We are participating in a 4 week course in ecovillage design at the UNESCO rural development center in Chengdu, China and fortunately there is a VPN connection here that allows us to “spoof” the Chinese censors and reach into Medium, Blogger, Google, Facebook, Twitter and all the otherwise banned sites, so this week I can post.
Actually, I’m gonna cheat and repost from the blog of one of the Chinese students, Lin Fan. As Fan tells her followers, “From a telecom network engineer to a software product manager, from a Silicon Valley professional to a global traveller (with a bicycle in tow for 5 months), from China to the Silicon Valley then to the world then back to China, my life journey has been guided by an unquenchable passion for meaning and impact.”
In Jan 2017, after 8 months traveling in 15 countries in Europe and APAC region, I decided to return to China and put the inspiration I got on the road, and especially from Mother Nature, in a new life journey in China. After another 3 and a half months, 12-cities domestic tour to reconnect with the country, I settled in Hangzhou, a dynamic tech & startup hub fortunately with rich cultural and natural heritage.
I am devoting myself to researching, writing, advocating and facilitating sustainable practices in individual and society levels. Particularly I am interested in the movements of sustainable lifestyle, permaculture, organic farming, and community supported agriculture in China.
In the sixth and seventh installments of her daily blog from the Ecovillage Design Course, Lin Fan writes:
Day 6 @EDE class: Look Beyond Village & Stakeholder Mapping
A VIP guest
We started our class 30 minutes earlier today because a Chinese official from UNESCO International Research and Training Center for Rural Education (INRULED) visited us and wanted to spend some time in the class before going to catch his flight in Chengdu. The INRULED center we are using here is largely due to his support, to this class and to ecovillage education in general. The center is free to EDE organizers, though non-volunteer students still paid for their boarding. (I paid ~$615 for food and boarding for 28 days). So organizers, i.e. Chinese Ecovillage Network and Sunshine Ecovillage Network, can use the saving to cover other costs, such as teaching service from GEN, international travel expenses of GEN teachers, provisions for dorm rooms and kitchen, etc.
In a 10-minutes, rapid-fire informative speech, the official traced the history of sustainable movements to two influential books: Silent Spring (Wiki, 1962) and The Limits to Growth (Wiki,1972). The model of our industrial civilization is basically consuming the resources of our planet and leave us trash eventually. This is not sustainable. In March, 2018, Chinese government added in constitution “the building of an ecological civilization” to the duties and powers of the State Council (1). It’s a new form of human civilization based on sustainable principles (Wiki).
How can we realize ecological civilization? He firmly believes that education and training are critical building blocks. He went on that UNESCO has laid the theory groundwork by a few profoundly influential reports: Learning to Be (1972), Learning, the Treasures within (1996), and Rethinking Education (2015) For people in the class who may become future designers or developers of ecovillages, you will have a lot of work, as one of his few ending points.
Just as Kosha was about to continue the class according to original agenda, Haichao, head of the organizers suggested that students share their feedback to the class, so that this official can hear students’ thoughts first hand. Kosha thought it a good idea too. So 5 or 6 outspoken students grabbed the opportunity. I took longer time to organize my thoughts. Just when I finally felt ready to talk and stood up, the official had to leave for the airport. The teacher and a few organizers walked out of the class to see him off. The class naturally took a break as it happened.
Look beyond a village
Putting ecovillage movement in the grand background of ecological civilization, highlighting the role of education and training, all helped me greatly in understanding the possible impact of my role as an independent writer and journalist. And my horizon is suddenly broadened. Though I learn to think about ecological villages in 4 dimensions holistically (social, economy, ecology and culture), often I still think of it at the scale of a village concerning immediate stakeholders. But as an observer and thinker (in journalist’s hat), I need to watch the society more broadly.
It’s great that Chinese government formalized the goal of building ecological civilization in constitution. However, I don’t know if we are already more advanced than western countries in sustainable development, until I see reliable data evidence. I feel that we are still behind in terms of public awareness, voluntary adoption of sustainability practices and contribution to initiatives, such as classifying household trash, recycling resources, maintaining the cleanliness of public places, reducing package, using fewer plastic bags when shopping, raising fund to support community sustainability initiatives, etc. Such observation is from comparing my years of experience living and travelling in western countries, to my recent one year living and travelling in China.
The power of “the grassroot”
As some speakers brought up in the 2018 Dujiangyan International Forum, bottom-up approaches, i.e. grassroot communities, should eventually take greater ownership in sustainability projects. This is music to my ear as I think this is another key area where we are behind western countries. It takes the training from a civil society (wiki) for citizens to practice taking ownership and responsibility for social wellbeing, to learn how to organize events professionally, how to raise fund legally and gracefully, how to reach out to stakeholders of different interest and maintain relationships, and how to build domain competence and sustain their organizations for years if not decades.
