Boom in eco-villages in France for those seeking simple community life
A far cry from the hippy communes of the past, 'écolieux' offer the chance to escape the rat race and embrace self-sufficiency
Group project underway at Grain&Sens in the Ardèche Pic: Grain&Sens
Eco-villages, écolieux, where people join a community to live together in a way respectful to the environment, have seen a boost in popularity over the past year as the experiences of Covid-19 and confinement have inspired many people to look at starting an alternative lifestyle.
The organisation Co-operative Oasis, which gives advice to anyone wishing to create or join this type of community, says it has seen the number of people interested triple in the past twelve months.
“When we started in 2015, there were just 50 écolieux. There are now around 1,000 projects of which around 600 are up and running,” says assistant director, Gabrielle Paoli. “In 2017 we introduced discovery holidays for people to visit the centres, but cancelled most of them due to lack of interest. This year one email was all it took to get them all fully booked. Two years ago we had €20,000 coming in a month to our savings scheme for investors. Now we have €100,000.”
She says écolieux vary enormously in size from two up to thirty families. Some are purpose built and others are in old buildings. Many are in the country, but they can also be in cities. They may solely be a place to live, or have an economic activity attached. Each community organises itself differently. But they all adhere to certain criteria:
“They must want to lead a simple life in an ecological way and share an agreed amount of money, skills and equipment. They have to produce some of their own food and be open to the outside world. We realize it is not for everyone, but we believe the more there are the better for the whole of society.”
Ed Carr, British and Astrid Charra, French, and their eleven and seven-year-old boys, Willem and Elio, have lived in a bi-lingual écolieux, Grain&Sens at Boffres, Ardèche since January 2019. There are 11 adults and four children with six nationalities between them who share a property with several buildings and 20 acres of land.
Between them they rent out gîtes, run courses, many in English for immersive language learning for children and adults, and grow some of their food, including organic cereals, which one of their members, an artisanal baker turns into bread, sold on site and at local markets. Ed Carr also works outside the community as a photographer and Astrid Charra teaches English in local schools:
“We used to live in the south of France. I worked for IBM and Astrid was teaching.” says Ed Carr. “We began to feel boxed in, and wanted something more out of life. We discovered friends felt the same way and we started looking for somewhere we could buy together.”
It took some time and only one bank out of ten agreed to give them a loan, but eventually they were able to move in:
“It is a very different way of life. It can be complex and intense living with other people from different cultures and having to get together to agree on many aspects of life. We work harder and longer hours than we did before with work both outside and inside the centre and there have been a whole load of ups and downs.
“It is nothing like the hippy colonies that these kind of communities used to be associated with. But there are many advantages. One of the highlights was the first confinement when we were all together with no outside visitors and we realised how strong we are as a group. It is very beautiful here and wonderful to have nature on our doorsteps. Our oldest son loves birds and when he found an abandoned nest he was able to look after the young and then set them free.
“Many parents nowadays say they have difficulty getting their kids away from computer screens. We almost have the opposite, as ours are always outside and it is sometimes difficult to get them back in again at meal times.”