Can Masdeu: A Catalan Eco-Community Showing the Potential of Degrowth

by Steve Rushton

20 March 2016

A Metro ride out of Barcelona brings you to a fringe. Climb the foothills and you leave behind the bustling city that sprawls across a basin all the way towards the blue of the Mediterranean.

Escape the rat race, the rush-hours, the bricked-up empty properties facing towering blocks under construction, just like in most major European cities. You are beyond the flocks of tourists engulfed by the architecture and ambience: many are there to shop, drink and consume. Instead, every step you climb, you can breathe in the mountains more freshly. In front lies the same countryside that did a great deal to inspire Gaudí – and many of the painters, writers, artists and architects who shaped Barcelona.

But if you get off at the right Metro stop you can find an even more fascinating fringe.

From Canyelles you can find your way into a ‘Rurbano revolution’, something between rural and urban. This fringe looks back to the past, but also points towards a potential future. In Collserola National Park, an ecologically lush area has been reclaimed for an autonomous experiment called Can Masdeu. It was once a hospital to treat leprosy, but its mansion and broad grounds sat idle for half a century. Its co-owners were likely speculating on the growing land value. 15 years ago a group of squatters, activists and environmentalists, both local and international, ascended into the space.

The project was prompted by the search for a venue to host a Rising Tide climate change convergence in early 2002. Martin, still a resident today, tells me how the search lasted around a year until they found Can Masdeu. It has ample land and an ideal location on the edge of the city, providing a space where the process of the urban taking over the rural can be reversed.

“From the start of our time here we thought we would like to stay, but it seemed unlikely then,” Martin says.

The convergence doubled the numbers planning to stay to a few dozen, and they set to work creating an autonomous and permaculture-based community, organised collectively and non-hierarchically. A month later eviction papers were served by the land’s co-owners: the Catalan government, Barcelona city administration and Catholic church.

The community had global expertise in eviction resistance to draw upon, including from the 1990s UK anti-roads movement. When the alarm was raised that the police were nearby, the residents took positions outside the mansion house, which perches on the hillside with two steep drops. There was a ‘death see-saw’, a plank where one activist would balance another; others sat in suspended bathtubs and chairs. The roof of the three-storey building had people perching on tripods. The Catalan police didn’t know what to do, with no experience of how to get the squatters down without risking life and limb. Instead, they tried to starve them out.

Brinerustle Wikimedia commons2

Support grew every day, with people making their way up from the city, encouraged by growing publicity. The police never got control over the situation. Eventually, the matter went to court.

Martin recalls: “The judge said let us stay on the first day in court and assumed we’d come down. Our good media, neighbourhood and outreach campaign meant they had a soft approach.” He tells me how the authorities often have different approaches to each individual squat.

When I first walk up to Can Masdeu, I meet Martin cleaning out one of their two water tanks. These are both about the size of small but deep swimming pools. The search for water was another major challenge; initially the residents hauled water from the city, up the steep slopes. But they knew the site had been irrigated: settlements here date back to Roman times.

Underground they discovered, then recovered, an irrigation system dating back to the 16th century, with brick channels, pipes and the two water tanks. Local elders from the neighbourhood helped map out the water course, which ran from an adjacent hill. With the irrigation sorted, the ground was set to grow food.

I visit an open working Thursday and help to wheelbarrow compost. Martin explains that since the original battle for Can Masdeu, education and an open-door policy now provides a far better eviction strategy:

“We don’t want to fight again for this hand to hand: it’s dangerous and stressful. Our best protection is what you saw today. Different generations working, lots of local and international people all here together. We also have many people coming to see us work, school visits, and we have open days on many Sundays.”

On terraced slopes, there are communal growing areas as well as allotments grown by locals from the barrio (borough). The lower parts of the former hospital building provide rooms for residents, while a few live in newly built extensions, like a straw-bale house.

Upstairs, there is a social centre called Punto de Interacción de la Collserola (PIC) which can easily accommodate 100 people. Facilities include a library, free shop, information on other abandoned and squattable locations, a yoga room and a large kitchen.

The PIC is open roughly every other Sunday and hosts workshops, ranging from political discussions to dance to eco-education such as medicinal herbs. The bar is open and food is served, often accompanied by live music.

