Greece: what the potato movement did next
Even after securing billions in loans from the so-called ‘Troika’, the Greek economy continues to shrink at an alarming rate. Jobs are vanishing. Unemployment is double the euro-zone average and 55 per cent of people aged between 15 and 24 can’t find work.
A quarter of the Greek population is now living in poverty – a proportion worse than Iran’s or Mexico’s. And with taxes rising, the minimum wage falling, and social welfare being withdrawn, it’s hard to see a bright side.
But there is one.
Many Greeks are gradually coming to terms with the collapse of a failing social and political system. They are taking matters into their own hands and addressing crucial issues through grassroots activism and local collective action. There are signs of a lifestyle transformation, incorporating values and social patterns of the past.
Old-style frugality and self-sufficiency are being interwoven with more contemporary ideas like sustainable living and ethical consumption. The diversity and spread of small collectives across Greece is showing us the power of collectivity and the potential for a transitional model to a new, smaller-scale economy, while the spontaneous emergence of horizontal, local structures reflects a desire for true democracy.
Here are a few examples of initiatives I have investigated around Greece – and the main reasons for my optimism:
What the potato movement did next – Without Intermediaries
In February 2012, members of the Pieria Prefecture Voluntary Action Group, based in the northern Greek town of Katerini, launched the ‘potato movement’, as it was dubbed by the media.
‘To express our solidarity with the farmers we decided to invite them to trade their products directly to consumers in our hometown'
It started when members of the group who were travelling to Thessaloniki came across farmers who were giving away their potatoes for free. The farmers were protesting against the ruinous and humiliating purchase-price they were being offered by intermediaries.
Voluntary Action Group member Elias Tsolakidis explains: ‘To express our solidarity with the farmers we decided to invite them to trade their products directly to consumers in our hometown, Katerini. In less than a day, 24 tonnes of potatoes had been ordered through our website. We asked them what a fair price would be and we agreed on 0.25 cents a kilo – a third of the price in supermarkets.’
Now, every three weeks, farmers with a variety of agricultural products are invited to trade directly with 6,500 families in Katerini.
‘The movement is spreading across the country. We are aware of 45 collectives in different towns that are organizing impromptu markets at least once a month. Every day we receive dozens of emails from farmers who are willing to supply their products via our network,’ says Elias.
As the movement has expanded, it has launched its own brand and label.
‘It’s a way of showing that our movement has the power to manage its own supply chain like supermarkets do, while meeting the legal requirements by displaying the ingredients on the package. Under a common label we can now co-operate effectively with producers and other collectives around Greece.’
Now Without Intermediaries is undertaking contract farming for specific crops with pre-agreements on production and on the final price.
Tackling suicide and social isolation – Klimaka and Syniparxsi
In 2012 the suicide rate jumped by around 50 per cent compared with the previous year, according to research from the Laboratory of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the National Kapodistrian University of Athens. ‘People who commit suicide are often people who do not have access to psychiatric or medical care, and so, in that sense, the crisis has affected suicide rates,’ says Chara Spiliopoulou, head of the laboratory.
In Athens, an NGO called Klimaka (Ladder) and a collective of mental health professionals called Syniparxsi (Coexistence), are offering psychological support services to individuals in need.
‘Since 2008, we have been operating a non-profit 24/7 suicide hotline. We have received thousands of calls. Recession and especially unemployment are contributing factors to suicide risk,’ says Aris from Klimaka.
This is the only suicide helpline in Greece. ‘Klimaka’s hotline is very helpful in preventing suicides. It is important to be able to talk to someone anonymously,’ comments Lanny Berman, president of International Association for Suicide Prevention.
Meanwhile, Syniparxsi offers ongoing support. Therapist Linda Karali explains: ‘We provide five months’ free physiological support to people who are unemployed, or homeless, or who lack health insurance or face serious financial difficulties. We are psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who felt a need to reach out to more people. Our support starts with one-to-one sessions and then we encourage our patients to continue with group therapy along with artistic group activities. Our principal aim is to fight social isolation.’
An old haunt with a difference – dignity, solidarity and second-hand clothes
Despite its rich past and archaeological heritage, Akadimia Platonos is nowadays one of the most run-down neighbourhoods in Athens.
In 2008 a group of residents formed an open committee to protect the area’s green public spaces and archaeological sites from the construction plans of private investors.
In response to the escalating crisis, the committee has broadened its activities. Residents run a ‘solidarity haunt’ where people can find clothes, shoes, children’s toys, books and occasionally food supplies for free. It’s also a place where residents can hang out, read the newspapers or have a cup of coffee.
Athina is an economist who volunteers at the haunt every weekend: ‘We are not philanthropists. We are fighting to keep our dignity through solidarity. That is why we have a broad range of collective actions and activities – cultural, educational, environmental and so on. We understand the importance of community bonds. A 55-year-old unemployed woman approached me a year ago. She was desperate; she confessed that she would commit suicide. I am not a psychologist but I suggested she come and help us. “Give yourself a year,” I told her. She joined our collective and got it all out of her system.’
Athina’s 27-year-old daughter Lila makes her point clear: ‘We can’t just sit on our hands. We must act now.’
From guerrilla tree-planting to time-banks – Exarchia’s residents keep innovating
Long before the current boom in open popular assemblies, a group of people living in the inner-city Athens neighbourhood of Exarchia set up their own Residents’ Initiatives Committee.
One of their outstanding achievements was to occupy a disused parking lot and transform it into a public park. With help from other groups, they managed, within a few days, to remove the cement, and plant trees.
Exarchia residents hold open assemblies on a weekly basis to develop initiatives. Recently they have been developing a time-bank whereby registered members have the opportunity to exchange services using units of time as currency. The bank will address not only basic needs but also services that people can no longer afford, such as foreign language lessons or physical workout sessions. Lawyers, architects and teachers are already interested.
