Letters from New Zealand: Villages for the Future — a Look at Bob Corker and the Kotare Ecovillage

Kotare Village surrounds, west of Wairoa, in the Hawkes Bay region of
New Zealand’s North Island
All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

The industrial revolution, coupled with its move towards privatisation of land and resources and its focus on capitalisation, has had effects which can be somewhat imperceptible when viewed over only a decade or so, but which become pronounced and dramatic when viewed since its inception until now. While the industrial revolution has brought not a few benefits — to some at least — it has also brought a host of significant negatives. The most obvious of these negatives, of course, is that the human race is, rather efficiently, bringing itself face to face with a potential complete meltdown of planetary biological systems, or, at least, with dangerously abrupt changes to them. But looking deeper at the problems of environmental collapse, we should quickly discern that our crisis is less about environmental systems than it is about people systems — the invisible structures that frame and facilitate the fulfillment of our needs, our ambitions and the form, and subsequent result, of the economic activity that comes from these.

In other words, our myriad crises find their source in a crisis of culture.

The internationally renowned seed-saving Koanga Institute
finds its new home at Kotare Village, and provides some
of the new settlers with positive employment, and their food….

Internationally, history is a tale of the flex and flux of cultures either successfully grappling with localised realities, by creating practical people systems to work in harmony with them, or failing, with a subsequent collapse of those cultures — resulting either in their demise or their spilling out into wider regions to take what they need, or want, from others.

Overzealous, poorly-thought-through industrialisation, and the economic model our society has since become based on, has incentivised the atomisation of society, and with it the disintegration of social structures, some of which had previously allowed localised communities to function sustainably, and even flourish sustainably, for generations.

Kotare Village is getting started in the flat area in the distance, across the river

Before the coal and oil age, by far the largest proportion of economic activity and personal interaction was necessarily constrained to the local level. Before fossil fuels, a wheel only turned as fast as a horse could pull it. Food-powered people, and their food-powered beasts of burden, were the ‘engines’ of commerce, and were successful only through cautious management of the biology that fueled them. If people failed to learn how to work with each other, and their land, then they failed, period.

The world was largely made up of thousands of villages that by necessity were either completely or nigh-completely self-reliant — and that necessity, itself, shaped the culture within each. From forest dwellers in Africa and South America to village cultures in Asia and Europe, various human races developed, or evolved, their own ‘invisible structures’, or people systems, to deal with the realities of community life and community economics. And, like a precious strain of seed that has been developed and passed down from generation to generation, as an inheritance with perpetual potential, these people systems, some of which had been tweaked over centuries, were also passed freely and naturally to successive generations, as patterned templates to assist in their survival.

Wairoa beach, near Kotare Village

Conversely, as trade has globalised, and leadership and economics have become massively centralised, our personal position, as individuals in ‘the system’ we find ourselves in, has shifted from one of active participation, for better or for worse, in a living machine (i.e. an interdependent society), to one of being a captive, largely powerless, gear in an industrial engine — a seemingly driverless machine that’s hell bent upon our own destruction. Where before our livelihood, resilience and happiness was determined by our finding cooperative synergism with the diverse elements within our immediate sphere (those elements majoring in our family, our neighbours, and the land, water and biological and mineral resources at our feet), now they have become vulnerably dependent on things apparently nature-detached and often faceless — we cling nervously to our existence via the vulnerable elements of highly specialised jobs, hole-in-the-wall banking and pointless ballot boxes. Our economic system has ‘nurtured’ detachment — from each other, from nature, and from the oft-distant consequences of our labour and decisions.

And yet we consider ourselves ‘free’.

Kotare Village surrounds

Society has become a parasitic army, with its economic ‘success’ measured by how fast it can undermine the natural systems upon which it advances. In just the last century, in particular, the western economic model has systematically dismantled what were largely decentralised, resilient, small scale agricultural communities, in favour of creating what we have today — cities brimming with vulnerable, captive customers for every unsustainably produced product industry can think up (and convince us we can’t live another day without). Our soil bank and our water tables have been eroded and contaminated on a previously unimaginable scale, planetary biodiversity and climatic stability have been lost in tandem, and our physical and mental health have been compromised.

