Leading the Change: Global Regenerative Projects
Helena Norberg-Hodge and her time at Local Futures survey some of the most exciting regenerative projects happening across the planet right now
Helena Norberg-Hodge and her time at Local Futures survey some of the most exciting regenerative projects happening across the planet right now
Though profit-hungry global corporations continue to dominate the world, the good news is that a powerful alternative is slowly but steadily emerging. Off the radar of the mainstream media, inspiring grassroots projects far too numerous to count are springing up on every continent, providing a tantalising glimpse into a world of social and ecological regeneration.
Regeneration is about connection. It’s about community, collaboration and mutual aid. It’s about systems that work in harmony with nature. It’s about place-based networks of reciprocity and interdependence.
Take a look at healthy food systems. Diversified farms provide habitat for countless species, including microorganisms that work together to compost organic matter and build healthy soil. The soil not only feeds the crops, but filters water and sequesters carbon. Communities of small farmers work with these unique, place-specific networks of relationships by listening to the land and adapting to the unique soil, micro-climate and biodiversity of each valley, each hillside. Vibrant, community-oriented local economies, in turn, provide markets for the diverse, seasonal foods the farms produce.
This stands in contrast to the global market’s demand for vast quantities of standardised commodities – a system that pushes farmers towards large scale monocultural production, towards heavy machinery and robots, towards toxic chemicals and genetically-modified seeds.
Even commerce can be regenerative. Businesses, banks and policymakers can work to shorten supply chains by substituting imported, mass-produced goods for products made by smaller, more socially-conscious businesses. Rather than artificially pumping up consumer demand through advertising and planned obsolescence, regenerative economies meet people’s real needs by providing high-quality goods and services. And rather than replacing people with energy-intensive technology, a regenerative economy values human labour, skill and intelligence.
The projects described below are bottom-up efforts to reweave the fabric of local relationships. They are particularly inspiring because they are swimming upstream in a tide of regulatory and fiscal policies that work in the opposite direction. Community actions have managed to lay the groundwork for bottom-up regeneration – not only of our soils, our farmlands, and the global environment, but also of our cultures, our societies, and our inner psychological wellbeing. With the help of policy change, it’s remarkable what could be accomplished.
By themselves, these ‘localisation’ initiatives can seem small and insignificant compared to the global corporations they stand against. But when their numbers increase – when there is small scale on a large scale – they may yet tip the balance. In the meantime, they are invaluable lifeboats of tangible regeneration, as we navigate our way out of a fraught, degenerative global economic system.
Food is the one thing we produce for ourselves that every human being needs, every day. It is at the centre of more than ten billion daily transactions. Over half of all habitable land is used for agriculture.
Therefore, if we want to see widespread regeneration, we need a revolution in our food systems. While a single food project can be meaningful, a whole synergistic ecosystem of food projects can truly transform a region.
Growing Communities (London, UK)
‘Growing Communities’, based in Hackney, London, take a whole-systems approach. They operate a much-loved, 100% organic and biodynamic farmers’ market, as well as urban farms, agriculture education programs, and a box scheme. They focus on shortening supply-chains, supporting climate- and nature-friendly food production, boosting profits for farmers, and making fresh, local food more affordable and accessible. They have been going strong for 25 years, and – aside from all the social and ecological benefits – studies have found their model to be much more efficient than industrial agriculture. “Research shows that … people who buy food from us do eat more seasonally, eat more portions of fruit and veg and less meat, waste less food and appreciate and understand where food comes from.” – Julie Brown, Director, Growing Communities
Mountain Roots Food Project (Gunnison, USA)
In the high-altitude meadows of Gunnison Valley, Colorado, Mountain Roots Food Project runs an array of projects to strengthen resilient food systems, including:
Deccan Development Society (Andhra Pradesh, India)
Working across 70 villages in Central India, the Deccan Development Society (DDS) has supported tribal women in forming groups to establish sovereignty over their seeds, food, farming, health, markets, and media.
DDS has created its own seed banks, millet processing units, local food outlets, and restaurants, providing a powerful network of support for women entrepreneurs. They have even taken control of the market, by pushing the state government to redirect public subsidies away from mass-produced rice and wheat, and towards their indigenous, climate-adapted, nutrient-rich, organic crops. Women treasure these crops more than monetary wealth. Consequently, seeds are neither bought nor sold, but always exchanged. By taking back control of their seeds, lands, and markets, they have escaped the volatility of corporate-run markets and maintained vibrant communities and agrarian cultures, and reclaimed self-reliance and self-respect.
