Greece: after the potato movement

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Greece: after the potato movement

Direct deals with farmers, guerrilla parks and suicide prevention, Alexandra Saliba writes about solutions to the financial crisis.

eventforchildrenathepa_opt.jpeg

Fun and creativity in public spaces.

Even after getting billions in loans from ‘Troika’, the Greek economy continues to get smaller very quickly. Jobs are disappearing. Unemployment is twice as high the euro-zone average and 55 per cent of people aged between 15 and 24 have no work. A quarter of the Greek population is now living in poverty – a worse than Iran or Mexico. Taxes are going up, the minimum wage is going down, and social welfare is getting less, so it’s difficult to be positive.

But there is a positive side.

Many Greeks are slowly accepting that the social and political systems have failed. They are setting up groups to start important things themselves. Life is changing completely, bringing back values and social patterns of the past.

Without Intermediaries organizes fair trade food.

Saving money and self-sufficiency are mixed with more modern ideas like sustainable living and ethical buying. The many different small collectives in Greece show us how powerful it is when people work together. We can now see a change to a new, smaller-scale economy, and the local organisation shows that people want true democracy.

Here are a few examples of new groups I have seen around Greece – and the main reasons for my optimism:

After the potato movement– Without Intermediaries

In February 2012, members of the Pieria Prefecture Voluntary Action Group, in the northern Greek town of Katerini, started the ‘potato movement’ (as the media called it).

It started when people in the group going to Thessaloniki met some farmers who were giving away their potatoes for free. The farmers were protesting against the terrible purchase-price offered by intermediaries.

Voluntary Action Group member Elias Tsolakidis explains: ‘To show solidarity with the farmers we invited them to sell directly to consumers in our hometown, Katerini. In less than a day, people ordered 24 tonnes of potatoes through our website. We asked them what a good 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 trade directly with 6,500 families in Katerini. ‘The movement is spreading across the country. We know 45 collectives in different towns that are organizing small markets at least once a month. Every day we get many emails from farmers who want to sell their products via our network,’ says Elias.

As the movement has grown, it now has its own brand and label.

‘This shows that our movement can manage its own supply chain like supermarkets. Also, it meets the legal requirements by showing the ingredients on the package. With this label we can now work well with producers and other collectives around Greece.’

Now Without Intermediaries is agreeing with farmers to grow specific crops with pre-agreements on production and on the final price.

Suicide and social isolation – Klimaka and Syniparxsi

In 2012 the number of people who committed suicide was around 50 per cent more than the year before, according to research at the National Kapodistrian University of Athens. ‘People who commit suicide are often people who do not have psychiatric or medical care. 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 group of mental health professionals called Syniparxsi (Coexistence), offer psychological support to people who need this.

‘Since 2008, we have run a non-profit 24/7 suicide phone line. Thousands of people have called. No jobs and no money add to the risk of suicide,’ says Aris from Klimaka.

This is the only suicide helpline in Greece. ‘Klimaka’s phone line is very helpful in stopping suicides. It is important to be able to talk to someone without giving your name,’ says Lanny Berman, president of International Association for Suicide Prevention.

And Syniparxsi still offers support too. Therapist Linda Karali explains: ‘We provide five months’ free physiological support to people who are unemployed, or homeless, or who don’t have health insurance or have serious financial difficulties. We are psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who wanted to help more people. Our support starts with individual sessions and then our patients continue with group therapy with artistic group activities. Our main aim is to fight social isolation.’

A place with a difference – dignity, solidarity and second-hand clothes

It has a rich past and important archaeology, but Akadimia Platonos is now one of the poorest areas in Athens.

Solidarity and second-hand clothes at Akadimia Platonos Kostantinos Koukoulis

In 2008 a group of people decided to protect the area’s green public spaces and archaeological sites from building plans of private investors.

As the crisis developed, this group started doing more. Residents run a ‘solidarity haunt’ where people can get free clothes, shoes, children’s toys, books and sometimes food. It’s also a place where residents can talk, read the newspapers or have a cup of coffee.

Athina is an economist who volunteers there every weekend: ‘We are not just people helping. We are fighting to keep our dignity through solidarity. That is why we are doing so much together – we have cultural, educational and environmental activities. We understand the importance of doing things together. A 55-year-old unemployed woman came to me a year ago. She was desperate; she said she would commit suicide. I am not a psychologist but I asked her to come and help us. “Only for a year,” I told her. She joined our group and it helped her.’

Athina’s 27-year-old daughter Lila says: ‘We can’t just sit and do nothing. We must act now.’

From guerrilla tree-planting to time-banks – Exarchia’s residents keep starting new things

A long time ago, a group of people living in the inner-city Athens neighbourhood of Exarchia started a Residents’ Initiatives Committee.

