Eco-Villages and Communalism Across the Globe

Sam FreedmanAugust 13, 2012. Serra das Mantiqueiras, Minas Gerais, Brazil. I woke up to the golden morning sun pouring through the windows of the guest quarters at Terra Una, a small eco-village and intentional community near the municipality of Liberdade in southern Minas. I took a hot shower for the first time in a week; my scent wasn’t too appalling as I’d been eating loads of raw, sprouted foods since I arrived, which tend to cleanse and de-toxify the body. The hot water is powered by gas, and, next to the bathroom entrance, a sign is posted that reads (translated from Portuguese): “For love, don’t take a long time in the hot shower. We know how delicious it can be, but the heat comes from fossil fuels.”) I went into the salão (“big room”, or gathering room) and meditated for fifteen minutes. There are tons of cushions lined up against the eastern windows (huge vertical sheets of glass that span three sides of the room), as well as yoga mats, incense and meditation bells. I then took breakfast – yogurt (homemade from a neighbor’s cow milk), granola, banana, papaya and honey – before helping Marcinha prepare two tiny garden beds next to a leaking hose, taking advantage of the extra flow.

After lunch, Marcinha, Luciana and I jumped in John’s car (a tank of a vehicle equipped for all types of treacherous terrain) and traveled six kilometers to the nearest village of Augusto Pestana, which at one time was a prosperous town and an intersection of key trade routes via railcar. (Though nowadays it’s a disintegrating – yet charming – collection of cottages and old train tracks, home to less than fifty people.) We went to collect avocados from a giant abacateiro behind the rundown train depot, knocking off ripe green balls with a big stick of bamboo and tossing them in cardboard boxes. When we returned to Terra Una, a man named Zeca was waiting at the entrance with Luciana’s car, an angry expression smeared across his face. Apparently Zeca, Lu and Marcinha had had an altercation earlier in the day, which concluded with Zeca borrowing (stealing) Lu’s car against her will. (Note: Zeca is the godfather of Lu’s son Iuri, and an admirer of Lu, so when he discovered she and Marcinha had forged a romantic relationship, there were some confrontations.) Zeca started shouting homophobic slurs at Marcinha, referencing “God’s Will” and the appropriate roles of Man and Woman in heterosexual union. Marcinha, who had Iuri in her arms as a buffer to Zeca’s rage, threatened to call the police before John was able to usher Zeca outside while the women retreated through the backdoor and up the hill to their house. I stayed behind with John, remaining silent while he calmed Zeca’s violent frenzy with some really impressive nonviolent communication techniques. I couldn’t imagine being able to diffuse such a tense situation, let alone in another language, but John was as cool as a cucumber as he explained to Zeca (in the most articulate of words, mind you) that nothing could be resolved through the anger being displayed from both parties – that Zeca should return to Rio (where he works with the therapeutic properties of bee products like pollen and propolis) and come back another time to discuss the situation with the entire community in a more peaceful, controlled setting. We drove Zeca to Bocaina (a town slightly smaller than Liberdade but in the opposite direction, where he’d stay the night in a hostel) after I’d made some tea (capim-limão [lemongrass] & ginger) and the dust had settled.

Throughout 2012, I visited rural intentional communities in Massachusetts, California, Arizona, Jamaica and Brazil where I explored themes like: sustainability and ecology, self-organization, interpersonal relationships, psychology of public/private space, gift culture and environmental activism. I began my exploration with quixotically romantic hopes, expecting to find Utopia (from Greek, meaning “no place”), replete with everlasting “peace and love”, Eden-like gardens pregnant with voluptuous fruits, plus wine-sipping punctuated by birdsong and the strums of acoustic guitars: basically, idealized bubbles sealed at the edges so the world’s trials and tribulations couldn’t sneak in. Sounds nice, right? What I found instead were Eutopias – simply “good places”, as derived from the English homophone – that were utterly imperfect and yet emphatically honest, healthy, and human. Community members sought not to suppress or eliminate conflict amongst themselves, but rather to assimilate it using interpersonal tools and techniques like nonviolent communication, consensus-based decision making, and rotating, overlapping leadership roles.

The confrontation I witnessed at Terra Una was among the most violent disagreements during my brief, year-long stint as a community member – and while conflicts of this intensity are extremely rare, as living, thinking, breathing, feeling human beings, we may acknowledge the potential for different types of conflict to arise, no matter how big or small. In a weekly meeting at Sirius Community in Shutesbury, MA, for example, I saw group tensions rise because of one ‘rogue’ member denouncing the community’s policy of serving only vegetarian meals in the communal kitchen. Other residents were offended when this member proposed the communal adoption of (what he called) a “natural diet,” consisting of organic meat consumption paired with raw fruits, nuts and vegetables – this, instead of typical protein substitutes like beans and tofu, which are processed, heated and therefore “unnatural.” Of course, members engaged in civil dialogue, taking turns to speak and always mindfully acknowledging the others’ viewpoints.

I discovered during my experiences that, what makes intentional communities such vibrant, extraordinary examples of human relationship and co-existence, are the forms of radical intimacy explored, experimented and practiced within. These groups engaged wholeheartedly with questions like:

  • How can we ensure that decisions are made to everyone’s satisfaction?
  • How can we build close, fulfilling relationships without exclusiveness?
  • How is work done without coercion?
  • How do we accept or socialize new members and participants?
  • How can we include a degree of autonomy, individual uniqueness and even deviance?
  • How can we ensure agreement and shared perception around community functions and values?

In essence, these types of communities are asking: “How do we use different social technologies, and methodologies, to achieve this sustainability on the level of peer-to-peer psycho-social relationships?” As John, my friend and co-founder of Terra Una, described in an interview:

Conflicts are part of the journey and it would be very strange if we didn’t have them. There’s nothing wrong with conflict – it’s not a bad thing – it’s how you deal with it that determines if you’re going to survive as a community and go deeper in relations. Conflicts are important and inevitable. It takes time to assimilate changes and reprogram your old habits of confrontation, and when we make it a priority to cultivate this sense of observation and awareness, we can support each other in these goals. Being in community fulfills our deepest human needs of being supported by a ‘tribe’, by a ‘circle’… often times the way we think and relate to one another is repeated via established structures, so we need compassion from our hearts.

Anyone interested in reading the full ethnography – including chapters on social organization, consensus decision-making and histories of American communalism – may contact me at samucaflows@gmail.com.

-Samuel Freedman, Cultural Anthropology