of interest in linking outstanding projects in each country with local universities to build interest and knowledge, and turning our 'significant practical issues' into questions for young researchers.

  • We discussed international permaculture's Next Big Step – the project to host an international discussion about how permaculture can develop into a truly effective international network – that will pull together thinking for discussion and design at the International Permaculture Convergence in the UK next September. Two really useful sessions were held and lots of great ideas and proposals emerged that will help to strengthen the project, and ensure it reaches more people.

Not everything was perfect. More attention to workshop development by some contributors, a stronger focus on attendees presenting their design work, and a larger space for everyone to meet would have helped, as would the reminder to bring ear plugs for light sleepers!

However, with mountains as backdrop, lighting by lightning, to the sound of thunder and distant wild horses, something wonderful emerged on the shores of Lake Batak. As the closing circle slowly formed and appreciations were invited for place, people, and organisers a growing realisation formed. With every announcement of what had been achieved and each commitment to action described, it dawned on me that the central question posed by open space had been answered - “How can we design and co-create the permaculture (r)evolution?” - in many different ways, each contributing as best they can – its a distributed self-organising effort. And to the question “Can we design and co-create the permaculture (r)evolution?” the answer is simply yes, we are. Permaculture solutions are emerging across Europe, slowly but surely, gaining support, connecting with each other, and out to many different other networks and groups. It has momentum and energy, and we have nature on our side.

Andy Goldring

Closing circle (Hristo Valchev)

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