Many of my classmates commented that they had learned a lot from our EDE class about the 4-dimension model on ecovillage, from our extraordinary teacher Kosha (CEO of Global Ecovillage Network), and from other classmates’ knowledge and experience. But what can we learn from the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) as a mature and influential organization? Do we know of any Chinese NGO or NPO that has been in existence for two decades and now has presence in 5 continents and has involved itself in about 10,000 communities and related projects? I am making a reference to the profile of GEN here (2). What kind of powerful vision and values that unite people around the globe? What kind of organizational skills, domain expertises, and far-flung connections does it take to make such a global impact? And more importantly, grow that impact over decades? What lessons has it learned? What struggles is it facing? GEN has generously authorized its Chinese partner to translate teaching materials. Organizations like Sunshine Ecovillage Network (Hangzhou, China) have started to offer similar but adapted classes in their region. I think what is very very hard to replicate is a mature organization and competent people.
On a 4 quadrant by two dimensions: influence (high-low), impact (positive-negative), we looked into each possible stakeholder of our own projects and assign the stakeholders to a quadrant, and position them against the X and Y axis according to perceived influence and impact.
Representatives from Sunshine Ecovillage Network and the still fledgling China Ecovillage Network (founded in Dec 2017) laid out their stakeholder cards on mat, so that the whole class can observe and analyze together. At the end, we found most cards in “positive impact” quadrants, either highly or low influential. Kosha asked a representative why a certain stakeholder was considered “highly influential and highly positive” while another is “highly influential but negative”. A few revelation from the exercise:
- Strengthen your support base: work to empower stakeholders in “lowinfluential but positive” zone, so that they can move to “highly influential and positive” zone.
- Face your enemies head on: don’t avoid or ignore stakeholders in “highly influential but negative” zone. Your great enemies can become your best friends, just as the opposite can happen because human interaction is largely based on emotional connection. Build that connection.
- Distinguish your wish and reality: if we don’t see many stakeholders in “negative” zone, i.e. most in “positive” zone, is it because we tend not to think of them? Is it because we wish most stakeholders to be positive and overlook their negative tendency in reality?
In a group exercise, one team member presented the stakeholder map of her existing project (illustrated by photo below), an ecological apartment complex about one-hour driving distance from our training center. The project now has a farm, two residential buildings with 80 apartments, and one separate community center building for events. The biggest challenge right now is that they don’t really have regular residents. That’s a tricky situation to be in. We are going to visit and explore the place tomorrow (on Day #7).
People of the day
Wen, independent event planner. Wen is the nice roommate who gave me her lower bunk bed so that I can sneak out of the dorm easily at 4ish in the morning to work on my blogs. Her hair is barely a quarter inch long, a style inspired by her father, and confused me that I might have carelessly stepped in a male dorm when I met her the first time. In her early 30s, she is bright, jovial and eager to learn. When we did stakeholder mapping exercise in a group, I learned about her project in detail, and more about her, for the first time. (I know I will eventually profile all three of my lovely roommates, slowly getting there.
She wants to revitalize the local community and protect the historical heritage of a small island in the Changjiang River near Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province. She planned to build a museum of oral history, using it as a community hub and special tie to connect with residents originated from the island. However, this effort is facing many challenges. Property developers have cast their covetous eyes on the island. It has been rumored that they want to build water entertainment facilities, though theoretically any new construction should be banned because the island is significant to flood management of the area.
Wen has been active in protecting local environment for recent years. She organized events to raise public awareness, as well as participated in many workshops to study new subjects and develop herself. Early this year, she criticized a local government leader on her blog, asking him to “get out” of the city. She refused authority’s request to take down that post and was detained in a temporary detention house for a couple weeks. Then she was transferred to a prison for some more weeks before she was freed on bail, 39 days in total. [This was not her first time being jailed for her opinions, she seems to do it with some regularity.] After her jailings, she posted online, wrote and called authorities to suggest improving the food and environment of detention facilities. It is important to the health of staff there as well, she believes.
I didn’t sleep on Friday night. I was seriously behind my target to blog daily. By the end of Day #5, I had posted blogs only up to Day #2. So I decided to sacrify one night sleep to catch up. I had some fine green tea, dry fruits and nuts to boost energy. My mind was clear and excited due to thinking and writing, but definitely a bit slower than usual. Finally I posted 3 new blogs for Day #3–5. But throughout Day #6, I felt quite sleepy in the class, only got better in late afternoon.
In the evening, we had a celebration for the first week. I taught the class a few basic steps of Bachata dance. Apparently many have not formally learned social dance and this felt fresh and interesting to them. It was really joyful to see the class having a great time together. But I had to leave early to make up some sleep. (I felt rested on Day #7. )
Day 7 @EDE Class: Field Trip to Huadao Ecological Community
Sep 2, 2018. We made a field trip to Huadao Ecological Community, a two-year old community project managed by one of our classmates, Ms. Alice Wang. Among the typical three types of ecovillages: converted from an urban neighborhood, converted from a traditional rural village, built brand new based on consensus and commitment, Huadao falls in the third type.
