My Green Trip to Italy

I was delighted recently to be informed that I was successful in winning a place on a Green Trip to Italy as part of the Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Project with the Irish partners Tipperary Energy Agency (TEA).  Earlier in 2014 we had hosted a group of over 30 visitors on a similar trip from Europe and Ireland in The Bothy in Borrisoleigh. The Bothy is a community shop selling locally produced food and crafts along with tea and coffee (we haven’t quite figured out how to grow our own tea and coffee yet). It is a non profit enterprise run and staffed entirely by volunteers and with the invaluable addition of a lady on a Tus scheme. Visitors to Ireland on that trip visited such places as Templederry Community Wind Farm, Drombane Upperchurch  Energy Team and Cloughjordan Eco Village.

 Update 31st Jan 2015 – There are now places up for grabs for a Green Trip to Holland in April 2015 click here for more details

Bassano Del Grappa
Bassano Del Grappa. It’s famous covered wooden bridge over the River Brenta was designed in 1569. The bridge has been rebuilt a number of times to the original design.

Six of us flew out on Wednesday 8th Oct. to Venice and then on to Bassano del Grappa, a medieval city and the birthplace of the alcoholic spirit Grappa. My other travelling companions were:- TEA representative Vincent Callagher. Will Softly (great name isn’t it) of the Seedsavers Association and Brigit’s Garden who also does a bit of DJing. Ailbhe Gerrard of Brookfield Farm where this year’s All Ireland Permaculture Gathering was held. Michael O Meara, a farmer, beekeeper and Independent  Councillor with Tipperary County Council. Colm Byrne of Glas, a renewable and sustainable energy solution provider. We arrived to our destination late at night and were lucky to find a restaurant still open where we could have dinner after our long journey. I think it was there that we all really started to get to know each other as we shared an excellent meal and great conversation.

 

Our visit the next morning started with a short bus ride to the Color Café, a cultural centre and cafe which is a project of the Cooperative Adelante of Bassano del Grappa which provides a venue for people of all walks of life and ages to hold exhibits, concerts, show movies and anything else they can think of, while also offering assistance in arranging same. The slogan beneath the Color Café sign reads ‘Animatori di idee’ which translates to ‘Animators of ideas’. The omens were good.

 

We assembled in the theatre part where we were welcomed by a local Council member. This was followed by a brief introduction on the Solidarity Purchasing Group (SPG) on Solar Photovoltaic Plants and then a presentation on the technical aspects of the SPG by two local engineers. SPGs are an Italian-based system of purchasing goods collectively. These groups are usually set up by a number of consumers who cooperate in order to buy food and other commonly used goods directly from producers or from big retailers at a price that is fair to both parties. They put people and environment before profit.

20141009_102051
Presentation by Solidarity Purchasing Group (SPG) on Solar Photovoltaic Plants

 

The SPG on Photovoltaic Plants has 10 Founding Values

 

  • Help families have clean energy through economic saving.
  • Involve SPG members in the decision making process.
  • Stop land exploitation! Reject big land plants that waste fertile agricultural land.
  • Create a sustainable and green economy.
  • Support the economy and small local business.
  • Fair wages to every supply chain member.
  • Choose components produced in democratic countries.
  • Choose eco friendly technologies and production processes.
  • Support environmental protection, public health and sustainability.
  • Nuclear energy is not necessary.
Michael and Will admiring the electric car owned by one of the engineers.
Michael and Will admiring the electric car owned by one of the engineers.

In 2010 the SPG on Photovoltaic Plants in Bassano del Grappa was the biggest SPG in Italy. They organised agreements with banks to grant credit to people who wanted to install photovoltaic plants. They had 160 plants installed. There was 374, 400kg of CO2 saved in one year and they had the involvement of low income families.

 

 

After the the presentation on the SPG, representatives of the partners from participating countries gave a brief description of learnings and what they have done since their visit to Ireland in relation to education and recruitment with the wider population. We then broke for lunch in the Colour Cafe.

 

Holy Moly, an ethical bank! What could it mean?

 

Walking through Padua
Walking through Padua

With our physical hunger satisfied, the quest to satisfy our hunger for knowledge continued and we boarded a bus to head to the city of Padua, which is home to a university where Galileo was once a lecturer. We walked along the picturesque streets with it’s magnificent buildings for a while before we eventually reached Banca Etica, Ethical Bank in English. Holy Moly, an ethical bank! What could it mean?

