In spring 2015 I ventured to Matavenero, a remote ecovillage high up in the isolated mountainous region of North West Spain, to document the lives of its inhabitants.
Matavenero is a strikingly isolated community, and just getting there requires a challenging three hour hike through dense forest and mountains. There are no roads leading to the settlement, and reaching it with a motorized vehicle is impossible. Deep in the valley below Matavenero you will find the sister village of Poibueno, also an ecovillage, and the two villages often work closely together.
Over the course of my stay, I got to know the people of Matavenero well, but it took time and effort to make contact with them and to gain their trust. Most people living in Matavenero don’t like the idea of being photographed. During the first few days I didn’t even have the nerve to unpack my camera from my bag, but gradually, by letting myself become immersed in their community and lifestyle, and through helping with daily tasks and sharing campfire stories, I felt the walls of distrust crumble. Slowly, getting to know them on a daily basis turned into a genuine co-existence. This allowed me to make a series of personal portraits of people whom I could call friends.
Matavenero’s original inhabitants abandoned the village in the late sixties. Then in 1989 the village slowly began to be repopulated by an international mix of strong, independently-minded people who wanted to live simply in harmony with nature. The early German pioneers lived in teepees and tents, while they started to rebuild the ruined homes, clear new paths, and dig a canal to bring water in the village.
The community grew to attract people from all over Europe, and who wanted to start a new life for themselves and their families in the village. Today there are approximately 60 inhabitants, including a dozen children, living in the village. They come from many different European countries, but most are German, Spanish, French and Danish.
Many of the inhabitants have very different reasons for why they abandoned their old lifestyles in order to start a new life in Matavenero.
Jürn, a grizzled 56-year-old German, couldn’t live with the pressure of today’s fast-paced modern society and wanted to live closer to nature and the land. He is one the Germans who helped to build the village back in 1989, and everywhere you go, you see his name on tools, books, and trees. It is very clear that he played a vital role in the development of Matavenero. Jürn is also very active in social activities like organizing rainbow gatherings (a temporal gathering for those who practice the ideals of peace, love, respect and freedom), or building natural communal saunas. Before Jürn lived in Matavenero, he spent time living in many other eco communities, and crossed many different European countries on foot.
Others, like 26-year-old Leoni, were born in Matavenero. She once left Matavenero for a new life in Berlin, but returned a year later with a new love. They built a new house together and had their first child a couple months before I arrived.
But they all share a common vision. They have turned away from the hustle of modern life, based on efficiency and consumption, to live according to their beliefs — self-sufficient and ecological, in harmony with their environment, and with respect for each other at the core.
Most people have their own gardens and there is also a big communal garden. Everything brought in must be carried by donkey, horse, wheelbarrow, or on your back on the three-hour trek. Once a week some people from Matavenero undertake the walk to the nearest village to gather essential supplies at the local market. The only electricity in the village comes from renewable sources. All waste must be recycled or carried away. The same plastic bags appear over and over again.
Very little money is used, and the same euros go round and round. However, most of the inhabitants here still have a small income. Some work as builders in nearby towns during one particular season, while others sell chestnuts or trade their handicrafts in the outside world. Some still have an income from the sale of the homes they had before.
A small shop sells staples such as rice, tobacco, juice and fresh vegetables from the village gardens. Next door is the village bakery, and once a week, there is a big cheerful pizza event. Every Thursday there is communal work and a council meeting which everyone can attend. There is also a small primary school house, with a couple of teachers. The school philosophy is very open — the kids learn maths, writing and reading, but here there is no homework and school hours are short, around four hours each day. There is also no doctor in the village, and although there is one person here practicing homeopathy, if someone is really sick or hurt, they must travel to the nearest village or town.
The most interesting building is definitely the big yellow geometric dome down at the bottom of the village, the place where all of the celebrations are held. You see the dome from everywhere. I could watch that dome for hours — it looks so surreal in the landscape, almost holy.
While liberated from the mental stress of the modern world, life in Matavenero is not exactly easy, and there are considerable challenges to living here. For instance, you need to be practical and you need to know how to work on the land. Growing and harvesting crops on the available land isn’t easy, as much of it is steep and stony. In winter there is plenty of rain, snow and frost, and the village is sometimes entirely cut off by heavy snows. Summer brings other challenges. The slope above the village is scorched, the evidence of a recent forest fire — a threat which the wood and stone village has lived with since its founding, and which it has so far avoided.
The utopia the people of Matavenero strive for may not seem realistic to some. But I cannot feel anything but admiration for their persistence. These are people who transform their ideals into deeds and hard work.
In the end, though, I was happy to return home. Unlike Matavenero’s inhabitants, I find cities inspiring, exciting, and pulsing with life. I’m happy I can visit the local museum of Modern Arts once in a while or when I can go to the movies with friends. For me, Matavenero is not the utopia I would like to live, but for them, I believe in it.
By Kevin Faingnaert