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Cool ideas - Oct 4

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Battered by economic crisis, Greeks turn to barter networks

Rachel Donadio, New York Times
The first time he bought eggs, milk and jam at an outdoor market using not euros but an informal barter currency, Theodoros Mavridis, an unemployed electrician, was thrilled.

"I felt liberated, I felt free for the first time," Mavridis said in a recent interview at a cafe in this port city in central Greece. "I instinctively reached into my pocket, but there was no need to."

Mavridis is a co-founder of a growing network here in Volos that uses a so-called Local Alternative Unit, or TEM in Greek, to exchange goods and services – language classes, baby-sitting, computer support, home-cooked meals – and to receive discounts at some local businesses.

Part alternative currency, part barter system, part open-air market, the Volos network has grown exponentially in the past year, from 50 to 400 members. It is one of several such groups cropping up around the country, as Greeks squeezed by large wage cuts, tax increases and growing fears about whether they will continue to use the euro have looked for creative ways to cope with a radically changing economic landscape.

"Ever since the crisis there's been a boom in such networks all over Greece," said George Stathakis, a professor of political economy and vice chancellor of the University of Crete. In spite of the large public sector in Greece, which employs one in five workers, the country's social services often are not up to the task of helping people in need, he added.

"There are so many huge gaps that have to be filled by new kinds of networks," he said.

Even the government is taking notice. Last week, Parliament passed a law sponsored by the Labor Ministry to encourage the creation of "alternative forms of entrepreneurship and local development," including networks based on an exchange of goods and services. The law for the first time fills in a regulatory gray area, giving such groups nonprofit status.

Here in Volos, the group's founders are adamant that they work in parallel to the regular economy, inspired more by a need for solidarity in rough times than a political push for Greece to leave the eurozone and return to the drachma.

"We're not revolutionaries or tax evaders," said Maria Houpis, a retired teacher at a technical high school and one of the group's six co-founders. "We accept things as they are."...
(3 October 2011)



OSU Urban Farming Study: What's the Best Way to Turn a Parking Lot into a Garden?

Staff, OSU Extension website
An old asphalt parking lot might not seem like a good place for a garden.

But in urban areas it can be. It tends to be cheap open land. And an Ohio State University expert on intensive small-scale horticulture has started a three-year study on what works best there.

Joe Kovach, who specializes in maximizing fruit and vegetable production in limited spaces, is comparing three ways to do it in empty, abandoned parking lots: in giant-sized pots and in raised beds on top of the blacktop, and in trenches cut right through it.

“There are a lot of vacant parking lots in places like Cleveland and Youngstown,” said Kovach, who works at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster and holds a joint appointment with Ohio State University Extension. “We’re hoping to learn if the trenches work, if the pots are worth it and of all three techniques, which is the best?”

His work could boost the use of abandoned urban land. It could help people who live in urban food deserts — areas having little or no access to affordable, nutritious foods — grow more of their own tomatoes, spinach and other fresh produce. And it could help them do it more easily.

Turning blacktop green isn’t new. It’s part of the growing wave of urban farming. But Kovach wants to see if there's a better way to do it....
(22 December 2010)



Earth Sangha announces “Rising Forests Coffee”

Isaac Hopkins, Nourishing the Planet
After nearly three years of planning, the Virginia-based Earth Sangha has launched a new line of shade-grown coffee, called “Rising Forests Coffee,” from the Dominican Republic, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The coffee comes from the Dominican province of Dajabón, which lies along the border with Haiti. According to Chris Bright, the Sangha’s President, the coffee project is part of the Earth Sangha’s Tree Bank / Hispaniola program, which is devoted to improving the incomes of small-holder farmers along the border, and restoring native forest on portions of their lands. “We want to put more money in our farmers’ pockets,” said Bright. “We also want to give them a stronger economic rationale for conserving and restoring forest. Coffee can help do both of those things.”

The Earth Sangha is a non-profit charity committed to a Buddhist ethic of caring for the environment and helping people. Founded in 1997, the organization has built a large native-plant nursery in the Washington, D.C. area, where more than 200 species of native plants are grown for ecological restoration projects. All of the nursery’s stock is “local ecotype”—grown from locally-collected, wild seed.

