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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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
As my Italian isn’t up to much, I resisted the 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.
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.
There’s a case study about the Insieme Cooperative that you can read here
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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!
Read more about the partners involved in this element of the Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Project here