Ukrainian ecovillages during the war

How downshifters' hamlets became a 'green corridor' for refugees.
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We talked with Maksym Zalevskyi, coordinator of the national ecovillage network of Ukraine and curator of the Green School, about how the Ukrainian ecovillage network was created and how at present this community is involved in supporting refugees fleeing the hostilities.

Maksym Zalevskyi, coordinator of the National Network of Ecovillages of Ukraine
— Maksym, how did you get into the green movement?
— Ten years ago, I worked in a startup that produced financial products: a payment system, chats, forums. At some point, one of the co-owners offered to design together a settlement in Goa, India, where he had a piece of land for people coming there for retreats. Back then, the word 'burnout' simply did not exist, but people already felt the need to leave their places and recharge the batteries in winter.

So we started designing it all. We found an architect who was immediately taken by the idea of dome houses and drew a project. There were 12-15 houses with a common house in the center. We posted the project on a forum and the forum began to buzz with life. People started dreaming about how they would live in those houses.

I then lived in the concept of making money, I believed in successful success. But I started to follow people, who were originally on the forum for alternative financial transactions, and suddenly they no longer needed all this finance, they gradually began to dream of something else.
And then I saw that this concept of successful success was losing its charm. People, instead of striving for millions, tried to get far away from those millions into a simple life.
Then I set up a new forum related to sustainable solutions, where I collected articles on green topics. By that time, I had already burned out and wanted to do something else. The idea was to create the concept of anti-efficiency, anti-success.

I led this forum for four years, and during this time I became a downshifter, moved to the country, bought a plot of land, built a house, took up gardening. And I myself began to live a simple life, which I had been writing about. I launched sustainability lectures and a green school.
— How did you start organizing ecovillage gatherings?
— Once I found myself at a meeting of Ukrainian ecovillages. The people I saw there had already built houses, had kids, had done everything they dreamed about and faced the problem of further development. It was not clear where to move next. It was a classic developmental crisis.
I offered to go to Europe, because it was there that ecovillages as such were born, and the representatives of the Ukrainian communities had never been there before. Then we gathered a group of 15 people to attend a similar meeting in Estonia. But by the time we had to leave, I turned out to be alone. The rest only expressed their best wishes and said: "Go yourself, Maksym, and then tell us everything."

The Europeans said: "Ukraine is a blank space on our map of ecovillages, we know almost nothing about it." And it astonished me that they didn't know anything about us. Therefore, I returned to Ukraine and got the ball rolling.
I went on a tour of Ukrainian ecovillages. And although I met a lot of people, it was apparent that the most prominent Ukrainian ecovillages were in crisis.
The dwellers started to leave 'Obyrok', only a few of them stayed. 'Springs Valley' turned into a cottage village. Children in the ecovillages grew up and needed socialization. Rural schools did not suit them very well, and our downshifters began to return to the cities.

Then I offered to go to the Baltic Ecovillage Gathering to see how people live in the ecovillages there. 12 people agreed and off we went. We arrived, but they didn't really expect us there, and it turned out that they had decided to hold the gathering online.
And then we saw and understood that they also experienced a crisis, no one wanted to gather. We arrived at another ecovillage, but stumbled upon a split: some wanted to engage in permaculture, while the others wanted to launch education. And with all the progressive methods of conflict resolution, with the use of sociocracy, they couldn't settle that conflict. And it appeared that everything for which we praised Europe, Europe itself was not quite capable of.
The Ukrainian settlers looked at the problems of the Baltic ecovillages and realized that everything was not that bad in Ukraine. And they began to develop their Ukrainian movement further.
Congress of ecovillages of Ukraine, "Obyrok" hamlet, photo
— What is an ecovillage anyway? What is characteristic of them?
— In Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, ecovillages are microcities, the format of ecovillages is close-knit communities. These are either communes or companies. In Ukraine, the format itself is more hamlet-like, people want to live independently of each other. There was practically nothing like a commune at that time.

