Atamai Ecovillage: It’s Just Common-Sense

By Rafaele Joudry

A newly formed Permaculture Village in New Zealand is providing families a different way of living. At the top of the South Island, which boasts a temperate, Mediterranean climate with the most sunshine of any part of New Zealand, Atamai Village is nestled in a picturesque, hilly valley just ten minutes’ drive from  the Tasman Straight and the town of Motueka. But what makes Atamai different is its vision for a different future. “Atamai” means common sense in Maori. The village was formed as an intentional response to pending climate change and energy descent.

People are moving to the village from around the world to participate in this social-eco-political experiment in living sensibly. Collected around the unifying principles of Permaculture, those who come to the village share a vision of a new way of living lightly on the planet.

What is required to do this, says one of the founding members, Joanna Santa Barbara, is not just physical structures and meeting practical needs, but a new form of social organisation to enable self-management at a village scale. Joanna, a retired child psychiatrist from Canada, is one of the villagers specialising in group process, making sure all the meetings and communications in the village run smoothly.

Already under development for 7 years, the village is now populated with close to a third of its eventual target, which will be about 50 to 100 families. “It’s exciting for us to welcome new members” says Joanna, “because each of them brings a different skill set and social contribution.”

The villagers see their settlement as a mosaic of different skills and attributes that each person can contribute to the local economy and social fabric.

“The problem so many communities and eco villages have confronted,” explains Ben Van Der Wijngaart, one of the Trustees of the project, “is a lack of planning or infrastructure for economic viability. They may create a nice place to live, but then everyone has to leave every morning to go out to work, and there is no real social or economic productivity in the village.”

In contrast, the traditional village model was a hub of interaction, productivity, invention, and livelihood opportunities. And this is what Atamai aims to be.

Already they have a number of productive enterprises running, including the community orchard, community garden, and community farm and winery – all on Common land. Villagers also work within the village on forestry and timber production, eco building services, admin and IT services, yoga and Tai Chi, and are embarking on cheese-making, herbal medicine, honey, food preserving, and offering educational workshops on finance and adjustment to future scenarios.

The village has been attracting young couples with children as well as early retirees with a life vision to fulfil. Those wishing to bring up their families in a more nurturing world find the village provides a safe and stimulating environment.

Melbourne couple, Craig and Tracey, are IT specialists in their early thirties. Over a lovely dinner of fresh fish and baked veggies cooked in their wood-burning stove, they told me about how they decided to move to Atamai village because they were living in Melbourne and their cat got hit by a car. This led to a series of events that brought them first to Auckland and then to Atamai Village. They had been seriously looking for the perfect community and had a number of specific criteria. When they didn’t find a community that matched these, they looked further afield – in New Zealand. These criteria included local food production, transport – train or water based, agricultural underpinnings to the local economy, a cultural mix including strong environmental awareness, drought resistance – lots of water resources, and a climate that was not too hot and not too cold.

“We were looking specifically in terms of resilience and energy security, so we looked for towns that had some resilience.” Craig explains. “We didn’t want to base our interest in a town with just a tourist trade. So we compiled a list of things we wanted to be near or have, and Atamai ticked every box except a train line.  But Motueka traditionally had water freight, so at least the history was there for a non- carbon based transport system.”

I asked them what they liked about living at Atamai. “It’s just fabulous. The land is perfect – the location, a mountainous river valley – is the exact picture of my perfect locale”, reports Craig. Tracey adds, “We love the commitment everyone brings to the community, the conscious focus on resilience and sustainability, and the strong interest in having our own local economy.”

Specifically, Craig is interested in hand-woodwork and village textiles. Tracey does weaving as a hobby. “There’s the capability to make something happen here,” said Craig. “Village scale technology, powered by open-source hardware devices and machines is a possibility.”

But for the present both he and Tracey are working in Social Enterprise, which allows them to express some important values. “We like to see a social mission written legally into business structures and constitutions alongside the profit mission. Another important principle is a decentralisation of knowledge and power in the business.” These are of course common threads with the way business tends to be conducted at Atamai.

Another story comes from Craig and Charlie, a Canadian couple I met with on Skype. They have finished globe-trotting, started a family and are in the process of moving to Atamai. Craig, 39, is currently finishing his PhD in Computer Science. Craig tells how he had bought land in Central Alberta in the mid-90’s, where he tried to create a sustainable property, but came to grief fighting the oil companies.

“When the oil companies came through I had a real fight to keep them off my land”, relates Craig. “They did seismic work all around us. It was a two-year struggle. After going through the fight I didn’t want to hang around anymore. I was even more interested in sustainable living, but the energy footprint is so high in Canada. I did lots of research in design, looked at cordwood which has an extremely high R value, or underground living. But the oil company thing derailed it all.”