 

From their website, the idea behind Banca Etica consists in creating a place where savers, driven by the common desire of a more transparent and responsible management of financial resources, may meet socio-economic initiatives, inspired by the values of a sustainable social and human development.

 

The exterior of one part of the Ethical Bank.
The exterior of one part of the Ethical Bank.

The Company adopts the following principles of Ethical Finance:

  • ethically oriented finance is aware of non economic consequences of economic actions;
  • access to finance, in all its forms, is a human right;
  • efficiency and soberness are components of ethical responsibility;
  • profit produced by the ownership and exchange of money must come from activities oriented towards common well-being and shall have to be equally distributed among all subjects which contribute to its realisation;
  • maximum transparency of all operations is one of the main conditions of all ethical finance activities;
  • the active involvement of shareholders and savers in the company’s decision making process must be encouraged;
  • each organisation which accepts and adheres to the principles of ethical finance undertakes to inspire its entire activity to such principles.

 

Ethical Bank Padua
No pin stripe blazers for these trail blazing bankers!

The talk given to us in the bank focussed more on the green initiatives and energy efficiency of the building itself. While it was interesting to hear about the biomass heating, insulation and solar panels on the roof, I would have been more interested in hearing about some of the projects that the bank has financed.

 

So instead I did my own research:-

In 15 years, Banca Etica has, among other things:

  • provided a total of 23,804 loans to families and social enterprises for a total of € 1.8 billion;
  • 70% of the funding approved by Banca Etica has gone to non-profit organizations (compared to the 1% of the Italian banking system’s average). In recent years, Banca Etica has also gradually added some responsible for-profit organizations to its borrowers.
  • the interest rates charged by Banca Etica loans to customers (families, non-profit organizations, social enterprises) are on the average lower than those of the rest of the banking system
  • Banca Etica has funded the installation of 1531 renewable energy plants

You can read the full report here

 

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure

 

Insieme Cooperative in Vicenza
Insieme Cooperative in Vicenza.

As my Italian isn’t up to much, I resisted to urge to try and borrow a few quid from our new friends in the bank and headed off to get the bus with the rest of the group. Our next stop was the Insieme Cooperative in Vicenza, which is a ‘Type B social cooperative’, which means it is a social co-operative dealing with work inclusion of disadvantaged persons. The Insieme co-operative was established by some groups of citizens who were actively involved in helping troubled young people – especially those with problems of drug addiction, prostitution, theft, conviction. These citizens decided to promote activities to help the troubled people reintegrate into the community. Insieme’s main business is the collection and reuse of waste materials.

 

Insieme Cooperative in Vicenza
Furniture given a chance of a second life

And boy do they know how to collect and reuse waste materials! The location we visited was a 3,300 square meter building that was officially opened in 2006 at a cost of €2.3m (the Banca Etica, mentioned above, was one of the sources of funding for the building). From books to bikes, furniture and clothes and everything else in between, at the sides, on the top, underneath.

Seriously, nothing goes to waste here. Every item of clothing, and there’s a lot, is graded. Anything not good enough to resell is used to make cleaning rags or sent on to be used as stuffing etc. We got a tour of the premises by the manager who informed us about how the whole operation works. Upstairs, not open to the public, is the furniture restoration area and electrical recycling area where crates of cut off plugs, old hard disk drives, cables and all sorts of bits and pieces that would have any hacker/maker drooling at the mouth.

Insieme Cooperative in Vicenza
Bicycle repair section of the Insieme Cooperative in Vicenza
Insieme Cooperative in Vicenza
Part of the clothes sorting area

 

There’s a case study about the Insieme Cooperative that you can read here

 

 Day 2

I want to ride my bicycle

The next day we walked the short distance from our hotel to the Don Cremona Hostel.  At the hostel we were given bicycles to begin our cycle tour in association with the FIAB Association. The FIAB is the Italian Federation of cycling friends, a charity which promotes and encourages cycling in communities.

Bassano Del Grappa cycling
On the way to Conca D’Oro

For most people there were electric assist bicycles to get to our destination. If you’ve never ridden one of these before, make it your business to do so! When you peddle, a little battery kicks in and gives you a hand (or a foot as the case may be). Your job is to keep the pedals moving, the bike supplies the power to propel it forward. There’s even a ‘boost’ button when you want to rev it up a notch!

