Future Perfect

Cooperation in the Spirit of the Hummingbird

Vercors panorama. Photo (CC BY-SA): Daniel Schürer

Cooperation in the Spirit of the Hummingbird

For a decade now, the agro-ecological centre Les Amanins has welcomed anyone interested in cooperation, education, autonomy and resource-friendly economic activity.

It is February. The scarcely-populated Drôme valley between Provence and the Vercors mountains is still bleak and winterish. Snow-covered summits are glistening under a deep-blue sky. In front of the main building of the Amanins, the bare-branched, majestic mulberry tree is a paradise for little climbers. In the summertime, it generously provides shade, inviting people to linger and chat, like an African baobab. Children are playing ball, then they scatter in all directions playing ‘cops and robbers’. Grown-ups are chatting casually in the winter sun. The majority are city dwellers who crave rural tranquillity. Here, they are not just city-weary vacationers on a farm, but active agents of social change.

Open lab

We, young and old, are sitting in a circle in a large room enclosed by warming walls of hay, clay and wood. Houari is telling us how he came to join the Amanins. When he was 30 years old, he realized that he had a head full of knowledge but little to hold on to. Today, his hands do have something to hold on to as he kneads kilos and kilos of bread dough at least twice a week in the Amanins bakery. Houari has also become an expert on building with natural materials, local production of renewable energies and dry toilets.

More than ten years ago, the Amanins was founded by three people with very different backgrounds: entrepreneur Michel Valentin, writer and agro-ecologist Pierre Rabhi, and educator Isabelle Peloux. Michel Valentin, at the time immersed in an existential crisis, offered his personal funds to the project so as to purchase a 55-hectare former cattle farm in Drôme in southeast France. The trio created an open lab of social and ecological practices, inspired by their own ideas and by the Native American legend of the hummingbird: When a great fire breaks out in the bush, all animals watch in dismay as the catastrophe takes its course. Only the little hummingbird tirelessly keeps on fetching water in its tiny beak, pouring it onto the flames. The armadillo asks the hummingbird if it has lost its mind, given that it will never be able to stop the fire with a few drops of water. The hummingbird replies that it is well aware of that, yet wants to do its part.

Kids and pumpkins

The production co-op (SCOP) and the Amanins association currently have 17 employees who fight climate change and excessive consumerism in the spirit of the hummingbird, supported by various volunteers and interns. They are vegetable farmers, bakers, animal breeders, educators, cooks, craftsmen, philosophers, musicians … and they make food and take care of pigs, cows, donkeys, sheep and chickens. They welcome and mentor groups of students and adults who spend their vacation here, and are happy to share their knowledge with their guests. Two guiding questions are always on their minds: What kind of planet are we leaving to our children? And what kind of children are we leaving to this planet? In this spirit, Isabelle Peloux and her team educate 35 local students in their private elementary school École du Colibri at the heart of the Amanins, teaching them far more than how to read and write. The 6- to 11-year-olds also hone their skills in cooperation, non-violent communication and conflict resolution. ¨

  • Terrace in front of the main building. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • Vercors-panorama. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • Cows at Les Amanins. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • Young vacationers chalking up the dinner menu. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • Les Amanins chicken. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • The main building and the mulberry tree. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • Water for the community dormitories is heated with the help of the sun. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • A transient and co-created piece of land art on the floor of the dining hall. Photo (CC): Daniel Schürer

  • Stock breeder Théophane explaining the Amanins' basic principles of farming and animal husbandry. Photo (CC): Ines Grau


Right next door, the restored main building houses the kitchen, the bakery, the group rooms, sleeping quarters and a large dining room. The little ones are quick to claim the large play and cuddle area. Cell phones are often charged in the outlets here, because in the living quarters, the power supply is deliberately limited. Guests are encouraged to question their own needs. They eat from the “orchard to the plate,” i.e. mostly vegetarian and as locally as possible. In fall and winter, Benoît and Alejandro harvested large amounts of pumpkins, which are now piled up on shelves along the walls. Their pale-orange skin intensifies the room’s warm glow. The kitchen team around Marianne and Sylvain is very popular due to their creative assortment of pumpkin dishes: Chutney, au gratin, cookies, compote, jam, soup. Pigs and chickens appreciate leftovers, if there are any. What is trash to one is the other’s delicacy. Compost worms turn feces in the dry toilets into nutrient-rich compost, which is then used as potting soil.

Everyone cooperatively, over and over again

One afternoon, Daniel leads a country-art workshop. Big and small participants are supposed to create a temporary work of art from twigs, roots, moss and leaves that have been collected in the morning. Working together means that team members do not simply jump into the task on their own. First, the group agrees on its goals. Some feel that the negotiations take too long. The children do not want to miss the daily feeding of the animals. So at the end, a rather truncated team ends up finishing the collective work. On this afternoon, the group of vacationers gets to experience the inner workings of the Amanins first-hand: Processes of collective intelligence are to be set in motion – by everyone cooperatively, not by lone individuals. And that is not child’s play. With a smirk, Daniel adds that even if it’s just you and your better half, running one’s daily life by collective decision-making can be quite difficult. The Amanins practice a form of cooperation and decision-making inspired by sociocracy and holacracy, trying to involve each team member and his or her needs, skills and visions.

Experiment. Failure. Success. That is daily routine for the Amanins. The windmill they bought in order to meet their own energy needs, for example, did not withstand the storms and is currently out of commission. It would have been wiser to consult an expert when they first installed it, Houari remarks laconically. They have also tried to grow their own coffee and sugar, says Nathalie, who administrates the co-op together with Houari and Sylvain. It did not work out, though. Trial and error in the spirit of the hummingbird – the Amanins team can tell you all about it. That does not keep them from continuing to contribute their part – and to inspire others to fearlessly face and help mitigate the calamities of our time.

    About

    May 2015
    Rural & Urban Nature
    France, La-Roche-Sur-Grâne

    Les Amanins

    Author

    Ines Grau
    is a social scientist and works for the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology as well as in international out-of-school education. Previously, she was responsible for the endeavors of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste in France.

    Translated by

    Kerstin Trimble

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