Today, more than 5,000 women have adopted millet-based agrobiodiverse farming approaches and conserved almost 100 indigenous seed varieties, which have proven much more resilient to drought. The women also operate their own radio station, produce many documentaries to raise awareness about food security issues and to celebrate their own culture, and they have even started their own school – which they built out of local, natural materials.
“Every month you get your salaries and fill your pockets with currency notes. But come to my home. I have filled it with seeds. Can you match me?” – Paramma, from Khasimput village
Cargonomia (Budapest, Hungary)
Three separate projects – an organic vegetable farm, a do-it-yourself bicycle cooperative, and a bike delivery company – came together to create Cargonomia, an urban food distribution hub using locally-manufactured cargo bikes to deliver locally-grown food and fresh bread across the entire city.
The Redd on Salmon Street (Portland, USA)
A former foundry and warehouse have become a vibrant food hub, housing almost 200 local food businesses along with event space and a shared commercial kitchen.
Local Food Connect (Melbourne, Australia)
This community group offers an impressive online directory of local farmers, as well as food swaps, community gardens, and food justice initiatives, and runs a weekly farmers market.
“I met city people who really wanted to be connected to their food and wanted to be on that farm. There was this community around the farmer. And that was where I went ‘my lord, if every farmer could have this experience – to have this connection to those who ate their food, and to feel appreciated… wow, wouldn’t that make a big difference.’ The hairs on my neck stood up.” – Robert Pekin, dairy farmer, founder of Food Connect Brisbane
Edventure Frome (Frome, UK)
Edventure Frome empowers cooperative community enterprises by hosting free 10-week courses that teach groups of young adults to design and create a place-based start-up venture together. Students have created a shared commercial kitchen, coworking space, community fridge, lending library, makerspace, and clothing swap.
Cape Town Talent Exchange (Cape Town, South Africa)
“No money? No problem!” is the motto of the Cape Town Talent Exchange (CTTE). CTTE is a bartering system that enables its more than 6,000 members to trade goods and services by exchanging “talents” rather than money, at a weekly barter market, annual festival, and ongoing Local Exchange Trading System (LETS).
Fibershed (Northern California, USA)
This network of over 100 farmers, ranchers, weavers, spinners, and designers has created an integrated garment-producing system where all materials are sourced from within a 300-km radius. Fibershed hosts an annual “wool symposium;” a fashion gala; and hands-on educational curricula for children to learn about bioregions, restoration ecology, and regenerative farming.
COMMUNITY & MOVEMENT-BUILDING
Bhoomi College (Bangalore, India)
Just outside Bangalore, known as the information technology capital of India, lies an oasis inviting people to explore a different way of life. Bhoomi College brings together thinkers and practitioners in fields like local food and farming, holistic and place-based education, green energy, trade policy, sustainable water systems, and more, to teach year-long graduate degree programs in Sustainable Living and Holistic Education as well as a large number of shorter courses. Bhoomi also hosts a repair café – a meeting space where people come together to mend broken household objects, resisting throwaway culture – as well as a farmer’s market, a small farm, and an array of events, from talks about the climate crisis to tree plantings and monsoon celebrations.
Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance (Chiang Mai, Thailand)
“When I was a kid, everything was fun and easy. But when the TV came, many people came to the village. They said, ‘you are poor…you need to go to Bangkok to pursue success.’”
– Jon Jandai
After working for seven, dreary, stressful years in crowded Bangkok, Jon Jandai returned to his childhood village – to the simpler life he had cherished in his youth. With his family of six, he grew rice and vegetables, and raised fish, working far fewer hours than he had in the city. They sold their surplus food, and he built an earthen house – totally debt-free. He stopped worrying about fashionable clothing and other status symbols. “Life became easy and fun again”, he says.
In 2003, Jon and his American partner decided to create a learning center to share these insights. The Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance – an organic farm, ecological building school, intentional community, and a center for seed-saving and sustainable living – was born. The land they bought was seriously degraded, as it had previously been used for mono-cropping corn. They managed to turn the land into an abundant, self-sufficient farm and home.
Roughly 15 people live on the farm, and hundreds of guests and workshop attendees – from every corner of the globe – pass through every year to learn about organic gardening, natural building, and the use of appropriate technologies – like simple solar systems for heating water, and homemade charcoal for water filtration.
Members of the Pun Pun community also run two restaurants in Chiang Mai city, where they serve local, organic, GMO- free food – much of it grown at the farm. The mission of both restaurants is to highlight the value of the diverse traditional seed varieties grown and saved at Pun Pun.
“We were taught how to make life complicated and hard all the time…we were taught to disconnect ourselves, to be independent, so that we can rely on money only, and don’t need to rely on each other. But now, to be happy, we need to connect to ourselves again, to connect to other people, to connect our minds and bodies together again.”
