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 © PRI

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.

An Interview with Bob Corker on the Kotare Eco-Village
and Community Land Trust. Duration: 27 minutes.

If you’re looking for even more details on Kotare Village and its structure, here is a workshop Bob presented at the recent Australasian Permaculture Convergence (APC11) in New Zealand. In this video, Bob maps out the structure of Kotare Village on the blackboard, and gives practical illustrations for how those structural elements will work together.

APC11 Presentation: "Villages for the Future", by Bob Corker. Duration 53 minutes.

When we compare and consider the two main ideologies that played out against each other over the course of the last century — communism and capitalism — the Kotare Village model speaks volumes. I think it’s pertinent to make some comparison, as with the world economy coming unglued, there is a clear move in many parts of the world to swing from one extreme back to another. People are becoming disillusioned with the market-based economy, and this dissillusionment is giving birth to extremes on both left and right.

Both systems have failed, and have failed miserably, with each vilifying the other whilst glossing over their own failings. Communism ignored base human needs of self-determination. Its enforced cohesion and centralised, one-size-fits-all rulings robbed people of their freedom and the fruit of their labours, generating resentment and anger and submissive, impotent apathy and loss of vision. I’ve heard the personal, heart-wrending tales of people whose relatives had committed suicide after their life’s work had been snatched from their hands (along with their will to live) and placed in the ‘public’ domain. And it wasn’t just people that were demeaned. Communism also raped the resource base on which it depended, due to its own structure — not coming to terms with the fact that people don’t care for something they can’t, at some level, call their own. Everything was simultaneously everybody’s, and nobody’s. Whether you worked hard, or hardly at all, it made no difference. Incentive and a sense of pride in stewardship were lost.

Wairoa River, next to Kotare Village

Capitalism swung to another extreme, espousing freedom, yet ultimately only providing a semblance of it — largely due to that freedom itself. A completely free market will always end with centralisation. If there are no regulations — for example, about how much land and resources an individual can possess — then the more ambitious and greedy amongst us will ultimately find a way to corner the market, and take it as their own. Even if society were to start from a completely decentralised, equitable standpoint, it would, through the self-interested ‘freedoms’ of certain people, inevitably shift towards monopolisation, elitism and centralisation. We’ve seen this repeatedly in history, with feudalism, and now with modern corporate feudalism — the corporatocracy.

Complete freedom, if not wielded by a widespreadly lucid, objective, compassionate and ethical populace, steadily transforms democratically elected servants of the state into rule makers, social policemen — event tyrants. What I mean by this is that in a ‘perfect democracy’ framed in ‘complete freedom’, the majority should always gets what it wants. But what if what the majority wants is based on short-sighted whims that are ultimately detrimental to people and place? Fully democratic systems only provide sustainable and appropriate outcomes if what the majority wants is actually beneficial — i.e. if it’s based on sound ethics and an holistic understanding of total human needs and how they can be met within the constraints of the world we live in, and the unchangeable natural laws that keep it functional. Short of that, an unobjective and/or lazy and/or greedy and/or ignorant majority will always begin a socially downward spiral. That downward spiral ends with the people blaming their leaders, and demanding they do something about it.

In short, in a world of imperfect people, a ‘democracy’ will ultimately transform itself into fascism or totalitarianism. While most placard-waving people today will shout ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, the now clichéd quote is highly appropriate in this context: "be careful what you wish for, because you might get it". In a democracy, if the desire of the majority is to shun frugality and future-proofing in favour of short-term gain and gratifications, then the future, along with all who inhabit it, loses.

Complete independence has never successfully existed in our entire human history — only cases of symbiotic interdependence can lay claim to that. It takes desire, determination, humility, patience and kindness to develop long term symbiotic relationships, and a cohesive vision to mold them.

In times past, in parts of the world that got beyond feudalism, the direction of a village was often guided by the wisdom of the elders, and those elders were successful only if villagers could see sense and inspiration in that guidance. An elder earned his place through relationship and a history of personal integrity.

Today, our direction is guided by self-interest, and we vote in representatives to fulfill it. Today, our leaders earn their place through PR campaigns: saying the right catch-phrase, whilst kissing the right baby, in the right town, in front of the right photographer — and they get away with murder (sometimes literally!) because of their centralised detachment.

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy. — author unknown, but attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville

Kotare Village surrounding land

With Kotare Village, Bob Corker and his team are creating their "kaupapa", their purpose statement or the principled theme upon which the new community is based. People can choose to become part of that, or not. Having a clear understanding from the outset will attract, it is hoped, those whose experience, understanding and subsequent purposes have lead them to consider the village for their new home — and having this purpose statement held as a legally binding document, administered by a representative trust, should give new settlers some degree of confidence that that purpose won’t get lost.

This is middle ground I can get my head around.

As Geoff Lawton said recently (see first video on this page), the final checkmate move for permaculture is the development of successful people systems. The Kotare Village team have been working hard to flesh out the finer details of those thoughts placed in embryonic form in Chapter 14 of Bill Mollison’s The Designers’ Manual. It’s these details that can help new residents find purpose, fulfillment and a positive living, whilst being able to live creatively and freely within a cohesive, historically appropriate, resilient whole.

The aim is for around 30 families to settle at Kotare Village

I’m looking forward to hearing more about Kotare Village, its charter, and its progress. The modern homosapien, somewhat snatched from his traditional place in village life, is in dire need of examples of successful community interaction — examples we can build on and emulate and tailor for local conditions. I’d love to hear readers thoughts on the Kotare model (be sure to watch the videos above) and on other models they may have experience with, and deem successful.

Relocalisation is already beginning, as the world economy continues its perpetual downward slide. While there is a great deal that can be done to build resilience into cities, the unravelling of urbanisation will continue out of necessity. Indeed, I personally believe the larger cities will ultimately become full of upheaval and strife. Whether it’s at Kotare Village or a piece of land near you, village life has to be the way of the future.

Further Reading:

Bob Corker teaching at Kotare Village

More Kotare Village inhabitants

Wairoa beach, near Kotare Village