‘You may participate in a time-bank to cover your needs but you gradually realize that it’s about being part of a solidarity network,’ says Aphrodite. Georgia remarks: ‘You get out of the house, you overcome your depression and you feel useful and creative again, especially if you are unemployed like me. You become part of a collective that respects equality in exchanges and moves away from the culture and the values of the traditional money-based system.’
Ditching the euro the Votsalo way – with local currency
Local currencies have become popular in a few towns in Greece. Three months ago, another alternative currency called Votsalo (Pebble), popped up in Koridalos, a western suburb of Athens. It all started with a small group of 20 people and is now turning into an expanding network.
Residents of Koridalos can register with the network through the Votsalo website but their account will be activated as soon as they physically visit the weekly meeting of the network.
‘We are not philanthropists. We are fighting to keep our dignity through solidarity.'
‘We do that to maintain the safety of the network and to highlight the importance of social connectedness,’ explains Elena. To start your transactions you receive 150 units of Votsalo and you can collect up to 300 units of Votsalo without any euro involvement. Everything operates through an open source software (Cyclos) designed for this kind of ‘community banking’ that is popular with other alternative currencies in Greece.
Elena adds: ‘We have people with different specialities – artists, teachers and so on – but we have set food supply and health as priorities. We are in the process of contacting producers, farmers and medics and asking them to join Votsalo.’
In the spirit of Che – collective cooking with rebel zest
Despite government efforts to ban collective kitchens, some are still going strong. They offer quality food – and politics. Take one of the oldest, appropriately named El Che-f. Based in Exarchia, it serves a delicious lunch every Saturday noon. A group of professional and amateur cooks meets every week to discuss cooking and politics. They plan, budget, shop and cook nutritious meals that everyone is welcome to taste.
‘We are a politically oriented collective, offering practical solidarity. We don’t do charity. Our kitchen is totally opposite to the concept of a soup kitchen,’ stresses a chef from the collective.
During lunch people will get together, share tables and have friendly discussions. After all, the essence of El Che-f is about doing everything collectively. It’s not about mistreated people waiting in a handout queue for a ‘legal’ low quality lunch.
Building utopia through self-sufficiency – Nea Guinea
‘We decided to start Nea Guinea because we noticed the lack of self-sufficiency skills in various fields such as energy, building, health, and even clothing,’ says Costas, one of the founders.
Started three years ago, Nea Guinea is a collective that offers a variety of theoretical and practical workshops to give people the technical know-how they need to become more self-sufficient.
Costas is in charge of the workshops for energy self-management, focused on the design and construction of small wind turbines, photovoltaic panels and small-scale hybrid systems with low-cost materials.
Another member, Fotini, says: ‘We can’t claim that someone can be 100 per cent self-sufficient, especially in a city like Athens. But there can be a high level of autonomy, especially in food production or in simple pharmaceutical products that people can learn to make.’
She adds: ‘Nea Guinea started as an experiment but we have seen that many people have gained confidence in practising self-sufficiency and hopefully they will influence other people as well. For example, one girl who attended the workshop on urban organic farming then managed to convince the residents of her apartment block to grow vegetable gardens on their terraces.’
For the collective, Nea Guinea is a distant destination. It’s a place in the future where respect and solidarity define the development of everyday human relations. ‘But through our daily practices, we try to ground this utopia, here and now,’ they say.
Taking life in our own hands – from Syntagma Square to eco-living at Spithari
On a hill above Marathon in Attica is a transitional eco-community called Spithari –Waking Life.
‘We were all members of the Greek Zeitgeist Movement and we met each other at Syntagma Square during the protests of 2011,’ explains Fotis. ‘We soon realized that we shared common values and beliefs. That’s how we decided to take life in our own hands and create Spithari.’
Alexandra adds: ‘Basically, we envisioned our own society based on the principles of sustainability, solidarity and self-sufficiency.’
Like Nea Guinea, members of Spithari (the name combines ‘spark’ and ‘clay pot’) strongly support the idea of diffusing knowledge and providing guidance towards a more sustainable and cohesive society. They also wish to act as catalysts for social change by triggering the genesis of more small localized communities in Greece.
‘We intentionally chose to build our community near Athens. We offer workshops and openly invite people who are interested in setting up their own eco-communities to stay with us for a while and experience this way of living,’ explains Yiannis.
‘We can’t just sit on our hands. We must act now.’
They maintain links with similar collectives both in Greece and abroad. Nea Guinea and Eurovillage helped them to install their wind turbine generator and volunteers from the Global Eco-village Network will be staying with them for a few months to help them with construction.
So far, the residents of Spithari have succeeded in creating a sustainable habitat that provides on-site for most of the needs of their frugal lifestyle.
What does it all mean?
For communities like Spithari, a viable future must involve collective action and a radical reconsideration of our core values.
Other groups I visited tend to see their activism as a social experiment that might suggest an alternative model of development. Only a few are worried that this might be nothing more than a temporary trend.
But in the end, they all seem to share a similar vision: an economy based on solidarity, according to the values of co-operation, democracy, equality and equity.
There is a galaxy of initiatives in Greece, with people inventing ways to overcome economic, social and environmental problems that the state seems unable to resolve. Similar initiatives are flourishing in other countries with troubled economies.
Simple but innovative and diverse, these grassroots actions could lead the way to a necessary shift from the dominant capitalist version of growth to a more sustainable and fairer economy.
But at the very least, they are, in a practical way, helping people to survive hard times that have no apparent end in sight.
Alexandra Saliba is a documentary maker and blogger based in Athens.