Martin explains: “We are a valuable resource for many people, which means the authorities stopped trying to evict us. Our educational programmes even receive some European funding, and the city council comes to us to learn how to better recycle food.”

Another factor that has made the eviction threat even slighter – for the time being at least – is last May’s election of Barcelona’s radical mayor Ada Colau from the citizen platform En Comú. She is in effect one-third of Can Masdeu’s landlords. Like many cities across Spain, Barcelona is under radical progressive change. One of many major steps includes Colau recently reclaiming empty houses from banks to become social housing.

But Can Masdeu’s importance goes beyond the local: it demonstrates there are alternatives to a growth and profit-based system. It continues to host international convergences and meetings, from squatting to anti-fracking. The community also provides a space for eco-innovations. There are solar ovens and showers, worm composts, a wood burning hot-tub and working groups perfecting permaculture and water efficiency techniques.

Re-using human waste also saves a great deal of water and energy. Western sewage systems use vast amounts of energy to clean water, transport it only for it to be soiled and flushed away for further transportation where it is re-cleaned. In contrast, compost toilets save all this and provide ‘humanure’ to grow food in.

Living within nature’s boundaries could be described as common sense. It seems absurd that instead our current global system is based on infinite growth in a finite world. As a political concept this critique of modern life is called degrowth. It is a relatively new discourse that makes far more sense than it is given credit for. As degrowth advocate and academic Giorgos Kallis wrote recently in the New Internationalist: “Degrowth is not a clear theory, plan, or political movement. Yet it is a hypothesis whose time has come; and one that the Left can no longer afford to avoid.”

Although Can Masdeu is not run explicitly on a model of degrowth, it has many connections.

After the work and a communal meal, I speak to Fulvia Ferri, who since coming to Can Masdeu regularly teaches summer schools on degrowth in Barcelona. We discuss not only how ridiculous our system is from an overall perspective, but its effects on individuals.

“I don’t think many are happy living the way we do, even if most people don’t think it is the system. On a personal level, I really needed to get out of the city today, get my hands in the soil and work it,” Fulvia tells me.

This shows why it is so important that Can Masdeu is on the city’s fringe and near the Metro line.

“Before I started visiting Can Masdeu, I really had no idea about when a carrot is ready or how a potatoes are planted”, Fulvia says. “It is crucial to demonstrate how we can live a different way. Here they also produce some of what they eat and supplement their living with other means. This raises further considerations for degrowth.”

Martin tells me how an ongoing discussion at Can Masdeu is the work-life balance. From contributions given by groups hiring out the PIC, to fundraising parties and educational grants, the squat is able to subsidise the monthly rent for residents. They contribute €60 per month. To keep the costs down they bulk-buy food from cooperatives. Of course a lot of food also comes from their own garden.

“We could grow more food ourselves, but this would mean less space for neighbours. And we could open more, but then we’d have too much money. Instead we let other collectives use the space and they just pay for what is used in the kitchen. We’re stable as a project,” Martin reflects.

This sustainability – at a human level – seems to go against the grain of many activist spaces where the focus is on as much openness as possible, almost inevitably burning the organisers out. I asked Martin what else has helped them continue for so long.

“You need to offer something to local people, which in our case is free space. And you need at least one person with practical skills, one with relationship skills and one with local and political connections. Without the practical the place falls apart; without someone to deal with emotions the place falls apart; and without someone telling the world, it’s all pointless.”

Extending this idea, you can imagine how society could ‘work to live’, rather than ‘living to work’. Providing the needs for people at the local level and thinking globally about the impact – showing humanity can live within the earth’s limits – seems to be the opposite of the current system. It relates directly to why Fulvia tells me we need degrowth:

“Our current system is also extremely socially unjust. The richest, mostly in western countries, are always getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And this is because most of the resources, particularly of poor countries, are going to these rich people. Over-consumption causes a massive ecological debt that goes unpaid, the system creates pollution, conflicts over resources and land-grabbing, and it forces people to migrate.”

After the visit, Barcelona seems different. You can feel the city weighing heavier on the imagination, with all the billboards, the chain stores of international consumption and the heavy noise of construction sites. Perhaps you are walking into the last days of a wilting system, propped up on unsustainable – and often unattainable – pillars of mass consumption.

Photos: Brinerustle/Wikimedia Commons

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