With the Italian climate it is a perfect way to travel…. For some people…. There weren’t enough electric assist bikes to go around for everyone and myself and a few more had to make to with regular bikes.

Those short cycling trips with my kids back home paid off and I made it to our first stop of the day, San Giuseppe di Cassola Synergistic Garden, without breaking too much of a sweat. And managed to resist the urge to poke a stick into the spokes of the other smug looking electric bikers 🙂

At the garden a member of FIAB spoke about the work they do in promoting cycling and then we moved into the synergistic garden itself where the head gardener told us about this gardening technique. This is where I get lazy and hand you over to Wikipedia.

Forget your shovel if you want to go to work (in the garden that is)

San Giuseppe di Cassola synergistic garden
San Giuseppe di Cassola synergistic garden

Wikipedia tells us that Synergistic gardening is a system of organic gardening, developed by Emilia Hazelip. The system is strongly influenced by permaculture, as well as the work of Masanobu Fukuoka and Marc Bonfils. After establishing the garden, there is no further digging, ploughing or tilling, and no use of external inputs such as manures and other fertilizers, or pesticides. Soil health is maintained by the selection of plants, mulching, and recycling of plant residues.

Did you notice that part above? ‘No further digging’, that’s my kind of gardening.

There must be something to it if bees are any barometer to go by. There were some hovering around the flowers on some of the plants and you could actually see the honey on their legs.

 

Green cleaning

Buen Vivir Association self production of bio-detergents
Non toxic products used for making bio-detergents

After getting down and dirty in the garden it was time to move indoors for a lesson in cleanliness. A member of the Buen Vivir Association gave a practical lesson in the self production of bio-detergents. Buen Vivir translates as good living or living well. It describes a way of doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive (good article here going into more detail).

Most of us are familiar with some of the cleaning properties of everyday items at home such as vinegar, baking soda or lemon juice. The lady who gave us the practical lesson holds regular classes in the making of bio-detergents. Products such as washing machine powder, washing liquid etc. can all be home made using readily available products.

Buen Vivir Association self production of bio-detergents
I can’t believe it’s not Daz!

The great part is that they are not as toxic as the products on sale on supermarket shelves. You know, the ones with poison warnings and skulls and crossbones and the like. The ones that are put into separate bags from your other shopping. And woe betide the careless bag-packer raising funds for the local primary school who puts the washing powder in with the bread!

Buen Vivir Association self production of bio-detergents
Practical lessons in diy cleaning products

 

 

 

 

 

 

After our lesson we mounted our bikes again and headed off for our last visit of the day.

 

 It’s a farm, but not as we know it

Conca D'Oro Social Farm
Conca D’Oro Social Farm

Conca D’Oro is a social farm using bio-agriculture and which promotes the professional inclusion of disabled people. Conca D’Oro is an inspiring place to visit. About 25 to 30 of the people working there are mentally disabled or autistic. Accommodation is also provided. Before going on a guided tour of the farm we had lunch in the onsite restaurant. All the food served is produced on the farm, bread, eggs, vegetables, fruit, jams etc.  Conca D’Oro sells it’s produce through a little shop on the farm, through it’s own restaurant and to shops and restaurants in Bassano Del Grappa.

Conca D'Oro Social Farm
Outside the restaurant, even the Italian trees have more fashion sense than me!
Conca D'Oro Social Farm
Oh lay, oh lay, oh lay

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conca D'Oro Social Farm
Inside the shop
Conca D'Oro Social Farm
The herb garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can learn more about the role of this social farm here

 

or listen to some audio below

I managed to rob borrow acquire an electric bike for our return journey, not that I needed it or anything, and we all headed back to the hostel. The bikes were so much fun that six of us, three Irish and three Belgian, asked could we hold on to them a little longer and go on a little tour ourselves through Bassano del Grappa and outskirts. That was great fun, zooming through the narrow streets. It was like in the car scene with the Minis in the movie ‘The Italian Job’, except we were on bikes of course.

That night while deciding where to go for dinner we bumped into one of the staff from the hostel. He told us of a good restaurant that uses the food from Conca D’Oro. That was that decided!

