Amayuelas - defending the right to produce food.

Amayuelas, begins Meliton (addressing a group who have hired the hostel for a few days training), is a village. It's not a commune or a hippy project, it's a place where some people run small rural enterprises and are also friends, other people are neighbours, and other people don't talk to each other at all – just like any other village!

Well almost - except that in the 70/80's a small group of committed people decided to call it an 'Amayuelas: Municipio Ecologico' (when no-one really knew what that meant), and try and repopulate it, in an area where the 'de-population' had reached an almost irreversible level (i.e. one family left!).

The aim of Amayuelas is to defend the right to produce food.

The village of Amayuelas has a number of different elements to it:

  • The housing co-op (see photo above of houses built by the project using the traditional earth brick method)
  • The albergue (hostel where they hold courses or host other people's courses)
  • The rural university
  • A number of individual rural enterprises

The albergue:
can be hired out for people to run their own courses (e.g. a group have hired it this weekend to train mentors for people with physical disabilities), or simply to use it as accommodation with meals (for example a cycling club hired it out), or Amayuelas/the rural university use it to run their courses.

Universidad rural:
Monthly foros that lots of people come to – from the local area and further afield (though it's just an evening event with dinner afterwards, people don't stay the night). The idea is to protect and continue the knowledge that farmers have developed over the years. There are certain skills that farmers have that can't be learnt from a book, and that you can only learn from working with someone who has that skill. For example what is the ideal moment for planting – it sounds simple but it is knowledge that has been developed over, and passed down through generations and generations of farmers (not by monsanto!).

Short courses – a weekend or a few days – no longer than this as participants have to pay to come on them so if they are too long people can't afford it. If they get funded the courses are free.

Last weekend they ran a course about the impact of EU regulations about processing on small producers.

Structure

The housing co-op has about 20 members who live in the houses that they built at the beginning of the project (some 14 or so years ago). The housing co-op is separate from Amayuelas the project, which only 5 or 6 of them are part of (most people just live there).

The businesses are all separate now – have tried various different ways of structuring it in the past and this is how it has ended up working. So for example the bakery, horticulture businesses, Chickens/eggs, sheep, and pigs - are separate private businesses and the finances are all separate. The nucleus of the project and what connects the businesses and the people is the albergue (a hostel in english, but different to a 'hostal' in spanish). The producers all sell their produce to the albergue - but this is an agreement between the 5 of them – not anything more formal.

The project (the albergue, the office etc.): There was a point when more people got involved in the project and they decided to have a collective structure where everyone was equal. However it became a problem that a few people had a big investment in the project (i.e. had invested a lot of money in it and had their names on the mortgage), and other people had no investment in it. So some people were more committed to it then others, in that some people could just leave and do something else or if they weren't happy. Others basically had to make it work but also felt a greater sense of responsibility for it as they had invested in the infrastructure.

The group had lots of meetings, with long discussions for many hours but they couldn't make it work. In the end the two people who had invested the money suggested that they start from scratch. That everyone put in 6,000 euros so that they all had an equal share and responsibility. Most people decided to focus their resources on doing something else, so in the end it went back to the original core group.

Decision making

The project (the albergue) is managed by Meliton and Jeromo on a day to day basis. It does have other members and they do report to them and take proposals to a meeting but they basically run it.

The businesses are run individually. Decisions taken by each person (though in the context of the albergue being the main buyer), and individuals are responsible for their success or failure – it's a personal risk (they help each other out though).

The rural university – has 50 members, though only about 9 of them are active. They have a big meeting in Nov/Dec to decide on the programme for the next year.

The housing co-op does have meetings but not many. The thing that most people participate in is the comedor – they all eat lunch together (take it turns to cook). If people are around they generally go to that (other meals are eaten separately in your own house).

Finances
They got some EU funding originally – from the Leader Programme – 40% and some money from a trust/foundation. Some to do up the albergue. Members bought their own private money – what they could and with support from family and friends.

Now there is some money for particular courses (like the one last weekend) – a small percentage of public tax can either go to the catholic church or to non religious causes – one of which is the educational network/group that they are part of linked to the rural university.

The housing co-op - people finance themselves – if you want to live there you have to find the money. If you want to sell your house you have to find someone else to buy it. Some of the members of the housing co-op rent their houses to non members. Any joint costs they try and make sure are shared between them proportionally (to use). The comoder (the group from the housing co-op who eat lunch together) you mark down if you are going to eat (to make sure there's enough food), and then it's someone's job at the end of the month to add up what everyone owes (it's about 3.50 a meal including electricity for the place where they eat).