A great influence on the formation of ecovillages was made by the books of Vladimir Megre, where the main idea is a 'kin's domain' on a hectare of land. And in Ukraine there is a program that allows anyone to get 2 hectares of land. This program is slow, has its flaws, but nevertheless it works. Thus, the concept of a personal hectare and a state program with 2 hectares overlap and work.
In fact, the movement of 'kin's domains' became a springboard for other settlements. Those were the pioneers, after whom other settlers of more moderate views began to catch up.
The format of people moving from the city was simple: I could sell an apartment in the city and buy a street in the village instead. Real estate and other prices in the village were extremely low. People reasoned like this: "For that kind of money, we can live comfortably in the village until retirement." The houses are cheap, the land is fertile, there is desolation around, beauty, cleanliness – a true paradise.

At the same time, Obyrok Art Hamlet was created, Hindu settlements of Vaishnavas appeared, as well as a cult of preppers who were waiting for the collapse of cities. The book "Koshasty's Method" about how to properly wait for the end of the world was distributed.
— How does an 'average' Ukrainian ecovillage evolve?
— The ecovillages were formed according to the following principle: 40 settlers buy out 40 hectares, these are now 40 plots. Then some could not move in for various reasons, some came, lived and left. As a result, 10 percent of the total original number of people stayed. There was a strong break in social ties. If at first, during the construction and arrangement, people communicated, then after that, everyone remained on their own, people practically stopped seeing each other.
I realized for myself that these were rather single hamlets, and not ecovillages, as we used to call them. And we had only two or three ecovillages as such.
But after people traveled, looked at new formats abroad, communities, communes, and co-livings began to appear in Ukraine. After all, in fact, on the territory of one hectare, you can build a whole ecovillage.
— Did the covid situation affect the downshifting trend?
— At the beginning of 2020, a lockdown was introduced in the cities and people massively went to the countryside. And while the cities were closed, the ecovillages were full of people. Then it became clear that having a populous settlement is actually good, especially for children.
Winter Congress of Ecovillages of Ukraine, February 12, 2022, Kyiv
— Why do you need Global Ecovillage Network (GEN)?
— There is a pyramid of needs. If you stick to the prepper strategy, when every day is the last, then you reach the third step of the pyramid of needs and stop. Thus, culture, art and science are not for you, these are all too high needs and you do not need them. If your child is a stove-maker after four years of education, then this is the best thing you can give him. But what if you have higher needs?
It should be taken into account that, as a rule, ecovillagers are people from big cities, many from megacities, cultural and economic centers. Usually these are people with a good education, higher education, command of languages. And it's hard for such people to sink to the level of "my son will be a stove-maker, and my daughter will be a cook".
This does not work. In fact, when these children even go to rural schools, they are still children of megacities, no matter how they are restricted from these megacities. These are the children of their parents; they utilize their parents' knowledge, i.e. they think in terms of metropolitan residents. One way or another, people move up a step, and on this step higher, higher requirements pop up, higher values arise.

And then the question appears: where to go to explore this world? You can go back to the city, but you have already left the city. And then we offer GEN as a global infrastructure where you can go and develop in the same direction in which you want to develop. GEN has its own academy, college, volunteer programs, Erasmus, many trainings and experts. This is already a high level in the pyramid of needs, where you can go with your knowledge of languages, travel around the world, work with various funds; you can even work with ministries. GEN, for example, has its own section on work at the climate summit. You can go up, develop yourself, engage and be the pinnacle of this society.
You can live even in nature's lap in a modern way, and not dig yourself to the level of the 19th century.
And so my team and I offer to go into the future and develop, especially since we have so many suitable people for this.

After all, downshifters leave the city for a higher quality of life, and not for a lower one. And if the basic needs for clean air, clean water, clean food, and clean community are easily met, the rest often lacks space and energy. But an ecovillage is not just some kind of farm life; in fact, it is a metropolis, only a metropolis in reverse. Yes, an ecovillages may look like an ordinary village with ordinary houses, but this does not mean anything.
As a matter of fact, such settlements are a logical continuation of the city, where on average about 10% live next to you in the settlement, and the rest of your community that supports you continues to live in the city.
They visit you all the time and your house is just a branch of the city outside the city. Therefore, I see GEN as a window to Europe, a social elevator that can take you to the very top.
Refugees in one of the ecovillages in Ukraine
— Now, when there is a war going on in Ukraine, your team has created a 'green corridor'. How does it work and who can use it?
— — The 'green corridor' was created primarily for the eco-activist community to keep them productive and help them find shelter. We work with eco-hosts and eco-activists who understand where they are going to. Because this is a visit to the village, to the hamlet and this is ordinary rural life.