One of best things they did was to transform an old, unused car park into a public park. With help from other groups, they managed, within a few days, to take away the cement, and plant trees.

Local fair trade flour with the Without Intermediaries label

Exarchia residents have meetings every week to discuss new ideas. Recently they have started a time-bank. People exchange services using units of time as money. These services include basic needs and other services that people cannot afford, such as foreign language lessons or sports sessions. Lawyers, architects and teachers are already interested.

‘Maybe you are part of a time-bank because you need it, but then you realize that it’s about being part of a group,’ says Aphrodite. Georgia says: ‘You get out of the house, your depression goes and you feel useful and creative again, especially if you are unemployed like me. You become part of a strong group that respects equality in exchanges. We are moving away from the values of the old money-based system.’

Getting rid of the euro the Votsalo way – with local currency

Local currencies have become popular in a few towns in Greece. For example, three months ago, a new currency called Votsalo (Small Stone), in Koridalos, Athens. It started with 20 people and is now growing.

People in Koridalos can register with the network through the Votsalo website but their account starts when they go to the weekly meeting.

‘We are not philanthropists. We are fighting to keep our dignity through solidarity.'

‘We do this to keep the network safe and to show how important it is to be in a group,’ says Elena. To start, you receive 150 units of Votsalo and you can collect up to 300 units of Votsalo without any euros. We use an open source software (Cyclos) designed for ‘community banking’ - it is popular with other alternative currencies in Greece too.

Elena says: ‘We have people with different specialities eg. artists, teachers, but we mainly want to help with food and health. We are asking producers, farmers and medics to join Votsalo.’

Like Che – collective cooking with rebel energy

The government has tried to ban collective kitchens, but some are still going. They offer quality food – and politics. One of the oldest, called El Che-f, in Exarchia, serves a delicious lunch every Saturday. A group of cooks meets every week to discuss cooking and politics. They plan, shop and cook nutritious meals that everyone can eat.

‘We are a political group, offering practical help. It’s not charity. Our kitchen is the opposite of a soup kitchen,’ says a one of the chefs.

During lunch people share tables and have friendly discussions. The idea of El Che-f is to do everything together. It’s not about people waiting in a queue for bad food.

Building a better world through self-sufficiency – Nea Guinea

‘We decided to start Nea Guinea because we saw that people didn’t have self-sufficiency skills in areas such as energy, building, health, and clothing,’ says Costas, one of the people who started it three years ago.

Nea Guinea is a collective that offers many different theoretical and practical workshops to teach people how to become more self-sufficient.

Costas runs the workshops for energy management. He teaches how to design and make small wind turbines, photovoltaic panels and small hybrid systems with low-cost materials.

Another member, Fotini, says: ‘We can’t say that people can be 100 per cent self-sufficient, especially in a city like Athens. But they can be self-sufficient in some things, 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 self-sufficiency. Hopefully they will influence other people as well. For example, one girl who came to the workshop on urban organic farming convinced the others in her apartment block to grow vegetable gardens on their terraces.’

Nea Guinea is working towards the future where respect and solidarity are in all everyday human relations. ‘But through what we do every day, we try to create 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,’ says Fotis. ‘We all have the same values and beliefs. So we decided to create Spithari.’

Creating utopias of eco-living and self-sufficiency at Spithari and Nea Guinea. Kostantinos Koukoulis

Alexandra adds: ‘We want our own society to be based on the principles of sustainability, solidarity and self-sufficiency.’ Like Nea Guinea, members of Spithari (the name means ‘spark’ and ‘clay pot’) aim to teach and guide people towards a more sustainable and cohesive society. They also want social change by starting more small local communities in Greece.

‘We chose to build our community near Athens. We offer workshops and invite people who want to set up their own eco-communities to stay with us for a while and experience this way of living,’ says Yiannis.

‘We can’t just do nothing. We must act now.’

They have links with similar collectives both in Greece and other countries. Nea Guinea and Eurovillage helped them to install their wind turbine generator and volunteers from the Global Eco-village Network will stay with them for a few months to help them build.

The residents of Spithari have succeeded in providing most of the needs of their frugal lifestyle.

What does it all mean?

Communities like Spithari need collective action and rethinking of values for their future.

City centre protest at Spithari and Nea Guinea.

Other groups I visited see their activism as a social experiment that might be an alternative way to develop. Only a few people are worried that this might be only be a temporary trend.

But they all have a similar vision: an economy based on solidarity, with the values of co-operation, democracy and equality. There are many, many initiatives in Greece. People are inventing ways to overcome economic, social and environmental problems that the state cannot solve. There are similar initiatives in other countries with difficult economies.

These simple, new groups could lead the way to a change from the capitalist idea 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 may continue for a long time.

Alexandra Saliba makes documentaries and writes blogs. She is based in Athens http://newint.org/features/2013/01/01/greece-potato-movement/