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“De la espiral hacia el centro, el centro del corazón, soy el tejido, soy el sueño y la soñadora…”
(“From the spiral towards the center, the center of the heart, I am the fabric, I am the dream and the dreamer…”—lyrics from a song sung at CASA network gatherings)
CASA is the Council of Sustainable Settlements of the Americas, the regional Latin American network of GEN, the Global Ecovillage Network. This story refers to the Colombian branch of the CASA network.
It is December 9, 2017, and together with my wife Martha and five-year-old son Mateo, we are arriving at the Ecovillage Anthakarana, situated in the mountainous coffee region of Colombia, South America. It is the 11th “Call of the Mountain,” the annual gathering of the CASA Colombia network of sustainable initiatives.
As members of the organizing team of the network, and co-organisers of the event, my wife and I have experienced a rough year. With a traumatic late change in the hosting community, burnouts amongst organisers, and the personal and political intricacies of working within a group, the network is at a breaking point. Leading up to the event, some organising members dropped out, and phone calls began streaming in the night before the event from other regular participants: “Sorry, I cannot come, something else has popped up.” All the online meetings throughout the year, two hours, three hours, planning agendas, travels to the host community—putting one’s nuclear family aside to volunteer time for the network—all that work with the very real prospect of the upcoming event being a fiasco. Driving up to the off-the-beaten-track Anthakarana, potholes and stones jarring our 4×4 car, the only flame keeping us going is the amazing job of the community Anthakarana to host the event at short notice, and a personal sense of responsibility to see the process through.
Arriving at the nearby football field, we park and start the 10 minute walk down the muddy path to Anthakarana, laden with supplies. Tired, we arrive, and put up our tent. It begins to rain. The rain quickly turns to a downpour, and is soon torrential. Water begins streaming through our borrowed and supposedly waterproof tent. We scramble out and cover our tent with a 7×3 meter plastic sheet I brought “just in case.” No more rain enters…but perhaps it is too late. While Mateo excitedly jumps on the wet mattress with muddy boots, an embodied sense of pereza (laziness/resignation)1 takes an overpowering hold of me. Beyond frustrated and disappointed, I feel angry and fed up. That question many of us ask ourselves is souring dangerously in my stomach: Is it all worth it, being actively part of a network? The answer feels very much like no.
An Expanding Spiral
So how did we manage to get to this breaking point? The Call of the Mountain was born in 2006, as an annual gathering for the ecovillage network RENACE of Colombia. It was a means for members to come together, share experiences, laugh, cry, and feel in solidarity in what often feels like lonely experiments in alternative living. With the ecovillage network growing, and the increasing interest of members to connect with other communities, the 2012 Call of the Mountain event was held in the Ecovillage Atlantida, with over 400 participants from a wide range of communities, intentional and otherwise, local and international, all with a shared purpose of co-creating more sustainable futures together. During this event, the network CASA was born with the intention of expanding the network beyond the ecovillage realm.
The Call of the Mountain subsequently mushroomed into a large, intercultural event, with the mission of articulating diverse worldviews and sustainable practices across ethnic, social, and economic groups in society. The event was held in the Hare Krishna community Varsana in 2014, and the Indigenous Misak University in 2015, each event with over 400 participants, including invited guests from Indigenous and Afro communities of Colombia, as well as a wide range of organisations.
However, there has been a long-term simmering tension in the network concerning the role of CASA and the Call of the Mountain: Should the network focus on expanding and articulating its vision with other sustainability groups as a means to disseminate its sustainability message? Or should it concentrate on taking care of, and deepening relations between its original members and improve their initiatives through smaller, more intimate family gatherings? During the 2016 Call of the Mountain, held in the Amazonian community Anaconda del Sur, a collective decision was made to focus on the former strategy of expansion: The 2017 gathering would be held in the Indigenous community of Atánquez, attempting the articulation of CASA with the spiritual heartland of the Indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada in Northern Colombia. It was a decision which would change the course of the network.