– Jon Jandai
Unión de Cooperativas Tosepan (Cuetzalan, Mexico)
“In Mexico, a country besieged by globalization, a network of cooperatives with 35,000 members upholds a local economy rooted in indigenous culture.” – Alex Jensen
Tosepan is a network of cooperatives with 35,000 members across 430 villages in the lush, cloud-forested Sierra Norte mountains of Puebla, Mexico. Tosepan is dedicated to constructing a holistic, sustainable, locally- and democratically-controlled economy rooted in indigenous culture and knowledge.
Tosepan’s three civil associations and eight cooperatives cover a wide spectrum of basic needs. Organic staples like corn, beans and vegetables, as well as crops like coffee, pepper, and sugarcane, are grown on agroecological farms for community needs and local markets. Natural building – using local resources like bamboo and adobe – incorporates features like water harvesting, solar dehydrators, ecological cookstoves, and renewable energy. Local healthcare focuses on prevention and traditional herbal remedies. Decentralised renewable energy aims for total energy sovereignty. A local cooperative bank supports the functioning of the entire ecosystem of cooperatives.
Such initiatives are a source of dignified livelihoods and ecological security for tens of thousands of people, offering a viable alternative to the distress-migration suffered by so many other communities in the era of neoliberal globalisation.
While building up local economic systems, Tosepan’s members also actively oppose the top-down imposition of a corporate-led global economy. They have successfully resisted corporate development projects including hydroelectric dams and a planned Walmart. They remind us all that, in the current capitalist political economy, true regeneration and renewal cannot be divorced from active resistance.
Seongmisan Ecovillage (Seoul, South Korea)
At the foot of a small, wooded hill in northwest Seoul, lies an ecovillage called Seongmisan.
Seongmisan began with a community-run childcare centre, and grew with the struggle to protect the Seongmi hill from an industrial development. Since its beginnings, this urban village has organically expanded outwards, adopting more and more households, and quietly contributing to a transformation of values and economic structures. By 2014, Seongmisan had grown to involve an impressive 700 households and 20,000 people, as well as 70 businesses such as organic food cooperatives and restaurants, a small theatre, an ecological soap producer, two alternative schools, and even a dental practice. All these institutions embody a radical departure from modern consumerism, instead prioritising collaboration, mutual responsibility, short and accountable supply-chains, sustainability, and face-to-face connection.
In a megacity like Seoul, Seongmisan is an oasis of calm, bringing to life a more beautiful future. It is just one of over 10,000 ecovillages across the world that, together, form the Global Ecovillage Network.
Sambhavna Clinic (Bhopal, India)
In 1984, thousands died when a plant owned by US multinational Union Carbide released a vast cloud of lethal gas into the city of Bhopal. Hundreds of thousands were left permanently injured and still today suffer an ongoing health catastrophe, as a handful of pharmaceutical corporations pounced on this new “market” for their products.
5 years ago, a small local trust chose to break the cycle of poison by using ancient plant remedies to treat the modern industrial diseases engulfing Bhopal. In time, they created a model of effective community health intervention. Sambhavna Clinic, ecologically constructed and nestled in a 1-acre medicinal herb garden, offers free medical care to the survivors through a combination of Western medicine, traditional Ayurvedic medicine, and yoga.
Pax Herbals (Edo State, Nigeria)
Pax Herbals is pioneering a whole-person, community-based healthcare approach, centered on organically-grown herbal medicines. Its Herbarium project is documenting indigenous healing wisdom, and has collected more than 5,000 species of medicinal plants in Nigeria. It’s now conducting scientific research on the plants, with the aim of integrating African healing traditions into an evidence-based medical system.
With its hospital, research laboratories, and farms, the centre has created hundreds of jobs and student internships in a rural area, slowing the migration of local youth to cities while preserving local ecosystems and biodiversity.
On Samsø, the world’s first island powered by 100% local, renewable energy, success rests on a high level of community ownership and buy-in: more than half of the island’s 21 wind turbines are owned by local farmers, and the entire community collectively decided on the placement of the turbines. Three of the island’s four heating plants run on leftover barley straw purchased from the island’s farmers, and the fourth uses local woodchips and a solar hot water system.
Atelier Non-Electric (Tochigi Prefecture, Japan)
No electricity is the greenest electricity of all. This education centre in Japan invites students and visitors to question the assumption that we need electricity. It shows how living without electricity invites a deeper connection to the local environment, and demonstrates locally-made non-electric alternatives to appliances such as refrigerators, clocks, and cookers.