The other thing that bothered him was that in Canada a house is always heated to 20 degrees Celsius. “Whereas here in New Zealand we feel more connected to the outside”, he explains. “And I have to be, I like that. In Canada houses feel like hospitals. They are sanitized. Here all houses have spiders in them. You have to accept them as roommates. In the US, in a lot of States, you’re not allowed to hang your washing outside!” Craig says, incredulously. “We don’t own a dryer now,” adds Charlie.

Charlie tells how a turning point came when Craig was doing his PhD in Computer science and they were living in Raglan, outside of Hamilton New Zealand. They met Craig and Tracey Ambrose – already residents of Atamai Village – online. Here was another couple who, like them, were computer geeks, and were into Permaculture!

“When we heard about the village, at first we just thought ‘if Craig and Tracey like it – good luck to them.’” Craig explains. “Then Charlie started working with Craig Ambrose at Inspiral.” Charlie bounces in enthusiastically and takes up the story: “Dr Craig is doing his post-Doc and we’ve spent the last year thinking about ‘what shall we do afterwards?’ We know the energy glut won’t last.”

They explain that they didn’t want to live in a ‘commune’, but are serious about being sustainable. “So after a time we said ‘Well, Craig and Tracy haven’t run screaming. They were both very forthcoming about both the good and the challenges. So, we decided to visit.” Craig relates. “The four of us drove to Wellington and caught the ferry. We reached Atamai and just fell in love with it.”

The couple are bubbling with excitement as they describe what turns them on about the village. “It’s real life! People were welcoming, amazing, very practical. The conversation is not all about superficial mumbo jumbo or celebrity gossip, but real topics. The whole area was great. And it doesn’t hurt that it has the most hours of sunshine – like Calgary,” adds Craig. “It rekindled my interest in sustainability. After my fights with the oil companies I had lost sight of it.”

Here they found lot of infrastructure already established, they explain:

  • The work of council
  • Waste water management
  • Water capture
  • Alternate construction
  • Off grid
  • Collective gardens

“We were so excited to see someone doing it right. And for someone as highly experienced as Nicole Foss to confirm this, just confirmed what we were thinking.”  They refer to Nicole Foss, highly regarded futurist and economic commentator, who has, herself, also relocated to Atamai Village. Nicole says “There’s more joined up thinking here, I would say, than just about anywhere I’ve ever been.”

“It all comes together! It’s just common sense!”

If you’re interested in learning more about Atamai, check out: www.atamaivillage.org

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4 comments

  • Not sure why this outdated article was published, first of all Nicole Foss has long left the village as there where no opportunities there. Secondly the village has been through a large financial scandal with one of its Directors fleeing creditors by moving to Japan with subsequent mortgagee sales of village land. Thirdly all work has stopped on the ‘village’ due to lack of money, with only the weeds growing providing the only activity

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    • Nicole was living at Atamai when this article was first published. Thank you for the update on what’s happening with the village, however. This is the first we’ve heard about it, and we’ll ask around to see if we can get some more information on the current situation.

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      • As this is an advertisement, I highly doubt you will “ask around” Ms. McGregor – although I guess we shall see. Fortunately the internet has a long memory, and just a quick search of the term Atamai Village will reveal that former business partners are now at each others throats via litigation http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/news/69304472/Trouble-at-Atamai-eco-village-as-former-business-partner-moves-to-liquidate

        As Mr. Santa Barbara still has a financial interest he will of course down play the involvement of the VIllage, but make no mistake, as counsel with 15 years experience, I can assure you that the number of behind the scenes attempts at loan forbearance, subordination, and creditor workout situations were tried again and again, and again, until it became so drastic that litigation was the only hope. All I can say to anyone involved in this community is good luck. In my experience, 1 in 10 of these places survive events like this intact. Everyone thinks their place is “special” and will be that 1 – but the odds are, you are the other 9 – you have been warned.

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      • Thank you for the further details. They will serve as additional information to anyone who wishes to understand the situation further.

        I’ve no personal need to ‘ask around’ as I have no personal interest in Atamai or any other eco-village, but am able to discreetly raise any queries I have with people who are/have been directly involved. And I have no desire to undermine anyone’s efforts at creating their desired future any more than I have the desire to promote such efforts. This is not personal; this is independent media. The article was published in the same spirit as all other SHIFT magazine showcase articles: good faith, and a desire to showcase grassroots strategies for sustainability. And no, this is not an advertisement. There is no need to insult Rafaele Joudry’s well intentioned writing in that way.

        If you are particularly concerned about the wellbeing of folks at Atamai and other intentional communities, perhaps it makes sense to reach out to those people and discuss your concerns directly.

        Thank you for your time and your concern.

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