Individual's incomes
No one gets a salary from the project. If they work hours at the albergue (cooking or running courses etc.) they are paid for those hours (funded either through the course funding or the participants).

Two of them live from the income they generate through their businesses (though they don't earn much), but others have to have outside work (e.g. Meliton is a teacher).

Ideally the businesses would sell all of their produce to the albergue (and all earn enough to live through that), and have a completely closed loop, but there isn't enough business through there to do that.

Maria Jose also sometimes runs courses outside of Amayuelas (though linked to what they do here), but you need to weigh up the amount of time invested in that (e.g. the one she has just given has taken three days).

The project: Everyone puts in 3,000 euros to be a member of the project. As it is a not for profit organisation you never get that back again, and if they ever wind down the organisation and sell the albergue they would have to give the money from that to another not for profit project with similar aims.

Practical bits and bobs....
They decided always to do a little intro to anyone using the albergue (even if a totally unrelated course), otherwise people could spend time there and go away thinking it was just like any other venue. So they do a little introduction about the history, their aims and the fact that food and wine is produced by small local and organic producers.

I asked if with other groups (e.g. who come to Rural University courses), the guests are asked to help set the tables and clear up to save time – or if they'd tried it and found it didn't work. They haven't ever done that, though some people in the group think that it would be a good idea, however others don't and think that paying guests won't want to do it.

Lessons for us
Patience and and be open to learn new things. You are always learning here – a lot of different people come through. You never know what's going to happen or who's going to come along next (for good or bad) – so you need to be really patient and learn from the bad and enjoy the good.
Create a good environment to work in. As a worker that is really important to me that I have a good relationship with everyone running the project. Also make sure you find people who share your values (people who you employ and the members).

We haven't found the answer to all these – they are things I would do differently if I was starting again. Also it depends on each situation and local context etc.

How to incorporate new people is key:
Look for a way to have the same level of commitment (e.g. people putting in the same amount of money – or someone else said money or time to the same value).
Make sure people are joining because it's something they really want to do (not just that it's quite nice and they'll do it until a better job comes along). So for example Marie Jose really wanted to start growing food so she started the huerta, she didn't just come along and say that's nice I'll work there.

Another thing is that it's really difficult to ask people to leave if it's not going well. It's really important to have a system in place to deal with this. So have a trial time for people to be there, then do an plan with them and set objectives, and if they aren't fulfilling what they said they would (or showing commitment/responsibility), you follow the process and ask them to leave.

And it's important that you stick to those processes. If you say that someone has to start as a volunteer on a 3 month trial they have to complete that. Don't say they're really great let's just let them join because later if things go wrong that will be seen as part of the problem.

Infrastructure:
We did a lot with very few resources, and in some ways we're paying for that now – with the albergue for example – we did a lot not very well. It might be better to say we'll do less well with the resources we have and then do more as you get more resources.

We also did a lot ourselves without having the skills. There's positive and negative things about that. The good thing is that we got on with it and learnt a lot. We didn't think well we can't do that until we're properly trained (otherwise you'd never do it), but the other extreme of that is not being at all prepared. We maybe could have prepared a bit better for some things.

Local involvement:
Then there is the difficulty of getting people locally (in the village and surrounding area 'conmarca') to participate. It has taken us a long time to get people involved. When you're in a conservative area (and it is really conservative here), it's difficult to come and set up a project with revolutionary ideas (and ideals).

People think you are very distant from them and weird/hippy, we spend a lot of time showing we're not hippies. So the seed event has been really important in involving older people around here, and the local three day fiesta of the village. But we do put on ideological and political events too. Some people don't participate just because they think you are weird but with others it's a bit of a power struggle.

There's a bit of envy, for example from small leaders of local villages - people who participate in some local authority activities for example, but would rather say you're a bunch of weirdos than see the organisation as an opportunity to do more. And the more people participate the more enriched their lives are (through meeting other people and learning etc.), and the bigger the divide becomes between someone who participates and someone who doesn't – it's hard to know how to get over that.
Conflict resolution
Internal conflicts can have a really big impact and are really hard. It's really important to have mechanisms in place for what to do if something goes wrong. So if this happens we do this, and then you follow it. Two members talked about the importance of having processes and systems in place.

We're all very impulsive people and we lack a natural mediator in the group. A group really needs someone who will say come one we need to sort this out someone who acts as a mediator. A group that has someone like that is very lucky.

I would really help to have the mechanisms in place to help deal with conflicts as they arrive (which they always will – as soon as you have 2 people!). But we're not the sort of group with a dynamic where you do lots of group processes, we're not like that, and that would seem forced to us. You need to have the mechanisms in place and stick to the agreed steps.

