Eco-commune flourishes as Greek economy withers

Thu Aug 30, 2012 12:46pm EDT
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By Deepa Babington and Lefteris Papadimas

AGHIOS, Greece (Reuters) - Web designer Apostolos Sianos and three friends startled Greek villagers when they quit well-paid jobs in Athens to set up a self-sufficient commune that lives in yurts and grows its own vegetables.

In California, or Scandinavia, such a move might have gone unnoticed. But in deeply conservative rural Greece - where green thinking is strictly the domain of urbanites - the project made suspicious locals uneasy, or was laughed off as ridiculous.

But now, two years and a brutal economic crisis later, Sianos and his friends are the ones laughing.

With Greece's economy in freefall, nearly one in four out of work and the desperate jobless turning to the land to survive, the group's focus on growing their own produce and cutting down their reliance on money and a bankrupt state suddenly make practical sense to many Greeks - and some are now turning to the vegan commune for advice.

"Even two years ago, everyone thought we were crazy. But not anymore," says Panos Kantas, 29, a pony-tailed former computer programmer who co-founded the Mount Telethrion Project with Sianos and two others. "The crisis validated a point that was obvious to us and now it's obvious to everyone."

They had a rocky start in 2010, when the former city-dwellers struggled to gather firewood to keep warm in winter and found skeptical villagers asking, in all seriousness, if they were transmitting signals into outer space. But the commune now has about 15 to 20 enthusiasts living there at any time.

As Greece's crisis has deepened over the past year, dozens more have inquired about moving to the commune - perched on a hilly slope on the island of Evia, or Euboea, and looking out to sea, near the village of Aghios. More than 2,500 curious visitors have stopped by, the commune's founders reckon.

In particular, the workshop training sessions they offer on organic farming and building houses with a traditional adobe mix of clay, sand and straw - cheaper than bricks and mortar - have drawn interest from crisis-hit Greeks escaping a dire job market to return to tending land in their villages.   Continued...

A vegetable garden is seen at an eco-commune in the village of Aghios, Evia island, northeast of Athens July 23, 2012. The self-sufficient eco-commune that lives in yurts and grows its own vegetables is enjoying a surge of interest from crisis-hit Greeks returning to their rural roots. Picture taken July 23, 2012. REUTERS/Deepa Babington