Article Author: Hesiod
We started an independent organic farming NGO in Bulgaria. We rented property for two and a half years and bought some farmland. The boss of another “environmental project (Let’s call him “Todor” and we’ll call his organisation “Tripod”), offered to find us property in return for us helping him. I went abroad to earn some money and my partner worked for him. We eventually realised that he was attempting to scam us and get the property for himself in his own name. By this time it was too late to get out, the deal had turned messy, we had spent almost all the money we had saved for the purchase and had nothing meaningful to show for it, although we were by now occupying the property. We could walk away with nothing or stay put and fight it out.
There have been a number of mysterious disappearances in the area, which police suspected as murders, including one of our neighbours, whose remains were eventually found in the forest a year later. Police regarded his disappearance as suspicious at the time, interrogating people in the area. Strangely, no clothes were found with the remains. Furthermore, an unidentified human torso was found floating in the local river.
During 18 months of legal battles my partner faced death threats in an attempt to make her hand over more money or walk away. One lawyer we hired withdrew following intimidation. The intimidation could not be linked directly to Todor, but he stood to gain as our withdrawal from the deal would leave the property in his name. Eventually we found a good lawyer, and spent the last of our money making an entirely new deal which bypassed Todor, satisfied the sellers and got the property for the NGO. But the troubles had only just started.
Todor moved Tripod to the house next to ours and declared it to be an “ecovillage”, even though “Tripod” was solely his private property. Our close proximity made the relationship between Tripod, us, and the larger surrounding village of 600 people confusing to visitors. Many seemed to believe that the village and Tripod were synonymous and that we were all one big happy family.
Over the next few years we improved the land, raised animals, managed the forest and grassland, made a seedbank and became virtually self sufficient. Our cellar filled up with jars of preserved fruit and vegetables, dried herbs and mushrooms. We had meat in winter and milk, yogurt and cheese in summer. We sold environmentally friendly soap, puppies, seeds, goats cheese and scrap metal. Our donkey carried firewood for us along steep mountain paths. In most respects the life was idyllic.
But we were always under pressure to closely cooperate with our neighbour Todor, someone we no longer liked or trusted. He had a good reputation as a leading environmentalist (in a country which is rumoured to have a “green mafia”). Todor had lawyers in his family, was well connected in the right networks of people (including an influential religious cult) and had a knack for telling people what they wanted to hear. From this, Tripod took donations on behalf of “the community”, but we never saw any of the money.
TV crews visited almost every year. One time they filmed the gardens of a local man unconnected to Tripod, presenting them as Tripod's “ecovillage gardens”. Our gardens were also exhibited to visitors with the implication that they were part of Tripod. The Tripod gardens produced little or nothing, but visitors failed to notice that the project was largely a sham.
The small number of volunteers we invited were often intercepted on route and encouraged to stay at the Tripod house instead, even when we had a pressing need for them. On an occasion when we were absent for two weeks, we returned to find our farm neglected, animals hungry and the farmsitters we had left in charge now working for Tripod. Everything we did was copied, and Tripod took the credit.
Local people were also becoming increasingly angry with Tripod for a variety of reasons. The principle one was the effect of very large numbers of visitors on limited water supplies in summer. Another was the Tripod horses which were often put to graze on other people’s land against their wishes. Todor also moved his fences routinely to claim neighbouring areas. The more we distanced ourselves from Tripod, the better our relations with the real local community became.
The local people didn’t seem to count in the “ecovillage”, and were often treated dismissively by visitors, who at times had an air of holier-than-thou superiority about them. One Tripod visitor gushed about how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful community. I agreed that the scenery was lovely, and that I enjoyed the tranquility, producing our own food, the wildlife etc. “It’s not all perfect though in the community” I added. “Oh don’t worry” he replied “Pretty soon all those old people will be dead”. He was talking about the local residents.
Tripod/Todor then invited huge numbers of volunteers to assist in a project over several years, which was described variously as permaculture gardening, spring zone regeneration, community water project, tree planting, erosion prevention etc. All were short term visitors, many were foreign. None really understood the project, or questioned what they were being told. The reality was that the project had little or nothing to do with any of these things. Todor had grown tired of sharing the limited community owned water supply (rationed in summer) with the local residents. He wanted big parties in the drought season, so he surreptitiously bought a 1/42 ownership share of a piece of land crossed by the main water pipes with the intention of stealing the water (this property deal, like most of his business dealings was legally dubious). The project involved major excavations of an area of mountain meadow using heavy machinery, and was very destructive to the soil. While this was going on, Todor was employed as an advisor on an EU funded international program “setting ethical standards for community soil and water management”.
Tripod was supported throughout by volunteers, many of them young travellers, who didn’t ask enough questions about a project which wasn’t good for the environment or human rights. If they had stayed away from the Tripod project, none of this would actually have happened. In many ways it was for their benefit that the water was being stolen, and their continual presence and positive publicity inflated Todor’s ego and gave him confidence. We all suffered because of it.
I’m currently living away from the village, working to earn money to pay debts, taxes and medical bills, as well as to invest in the farm. In hindsight, we started with insufficient funds. I’m employing people to run the farm in my absence. Todor’s operations have scaled back considerably. The horses are gone, he spends more time away now. There is little to attract the visitors who are his lifeblood.
This is also not an isolated incident. I know of similar things happening elsewhere in Bulgaria and worldwide. Disputed property deals are rife, as are conflicts over water supplies. I have encountered a number of other people who are basically con artists masquerading as environmentalists.
In the world of permaculture, ecobuilding and environmental voluntary work, there is not enough scepticism and critical thinking. It is very fashionable to say that we should always be positive, but in all these areas, in among many good ideas, there are bad ideas which are not going away, because people are afraid to criticise them. These bad ideas are holding us all back.
People who draw attention to very real flaws in popular ideas about food production, community design, ecobuilding etc. are accused of being “negative”, which is a way of shutting down debate. One reason for this attitude seems to be that many people in the permaculture movement are trading on their reputations as permaculture experts, selling permaculture design courses etc. For them, admitting failure is bad for business, but as a whole, we learn from mistakes.
Sustainability is a long term concern. You do not know if a method of food production is sustainable, or if a type of ecobuilding is practical until it has been tested for an extended period of time.