Ecovillages versus rural exodus: Offering solutions for sustainable rural development

A new partnership between ecovillages and local government aims to fight rural exodus

Authors: Alfonso Flaquer and Antonio Marin

For years, ecovillages have been oases of sustainable development and are reversing population decline in Europe's rural areas. Now regional governments are starting to take note. Here, representatives from the Iberian Ecovillage Network share how one repopulation project is getting off the ground.


Since 1996, the Global Ecovillage Network in Europe (GEN Europe) has offered real solutions to stop carbon emissions through its holistic model of sustainable development based on four dimensions: economic, ecological, social and cultural. Its integral approach and knowledge base relying on more than 10,000 ecovillages and communities around the world is bringing to reality a myriad of projects in areas as diverse as circular economy, entrepreneurship, fight against rural exodus, solutions for immigration, transformation of refugee camps, sustainable education, alternative currencies, water management, and more. Thanks to all these real experiences, GEN Europe has become a unique, rare and decentralized think tank, a breeding ground for leading initiatives in the fight against the effects of climate change and for the transition to an economy that promotes the local and the natural.


Reversing the trend


One of the biggest problems facing governments in many European countries is rural exodus, with the majority of the world's population dreaming of living in cities, fuelling an evidently unsustainable model. In opposition to this trend, ecovillages and communities, mostly established in degraded or abandoned rural areas, have reversed the downward trends of the municipalities where they have been established and their peculiar development is reflected in the increase of local possibilities. They have avoided the closure of schools, promoted the local economy by helping local businesses, extending a new lifestyle based on circular economy and local resources, influenced and inspired the social environment with new practices and a new vision of social resilience in rural areas. Ecovillages often receive visits from nearby schools as examples of sustainability in practice.

As in Africa (specifically Gambia and Senegal, where the success of ecovillages and eco-communities has achieved the seemingly impossible, that is, reversing the exodus of young people to Europe) in some areas of Europe, communities have displaced young people from the city to the countryside. The solution always goes through the joint investigation of new forms of local economy in rural areas and the transformation of urban habits into initiatives that generate employment or resources. The production of goods and the exchange of resources always add positively in the rural arena. The use and social management of communal lands also points in that direction.


Education for rural repopulation


On several occasions, representatives of institutions visit ecovillages and look for strategies to replicate the ecological awareness present in ecovillages in larger groups of citizens. Communities are at the forefront of changing habits that will occur on a global scale. GAIA Education, the organization that designs sustainable educational programs based on the experiences generated in the ecovillages, is in process with the UN to integrate part of its educational corpus into the school curriculum at a global level. There is an awareness that young people need examples of a full life and well-being.


Towards a new community culture


But beyond these social, economic or ecological aspects, the key to the success of the model of ecovillages and intentional communities lies in the "glue" that keeps groups and individuals connected behind the same vision. If we all go towards the same goal, the energy that is generated is like the one that holds the particles together in atoms, a very small but immensely powerful force. And that is what continues to attract people and is manifested through forums, circles, ceremonies, celebrations, parties or collective consultations. A new culture that emerges when we share the power and the decisions that affect us, in a transparent and egalitarian manner. This is the culture that we can experience in ecovillages.

GEN Europe has recently developed an Incubator Program that in its first two years has helped communities, associations, institutions, cooperatives, municipalities and more to establish the glue and intention in a successful and shared process, accompanied by an experienced group of facilitators. It has also been involved in the development of a free online toolkit to bring young people to sustainability ( GEN Europe is also a founding member of ECOLISE and the Assembly of Commons. GEN also has launched a development program in the same direction (the Ecovillage Development Program) that can be found at Through all these initiatives, ecovillages and communities are being at the forefront of the fight against rural depopulation, offering successful and replicable examples wherever they are.

Conference on Ecovillages versus Rural Exodus, Pamplona, Spain, June 2018

With the title "From abandonment to life", on the 1st of June this year a day of investigation was held on the project for the repopulation of abandoned villages, a collaboration between the Government of Navarra and the Iberian Ecovillage Network. The objective of this project, whose title is "To re-inhabit the land from sustainability: proposals to reverse rural depopulation "is to develop a pilot plan that serves as a model to re-inhabit abandoned villages.

At present, more than 70 towns of the Autonomous Community of Navarra are uninhabited and there is concern from the Government to find a solution to reverse this phenomenon, one that began in the 1960s with an exodus in search of better opportunities offered by industrialisation in cities. This conference was a first contact with the reality of the people in the Community of Navarra. Its purpose was to investigate among local leaders (town and neighbourhood councils, boards of the Valleys, Federations of municipalities and councils, local development agents, ecovillages and other projects and initiatives that are already being carried out for repopulation) the problems related to the rural world and how to stimulate the repopulation of abandoned villages and give them life from a sustainability perspective.

The conference was presented by Isabel Elizalde, Minister of Rural Development, Environment and Local Administration, and had an introduction by members of the Iberian Ecovillage Network. The Errekazar Association presented the Zoroquiáin recovery project, and afterwards, Franco Llovera (Red Terrae and Agroecological municipalities) presented the Land Bank project as a tool for the recovery of the municipalities in risk. A World Café was developed in which the participants collected from what had been heard and spoken, ideas on how to revitalize the villages, place them in scenarios of possibilities, to discuss and debate on the "what would happen if ... what would change if …", experiences, the real difficulties, the fears and also the possibilities offered by a project of rehabitation.

These days have been a first phase of work that will continue in the autumn, with a Conference in November (from 7th to 11th) to show successful examples of rural settlements and ecovillages around the world. The next step will be to carry out a pilot project in an abandoned village of the Comunidad Foral de Navarra mentored by the Iberian Ecovillage Network and under the auspices of the Government of Navarre. The repopulation model promoted by the Iberian Ecovillage Network is based on proposals to reverse rural depopulation, land custodianship, entrepreneurship, agroecological practices, transition and degrowth, among others. For more than 30 years, various ecovillages throughout the world, have demonstrated the viability and durability of this type of settlement. Especially in Navarra region where we have the oldest example through an occupied village, the beacon of our movement: Lakabe, showing for over 35 years that rural exodus can be reversed, and furthermore, can be an opportunity to regenerate lands and social environments.

Read more about the Iberian Ecovillage Network here