Yesterday we made pizza in the wood burning oven, 20 of us under the stars of the Umbrian countryside. During the day, we built an herb spiral with eight kids, today we'll harvest veggies, make soap, build an earth wall and go for a hike to the nearby lake for a wild swim. Life in a sustainable community is something new every day.
My name is Filippo Bozotti, before creating sustainable communities, I was a film-maker in New York City creating socially-conscious documentaries. One of these projects took me to Sierra Leone, where I witnessed the beauty of the local, pristine beaches and the untouched local culture. I realised that what I liked about making documentaries were not the festivals, the fundraising or the office job, but being in the field; and so I asked myself: "why not just be in the field? Why not develop an eco-tourism project in Sierra Leone that promotes the local culture and protects the environment? Why not tell a positive story, for once, about something coming out of Sierra Leone?" Like all things, if you keep the idea to yourself, it usually remains only an idea but if you throw it out into the universe, usually the universe gives you something back. I shared my dream with my friends back in New York, and that is how I met Ben Keene, my now business partner. Over a bottle of wine at my apartment, we shook hands and a month later we were beach-hunting in Sierra Leone.
For our first project we chose the island of Vorovoro, Fiji, which was born through crowd-funding. A simple email sent by Ben titled "a Tribe is Wanted" sparked the interest of the global media. He was looking for 2000 people who paid 120GBP to develop a sustainable community for eco-tourism on a deserted island in Fiji, working and living alongside the local fisherman village. 2000 tribe-members signed up and within three month the project got started. When Ben and I met up next, that number had risen and we were able to develop the second project in Sierra Leone, using a similar concept.
It's one thing to develop a sustainable community on a deserted island or on a beach in Africa however and quite another to do it in your own backyard. We founded Tribewanted Monestevole, near Umbertide, in Umbria, the green heart of Italy, five years ago. We wanted to put our roots down and being Italian myself, we decided on this 15th century hamlet on top of a hill, surrounded by 40 hectares of olive groves, vineyard and woodland and began to transform it into a sustainable home: green energy, biomass heating, water harvesting, black-grey water filtration system, green architecture, a carpentry workshop, permaculture and garden to table meals. In line with the local Umbrian traditions, we make our own olive oil, wine, prosciutto, salami, homemade bread, pasta, pizza, jams and preserves. As all of our household water is recycled by a living system, we make homemade soaps and toothpaste, void of any chemicals.
We live with the sun and in the morning, we feed the animals: horses, pigs, goats, ducks and chickens, ensuring we also collect any eggs that may have been laid. During these wondrous daylight hours, we also work in the permaculture garden where there is a time and a season for everything. August is harvest time, and this year we have a bountiful yield of tomatoes and eggplants, which are amazing to make preserves with - these come in handy during the winter months. In the evenings, after a home cooked meal under the grapevines and a glass of homemade limoncello made by yours truly, we sit by the bonfire with a guitar in the company of shooting stars and fireflies. Definitely beats a television set!
Living sustainably doesn't mean being 100% self-sufficient or to cut yourself out of the world, it just means trying to live in harmony with nature a bit more. You can do this anywhere, it doesn't have to be in the countryside. Start by trying to produce food yourself, or source it locally and seasonally, trying to minimise waste, energy and water usage, observing nature, and then, trying to replicate what it does and going at its pace.
After five years, we've only just got started, and we measure everything year after year in hope to continue to improve ourselves. How much energy do we use per capita and how much of it is produced on site? How much water do we consume? How much rain do we harvest? How much waste do we produce? How much kitchen waste is fed to the pigs? How much is composted, reused or recycled? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves every day. We experiment with new projects: self-watering wicking beds, urban garden design, aquaponics, making bio-char with rocket stoves; some work better than others, buts it's the process of learning that is important.
We eat together, work together and learn from one another. It's about collaborating instead of competing. Living sustainably isn't easy - growing things yourself is always twice as hard as buying it; the soil is low as the locals say. We have to deal with wild boars, hail storms and droughts, but a freshly picked strawberry somehow tastes different than a Frankenstein-strawberry from the supermarket. Living in the countryside can be lonely; a hamlet like Monestevole is too big for just a family, and it would be impossible to look after the animals, the gardens and the hamlet with just a few pairs of hands. That's the beauty of living in a sustainable community, you surround yourself with people who know more than you, and you collaborate so that everyone pitches in and all gain from the relationship. A lot of what we have created here will bear fruits in many years, the fruit orchard for example is still young and we won't be picking peaches and plums for a few years yet, so we hope to grow old here and reap the benefits for many years to come.
For the past five years at Monestevole we've had thousands of guests from dozens of different countries come visit us, it's been an incredible experience to welcome the world to our hamlet on top of a hill in rural Italy, and planting a seed of sustainability that we hope they take home to make small changes in their lifestyle. Starting from 2018 though, we are switching things up a bit, we are looking for like-minded people to become co-owners of our sustainable community, through a time-share model, people who share our ethos and want to create a more permanent base at our hamlet. People who, like us, want to put their roots down and learn from one another, trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
As for me, I don't miss my former life as a filmmaker, once you step off the hamster wheel and start living with nature, it's difficult to go back to the rat race. Not all that glitters is gold of course, and life in a sustainable community can be difficult. Half of my work is managing people; just like a big family there is always bound to be conflict and how one deals with it is crucial. In a 500- year-old house winters can be cold, summers can be hot, nature can be brutal and worst of all, the bureaucracy in Italy can be stifling but when you work for a whole month with 30 students, age 13-18 and you see how much they are absorbing, you have the feeling that what you are doing is extra-ordinary and that, if the younger generations can have similar experiences, it would truly be a different world.
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