PRI New Zealand, based at Kotare Village, catering, for an April 2012 PDC course

Kotare Village produce

These rapid changes have all been made possible due to the ‘Green Revolution‘. Mechanised agriculture has ‘freed’ us to move off the land and crowd into cities, and this whole process has been powered with cheap oil, which is no more. Our modern ‘culture’ has thus been a short-lived, impossible dream, and now we’re having to wake up, collect ourselves, and walk into a new and unforgiving day. The future we were warned about has arrived, and, for myself at least, I feel as someone might who’s just landed in Antarctica and discovered they’d only packed shorts and a t-shirt.

We’re staring at a future we’re wholly unprepared for, and any tools we might have had to deal with this situation we dropped behind us, decades ago.

Panorama of Kotare Village lands
Click for larger view (then scroll left and right to view entire scene)

Even without all the other peak-everything dilemmas, our utter dependency on oil for supplying our most basic needs alone sends the urgent directive to transition most of us back to the land. But, with the profit-centric model still firmly at the reins of an economy prioritising industry and monopolies, getting people back onto the land is not a simple ask. Worse, even if small plots of land, millions of them, were available at affordable prices, we have almost universally lost the knowledge of how to manage them. Not a few people today — after clambering up the financial ladder in jobs that are almost always destructive — purchase semi-rural ‘lifestyle blocks’, just so they can spend a decent proportion of their time driving (and working to pay for) a ride-on mower. And the few who do make a decent attempt at productivity quickly realise that their own plot can move towards self-sufficiency only if it’s part of a larger system — an integrated community of fellow land stewards.

It’s at this point that the real challenges appear….

The first settlers of Kotare Village

Historically, communities developed rather organically. With the exception of new frontier development, entire villages were rarely planned in advance. Today, however, if you want to ‘set yourself up’ in a potentially sustainable, land-based situation, grounded in community-based interdependence, in addition to the necessary reskilling you’re going to have to give thought to some kind of invisible structures to frame that community — to give it workable, nurturing guidelines, and to ensure that its original purpose doesn’t get compromised and lost. How do we retain our freedom whilst ensuring that that freedom is not working at cross purposes with others in our community, and with the original purpose for it? How do we maintain a collective vision that facilitates truly holistic community development, whilst granting the individuals within it their desired degree of self-determination?

A stream that runs through the property

We must find a way to rebuild community. Making a diversion from our present trajectory towards ecological annihilation will only occur if we do so. Our lives literally depend on it. But, given we’ve forgotten how to live and cooperate with each other, this is a lot harder than it sounds. Studies have shown that over 90% of intentional communities fail….

Bob and the dog survey Kotare Village lands

A rocket stove, to heat shower water, and to teach
appropriate technology skills, gets built during a PDC at Kotare Village

"Probably one of the main things that I’ve been very strong on is to avoid consensus decision-making…. For me personally I’ve never seen anything good come out of it…. That’s quite a strong statement, but I’m really clear on that one…. Yes, we want consensus… but we don’t get to consensus by consensus decision-making. We get to consensus by relationship." — Bob Corker

Bob Corker of PRI New Zealand has given a lot of thought to these issues, and has spent half his life working in or with the development of land-based communities in New Zealand. Taking lessons learned from previous communities, Bob is embarking on establishing a new community in the gorgeous rolling hill country found west of Wairoa, in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island.

Perhaps the most significant points of difference between this new community and others Bob has worked with are:

  1. Kotare Village’s future will not be determined by consensus decision-making.
  2. A community land trust, tasked with ensuring the original purpose of the community doesn’t get lost, will fill the role of ‘the elders’, or ‘the wisdom’ needed.
  3. People will have private tenure of their own allotments, which they are largely free to do what they want with, with certain environmental conditions attached.
  4. The rest of the land will be the commons, where Kotare Village inhabitants can establish cooperative, integrated community projects to further develop the potential of the land for the benefit of all.

I sat down with Bob to learn more about his experience and his thoughts on Kotare Village and its future. Please take time to watch the video below to learn more about why Kotare Village is being created, and how it will function.