The Earth Sangha founded the Tree Bank in 2006. The project is a partnership with a local agroforestry association, and includes a community tree nursery, a farm micro-credit program, and the beginnings of a conservation easement system. “We offer our farmers very low-cost credit,” explained Bright. “In exchange, they have to set up forest easements on their lands. The credit is tied to the forest, and farmers can get more credit if they restore forest. It’s another way of making the forest valuable.” About 25 farms are currently participating but Bright expects membership to grow.

The coffee program has a similar goal. The coffee is shade-grown, so it’s another way of making native forest canopy pay for itself. The program buys only top-quality “Gold Selection” beans, and it guarantees farmers a price that is at least 10 percent higher than whatever the current Gold Selection price is. All profits are returned to the region, to support the Tree Bank program. According to Bright, “there are two keys to this system. One is the focus on Gold Selection, which allows us to create a specialty brand that will bring in more money. The other is the direct connection to the farmers. That’s very efficient. There are fewer people to pay, so we can pay our farmers more.”

“Rising Forests Coffee” can be purchased from the Earth Sangha’s website, earthsangha.org.
(29 September 2011)



Bath and West Community Energy launch their first public share issue

Rob Hopkins, Transition Culture
Another community energy company that has emerged from a Transition initiative is about to take the big step into unveiling its community share launch. Bath and West Community Energy (BWCE) grew out of Transition Bath, in particular a meeting of its energy group where people looked at each other and said “we could actually do something about this”, and the ball started rolling. It is set up as an Industrial and Provident Society with the intention of installing renewable energy, wind, solar, biomass and hydro in a way that is locally owned, locally controlled, which generates local income and provides local jobs. It is established from the outset as an enterprise (as opposed to being dependent on grants), and as one that can deliver renewable energy at scale. Profits will be recycled back into the community. Its share launch takes place on Wednesday 5th October 6pm for 6.30pm till 8pm at the Banqueting Room, The Guildhall, Bath. What they have created is a very exciting new model.

One of the first things BWCE did was to form a partnership with the local council. It also formed a partnership with SSE who have offered them loan finance at very attractive terms in order to enable BWCE’s first steps to get underway. Its first projects are solar PV on local schools where BWCE will pay for the panels and the schools will get free electricity. The first systems start being installed at the end of this month. The aim of doing these solar installations first is to build a solid foundation and confidence in advance of a community share launch. The aim is then to raise £500,000 in shares from local people, who will be offered a 6-7% return each year on their investment, which is very attractive. BWCE has also joined up with a similar initiative that sprang out of Transition Corsham so it can generate the scale necessary to attract capital finance.

In the longer term, BWCE is looking at 3 local potential wind sites and a hydro project, which, combined, will need around £11 million, but which will generate around £275-300,000 for community projects. It will also develop renewable heat projects and energy efficiency. It is a great model, very much replicable in other Transition initiatives. Here is their press release about the launch:

“Things are moving quickly at Bath & West Community Energy (BWCE). We now have planning permission for 8 out of the 12 solar PV systems we are planning to install on schools and community buildings. We expect to hear about the remaining applications soon. We have also secured a loan of £1 million from SSE. Work will start this month on the first solar PV systems scheduled for installation. For more information on BWCE and the proposed sites, see www.bwce.coop.

Our share launch is only a couple of days away. This is your opportunity to be involved too, whether you just want to find out more about us or if you want to consider taking a stake in BWCE, do come along if you can make it. If you haven’t already replied to an invite and you would like to attend, could you please let Helen Reed on Helen.Reed@bwce.coop know as soon as possible. We will also be welcoming along two of our key partners, Councillor Paul Crossley, Leader of Bath & North East Somerset Council and Ian Marchant, Chief Executive of SSE who will be speaking in support of our work.

Copies of our Share Offer Document will be available on the night. We hope to see you at the launch of our new and exciting community venture”.

Best of luck with the launch, and if you are in or around Bath, do get along to what will be a historic event.
(4 October 2011)

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