Now there is a huge traffic of people, refugees, who are moving west and receiving volunteer support. They are accepted at the level of district centers, sheltered in schools and other large facilities, because this is a large flow of people. We work at the micro level, we accept one or two families — 10-20, maximum 30 people, we have no capacity to accept more. We have a map of ecovillages that are ready to host people, and we send this map to targeted chats and channels. And as the fighting approaches, people become refugees and begin to move around. We give direct contacts of ecovillages and people are coordinated.
Map of ecovillages included in the "Green Corridor"
— How many people have already used the 'green corridor'?
— Over the past week, we have supported more than 170 people in 11 settlements of our network, distributing funds in the amount of 100,000 UAH for everything they needed.
— What difficulties do hosts and newcomers face?
There are ecovillages that are already in the disaster zone, and their dwellers are also forced to flee. In practice, this is a process of constant migration. People come, some stay, some go further west. There are settlements that are now packed to capacity, and there are those that are just starting to work. For example, in central Ukraine, closer to the south, the flow of refugees is just emerging. Now that the Russian troops have taken Kherson, people are starting to look for quieter places.
Shelves in stores
— Is there enough firewood, food, medicine, clothing and other essentials?
— Now there is a big problem with logistics. There is no gasoline, it is a scarce commodity. It's good that banks continue working, you can pay by card; transfers are also available. We are physically unable to deliver food and other goods to the settlements. But we can send them money to the card, and people buy goods in the nearest area.
In a sense, it's good that our ecovillages are far from the cities, because the shops that are closer to the cities are already empty, the shelves with goods are empty, but you can still buy basic items in shops farther from the cities.
Today we are busy completing the 'green corridor'. In fact, these are just huts in villages that need to be heated. We try to help these communities with basic packages: induction cookers, heaters, microwave ovens, everything that helps provide people with warm food, as well as products, medicine, and fuel. Now we urgently buy chainsaws so that we can quickly prepare firewood. We buy insulated galoshes, because people come from cities, in city shoes, not designed for the countryside. We buy washing machines so that people can do their laundry.
Frankly speaking, the people who live in ecovillages were not prepared for the fact that they would receive dozens of refugees. This is not green tourism, but people fleeing war.
The free houses that are available in the settlement are designed for the summer period, now we are converting them to the winter mode, but this takes time.

All housing is provided free of charge, and all services are also free. Many people move into huts that have not yet been warmed up and have to deal with basic household tasks. On the one hand, this is good, because people in the stress of war switch to simple things and such work turns into psychotherapy. The ecovillages are quiet, calm, people do something with their hands and this switches their attention.
Residents of the ecovillage "Zeleny Kruchi" are buying everything necessary to receive refugees, photo GEN-Ukraine
— How safe is it in ecovillages now?
— There is currently no clear answer to this question. There are safer places, for example, western Ukraine, but everyone goes there and there is now a shortage of space. Therefore, we now recommend that if a particular place is safe, stay there, and if the fighting is approaching your home, then move west.

Today, our 'green corridor' is essentially a constellation of transit points for refugees, just very small ones. If a lot of people contact us, we redirect them to large volunteer channels that help a vast number of people.
— GEN Ukraine is part of GEN Europe. How do Europeans participate in helping refugees?
— At the moment, about 200 locations across Europe have joined our 'green corridor' and are ready to host people. Most of the refugees now go to Moldova and Poland, where there are few ecovillages as such. But, for example, Danes, Italians are ready to come to the border with Ukraine and pick up people. European ecovillages included in GEN are not ready to accept everyone now, but rather those who already have some experience of living in communities, ecovillages, communes.
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