We participated in a ceremony in which we thanked the vegetable seeds (in the basket in the middle of the table). This has been an important ritual of the community. We made sure to arrive in the morning before the soil becomes too warm for the seeds. In this ritual, people feel connected to the seeds, soil, and nature.
Half farming, half X
Recently I read this book: “Half Farming, Half X” by a Japanese author 盐见直纪. The idea is that people can live a healthier, happier and self-sufficient life by spending half time growing most of their own food, and the other half time working on things they truly like, i.e. the X. They find this X by what fits their unique talent, interest and skills.
In Huadao, the biggest challenges right now is to get people to live here regularly, so there is a real community! About 40 apartments were bought by member families but no family actually live here. These are the people who have already established life and career elsewhere, mostly in big cities, but who also loved the beautiful idea of an ecological community and were willing to put down then the upfront payment of $58,500 for one apartment. (The price has gone up by 50%). They don’t own the property but has the right of usage for 40 years.
Could “half farming, half X” be a solution for Huadao to attract regular tenants? I have been thinking that such new lifestyle can possibly help ME achieve financial sustainability SOONER, and at the same time I can gain hands-on experience in one of the most critical areas for a sustainable ecosystem, farming. To me as an independent writer/journalist, the X can be many: writing, event organizing, consulting, training, public speaking, and a newly added prospect, ecovillage design
. Huadao appears to be a promising location for the housing and farming part, assuming the rent is lower than that in a big city like Hangzhou and the nearby Chengdu. I like the comfortable inside of a modern apartment, the round building and quadyard that encourages interaction with community members, and the large organic farm (not yet certified). I could spend a few hours each day working in the farm, and the rest of the time reading and writing about sustainability.
But, imagine if I would move in in 3 months, I could be one of a handful, if not the only, warm bodies in the entire building (They have a few regular staff who also live here), in case they couldn’t attract more life-tinkerers by then. How will I handle that? Not good for long term for sure. But hey! I am an event organizer / community developer too! Will it not be possible for me to help with organizing cultural events to attract urban visitors from the Chengdu, and gradually build a real community here?
That said, will half-farming-half-X here at Huadao work for other self-employed people like me? Before answering that, is Huadao really an ideal location to me? I will need to find out more. My return flight to Hangzhou is a few days after the end of the class. Originally I planned to spend those days in Dujiangyan or Chengdu just for vacation. Why not stay in Huadao and explore more? I immediately talked about this idea with Alice. She was very supportive and agreed to arrange a guest apartment for me. It happens that they will have a management team (founders) meeting on the same day when the EDE class ends. I may be able to meet their team members and learn more. Yay, I have a plan!
The eco-tourism resources nearby can be another attraction to prospective community members. A Party leader of the Qiquan town gave us a short speech to introduce the town and played a well-made introduction film. The area where Huadao is located is designated as an ecological reserve on the west side of the metropolitan Chengdu. It has good natural water and is big in rice production historically. From the film, it appears that local villages have developed good public facilities such as libraries, community activity centers, and remodeled bathrooms and kitchens to connect to sewage pipeline network, all aiming at bringing city-quality of life to rural residents. Many farmers now open their farmhouses, as bed-and-breakfast inns, to tourists who typically look for idyllic country life as a refreshing switch from their big city dwelling. The booming countryside tourism has created new income sources for farmers. They invest even more in their environment. This seems a virtuous cycle.
People of the day
Alice WANG. Alice hosted us in Huadao Ecological Community today. Finally I got to see this ambitious project that she has been working on and shared with us a lot for case study. There is no better time than today to write about her but she stood out from the beginning. She speaks fluent and beautiful English and is a brilliant communicator. Whenever talking about Huadao, she shows a lot of passion and is open to ideas and questions.
Back in 2014, she joined the Commission of Sustainability Development of Beijing International Exchange Association of China, a Beijing NGO specialized in fostering high level exchange between its members and foreign cultural and business parties. She was the secretary of the community. It was through the connections there, she came to know Huadao. Deeply concerning that city children lack connection with nature, she hoped that Huadao can become a safe and beautiful natural playground for children, as well as a new type of community that embraces low-carbon lifestyle. The same year, she became one of the earliest members of the community, through buying an apartment and becoming a limited partner(shareholder) of the company that developed the property. While she was still working full time for her own company, she gradually involved more and more in the development of Huadao, seeing it through hard times of stagnation, disagreement and fortunately re-alignment of vision. Now she is in charge of the entire operation, splitting her time between Beijing and Chengdu so that she can actually live in the community and grow it.
In the afternoon, some team members visited nearby tourist sites. They saw cute giant pandas
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