World Environment Day: How co-ops are connecting us with the planet

We take a look at ten of the co-ops that connect people to nature, from tourism to agriculture and conservation

Edge Of India

Based in two remote areas, Uttarakhand and West Bengal, this eco-tourism co-op network of villages in India provides homestays in villages off the beaten track which offer an “extraordinary cultural and natural heritage”.

The network was developed through a programme funded by the Scottish government – because it is based on the principles of Robert Owen’s New Lanark community, and on practices drawn up by Scottish environmental tourism consultant Dunira. The co-op works to ensure access to remote natural environments in a non-damaging way. 

Farmer Pirates 

Members of Farmer Pirates at work composting onions

Established in Buffalo, New York state, USA, in 2008, Farmer Pirates is an urban farming co-operative which has bought 30 vacant lots – about three acres – on the east side of Buffalo.

Flying the flag for urban farming

The land is owned as a community trust to keep it safe from speculators and developers, and membership is open to anyone in Buffalo who wants to farm. Workers on the farm are paid in portions of the day’s harvest, and only surplus food is sold.  

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The Pirates also offer services to people who grow food in the city, whether it’s in their backyard or a community garden, sharing resources and information and supplying compost, and every October it hosts a harvest celebration to celebrate their community and the healthy, natural food they grow.

OrganicLea

Established in the Lea Valley, on the edge of London, in 2001, this workers’ co-operative set up an organic allotment farm after rescuing an acre of derelict allotment land on the edge of Epping Forest. Bramble was cleared, raised beds built and a forest garden planted with apple trees, worcesterberries and blackcurrant bushes, with a pond, a willow dome and a compost toilet (built into a honeysuckle bush).

The team clear the Lea Valley allotment site

Annual and perennial vegetables were planted using organic and permaculture principles, working with nature, not against it, to grow food in a sustainable way. Volunteers were invited to work on the farm, which went on to develop a local food distribution scheme, support a cafe and set up a weekly market stall. Its vision “is of a socially and environmentally just food system where the means of production and distribution, including access to land, seed and water are controlled not by markets or corporations but by the people themselves”.

Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative

This was established in 1971 at Kangaroo Ground, near Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, to preserve 132 hectares of native Australian forest. It is a residential co-op owned by 32 shareholders representing a membership of about 50 adults and their children, living in 22 houses built on the site.

A work team takes a break at the Round the Bend co-operative

Residents work at managing the land, listing and protecting the extensive variety of flora and fauna, including the brush-tailed phascogale – and endangered marsupial – the powerful owl, koalas and flying foxes. Duties include weed control, track repairs, surveying and data collection, and planting. All members are also members of BICA, the Bend of Islands Conservation Association, which works to preserve the wildlife and natural beauty of the Bend of Islands area.

Related: Why nature is a serious business for co-operatives

Ecosulis

Established in 1997, Ecosulis has been employee-owned since 2006, with a head office in Newton St Loe, Bath, and offices in London, Chester and Exeter.

Projects include a local authority contract in 2014 to restore Waddon Ponds in Croydon, London, creating shallow areas for reedbeds and other habitat, with 15,000 native species planted (Photo: Diamond Geezer)

Ecosulis offers ecological consultancy and contracting expertise for organisations looking to develop sites – including habitat creation – in way that benefits wildlife and people. Expertise includes habitat surveys, biodiversity masterplanning, impact surveys, protected species licensing and invasive/injurious species control strategies. It has worked for clients in most construction sectors, such as highways, schools, hospitals, university campuses and defence sites.
For instance, where protected species such as bats or newts are found where a development is carried out, Ecosulis can devise a way for work to continue without harming the wildlife.

Happy Green Co-operative

Established in Bhutan in 2013, this co-operative is owned and controlled by its members and comprises 18 farming households (with 52 active farmers and 125 family members) and 19 youth members. It is based on the principles of Gross National Happiness, a Bhutanese development philosophy centred around economic self reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance.

Farmers in Drachuka village who produce potatoes for the co-op’s Happy Chips snacks

Projects include community forests to provide extra income and improve the livelihood of farmers, supported by the government. There is also a Farming Library to share information on soil conservation, aimed at spreading Bhutanese methods with the rest of the world where soil depletion is a problem. As well as spreading local knowledge in natural farming, the co-op is improving links and infrastructure between its members and the outside world, and working with Dazin to replace farmers’ open fire heating with less environmentally damaging methods. http://home.happy.bt

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Cooperative

Established 2012, Scotland, this co-op brings together local marketing and sectoral groups, representing in the region of 1,200 business interests to promote the region’s tourist industry on a local and national level. There is a strong focus on the area’s natural heritage and initiatives include Wild About Argyll which promotes nature tourism; it also promotes nature tourism through its Nature’s Paradise page. Supporters of the co-op include Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland. To promote Wild About Argyll, it filmed endurance adventurer Mark Beaumont on a 12 day trek around the mountains, waters and isles of the region.

Earth Heart Housing Co-operative

Established in 1997 near Ashbourne, Derbyshire, this co-housing community is freeholder of a Grade II listed converted farmhouse and barns, which it owns by freehold.

Earth Heart’s farmhouse property

The co-op tries to live in an environmentally friendly manner, with a communal wood-pellet boiler for heating, a reed bed waste-water treatment system and a green electricity supplier.

The surrounding 21 acres of organic land is managed primarily for nature conservation, with parkland, a brook, small pastures grazed with a local organic farmer’s sheep and cows)., and woodland with a tree circle. The co-op runs a community orchard and allotments with vegetables, fruit and herbs and offers guided tours.

Ugandan co-operative tree-planting initiative

In July last year, the state minister for co-operatives in Uganda, Frederick Gume, launched a national tree-planting initiative to combat climate change, reverse deforestation and provide a source of income from fruit, coffee and timber.

Tree-planting is important to sustainability work in Uganda (Photo: Laura Elizabeth Pohl)

Since then, co-ops have planted trees in 87 districts. In April 2017, the Uhuru Institute launched the Plant a Co-op Tree to promote commercial forestry as a viable investment option for co-ops. The competition was launched in 20 districts starting with 500 Grevillea trees, a total of 10,000 seedlings were planted, and the trees will be evaluated after one year.

And in May, the Uhuru Institute for Social Development signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Forest Authority, to strengthen collaboration between the the institutions in environmental conservation, through forestry management. This includes engaging with co-operatives in tree planting enterprises; co-ops in West Nile, Acholi, Lango, and Karamoja sub-regions have already been allocated 60,000 seedlings for Community Tree Planting. The other remaining sub-regions will receive seedlings in the second rain seasons of September to November.

The Seed Co-operative is a community-owned breeder of  “open-pollinated seeds that everyone can grow, everyone can save for the next year, and everyone can afford”. It was established by the Biodynamic Association to help protect the world’s genetic biodiversity and is currently based at Gosberton Bank Nursery, near Boston, Lincolnshire.

Workers prepare the land at the Seed Co-op’s Lincolnshire site

It says: “Our food system depends on viable, living seeds, capable of reproducing themselves. Sadly, few people realise how threatened the availability of open pollinated seeds is, or the manifold ways in which agri-business has taken ownership of seed production, resulting in the domination of fewer and ever-larger multi-national corporations, and the death of local and small-scale seed producers.”

 

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