From shared harvests to energy co-operatives, citizen collectives are no longer waiting for govts to solve their problems


From Flanders Today:

Since the financial crisis, more and more people have been joining citizens’ collectives, also known as urban commons or co-operatives, to try to jump-start action on topics they feel require urgent change. A recent study carried out by Flemish think-tank Oikos shows that sustainability is one of the most popular areas of focus.

Not every social activity is part of a collective; the concept doesn’t include a neighbourhood barbecue, for example, or a temporary protest against felling trees. A collective targets structural results over the long term.

What is essential to these action groups is that citizens co-ordinate all the activities and decision-making, although they can call for assistance from external partners. Typical examples are energy and housing co-operatives and social grocery stores or libraries. Commons also include Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives, where consumers are closely connected to a farmer.

At the request of the King Boudewijn Foundation, Oikos mapped the growth of collectives in the whole of Belgium for the first time. The think-tank focused on 2015 and 2016, but for Dutch-speaking initiatives, there are older statistics available as well, showing a strong rise since 2009.

From 2003 to 2008, an average four new citizens’ collective popped up per year, which stands in strong contrast with the average of 27 per year from 2009 to 2014. In 2016, the researchers counted 77 new initiatives in Flanders and Dutch-speaking Brussels.

“It seems that the financial crisis was a wake-up call,” says Dirk Holemans of Oikos. “People realised that they couldn’t just rely on big institutions, that they had to take some matters into their own hands to achieve progress.”

Many people are tired of being passive consumers. They want to be actively involved in the production process

- Dirk Holemans of Oikos

Easily accessible digital communication tools, such as social network platforms, also made it easier to spread the message. A majority of the new commons set up in 2015 and 2016, have sustainability at their heart.

“Citizens are dissatisfied with the current policies,” says Holemans. “They feel that governments and companies don’t do as much as they could.”

The most popular areas within sustainability for co-operatives are energy and food/agriculture. “Many people are tired of only being passive consumers,” says Holemans. “They want to be actively involved in the production process. Initiatives in these areas are also relatively simple to launch, as the economic and technical aspects are quite feasible.”

What is most notable is the rise of CSA initiatives, in which citizens sign on to the harvest of a local farm or group of farms. They can have a say in the farming methods and even participate in the harvest. Or they can just wait for the food to be delivered to them.

Consumers thus obtain a clear view of the origin of their food and can assure the eco-friendliness of their purchase. For farmers, the system provides more income security. An example is Onslogischvoedsel in Heist-op-den-Berg, Antwerp province.

The Antwerp co-operative ZuidtrAnt, meanwhile, is all about energy, with about 500 shareholders. The initiative was founded in 2016 by a group of like-minded citizens, who set up projects around saving energy and the production of renewable energy in the southern belt of Antwerp province. The project is now expanding to towns in its northern belt.

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