The late night dinners and dining alfresco with a glass of Prosecco while enjoying the conversation among great company was the topping off of a wonderful few days. Really and truly it was a wonderful experience visiting the various projects and gaining an insight into how they operate. We learned a lot over the few days and came home brimming with ideas. Watch this space for future developments!

Green trip to Italy
The Irish contingent along with the Italian hosts and some of the Belgian contingent. L-R:- Colm Byrne, Michael O Meara, Vincent Carragher, Very nice Italian host, Ailbhe Gerrard, Derry O Donnell, Will Softly, Crazy Belgian man,. Front: Crazy Belgian man, Very nice Italian host, Crazy Belgian man.

 

Read more about the partners involved in this element of the Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Project here

 

Co-ops – The saving of a community. Report from LiT Thurles

Friday night, 21st Feb., I popped along to an event organised by the Tipperary Environmental Network in LiT Thurles.  The event ‘Co-ops – The saving of a community’ involved presentations by three speakers followed by a discussion and Q and A  session.  The speakers were Bill Kelly of Meitheal Mid West and the Limerick Community  Grocery Co-operative, Marcella Maher Keogh of the Drombane Upperchurch Energy Team and Mary Fogarty from The Cottage Loughmore.

Bill Kelly was first up to speak about Meitheal Mid West and the Limerick Community Grocery Co-operative. Meitheal Mid West was established in 2012 when an initial group of 19 got together. It was Ireland’s first Multi-Stakeholder Co-operative, which means it is a business that is owned and democratically controlled by multiple stakeholders which can include workers, consumers, producers, and/or community members. The community grocery started out as a buying club but is expanding it’s services as it grows.

In order to learn more about successful co-ops they visited the hugely successful Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in the Spanish Basque country which employs over 80,000 people and has an annual turnover of €14 Billion. The co-op model is the default model for any new businesses setting up in the region, even schools are established as co-ops.

The group also visited the Park Slope Food Co-op in New York which is open 7 days a week, has over 16,500 members and has an annual turnover of $48 million. Members volunteer for 4 hours work per month. They could be shopping today and packing shelves tomorrow. They employ 70 full time staff who earn $56000 per annum (7 staff are on higher salaries of $70k due to extra work and responsibilities). There is a waiting list to become a member of Park Slope Co-op. You can read more about it in this BBC report.

The Limerick based co-op now has 108 members (as of 21/02/14) with an average of 5 new members joining up each week. Their mantra is ‘wholesome food at affordable prices’. Bill is keen to emphasise the importance of looking after your suppliers in a co-op.  He also spoke a bit about safeguarding the assets of a co-op from predatory exploitative elements and to ensure a legal structure is in place to prevent takeovers and buyouts. This would mean having a strict form of co-op that would protect the ethos of it’s members.

Bill told us that in the future they will be exploring crowdfunding to assist in their plans for expansion. This will possibly be in the form of loans from members of the community who would rather see their money put to use and benefiting the local community than just simply sitting in a bank account earning a low rate of interest. Peer to peer financing has seen considerable growth over the past while. Irish company LinkedFinance.com has assisted several viable businesses obtain loans from members of the public who offer the amount they are willing to lend and what interest rate they would like.

In true co-operative spirit Bill told us he was travelling to Dublin the following day to visit Dublin Food Co-op to share ideas and learn from each other. As is evident in the UK where co-ops are far more plentiful, there is a willingness to share information and knowledge. A pleasant change from the corporate diet of ‘dog eat dog’ we have all been fed.

This video helps explain more about workers co-operatives.

The next speaker was Marcella Maher Keogh from the Drombane Upperchurch Energy Team (DUET), Co. Tipperary.  Earlier this year DUET won an award for Best Community Renewable Energy Project at the Community and Council Awards. Members of the Drombane-Upperchurch village group in Tipperary got together in 2011 to discuss economic solutions for their community. They considered many ideas, from wind farms to a local ski slope.

marcella maher drombane upperchurch energy team
Marcella Maher Drombane Upperchurch Energy Team giving her presentation

After several meetings with Tipperary Energy Agency and North Tipperary Leader Partnership, they settled on a community housing retrofit scheme. The aim of the scheme was to convert many of the houses in the locality to high energy preforming homes.  This would result in warmer homes, lower fuel bills, and the creation of local jobs.