The Stagnating Spiral
The articulation process started early, and it started well. A strong CASA organising group was formed, and through a collective decision a CASA member with close connections to the Kankuamo community of Atánquez was given the role of liaison between CASA and the community. An early connection to the Indigenous group had been made through a Kankuamo representative participating in both the 2016 Call of the Mountain event and the 2017 general CASA assembly. Corresponding CASA/Kankuamo work groups were set up to deal with logistics, funding, finances, and cultural issues, and CASA organisers went to visit the Kankaumo community. However, the CASA team found itself struggling with communication problems both within its network and with the Kankuamo representatives. Technical communication problems were exacerbated by the challenges of articulating an intercultural event with the complex political dynamics of the Kankaumo community. Despite these challenges, the process moved forward, with the excited exclamation uttered during one CASA meeting, “Guys, we need to start preparing for there to be up to 2000 people at the event; this is going to be huge!”
Then disaster struck. Justifying its decision through a CASA breach in protocol, a message was sent by the main Kankuamo representative stating that the community had decided to cancel the event. Stunned silence. Then chaos. What had happened? Who was at fault? Could the damage be repaired? What to do now? Through an emergency CASA meeting it became clear that indeed a breach in protocol had occurred on the CASA side. It became equally evident, however, that strong political and cultural factors were at work in the Kankuamo community, which had contributed to their decision to call off the collaborative event. Stuck between the hope that the situation could be resolved, and the difficulty of finding another community in the Sierra Nevada to host so many people, the process stagnated. With the event dates rapidly approaching, the realisation set in that the Call of the Mountain was not going to take place in the Sierra Nevada: CASA had not managed to articulate its sustainability vision with the Kankuamo community. With the option of cancelling the event being raised, Bahamar, the elder of the Ecovillage Anthakarana, offered to host the event. One of the pillar communities of CASA, with a strong focus on family values and spirituality, Anthakarana was bringing the Call of the Mountain back home to its roots.
Back to the Story of Anthakarana
So now we are back at the tent, and I am summoning the strength to fulfill my obligations as co-organiser and active CASA member. It is going to be a long seven days and I am not looking forward to it. “Que pereza, que pereza,” I tell myself.
“Papa, I want to see my friend Nawell,” my son Mateo says. Martha and I look at each other. “For Mateo,” we silently tell each other, and leave the tent. We arrive at the communal kitchen of Anthakarana, where those who have arrived have gathered. I see their happy faces at seeing us arrive; we exchange hugs and kisses, slaps and knowing looks. I am truly surprised to feel an honest feeling of returning to friends and family after a long time away. These are the people I know and have shared so many experiences with. Where else would I rather be? I would like to have said that all the hard work—all the struggle and disappointments—was worth it, seeing them all here. However, I do not have that feeling. Over the evening meal of arepas con queso (maize cakes with cheese), and sopa de platano (plantain soup), catching up with the fellow organisers, I look around to see who has arrived. Special invitees? Nobody. Representatives from articulated communities? Absent. Where is everybody? What has become of our network CASA?
The Contracting Spiral
The following morning we are met with drizzling rain. After breakfast served with coffee produced on the neighbouring farm, and brewed with gas from the bio-digester in Anthakarana, we make our way down to the Buenoka—the ceremonial house of Anthakarana. Passing siete cueros plants, with their beautiful purple flowers, children running around in superhero outfits, we walk in procession, led by the the saumadoras—incense burners—towards the future of CASA.
In the turmoil of organising the Call of the Mountain in Anthakarana, it had become clear that the event would be very different from previous ones. In the midst of the crisis, a methodology called “Future Search” was put forward, in which we would explore the past, present, and future of the network CASA and its gatherings. This workshop would be externally facilitated, with the goal of inviting key people from the network, as well as communities in which the Call of the Mountain had previously been held. Although most invited participants did not arrive, a total of 35 people were present, now entering the Buenoka to evaluate the network.
The following grueling three days involved exercises in understanding the community processes we were involved in, and planning the future of CASA. We explored the past of the network, transformational moments and experiences, what was happening in the present, and our individual and collective visions for the future. In addition to the more cognitive Future Search methodology, the ancestral practice of the Circulo de la palabra—talking circle—around the fire took place the first night to connect our hearts to the process. The following are the learning outcomes which resulted from these three days:
Build relations with individuals of various communities, not the communities themselves. Although it sounds impressive to say that CASA is articulating sustainability visions with Indigenous, neo-rural, and urban communities, more effort should be placed on deepening relations with individuals of these communities who commit to answering the call of the mountain.