The trouble is when new people come along and you say that you've developed certain processes because of the experience you've had they sometimes still reject that saying that they aren't the same and they won't do what other people did. People get defensive and they also want to change things straight away.

We talked about if it should be like when you start working land, that ideally you just observe it for a year and get to understand and experience it before you do anything, and acknowledge the experience. It's a bit like getting on a bus, says Meliton, and before you've even taken the journey you tell the driver a better route, rather than doing the route a couple of times and then suggesting a new one that might be quicker. Being aware of how you suggest changes also helps (making suggestions rather than telling people in a I know best way).

It's a two way process joining a community – the existing group has to be open and look at how to make it a good process, but the person joining also has to take some responsibility.

We talked about the idea of forming a conflict resolution network with different communities. So if you had an internal conflict you would call on someone from another community to come and help you resolve it/facilitate that process (supporting each other with no resources and also having someone who understands the context of living in a community) – and that community could call on another community if they had a problem etc. May be that the eco-aldeas network has something like this already.

An interest in good conflict resolution training (not training that is about dealing with personal conflicts which is training they went on which was really frustrating).

We talked about the issue of children changing people's focus and how that can become a problem in a community, if that person or couple also wants the rest of the community to change it's focus too, and if they only focus on that.

Members suggestions for other interesting communities to visit and their models:
Longo Mai (they have a number of communities in France and one in Austria). The one Meli visited has 90 people living there of different generations. The communities are linked and support each other, but are autonomous – they also swap produce. They have contacts there that they could put us in touch with.

La Puebla near Madrid (the daughter of someone from Longo Mai lives there – a smaller community but interesting.

Lakabe (in Navarra) – they've had their conflicts, but they have systems in place to deal with them and for new people joining. They have existed for nearly 30 years and have three generations of people living there (including four of the original founders).

They are a very different model from Amayuelas in that they have collectivised everything. So if you join you stop having private property and you donate all of your money, and if you leave you don't get to take anything with you. This has had it's problems and someone took them to court when they left (arguing that they should be paid for their investment – either of money or time) – it would be interesting to know what happened with that case and to know more about how Lakabe works.

Lakabe have developed a very clear joining process.

  • First you go for a week, then you leave and you and the community decide if you go back or not.
  • Then you go for a month and you leave and the same thing happens.
  • Then a year and then you have to make the decision about whether you want to be there enough to put all your money into it.

They are asking a lot, but it is a way to find people who are really committed to it and really want to work in that way not just using it as a stop over.

Problems for small producers
A hot topic at Amayuelas is the problems caused for small producers and food processors by EU law (and by the interpretation of that law in Spain and the different regions (known as autonomous communities). The law is the same for small producers and processors as for enormous ones. For small producers this can make it impossible to continue processing – e.g. for a large processor it makes no difference to employ someone to do all the paperwork, for a small processor this could mean doubling the workforce – can't afford an additional wage.

Meliton gave me an example for them of part of the EU regulations being that you have to disinfect a vehicle taking chickens from the pens to the slaughter house at a registered company. Their slaughter house is about 50 meters away – the company that disinfects the vehicles is 20 kms away – so you have to travel 30 minutes to get the little van disinfected (they don't do it in a special way at all, we could easily do it – and it costs obviously), to come back and take the chickens 50m – it makes no sense.

Maria Jose who makes the bread also talked to me about these problems. She recently changed the oven for a better one. She needs to be able to sell outside of the albergue to be able to justify the investment in the oven, but due to the regulations being the same for her as an enormous business it's taking ages to get the license (she doesn't know yet what other hoops she'll have to jump through).

I asked if anyone was fighting their corner to try and get the difference for smaller producers recognised. Each country interprets the EU regs differently – France is really supportive of small producers, Spain isn't and then different autonomous communities (i.e. Cataluna, Castilla, Basque Country etc.), is different – some stricter than others.

It's really frustrating – there was someone at the course last weekend who is a vet and who is one of five sitting on the EU commission – the others are all there for big multi-nationals so he is the only one who ever votes in favour of the small producers.

However Amayuelas is about looking for solutions to problems there were a number of outcomes of the course, they have agreed to some commitments:

  • Getting a group of tecnicas (vets) to write up a document highlighting different interpretations of the law is more in favour of small producers/processors. The producers can then show this to local vets/sanitary departments who say you can't do this or have to do that.
  • Make unions etc. aware of the impact on small producers so that they can lobby for them.
  • Work together to share experience where the outcome has been successful (e.g. in challenging the law/using different interpretation).

Right off to set the table for the course that's happening here. Not sure when I'll be back on line, but I'm learning loads more here - so watch this space. H xx

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