A survey was carried out which found that in total, the 400 houses in the Drombane and Upperchurch locality spend €1,000,000 on home energy each year. This equates to €1000 per person or €2,500 per household. A 25% reduction in home energy expenses would save €250,000.

Around the same time the DUET group was meeting up, SEAI introduced the Better Energy Communities Scheme. This enabled the group to proceed with their plans. In 2012, in a 4 week period, 22 houses were retrofitted at a total cost of €115,000, which was grant aided by SEAI  to the total of €88,000. Most of the insulation work carried out involved attic insulation and pumped cavity walls.  In 2013 another 28 houses and 2 community buildings were completed. The total cost so far has been €403,000 which includes grant aid from SEAI of €301,000. A loan was also received from Clann Credo who provide social finance for community growth.

You can download a case study of the project from the DUET Facebook page. The success seen in Drombane and Upperchurch has encouraged other projects to get started in Co. Tipperary and the setting up of other Community Energy initiatives driven by North Tipperary LEADER Partnership.

Drombane Upperchurch Energy Team were featured on a recent edition of EcoEye. See full video below (the DUET story is just after minute 17) . My other neighbours in Templederry also feature in the video for their Community Wind Farm project. So just watch the full thing, ok .

Mary Fogarty from The Cottage in Loughmore, Co. Tipperary was the last speaker. The Cottage is a community based shop and tea rooms. Mary and her colleague Maeve O Heir had similar ideas and a shared vision to try and do something for their village. There was no grocery shop in the village so they decided to open one based on a community ownership model. Maeve’s sister provided the use of an old cottage for the purpose.

To finance the operation they approached North Tipp Leader (NTLP). A feasibility  study was carried out to check it’s viability. They also met the CEO of the Plunkett Foundation who was visiting Ireland. The Plunkett Foundation, founded by Irishman Horace Plunkett, is a UK based organisation who provide advice and assistance to hundreds of co-operative community owned shops, pubs  and other enterprises in the UK.  He invited them over to the UK where they visited a number of community shops, of which there are over 300.  They gained valuable advice and insights from their visit.The cottage loughmore country living magazine

To set up legally as a co-op they engaged the services of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS). Two thirds of the parish came to a meeting the women organised. People were invited to become producers and craftspeople. They now have 9 of each supplying the shop coming from within a 5 mile radius. Community shares were sold at €10 each to parishioners, meaning that the community actually owns the business.

Currently 25 local people benefit financially each month from The Cottage. There are 3 full time employees, 12 volunteers and 2 Tús scheme participants. The Cottage has won 2 CAVA Awards (Community and Voluntary Association). They’ve appeared on RTE’s Nationwide programme and have been invited to attend various events from the National Ploughing Championships to Electric Picnic and have featured in countless newspaper and magazine reports. You can keep up to date with their news via their Facebook page.

It was then time for tea. And biscuits. And scones. And cake.

After the break Davie Philips of cultivate.ie gave a quick mention to the Get Involved project which is a local community initiative developed by NNI Local & Regional and the Regional Newspapers and Printers Association of Ireland (RNPAI). The Get Involved project encourages the sharing of ideas and collaboration and has the potential to generate livelihoods, resiliency and neighbourliness. Watch out for ads in local papers in March.

Attendees were then invited to break into groups and work on answering some questions that were written on large sheets of paper at various tables. A spokesperson from each group then delivered their findings.

Our question was ‘How to identify the supports available/not available?’worksheet lit thurles

Supports available were listed as:-

ICOS

Plunkett Foundation

Leader

SEAI

Community Pioneers (People who spearhead projects)

Enterprise Boards

Supports not available (and probably more intangible) were listed as:-

The mind set – to work co-operatively

Imagination

Role models

Education – knowledge of sustainability information deficit.

Groups at LiT Co-ops event

Training and Education for Business in Tipperary

Lack of education was one of the things that popped up in a few of the group presentations. As it so happens, members of North Tipperary Economic Working Group are hosting some events in March to get the views of people and some input into the County training and education plan. Hopefully more training and education on setting up co-operatives and community based schemes  will be added to the list of courses run by the various state agencies. Some workshops on collaboration and group problem solving would also prove beneficial and would help foster greater community participation in resolving some of the issues we are faced with today. I remain hopeful for the future.