Build and develop relations through projects, not discourse. Despite the beautiful “rainbow” discourse of CASA, common purpose across diverse grassroots initiatives is developed through concrete collaborative projects which benefit all parties involved.
The need to work from a mentality of “abundance” not “scarcity” in the network. From financed projects of eco-neighbourhoods, disaster relief, to academic research, there is wealth of knowledge and collaborative work being carried out, as well as resources in the network upon which to build a future.
Take better care of the core “family”: A self-organised and self-financed event requires tremendous commitment from its organisers, most of whose work is voluntary. There is a need to better recognise and compensate (monetary or otherwise) the work being invested by organisers. For this it is important to put forward not only hugs and rainbows but an effective economic strategy.
Collaborative leadership implies recognition of network pioneers and opening up opportunities for them to be mentors. The network would benefit from better recognising pioneer members, many of whom are disconnected from CASA and who carry an abundance of experience to share. Likewise, the invitation for inactive members to reconnect to the network to share their wisdom.
The Magical Realism of the Call of the Mountain
Perhaps best characterised by Anthakarana, a Sanskrit word which means the bridge between the visible and invisible, the Call of the Mountain provides an experiential sense of magical realism, drawing the spiritual connection with the call of Mother Nature through rituals and ceremonies, and the very real experience of being together and co-creating meaningful futures (as well as the little bit bizarre). After the three days of intense work during the Future Search workshop—leaving a collective explosion of catharsis—the rain stopped, the sun came out (literally) and we celebrated being together. The following days involved planting seedlings of palmas de cera—the national tree of Colombia—each of us planting our purpose with the network along with the seedlings into the rich organic soil of the Colombian Andes. There were workshops on native seeds and activities on Nature’s rights. During the “magic night” of talents, we all showed each other our creative, artistic, and rather silly sides, with theatre, singing, Sufi dances of universal peace, music, and a group Haka—the traditional war dance of the Indigenous Maori of New Zealand. Depite the trials and tribulations, the following Spanish saying sums up the group feeling: “Estamos los que estamos. Somos los que somos.” (“We are here those that are here. We are what we are.”)
Returning to the Center of the Spiral
In my birth home of New Zealand, the symbol of the Koru—the spiral—is a powerful metaphor for the cyclical nature of life. On the one hand, the Koru represents creation due to its fluid circular shape, with the unfurling fern representing movement and expansion. This can be seen in CASA and the Call of the Mountain expanding, articulating its vision beyond the realm of ecovillage to other sectors of society. On the other hand, the inner coil of the Koru, with its rolled inner leaflets, suggests a return to the point of origin. Having fulfilled its natural cycle of expansion, the network of CASA is in a process of moving back to the center of the spiral—back to its family roots, re-imagining itself.
There is no doubt that CASA is something special. There are many NGOs working for communities in Colombia doing important work. But CASA is comprised of communities, working with communities, forming relations across boundaries and realizing collaborative change at the grassroots level. Participating in the Call of the Mountain is an unforgettable experience in embracing what is different, what is difficult and beautiful, trying to connect with what we do not know. It has been an enriching experience, yet for me as an organiser, the process has taken its toll. I have given it my best at a critical time, and have decided to step down, dedicating more time to growing plantain and coffee on my farm, and being with my family. As the saying goes, distance makes the heart grow fonder—so I will take the time to let my experiences settle, in full awareness that as an organic and vibrant network, CASA will move on—unfurling, dying, and being reborn.
Thomas Macintyre (thomas.macintyre [AT] gmail.com) is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands, researching the fields of education and sustainability. He has been participating, co-organising, and researching the CASA network and the Call of the Mountain since 2012. Living and farming in Colombia, Thomas believes in the power of grassroots communities to offer novel forms of learning experiences for the rest of the world to be inspired by (see his website for more information at www.mentes-en-transicion.com).
1The Spanish word pereza roughly relates to “laziness” or a disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself. Many of us have felt this pereza when working in a community setting; but when do we reach the point of Ya, no más!—no more!—and walk away?
Excerpted from the Fall 2018 edition of Communities, “Networking Communities”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.